Seth Courtad, Guest Writer

The Berlin Wall, 1987.

I have memories of trips to Westberlin with my family: still frames which carry little context on their own. The separation is more vivid, however, though not exact. I can’t remember the day it happened; only that my brother and I stayed with my aunt while my parents made a trip, then the wall went up, then we stayed with my aunt for awhile longer.

I’d thought countless times of trying to cross over to find my parents. My daydreams filled with every possible escape route: digging under, climbing over, sneaking through. Such thoughts nearly consumed my adolescent mind. That is, until my aunt threw a mattress out the window of her four-story apartment. The six inches of foam didn’t do much of anything. When she jumped over the wall, her neck snapped on impact.

I realized then the futility of trying to escape, and erased such aspirations from my imagination. Eventually, the twenty-seven miles of concrete dividing us became normal.

It wasn’t always solid, however. Rather, a Frankenstein’s patchwork of other menacing obstacles which blocked all means of escape: wired fences, old and repurposed buildings, and even a few bridges. In fact, it wasn’t one line but two. Between them lay the death strip, crawling with landmines and machine guns.

It wasn’t until the mid-70s that it became that infamous slab of concrete. The government began building the wall around my seventeenth birthday, and helping its construction gave me a purpose I hadn’t felt before. So, once completed, I decided to join the GDR’s military. I never looked back.

From a tower overlooking the now-completed wall, I kept watch. Alone. My vision focused on the perimeter. The cold air bit at my face, and the rest of my body was protected by a coat and gloves.

During the many nights I spent in the tower, as my eyes panned from one end to the other, and my fingers gripped loosely on the cold metal of a machine gun, I thought of my brother, just a couple years younger than me but different in so many ways. I worried for him.

He had always been less careful than me, more defiant and free-spirited. I think that’s because of how young he was when the wall went up. His memories were even more scattered than mine, and I think, as a result, he married himself to the idea of our parents.

As the years went on, however, he’d become brasher. Increasingly reckless.

It started small. The radio shows that came from Westberlin in ‘85, shows like Sender Freies Berlin and RIAS, dominated his freetime. They were filled with information about the other side. Their life, culture, ideologies. They even dared to cover issues regarding East Germans. I warned him of the danger in this. He continued listening anyway.

At the time, I saw this as nothing more than a harmless interest, spurred by my brother’s natural curiosity. An annoying, disgraceful interest, but nothing criminal, and, certainly, nothing dangerous.

A couple years passed, Berlin approached its 750th birthday, and, though the government made its every effort to continually improve the capital, many saw this as a sign of its negligence toward maintaining other cities. In gross defiance, many decorated their cars with stickers saying “Dresden 780 Years” or “Leipzig 970 years.” Police officers immediately removed any stickers they found.

When I found one on my brother’s car, I removed it myself. Scraped it, and a decent amount of paint, right off. He didn’t appreciate my actions.

“You damaged my property,” he said. “You had no right to do that.”

“I’m an officer,” I replied. “I had an obligation.”

That really got to him. He droned about liberties, regurgitating the drivel spewed by the shows he listened to. He called me mindless. I had none of it.

I countered: “The Wall is what gives us freedom. From the West. From Capitalism.”

“It’s not a Wall. Some dainty thing that faces us. It’s a Mauer. We are trapped inside it.”

“Trapped?” I found this exhausting. “How are we trapped? It protects us.”

“But we don’t need to be protected,” he argued. “I’ll prove it. I’m planning on crossing over soon. We don’t need to be protected. Life is better there.”

I snapped, “Don’t talk like that!”

“Like what? Truthfully?”

“You’ll be signing your death warrant,” I said. Though, I doubt my warning had much effect on him. I think very few of my words did.

He mumbled something under his breath. Maybe it was “whatever” or “I don’t care.” Or maybe he called me a pig. I didn’t catch it. But, after that, he left. I didn’t hear from him after.

A few months after our argument, as I dutifully kept watch, I thought of him again and what he’d told me last. The midnight darkness enveloping my senses facilitated mental wandering, and so I found myself doing just that on most nights. I imagined every possible route he could take: from safest to most dangerous. It felt like childhood. Would he climb over or crawl under? Maybe neither, and he didn’t really plan on doing anything.

God, I hoped that was true.

Suddenly, my train of thought crashed into a dark figure, running senselessly toward the wall. I snapped back to my post. The figure didn’t seem to have much of a plan, other than getting away from the dogs. His thin legs glided across the grass as he became larger and larger—as though about to take flight. He was fast. Maybe even fast enough to escape.

But I did my job.

He would’ve had a plan, I thought.

I pulled the trigger.




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