Around the time of Dad’s fellowship, the Soviets had been known to occasionally take Americans hostage for negotiating purposes. That didn’t influence Dad’s desire to see Berlin. He was interested in architecture in West Berlin and just plain curious about East Berlin. When he was making the decision to cross into Soviet controlled East Berlin, he was not going to be intimidated. Having been the smallest kid in his class at Fratney Street School, he understood what it meant to be bullied. He knew real power was not gained by creating fear in someone else in order to win the upper hand. Dad will tell you that his strength has always come from the Lord. He wanted to experience for himself the effects of the war and the impact of communist control.
“The tension was great between the Soviet Union and the allies—France, England and the U.S.,” Dad told me during a Saturday afternoon history lesson to help me understand this story.
“I had stopped at the Consulate in Bremen to discuss the situation. They told me the only way that they had ever heard of civilians driving through the Soviet sector into Berlin, was in a military convoy. They said they couldn’t recommend anything to me but they did add, ‘If you do it, will you stop on the way back and tell us how it went?’
That night in West Germany, we heard artillery fire and we prayed for direction. In the morning a German told us that the Soviets did the firing intentionally to keep the German people nervous. Then I noticed that our VW had a flat tire—I hadn’t had any trouble up to that point. I took the tire off, put the spare on and Ed and I went to a garage in town. The mechanic checked it over and told us there was nothing wrong with the tire. He couldn’t explain why it went flat so he filled it with air and gave it back to me.
I suppose I could have interpreted this as a sign to listen to the words of the Consulate. I didn’t know if somebody had flattened the tire to discourage us, but whatever happened, I felt compelled to get into Berlin. So we ignored it and continued on. But that’s how much tension there was.
When we got to the East German border, we had to go to the Soviet office to be checked out. They wanted to know who we were and what we were doing. I showed them my data from the University on the fellowship, told them I was traveling with my wife and three kids and that we were camping.They said they’d get back to me. So I went back to the car and we waited there while they checked us out. Before long, a guy in uniform came over to our car, said it was okay to go on and gave us a pass.
About this time, I had gotten word that the new tent we had ordered arrived in Bremen at the American Express office—always our connection point. This new tent had a covered area that we would be able to cook and eat under. We used our original tent while we were in Berlin because I knew the new one would take a while to figure out how to set up. So we went to pick it up and put it in our car-top carrier along with everything else.
We drove to Berlin without incident, and found the camp site there. We saw the architecture I wanted to see in West Berlin over several days. Dolores and the kids stayed at the camp site in the German sector while I went into East Berlin. The border of the German sector was at the Brandenburg Gate.
I got checked out by the Russian guards and was permitted to enter. West Berlin was already rebuilt by this time. I couldn’t get over all the war devastation—bombed out buildings and rubble—still evident in East Berlin. I believed it was the difference between the economic systems and freedom.
After I had spent several hours walking around East Berlin observing the conditions, it felt good to get back into West Berlin. I went to our camp site and discussed my experience with Dolores. The next morning, I put up a sign that said Zelt Verkaufen (Tent Sale). Almost instantly, it was sold. I guess the Berliners didn’t have much access to outside merchandise.
The buyer of the tent came by the next morning, after we had packed up. We drove back to West Germany and found a camp site there. I couldn’t help but recall the beautiful site in Florence that had convinced us to camp. This site was a vacant lot in an urban area. I unpacked the new tent and realized two things. First, it wasn’t the one I intended to buy and second, it had many pages of detailed instructions on how to erect it—all in German. As I was pondering my situation, another camper noticed me and offered to help. He could read German and helped me put it up. It was very difficult and took us a while. After about six times of putting it up and taking it down myself in the days ahead, I could finally get it all laid out and set up pretty quickly.”
Then it was on to Scandinavia with our new two-room tent.
For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. II Timothy 1:7 NLT