Waiting in Berlin

HOW much longer must Berlin wait? Will the spirit of glasnost finally bring down the wall? Berlin's long wait began way back in 1961, in an atmosphere of incredible tension that I and other reporters had found almost too intense to describe.

West Berliners sat at sidewalk caf'es downtown, chatting amiably but without gaiety. Genuine relaxation seemed impossible because of the newly constructed wall, which stood just a few miles away.

I especially remember a warm day in October.

The night before, an East Berliner had tried to get beyond the wall. Police chased him from rooftop to rooftop, but he reached a drainpipe on a building fronting on West Berlin.

West Berlin police fired across the wall, hoping to give the young man opportunity to climb down to the sidewalk on their side of the wall and to the freedom he had shouted for. But he lost his grip and fell to the sidewalk. He died instantly.

On the spot that autumn afternoon lay wreaths, placed there by some of the West Berliners who stood in the large, quiet crowds lining the sidewalk and the other streets that bordered the wall.

Twice before their vigil had been broken. That had come earlier in the day, when the East Berlin police had fired across the wall.

The police bullets had done no damage. But what would be next? The crowd didn't know, so it waited. Here was the East-West confrontation in a single frightening capsule.

Rows and rows of red flags and the flags of the German Democratic Republic waved overhead. The wall below was a crude structure hurriedly constructed of used brick, but sturdy and topped with barbed wire and jagged, wicked-looking hunks of broken glass.

Above the wall, caps of the East Berlin police standing guard were everywhere evident. Here and there a guard in bright green uniform showed himself - always with at least two comrades, their grimness in contrast to the outward ease of the gray-uniformed West Berlin police standing across the street from them, smiling as they chatted with the curious.

At one spot, East Berlin workmen were heightening the wall, placidly gazing now and then at the intently staring West Berliners. An attractive West Berlin girl sauntered to within a few feet of the spot and casually pointed her camera into the face of a guard peering over. For what must have been the thousandth time, he allowed his photo to be taken. Then, for just a moment, the crisis was forgotten.

Other guards popped up to catch a glimpse of the girl, and one bantered with her suggestively. A nervous titter started through the crowd, but no one laughed out loud. There was a feeling of embarrassment. The titter died away quickly and nerves were once more drawn taut. A West Berliner shouted insults at the guards. His dog barked at them.

Then it was quiet again, except for the occasional roar of military jeeps as they sped through the western sector, constantly patrolling the wall. Behind them raced press cars, filled with reporters.

On some street corners, West Berliners stood on ladders, peering across and above the wall through binoculars, waving at East Berliners in far-off buildings. In the upper floors of buildings on each side, people leaned from windows, peering over the wall with great curiosity.

On both sides, the buildings mirrored desolation: Most showed heavy scars from the bombs of World War II, and near them were piles of rubble.

In the West, however, there were some new apartment houses, and laden fruit stands and bright shops beckoning to easterners, and a feeling it would take more than a brick wall to divide the 725-year-old city.

But there was a great difference, far beyond shops, buildings, and the attitude of police. Whatever else was felt on the western side of the wall, it was not the helplessness and desolation that hovered on the other side.

Just beyond the wall in East Berlin stood a church, with a figure of Christ beckoning. But close by the church stood armed guards, there to keep people from such a simple act as crossing from one side of a street to another.

Much has changed in the quarter-century since that autumn day in Berlin. Yet much has not changed. The wall remains. And the guards in bright green uniforms.

Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer, has been a reporter in the United States and abroad for 30 years.

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