Berlin - Ticket to Ride

In exchange for my travel voucher and orders from the Replacement Battalion in Frankfurt, the Rail Transportation Office in the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof presented a ticket in this envelope. I studied the map for a moment-- because of my interest in history and geography I had some idea of the situation in Germany, but it had been an abstract concept until that evening in June, 1969.

My own situation at that moment was peculiar. Trained as a Personnel Management Specialist, I had turned up in Frankfurt at a moment when the Berlin Brigade was short of Russian-English interpreters. I did not know that then. All I knew is that we all grew tired of sleeping in our uniforms in the replacement facility, being called out for formations at all hours, sometimes in a gray drizzle. Names would be called out, and people would disappear into interview rooms, appearing later with orders. Then they were marched out of the gate and across the street into the care of the Deutsche Bundesbahn.

Leafing through my personnel file, the clerks in the pre-War (as in the Kaiser time) kaserne across from the Hauptbahnhof had given me my choice. Armed Forces Radio in Frankfurt needed a news announcer. I had experience as a student journalist. Which would I like to do? Fame (or at least name recognition) in Frankfurt, or an unidentified job in Berlin that "involved a lot of train riding and speaking some Russian." I asked the clerk whether the Berlin assignment was in a Linguist slot, because the Army's excellent language test said that I was not qualified for that. I was told that I should mind my own business. Apparently the idea of a person being given a choice between two intriguing possibilities was enough of a break with military tradition-- asking questions about the jobs was too much.

In that moment, I applied what little I knew about Frankfurt -- it was dirty, it had punctual streetcar service (I had found a window high on the kaserne wall where I could look down into the street-- out of boredom and curiosity I had been dissecting street life, and that included calculating the headway (wagenfolge) of the streetcar line, the hauptbahnhof was busy, and the "women" who came into the NCO club to sponge drinks off the replacement troops were not really women at all. The latter information came from a German maintenance worker who noticed my curiosity about everything, and pointed out that these female impersonators were not at risk of being found out by the young soldiers who they charmed, since none of us replacements could leave the kaserne. He thought that my time was better spent watching the strassenbahn.

On the other hand, I reasoned, with the political situation being what it was, our government would probably treat the Berlin troops first class. And, I had read a bit about Berlin, while Frankfurt meant little to me (the year 1848 came to mind, but I could not think of anything else that had happened there). The Hessians had fought on both sides in the American Revolution and there would be some things to follow up on there, but I could think of dozens of questions about Berlin. If I went to the divided city, it seemed that any job, including cleaning latrines, would be better than any job in Frankfurt.

So I told the interviewer that I liked riding trains, and that it was true that I could speak, read and write a little bit of Russian. Orders were written for me to join a cross-section of replacements on the train to Berlin. And then I was told to miss the shipment?

Miss the shipment? That is one of the worst sins in the military. And I was being told to do that. I was introduced to Specialist 5 McCarthy, who turned out to be the Berlin Brigade's transportation "fixer" in Frankfurt. It would be okay to miss the shipment, I would just go up on the next night's train. At the time I did not know it, but I was being diverted from potentially being snared by the Berlin personnel office from being used to fill a vacancy that they had. When I would arrive a day late in Berlin, I would not be met by the Adjutant General Corps representative of personnel; instead I would be met by a Transportation Corps man who would push me quickly through the entry process in Berlin, not permitting the personnel staff time enough to realize what had been done to them.

I watched the other soldiers march out the gate and across to the train station. I felt a twinge of worry.

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 Midpoint of the Cold War

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