23rd Hour, 23rd Psalm

"The Moon makes everything yet more odd."

 

- Alfred Lichtenstein, Romantische Fahrt, August 1914

Alfred Lichtenstein, Berlin poet of the Cafe' des Westens circle, penned that observation on his way to the Front in World War I. He would have noticed the purple cast of fluorescent lighting or the yellow of streetlights in the Berlin of 1969-71, had he survived the Great War. Soldiers of the Allied forces in Berlin worked around the clock in an atmosphere best captured by the Hollywood production Night People. Critics have found that the film has a plot that makes little sense, but it gives the edgy feel of the Divided City at night.

For some Americans the night's work began when the two Duty Trains pulled out of the Rail Transportation Office yard at Lichterfelde-West. As soldiers and dependents headed for bed in Berlin, trains were rolling into the night. Air traffic control, under Four Power supervision, was guiding the last Pan American, British European Airways, and Air France flights into Tempelhof Flughafen. G-2 Division and Military Police patrols were peering into the darkness. And at the gates of Andrews Barracks, McNair Barracks, and other facilities, the most ancient duty of soldiers was covered by guard mounts from the units stationed there, along with the Berliners in U.S. uniforms of the 6941st Labor Service Battalion.

When I started to put thoughts of my time in Berlin on paper, it was hard not to remember the nights. There were good nights and there were bad nights, of course, but perhaps it was the combination of being in a big 24-hour city and the military necessities that make memories hard to shake.

How to present this big subject? May I narrow this topic down? Night falls on Berlin in the usual order, from East to West, but it is easy to veer into cheap symbolism regarding East Germany. Millions of Berliners were busy sleeping during these hours, and the ones who were not have their own writers. This then is just one view, a journey organized from West to East, overnight across the fitfully-sleeping Weltstadt Berlin, as seen from an unmarked U.S. Army sedan.

The names and events of the evening, of course, are fictitious, as are the remarks of individuals "quoted" in this story. However, readers who were in Berlin at the time should find a feeling of familiarity with the people and situations described in the following words and pictures.

Another way to narrow this down is to pick a night in the tense summer of 1971. At 52 degrees North latitude, the same as Edmonton, Alberta, the midsummer night in Berlin is short and usually comfortable. No need to dwell on memories of pushing cars out of snowbanks on the long winter nights, nights when the Cold War really was cold.

"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies..."

-- Psalm 23:5, RSV

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 Midpoint of the Cold War

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