Prague felt like a proper gentleman forced into an ill-fitting seersucker suit. Enduring its time under the Soviet Regime, keeping its historic sections unchanged and deliberately cosmopolitan. The Rebeccas and I did a quick tour – the clock tower in the central square, and the sobering Jewish Quarter and cemetery. Most of our day was spent at the train station, searching for the boys, who finally arrived late in the day, bedraggled and exhausted. They had needed to fight their way onto the train, which was one of the last to leave Poland as Soviets began the crackdown on the Solidarity movement. They had been in a standing room only car for 7 hours. I was glad I’d gone to Vienna instead.
Because of the long wait, we were in a time crunch to cross out of Czechoslovakia and into East Germany. The visas were all limited-time, and the border closed at dusk. We raced to our exit point through some mountains near Dresden. The border guards were unhappy to see us and our big van and decided to take it out on us. We were all marched inside a concrete block building, and left to sit while they pulled out our belongings, and opened our suitcases. They confiscated our food, saying it was illegal to bring it across the border. It took nearly 3 hours, and by the time we were done, our visas had technically expired, so we were forced to pay them for an extra day. We were pissed.
Back on the road as darkness descended, we drove towards Dresden and camped just outside of it. Now we would be short on time to get through Germany as well, so my hope to visit nearby Chemnitz (renamed at that time Karl Marx city, but its back to Chemnitz again now) was dashed. It was the town my great-grandparents had emigrated from with my grandmother and her sister just before WWI. They ended up in Burlington, Iowa, and the story goes that my great-grandmother would chase the Burlington train every day, arms outstretched, crying “Take me home, take me home!” I had really wanted to see it.
Dresden had one of the most moving WWII monuments we saw on the trip – and we had seen many of them. It was a bombed-out shell of a church, left tumble-down as it had fallen. Around the church were planted trees of all the people who had been sheltering in the church when it was bombed by the Allies. The trees have little plaques with names and ages on them. Johanna 25 years old, Lee 2 years old, Franz 5 years old, etc. I couldn’t stop crying and it’s colored my views on war ever since.
Our van got a flat tire, so we had to get that changed. I started to fret. As designated “chauffer” I was legally responsible for getting everyone in my van out on time, or face consequences — like East German jail. Our Visas for East Germany were only good for 1.5 days. I decided to drive as close to Berlin as we could get before being forced to pull over for the night – there was a driving curfew at night. We drove until the last of the light dipped below the horizon, and on a bit further with no headlights. Finally, nervous that I would miss a road sign, we stopped next to some fields. I pulled the van off the road, into a low ditch. We didn’t pitch the tents, just spread tarps for a few hours of sleep. It was between midnight and dawn that we heard a terrifying sound.
RATTLE RATTLE CLANK. RATTLE RATTLE CLANK. The earth vibrated in a sustained tremor beneath us. Startled from sleep, we saw in the dim moonlight huge beastly machines crawling towards us. We had inadvertently parked in the middle of an area where the East German army practiced night time tank maneuvers. A line of about 20 tanks rumbled past us less than 30 yards away. I truly thought we were going to die. We burrowed under the tarps, hoping not to be seen, hoping that our van was close enough to the road that it would not be inspected, hoping that the tanks wouldn’t run over us and crush us to death.
Eventually they passed. Shaken to the core, muddy and covered in grass, we stuffed the tarps in the van, and I drove slowly away with no headlights, just that bit of moonlight to see the road until we came to a wide spot and waited there for the sunrise. When morning came, we had less than 2 hours to get through our checkpoint which was on the far side of Berlin. I decided our best bet was to head for Checkpoint Charlie instead, as it was clearly marked on the map and seemed a straight shot.
I drove us into Berlin. None of us were talking, we were nervous and tense. You could still see bullet holes in buildings, and half of them were in disrepair. We got to the checkpoint, and got in line with our van. Our Visas had been expired for nearly an hour. We pulled up to the German guard. I rolled down my window. Everyone else in the van avoided eye contact as they passed me their passports and visas. He scrutinized them, and then my driver’s papers and International Driver’s license. He looked displeased. He gave me a flat-eyed look, then waived the visas at me. “You are late”, he said with the inflection only a German can give that sentence. “And you are at the WRONG GATE.” I apologized, and explained about our flat tire, and produced that paper work. “You drove through the night?” he asked suspiciously. “No, no, I pulled the van over on the side of the road when it got dark”, I replied. “You got out of the van and went into our countryside?” he asked, his voice rising in volume and intensity. “Oh no. We slept in the van,” I replied. Somehow, I kept my voice from shaking. Theatre training. “How would you do this?” he snarled. I will be forever grateful to the Brothers, Ted, and the Rebeccas. With no prior planning, as one entity, the 5 of them plopped down in various sleeping positions in less than 2 seconds. I turned to the man who had the ability to send me to German prison in the next ten seconds, smiled confidently and said, “Like that”. He grunted, held my gaze for a good long while, and then waived for them to put up the gate.
I drove slowly through the zig-zag no-man’s land of Checkpoint Charlie. Soldiers with rifles manned towers overlooking the area. More armed German soldiers were stationed at the Wall itself. I crawled along, blinking back tears as we drove through a break in the wall, and across a simple painted line. The gate raised. We were met by a young US soldier who said 5 sweet words: “Welcome to the American Sector”. We had made it. We were free.