Showing posts with label Berlin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Berlin. Show all posts

09 December 2015

Gone, No Forwarding

by David Edgerley Gates

Having put THE BONE HARVEST up on Amazon, I added the following note. 
"You don't necessarily have any specific object in mind when you start a book, but I knew going in that THE BONE HARVEST would be about the nuts and bolts – the gear, the manpower, the physical resources – what it takes to mount an actual spy operation. My model was a now-abandoned listening post on the outskirts of Berlin, in Marienfelde, near the sentry wire where the East German guard posts once stood. There was a time when the world seemed divided into two armed camps, static and unyielding, written in stone, but these days that's become the fossil record."

I could go on, although this is fine, for the here and now. Or more to the point, the there and then.

None of this is my invention, or reinvention. The Cold War was real. And there were times when it just missed getting hot.

I'm not nostalgic for the climate of fear. I'm talking about revisiting a physical place in memory, because the place itself is physically lost. Gone, no forwarding.

We might see the footprints, but that's an act of imagination. The archeological evidence is thin on the ground.

Back in the day, the Army Security Agency and the USAF Security Service each had operational sites in Berlin. Teufelsberg, the ASA facility, began monitoring Soviet and Warsaw Pact communications in 1961, and the Air Force commissioned Marienfelde in 1967. Both listening stations, as it happens, were built on landfill, rubble from the ruins of Berlin. It gave them artificial height, the better to intercept signals.

I remember going out to Marienfelde at the beginning, when the move was just starting, the equipment being transferred from Tempelhof to the site. All the ELINT gear first, the Voice stuff last. It was spooky, tell you the truth, the perimeter fence lit up, and secure access, but the building almost empty. I was assigned to a ghost ship. Over the next couple of weeks, the whole business ramped up, and pretty soon we were 24/7. It's instructive to look back on the logistics, the heavy lifting, how it was purposed. I don't think we got a lot of outside help, I think it was all more or less in-house. Some of it must have been
flat-out improvisation. Then again, we had experienced Operations people on board. They'd set up in remote places, without immediate or close support, and even hostile environments. The best part, you really want to know, is how quickly and effectively we got it going. There must have been wasted motion. I mean, seriously – it's the military. But there wasn't any loss of coverage. The mission never went dark. We didn't even brake for the turn. That's the most amazing thing. That it came out right. Somebody should take a bow.

There's nothing left of it. T-berg's a ruin, Marienfelde's overgrown.

Berlin Brigade, along with the other occupation forces, the British, French, and Russian, were decommissioned twenty years ago, and they had a parade. All in marching order. History turns the page.

I guess the lesson is not so much things slipping out of our grasp, or whether memory is reliable or not, but what we might like to think we hold in trust. Maybe it didn't actually happen quite that way, and the facts were messier. That's usually the case. We clean things up. We allow as how there's a moral to the story. Or we settle old scores. It's always going to be something. You leave part of it out, or you adjust the seasoning, or you come up with a better punchline, twenty years too late. But this is one of those instances where I didn't have anything to lose. I wanted to make outfitting Camp Hector as accurate as I could, and I had the example of the installation at Marienfelde to keep me honest. Credit where credit is due.

(And some of it, yeah, I made up.)

28 May 2014


by David Edgerley Gates

I'm writing this over the Memorial Day weekend, which is perhaps coincidence, and perhaps not. I was prompted to it by an exchange I had with my pal Michael Parnell. We're both vets, but our service is a generation apart, me back in Cold War Berlin, Michael a few years ago in the Sandbox. The age difference aside, there's a common thread.

The second thing was a widely-circulated post on Facebook, where a young woman said that people join the military because they can't get into college. I know we shouldn't take this too seriously, but as you can imagine, her comment excited a NSFW barrage. She's an easy target, for sure, but instead of just calling her a dumb bunny---I'm softening the kind of language that was actually used---it might suit us better to address her misinformation with a more reasoned response. So here goes.

After the Civil War, the U.S. Army drastically downsized, and the men who stayed in were widely thought to be the dregs. It didn't help that a lot of the enlisted personnel were Irish, who already had a name for being drunk and undisciplined. John Ford makes a running joke of this in FORT APACHE, for example, but the truth is darker. Marcus Reno, a major under Custer at the Little Bighorn, was later reprimanded and dismissed from the Army. The proximate cause was drunkenness, but he had a long history of conduct unbecoming. Reno was a poster boy. There were other officers unsuitable for command, just as there were many more who attended to duty, but the damage was done. In the public eye, the prevailing wisdom was that people chose a military career because they were losers, or scoundrels, or unfit for any other life.

Something similar happened after the First World War, when again the services were severely reduced, and more than a few senior officers doubted America's readiness to fight another war. Not that anybody wanted another war. The general sympathy was Isolationism, and our foreign policy contracted along with our military capacity. This isn't to say we should have kept millions of men under arms, but it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to demonstrate our vulnerability. The world was wider than we liked.

On the other hand, the Second World War brought a change in attitude. My own feeling is that it's because the country was totally mobilized to meet the threat. Afterwards, when guys like my dad came home to pick up their lives, neither did they turn their backs on those who chose to stay on active service. One of our neighbors on the block, when I was a kid growing up in Cambridge, was an Army colonel named Trevor Dupuy. West Point, Burma campaign. He was taking a post-grad course at Harvard (and later taught there), but the point is that nobody in my dad's circle found any fault with Dupuy's making the Army his career, or thought any the less of him for it.

Viet Nam. Another turn of the wheel. The doubts set in early. I went into the Air Force in '64---partly to avoid the draft, I admit---but the climate was different. Most of the guys my age I knew were only too happy to stay in school and take the college deferment. They didn't want to be cannon-fodder. Who could blame them? The issue that arose, though, was that too many of them thought the military was for slackers and fools, or anybody dumb enough to buy the snake oil. It was a shitty war, of course, and the political divisions on the home front were savage. If you didn't live through those times, it's hard to conjure up just how fierce it got. And memory is selective. It's convenient to forget that quite a few GI's who came back alive from combat were treated with contempt by some.

I have an embarrassment of my own to confess. I got to Berlin in March of '65, after nine months of Russian language school. I was nineteen. Like most kids that age, there wasn't anything you could teach me. Open ass, and insert head, in other words. Here, though, a word of explanation. It was a spook shop, and a highly selective crew. Smart, analytical, independent thinking encouraged, a specialized skill-set. Not too many made the cut. But we were too smart for our own good, or at least I was. The first time I met my NCOIC, a master sergeant named Ernie Soto, he didn't impress me much. (Which is of course the cart before the horse. It was my job to impress Ernie.) I was too full of myself to read him right.

We called them Lifers. We, meaning first-term enlisted. They already had a couple of enlistments under their belt, or they wouldn't have made senior NCO rank. But we were young punks, and to us, anybody who'd re-upped and stayed in the service was an also-ran or a has-been. It's not like you don't run across time-servers and goldbricks, they come with the territory in any line of work, and once in a while you get saddled with a real bum, but mostly, that's the exception. NCO's do the heavy lifting. They know the mission, they have the authority and the responsibility. And in Berlin, particularly, they were the pick of the litter. Ernie Soto, for instance, was one of the first two candidates selected for the Boston University master's program, which was extremely competitive, so no matter what I thought of him, he was no dope.

Here's what you learn about these guys. When you get to know them better, you find out they're not all cut from the same cloth. And if you ask them why, why go career, why not something better?---to your way of thinking---they come up with an oddly evasive set of answers. Good benefits, and I can retire on half-pay after twenty, one of them might say. Someone else will tell you: my family travels with me, I get free dependent housing, it covers school costs for the kids. Or a more straightforward, thoughtful answer. It's fascinating work, and how else would I get to see Germany, or Japan? All this is true, and you can see the appeal, but here's what you don't hear from them. It's an obligation. It matters. I make a difference.

Because, in the end, it's not about creature comfort, or benefits. It's about duty. They might not put it this way. That's too cornball. You say it out loud, it sounds self-important, or suspect, and overly conspicuous. You're some kind of big deal, advertising yourself.

6912th Security Squadron, Berlin, a short list. Jim Nelson. Ed Allen. Mick Amos. Tom Hill. Dean Hanson. Lifers, by choice. My respects.  

DEG - Tempelhof, late 1960's - photo: John Clay

12 December 2012

Cold War Berlin: A Whiter Shade of Pale

by David Edgerley Gates

David Morrell's forthcoming new thriller, MURDER AS A FINE ART, takes place in Victorian London, and he remarks that his research and the writing itself so completely immersed him in the time and place that it became more real to him than the contemporary, so-called 'real' world. Anybody who's ever written period stories, whether in the distant past or more recent history, can relate. The language you use changes from modern usage– not so much "prithee, sirrah," as perhaps word order– and even the thoughts of your characters are different, because their view of themselves and the world are different from the present day. The easiest trap to fall into is anachronism, a modern viewpoint bleeding into the past, which could be something as simple as cause and effect: we know the Black Death was caused by a bacillus; the people it killed thought it was the hand of God. Specific details are simpler, as in, when did Lucky Strikes go to war? 1942, as it happens.

In both the bounty hunter stories, which take place in the years just before America's entry into World War I, and the Mickey Counihan stories, which take place immediately after World War II, I've found myself slipping into a habit of mind, not so much a slavish devotion to accuracy ('the smell of the lamp') as a mental device, or discipline, trying to think my way into the characters' heads, which is more than just the correct vocabulary. It's time travel.

I've had a much different experience e-formatting my Cold War spy novel, BLACK TRAFFIC, for upload to my website. I hadn't actually taken a close look at the book in over a year, so it came as a surprise to me how evocative, to my mind, the story-telling is, an era and a city that might as well be as distant and foreign as the Mexican Revolution, or postwar New York. It's time travel, but into living memory. The book takes place in Berlin, in the mid to late 60's, and I was in fact there. Much of BLACK TRAFFIC is based on my personal experience of both Berlin and the spook trade of the times. In other words, it's firsthand recollection, and the problem, often, wasn't a lack of specificity, but too much, an overwhelming flood of significant detail. How to pick and choose? Memory is a chancy thing, an unreliable guide to history. I found I second-guessed myself a lot, was such-and-such a thing for real, or something my subconscious overheard, a trick of the mind's eye? Authentic reconstruction is a false hope.

So what I was left with, after filtering out the generic and over-familiar, while keeping the untidy and simply bizarre---the story of the would-be U.S. defector to the Russians returning to West Berlin to feed his cat is based on fact, for example---was still an indigestible stew, underdone and lumpy, needing better seasoning and more time in the pot (which was true of the book as a whole), but in the end, I could only follow my own likes, and forgetting caution, there were a couple of things I cherished too much to discard.

Berlin had a soundtrack in those years, Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Actually, you heard it all over Europe in the spring and summer of '67, but I always associated it most closely with Berlin, and so did a lot of Berliners. It remains an anthem, even today, for that certain generation, both triumphal and melancholy. Why that particular theme song? I've got no idea. Germans can be a sentimental lot.

The other totemic association I have with Berlin is currywurst. All over town there were food stalls set up in the street, and wurst stands were the most popular. You got brats or a knock with potato salad and a hard roll, with a dab of mustard on the side, on a paper plate. The odder iteration was currywurst. Basically pork sausage slathered in ketchup mixed with curry powder, and served with French fries. An acquired taste, as you might imagine, but once acquired, not forgotten.

I saw a recent news article saying that landmarks which had been inaccessible when the Wall was up, the Brandenburg Gate, for instance, were now overrun with people, both native Berliners and a raft of tourists, and of course they were teeming with so-called Schnell-Imbiss, fast food. A new wrinkle is that they aren't even stalls, but guys with a hot-top rigged up to a shoulder harness, so they can work the crowd, and your wurst comes to you, not the other way around. Interestingly enough, this has generated some political controversy---not the serving method, but the perceived disrespect of public monuments. It's just part of the urban scene, in my opinion, but the politics of Left and Right in Germany often fixate on irrelevancies. The presence of all that cheap food is is seen as an insult to the historic significance of these symbolic places.

Germans are often accused of wanting to conveniently erase or reinvent the uglier passages of their own history, not just Hitler, say, but the Soviet occupation of the East, and the reinterpretations have a definite bias, Liberal or Conservative, depending on your sympathies. In other words, which history, and who appropriates it. Symbols mirror desired meanings, old wine in new bottles. It seems odd to me that currywurst has fallen afoul of politics and now wears a badge of dishonor, in some quarters. It's only sausage links and tomato paste, after all, and has no dog in the fight, so to speak. Then again, one man's relish is another man's distaste.