Stories: Irish Smile
by Robert W. Rynerson,
formerly SP5, Berlin Brigade
As the Cold War just fades away, the scholars who spent a
generation trying to figure out how and why it began are turning
their attention to the question of how and why it ended. They
will not find the answer in documents. There is no paper trail
into the hearts of the people who long stood watch on both sides
of the barbed wire. Each of us who were there, however, can tell
you the moment when the end began- the moment when someone let
their humanity slip through.
The world was watching the heavens, when I saw the Cold War begin
to melt. On that day, July 20th, 1969, Americans landed on the
moon. If we wanted to talk about something here on Earth, there
was always the war in Vietnam. For a little group of us, however,
that night was supposed to be business as usual.
We were in the crew compartment of the U.S. Army's Military Train
from Berlin. It was 8:30 in the evening, and Dm80610 as it was
known to the German and American railwaymen, was rumbling over
the switches out of our little station, picking its way toward the one
remaining main line open to the West. After a stop at the West Berlin
Wannsee station, we would roll over 100 miles through East Germany.
The East Bloc called it the German Democratic Republic; we called it
the "Soviet Zone of Germany" and we would report to the Soviet Army
checkpoint officers, who would review and stamp the paperwork of
Out of an old German leather attache' case came the stack of
military I.D. cards, passports, and multi-colored, quadrilingual
documents in the languages of the four Occupying Powers. In a few
minutes we would be out of the American Sector of Berlin, time
enough to put someone off the train if all was not in order. Mr.
Pachurcka, a civilian interpreter for the U.S. Army who had
spent too many years on the knife edge of border conflicts, gave
each photo a sharp glance.
"An Irish passport?" he growled. As the GI On-the-Job-Trainee interpreter,
I had been laying out the accumulated identity material, and had
opened the unfamiliar booklet to the picture of a lovely Irish
woman in her early 30's. All work stopped. Anything out of the
ordinary could trigger suspicion by the Soviet checkpoint
officer. Quickly, I explained to the narrow-eyed Pachurcka and
to our Train Commander what I had learned a few days earlier in the
Berlin Rail Transportation Office: this passenger was traveling with
her mother and young brother on papers issued by her employer, the
British Embassy in Bonn. They were on holiday, a vacation that a
secretary could afford, on military standby travel.
Wheels turned in Pachurcka's head. He paused and then advanced
"She is actually with British Intelligence. The Irish hate the
British, but she had a son out of wedlock, and had to find a job
that would take her away from home forever. This woman," he
fished out another Irish passport, "is truly her mother. But
this boy," and he held up a third passport, "is actually her son,
not her brother."
The Train Commander and I stared at each other for a long moment,
while the train wheels clicked over the bumpy Reichsbahn track panels
underneath us. Now that they had been pigeon-holed, our Irish guests
were welcome to be on Dm80610, as it passed into the Soviet Zone.
In northern twilight, many passengers stayed awake on any trip.
That night, Mary and her mother and her "son" were listening to the
moon landing on portable radios. The signal traveled for thousands of
miles, and then hit the East German jamming program, a powerful station
which operated on the fringe of the Armed Forces Radio Berlin
frequency, so that the space message faded painfully in and out. I
joined them for awhile during the lull between work projects, keeping
Mr. Pachurcka's cynical observation buried in my heart.
At the Marienborn border checkpoint it was a special night. We
took the Soviets' salutes with undisguised grins on our faces.
Their officers allowed themselves to be sportsmanlike,
congratulating us on our space success, joking about when we
would be working at a checkpoint on the moon. On the edges of
this scene, the Russian and Asiatic enlisted men remained
stone-faced and cautiously alert, as on almost every night. For
twenty years they and their fathers had watched silently, while
their officers smoked American cigarettes, okayed our train
movements with American ballpoint pens, and (usually) waved us on
Back on the train, I found the Irish family looking out at the
spotlit border station. German railway workers busily serviced
our train. Border police walked along it with their German
Shepherds and the wheeled mirror, checking the undercarriage for
refugee riders. A Russian soldier stood watching this scene from
the platform, his face locked inscrutably.
Mary, the Irish employee of the British, had dutifully read the
six pages of rules on travel to and within Berlin. She repeated
some of them back to me.
"But there's no rule that says we can't smile, is there?" she
said, adopting a leprechaun voice. At 11:59 p.m. of July 20th,
1969, the Cold War began to melt, as Mary turned on a wider and
wider Irish smile.
The soldier tried to maintain his composure, but he could not.
His lips began to quiver, a silly grin crossed his face, and then
finally he beamed a smile of sheer enjoyment. He lost his
military bearing, and was only saved from complete collapse by
our conductor's signal. The train started, and he faded from
I walked back along the long corridors of the sleepers to the crew car
on the end of the train. I always enjoyed those moments, as our sleeping
passengers crossed the deadly border behind the closed doors of their
compartments. Intense spotlights probed the corridor windows for a
moment, and then I felt the surge of acceleration as we hit the smooth
track of the Bundesbahn and West Germany.
That night, Mary's smile seemed like an amusing incident. But as
memories of other details fade, it has stuck in my mind. How far in
space and time did that smile travel? Pachurcka, the cynic, would not
have extended his improbable hypothesis to imagine a Russian soldier
taking that warm glow home. Still, Mary's smile was a step in the right
direction. And if Pachurcka was right, from a woman whose own life was
being lived in exile from her small country.
# # #
It is interesting how things come along later in life to fill in details. In the Denver Post of December 26, 1999, page 5F, Irish film director Pat O'Connor, who grew up in Waterford, Ireland in the period when Mary was a girl there, stated that:
"Very cruel things happened to people in their quiet lives. If a woman got pregnant, she was sent away, and the nuns kept the child. She had no voice."
The soldier crew of Dm80610 could not imagine that world, any more than we could imagine the hard world in which Mr. Pachurcka had survived.
- rwr -
Robert Rynerson was sent to West Berlin in 1969 by the U.S.
Army, to serve as a Russian-English Interpreter in the Rail
Transportation Office, after having been trained to be a Personnel
Management Specialist. Staff shortages resulting from the Vietnam
War led to his assignment as an on-the-job-trainee Russian-English
interpreter, relying on his high school Russian and two years of
college Russian. The Berlin Military Trains were discontinued in
December, 1990, after generating four decades' worth of equally
improbable sounding stories. 'Frank' Pachurka was the interpreter on the last train.
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