I was lucky to be in the United States Air Force and stationed at Tempelhof Central Air Base in Berlin, on the day the Berlin Wall fell: Nov 9, 1989. It occurred only one month after I married my wife, so the event is strongly etched in both of our minds. I am occasionally asked where I was when it happened, and what is my memory of the event.
I was in at home in Berlin, which was a huge benefit. My strongest memory is actually what I watched on TV right after I was told about the borders being opened. Bear with me: this may be very different from what you might expect.
The previous night, my wife Heidi and I had thrown a party at our house. The next morning, one of our guests and his girlfriend dropped by the house. He asked us if we had heard the news about the borders being opened. I was a little confused and asked what he meant. He said that the border with East Berlin was opened. I was shocked: not only that it could happen, but that I had heard nothing of it. My first reaction was to turn on my TV to check the news. This is where my experience of the finding out the Berlin Wall had fallen is a little different than most.
Our TV was a multi-system TV. It was capable of not only viewing American TV (formatted in what was known as NTSC), but we could watch TV from most broadcast formats in the world at the time. That included PAL for the West German (or West Belin) TV stations, and SECAM for the communist countries which included East German TV broadcast from East Berlin. As fate would have it, the channel which the TV was tuned into was the same East German TV channel we had watched the previous night. So our first glimpse into what had happened came from watching a reaction from East Berlin–the communist side.
For American readers, I need to explain something about the West German and East German TV practices at the time. German TV stations would use young female hosts (models) to introduce shows to its audience. As part of the normal programming between shows on West German channels, it was common to see a well-decorated set with a see-through Plexiglas podium. In it, a beautiful, well-dressed young woman with a big smile casually (and, yes, even enticingly) leaned on the podium while talking about the upcoming program which was about to air. The East German television stations copied this practice, but it was easy to see it was East Germany from the lower quality of the set and the more conservative mannerisms from the hostess.
As the TV warmed up (remember those days?) and the picture began to appear, the East German set with the Plexiglas podium was there, and the female host was there. But things were very different. The female host was not casually leaning up against the podium as she normally would. She was standing straight up–almost rigid. She was holding several papers in her hand to read from, as usual, but both of her hands were gripping them very tightly. And they were shaking. She was visibly sweating and the smile was a very nervous one, and her voice was cracking as she read the official announcement that the border with West Berlin was open. It was quite a image.
Immediately, my mind flashed back to something I had read at one time. It was the story of a bear in a cage at the zoo. The cage was about 20 feet in length, and the bear lived there a long time. The bear in the cage was fed daily, by the zookeeper opening the door and putting the food inside the door. The bear would get up, walk about 10 feet to his food and eat. After the zoo modified its exhibit to a more natural environment to get rid of the cage, the bear just stayed in one spot in the new exhibit. Daily, the zookeeper would put his food about the same 10 feet from the bear. The bear would walk the ten feet and eat his food.
One day, the zookeeper put the food 15 feet from the bear. The bear, got up, walked 10 feet… and stopped. The bear only had 5 feet to go to his food, but would not move. Physically, he was shaking and very disoriented. But he would not move from the spot. His routine was changed, but to him it was devastating.
That was the image I was watching in real life that day on the East German TV channel, as the beautiful young woman who had the courage to stand in front of the camera and read the official announcement was experiencing the same dread as the change the bear was experiencing. I am sure she was visually and emotionally expressing what her viewers in East Germany must have been going through as well. The cage was open and they were free to go… but it was scary.
This was a very powerful scene, one that is burned deeply into my psyche and impacts my thinking to this very day.