Janet White talked me into going on numerous trips during my time in Germany. I guess she enjoyed the traveling and the sites. I know that I enjoyed her company. One of those trips she scheduled was a bus ride to see the East German/West German border, with a side trip to a couple of shops on the way back home.
Now for some set up information here: For all of my life, I had believed that there was no real fundamental difference between the "Free World" and the "Soviet Block". I sincerely thought that both groups were essentially the same, trying to create a decent world for its people to live in while, at the same time, trying to keep the other group from invading and destroying that world.
What I didn't realize at that time was just how much that trip would change my perspective with regards to the difference between the "Free World" and the "Soviet block".
The bus was scheduled to depart from the west entrance of McNair. We had walked from our apartment on Emmerich Josef Strasse, boarded the bus, and set back in the thick padded seats for the trip. I watched as the bus driver expertly maneuvered that big thing through the narrow streets of Hoechst as he worked his way to the wider lanes of the Autobahn. I also remember the rest of us tourists on the bus. A lot of G.I.s and their friends but also more than a few older couples. In general, it was a very relaxed group. Nothing like the rowdy crowd we usually ran with.
It was a very enjoyable time of my life. I was in the company of a very beautiful woman, I was doing something I would not have done on my own, and the worries of my life dissipated with every mile we put between us and McNair Kaserne. I don't remember much more about the drive to the border. Perhaps I slept.
We finally arrived at the East German/West German border. Everyone poured out of the bus and onto the dirt road next to the border. I got my first look at the border...
The markers on our side of the border were simple little stakes placed along the border as well as a sign every so often warning that stepping over the stakes would be a "bad thing". There was also the typical elevated guard shack where our troops watched their troops watching us. Pretty straightforward.
Their part of the border was entirely different. The first thing I saw was the FENCE. It stretched from horizon to horizon, was I guess about 8 feet tall, and topped with rolls of really nasty looking constantine (razor) wire. I listened as the the tour guide explained that the fence was designed in such a way as to compress and slice off the fingers of anyone fool enough to try to climb it.
On the other side of the fence was a road, much like the road that paralleled the border on our side. "OK", I thought to myself, "I guess all this is to keep us out."
I then got a good long look at the rest of their side of the border. After the fence and the road was a very wide expanse of open area. I guess it was 100 feet wide and stretched the length of the border like the fence and the road. This open area was freshly raked and totally devoid of anything but the rake marks. On the other side of this open area was the mine field. Finally, after all this, was another expansive area where all the trees and shrubs were removed and only short grass grew. Nestled among all this were manned guard towers.
Way over beyond these hundreds and hundreds of feet of open area, I saw a lone man walking between a couple of farm buildings. He was a civilian, I guess. The only non-military person I ever saw on that side of the border. I watched him as he ventured from one building to the next, never once looking over at the border or even up from his own feet, for that matter.
Then, suddenly, everything fell into place in my mind. I realized that I was totally wrong about the "Free World" and the "Soviet Block" being the same.
The fence was there to keep us out, that part was probably true, but only as a secondary thing. I mean we had tanks and stuff.
That fence, that road, that raked area, that mine field, those guard posts, and that open area beyond were all in place for one main purpose. That purpose being to keep that lone farmer from looking up, from thinking about strolling over to the other side of the border, from even thinking of exchanging his life for something more open, more free.
I hated that damn fence. It was keeping me from offering to buy that guy a beer. It had stolen a part of my youthful ignorance. I wanted to tear it down.
(Years later, other kind souls, with about the same feelings as I, did just that.)
I like to think that the people on the bus were quieter and more subdued on the trip away from the border. I know I was. I couldn't stop thinking of my family. The bus stopped at a clock factory and I bought a clock for my Mom. The bus also stopped at a beer stein factory and I bought a giant beer stein for my Dad. Both items are still at my Dads apartment.
I don't think I ever discussed that trip with Janet. I would like to thank her for, probably inadvertently, showing me that the world was not nearly as neat and tidy as I had imagined.
And, yes, I did sneak a foot across our little stakes. It was my way of saying "Take that, you weirdo's!"