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Checkpoint Charlie:
Checkpoint Charlie (seen here) was the famous exit from West Berlin (formerly the American Sector) to East Berlin (formerly the Soviet Sector). I now read here that a memorial to the 1065 persons shot and killed while trying to escape to freedom is being dismantled. Reading this reminded me of my trip through Checkpoint Charlie in 1982. I can tell you what it felt like to drive through. It felt scary. At the time, it reminded me of how I first felt when, as a prosecutor, I went into the prisoner section of the Cook County Jail to run a line up. Even with 2 burly guards on my side (assumedly), it was pretty scary to hear the door shut behind you. Going through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin felt the same way.

Besides being nervous at first, the other thing that struck me immediately was the battle damage from WWII still showing on most concrete structures. Bridges, abutments, etc. It was like the war had ended two months before, not 35 years earlier. It seemed like the WWII backlot of Universal Studios. Our West German taxi took us to the best hotel in town (built by a western firm) where we had a mediocre lunch . I recall that the wine came uncorked in a bottle that had presumably been refilled. When it was empty we saw an insect encased in the glass bottom of the bottle. Our strong suspicion is that this was a special gift for the Americans, but perhaps it was commonplace in the East.

When we entered the East, we were forced to exchange our money for East German currency. There was nothing to buy. Nothing, that is, besides Marxist tracts in German. I did finally find a little glass sculpture of the landmark communications tower. It was actually very attractive and I was sad when it broke years later in my move to Boston University. I wished then that I had bought more than one as I left the East with unspent currency.

We had let the cab drop us at the hotel so we could walk around the city and make our way back to Checkpoint Charlie on foot. Near the end of our travels, we visited the Brandenburg Gate from the Eastern side and posed for pics while the East German guards watched with their submachine guns. (When we arrived at the airport in West Berlin, it was startling to see the West German police with their submachine guns.)

I removed my sweater for the pictures, and it was not until I got back to Checkpoint Charlie that I realized that I had left it at the Gate. I hoofed it back alone, never expecting it to still be there. When I arrived, I looked around. One of the guards pantomimed putting on a sweater with his arms. I nodded. He went to a large wooden box and opened it, retrieved the sweater from inside and handed it to me.

I found it a touching end to a highly emotional and memorable day. I have been back to Germany many times since then, and will be returning to Gummersbach (near Koln) in three weeks. But I have yet to return to Berlin. I am told it has changed a lot, and I believe it. But somehow I don't want to lose the memory of how dynamic the island of West Berlin felt in those days, and the stark contrast between its color and the black-and-white of the Eastern Sector. For me, Checkpoint Charlie was like a time machine, as well as a portal into a "Cook County Jail writ large."

Update: Chris Muir of daybyday.com sends along this cartoon about the same story.

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