John Peters

on thursday evening, November 9, 1989, rivers of joyous, disbelieving East Germans poured through checkpoints into the West, welcomed by champagne and hugs from throngs of jubilant, cheering West Germans. For hours I held my breath in dread of a crushing backlash as I monitored news reports from the other side of the Atlantic. But when it became clear that the East German police were cheerfully standing aside, my fear gave way to goose-bump exultation. Memories of being on the dark side of that wall eighteen years earlier came in a flood, and I prayed that the East Germans who had put themselves at risk to initiate contact with three Americans during a clandestine and extraordinary night out in Leipzig were among the people now streaming into the West for the first time.

My friend Andie and I were college roommates during the 1970-71 school year. In June, he and I flew to Paris, and attempted to hitchhike the 500 kilometers to Heidelberg to join our school’s six-month German study program. My shoulder-length hair and Campbell’s tomato soup cap, and Andie’s Nordic blond hair and thick beard turned hitchhiking into hours of undisturbed backwards walking, with thumbs out and bent double under backpacks and suitcases. I had (and have) an inherited neuropathy that substantially weakens my lower arms and legs, which meant the backwards walking was snail-like; and Andie was shouldering half of my worldly possessions on top of his own. When we finally got a ride at sunset, we surrendered and told the driver take us to the nearest train station.

After arriving in Heidelberg, we joined forces with John, another member of our group. Although we didn’t know him well at the time, Andie and I admired the insouciance with which John leaned against a doorjamb while lighting a cigarette. The three of us found we shared a fondness for departing from the program’s agenda and setting out on our own “independent study” forays, which soon acquired the force of habit.

Our group of about twenty students spent time in Heidelberg, Berlin, and Vienna. Part of our arranged tour featured a five-day bus trip through the German Democratic Republic “behind the Iron Curtain” en route from Heidelberg to Berlin. In 1971, throughout the two Germanys, cities, towns and countryside carried visible wounds from the twentieth century’s second great war, even though the scars in the landscape had eroded. In West Germany, the wounds that hadn’t been built over had fences around them and were labeled with plaques; on occasion, they were sandwiched between gleaming, new high-rises, like the last holdout of an urban renewal project, only rendered uninhabitable by missing roofs and floors and walls. In East Germany, the wounds were more often just a part of the scenery, not memorialized, and obscured by spreading vegetation. For us, barely post-adolescent Americans, World War II seemed far away, part of history. On both sides of the wall, the new construction, our inexperience of war, and the cheerfulness and energy of the people we met made it difficult for us to picture or comprehend the madness, death, and devastation that had marked this place just twenty-five years before.

Besides the craters and bombed-out shells of buildings, other aspects of the East German landscape were disorienting for a young American. With the exception of the occasional black and white propaganda billboard or banner enjoining citizens to get behind some social initiative, there were no advertisements. Maybe that does not seem particularly extraordinary if you regularly get off into the woods somewhere. But picture traveling through villages, miles and miles of road bisecting vast tracts of cleared land cultivated by behemoth machines with a farmer’s tiny head visible through the cab window, all with almost no signage of any sort, not even diminutive Kiwanis Club signs. Also picture nothing but drab greens, browns, grays, and beiges, certainly no fire engine red, hot pink, or teal blue. All the houses, all the outbuildings, all the cafés, markets, and offices were dull-colored. Not to mention the almost equally drab clothing. Nothing and no one stood out. Of course, this was as much the product of poverty as it was the lack of private enterprise. I didn’t know where to look sometimes, and understood how trained I was by the landscape back home, where often, commercial signage was the only thing that registered as I drove by. It was a little shocking for me to realize that the melancholy loneliness with which I responded to this drab landscape implied something about how much Western advertising and in-your-face promotion does to fill the longing for connection. Again and again, as we drove through the countryside, I noticed this internal lack of orientation, not knowing where to look, and the unmooring that came with it. In spite of the emotional impact, I did my best to admire it by remembering how irritated and alienated I sometimes felt amidst the constant barrage of self-promotion that characterizes the American landscape. I imagined that the people of this land could be compared to Americans before television, when we made up things to do and talked to each other. I wondered if somehow the lack of stimulation contributed to richer internal landscapes for the East Germans.

We arrived in Leipzig in the late afternoon of a beautiful July day. Andie, John, and I shared a room on the ground floor of our hotel. We dumped our stuff in the room and hit the streets to meet some “real” people, slipping away before the group leaders had the chance to include us in some organized outing. I expected the city to look like a ghost town, all the people hiding indoors to avoid the STASI, and when they had to go out, darting furtively from doorway to doorway. But there were lots of folks on the street busily transacting the business of life, just as we did back home.

We had been in Europe long enough to realize that no matter what we did, we were instantly recognized as Americans. However, since we understood that the sight of an American in East Germany was relatively rare, we half expected to fly under the radar. After all, lots of Europeans had long hair and wore blue jeans. But we soon noticed that we were claiming outsized attention of a sort: folks not only did not make eye contact, they gave us way more room to pass on the sidewalk than we needed.

We didn’t have more than ten minutes to appreciate our new state before we were quietly approached by a young woman who struck up a conversation in a low voice. I say “we” were approached, but the truth is, it was John who was approached. I’m sure she singled him out because, of the three of us, he most resembled James Dean. Andie and I stood by as the young woman explained something to John. She matched his sly smile, and I was startled to notice she was missing a front tooth, something that made her striking prettiness intriguing.

John and the young woman reached some settlement, and she rambled off with two young men who materialized from the shadows. “Her name is Sylvia,” said John, his blue eyes dancing. “She invited us to join her and some friends at a beer hall a few blocks away. I said yes.”

The entrance was on a side street and led down a mountain of stairs. As I descended, grasping the rail to steady myself, I saw with an inward groan that the return trip up those stairs after time spent in a beer hall was going to be quite a feat of endurance. At the bottom of the stairway was an immense, low-ceilinged room. It was brightly lit, with innumerable round tables of all sizes. Sylvia and her friends, Puck and Hans, were waiting for us, and showed us to one of the largest tables. Only a few of the tables were taken, but it was early, only five o’clock or so. Our new friends arranged us around the table (Sylvia seated beside John, of course), separating us to allow newcomers the greatest chance of getting a close-up experience with the celebrities. Word spread quickly, and over the next half hour all the chairs at the table were filled with young East Germans; except for Sylvia, they were all guys. I counted eighteen East Germans jammed in with us around the table. Hans, seated beside me, ordered the first round.

Our German friends did not speak English, and although our command of German had rapidly improved, Andie, John, and I were far from fluent. For a while there was a single conversation at the table, and with patience and teamwork on both sides we succeeded in understanding each other. They asked us scores of questions about life in America. None of them could have had more than fifteen minutes between hearing about this gathering and showing up, but their questions poured out of them, as if they had saved them up for years. They wanted to know what music we listened to, could we go where we wanted, was there “hidden” poverty in America, did we have cars, did a lot of American citizens carry guns, were we afraid because of all the violent crime, were the destitute left to forage in the streets. Their lively interest in what we had to say did not seem to be driven by ideology. Even the questions that had political overtones seemed to come simply from curiosity about our lives, and how our day-to-day reality may have compared with theirs. When we compared notes later, we agreed that our new friends seemed to also be truth-checking the stories about the USA published in East Germany’s government-controlled media, attempting to weigh whether the freedom we were allowed was worth the price paid for it.

It occurred to me that we Americans were hardly touched by what separated us from the East Germans; for the Germans, it was huge. All of us around the table were within a handful of years of being the same age, on the cusp of entering the world. My American friends and I took for granted a broad pool of possibilities open to many young Americans at that time. We understood that, for these Germans, prospects were much more predetermined and constrained.

In contrast, I don’t remember asking them about their lives. It’s possible that I thought their lives so drab, so closed-in, that asking about them would feel like rubbing it in. It is also possible that they didn’t feel free to respond in a detailed way; perhaps we felt some sense of the risk they might run by being frank about their lives to outsiders in a country where people were jailed for telling political jokes. But I have no memory of wanting to spare their feelings or of hitting a wall of silence. Worse, I have no memory of being curious. It’s more likely that I didn’t ask because I felt like I already knew what their lives were like. The fact that our government was unafraid to allow us to travel (almost) anywhere we liked, while theirs knew that allowing freedom of travel would empty the country, was all the evidence needed to demonstrate which way of organizing things was more appealing. But that really does not say much about what is inside people, or what their lives mean to them. My failure of curiosity was a statement of arrogance, one that I had absorbed from my own people and culture. What might have been unlocked had I asked them the same questions they asked of me? It’s reasonable to suppose that it might have nudged me a little closer to adulthood that night.

Over the intervening years, that one contrast stands as the most palpable and striking. I, and maybe most other Americans, have been put to sleep by a life relatively free from struggle or want. In the company of those young East Germans, I was aware that our lives were enviable. What I was too young, or too privileged, or too sheltered to understand was that the difference in our circumstances gave a different shape to our values. Only much later did I begin to see that one such difference was being shouted out through their curiosity about us, in contrast to my partially cautious, partially complacent silence.

Their one request we didn’t comply with was that we show them how Americans dance. They seemed utterly serious, and more than a little disappointed at our refusal. I like to think I would have shown them, if I could have. But I was relieved that Andie and John seemed as disinclined as I was.

Beers kept arriving, and because my mother lived through the Depression and taught me never to waste anything, I had to drink them. And anyway, shoddy workmanship, supposedly the hallmark of communism, did not extend to beer production. This was Germany, after all; the beer was good. After the first round, I never noticed Hans or anybody else actually ordering; the beer just kept coming.

I don’t recall how the subject came up, but Hans and I got into a scintillating conversation about rock music. I was amazed to find that he was familiar with Led Zeppelin, Leonard Cohen, the Moody Blues, and the Mothers of Invention, among many others that came up. Behind the Iron Curtain, radios didn’t play this music, and you certainly couldn’t buy it in stores. Where did they hear it, I wanted to know. “Black market,” he said. “Wow, man. Black market.” I drew out the words, tasting the sinister implications, my spine tingling with a rush of mixed thrill and fear; I stood on the precipice of a world way out of my league.

“You know Jimi Hendrix!” I screeched, when Hans mentioned him. “Dunh dunh — dunh-dunh dunh-dunh. Dunh dunh — dunh-dunh dunh-dunh. Duh-duh duh-duh.” Hans joined me, and we did the drum riff together, then sang.

“You don’t care for me, I don’t care about that.

You got a new fool, hah! I like it like that.

I’ve only one burning desire: let me stand next to your fire.”

My face must have been crimson with ecstasy as I whirled from snare to cymbal to tom-tom. The fact that I had found a Hendrix fanatic behind the Iron Curtain felt nothing short of miraculous.

“You want to hear some Hendrix?” asked Hans. “We can go to my apartment. I have Jimi Hendrix records.”

“Really?” I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

Sometime later, the beer hall closed. We all exchanged addresses on napkins and Andie, John, and I promised to keep in touch with all eighteen East Germans. A few of them planned to travel to East Berlin to meet us in a few days on the last leg of our Iron Curtain odyssey. John and Andie jumped at the chance to go listen to music at Hans’s place. Sylvia had become glued to John, and Hans said that Puck was coming as well, although he had disappeared.

I stood for a moment at the bottom of the wide staircase, straining to see the top. It appeared as though the staircase was exactly vertical, and someone had added a few more flights. I took the stair rail with both hands and began to haul myself up one step at a time. The others climbed slowly in front of me so as to not get too far ahead. I have no doubt they wanted to assist me, but I had a keen ability to nonverbally get across the idea that offering help was verboten, so my friends compliantly kept their peace.

I suppose I was about ten stairs into my climb when I heard a flurry of pounding footsteps behind me. A head full of human hair appeared between my legs, and I was raised into the air sitting on the shoulders of Puck as he literally ran up the stairs, passing the others, who laughed and stepped on it to keep up with us. Puck stopped and turned at the top of the stairs to wait for our companions, me perched on his shoulders like a second-story. Inside of me there arose a brief struggle, intense enough to set my face afire in a crimson blush. Not a single one of my friends would have ever taken it upon themselves to so much as pick up a dropped pencil for me unless I asked, much less pick me up and carry me. On the other hand, there was something so generous about Puck’s action, it seemed such a natural extension of goodwill, that insisting on being put down just felt like pouting. I thought my protests probably would have been incomprehensible to him and maybe make him feel like he had offended me. And, his initiative was so different from the norms of American behavior that I sensed it reflected some kind of cultural difference and, in spite of my interior conflict, I even felt it was probably a good difference. Besides, it was beginning to feel kind of neat to be so tall and to move so fast; there was something darned delightful about it, and I broke out in a grin. Much later, I would realize that it was the first time in my life to not only let someone help me in such a major way, but to relax about it and even enjoy it.

As soon as the others achieved the top of the stairs, Puck whirled and ran through the outside door as I ducked to avoid decapitation. The others ran to keep up, and we boarded a streetcar, Puck bending his knees so I could slide down his back to take a seat for the forty-five minute ride to what must have been the other end of the city. Without a word, Puck crouched, his back to me, so that I could retake my perch, and sprinted the ten or twelve blocks to Hans’s apartment. From my heightened elevation, as far as I could see in every direction was a sea of nearly identical looking three- and four-story boxy apartment buildings in shades of brown and gray.

Hans lived with his family, but had a separate entrance to his room from the street, so he could come and go without disturbing his parents. His room was small, but neat and very comfortable with a good-sized window overlooking the street, a couple of overstuffed chairs, bookshelves, a desk and a bed. On the walls and the bookshelves were posters of rock musicians, personal belongings, and mementos that made us feel right at home. We settled in, and, as promised, Hans produced his record collection. We Americans were amazed to see that each recording was a brightly colored square of flexible plastic the size of a 45 RPM.

Mindful of our earlier conversation, the first thing Hans put on his turntable was Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. Somehow, this was the first time I had ever heard any version of that song.

This night had entered the realm of the unforgettable; even with three or four liters of German beer in my system, my senses were alive and wide open, drinking up every nuance of every moment. Hans turned up the volume. The six of us entered a reverential silence. From the opening sound, I was riveted by the music. There, in Hans’s little room, Hendrix’s sound and Dylan’s words conjured a mythological tableau. The poetry sparked in me the uncanny sensation that this moment was foreordained; it had been conceived in Dylan’s mind, reconceived and performed by Hendrix in a studio somewhere for this seemingly chance encounter of a half dozen people in a Leipzig apartment in 1971.

The song, just a handful of enigmatic lyrics, wove a timeless and compelling fable through a conversation between a Joker and a Thief, who are witnessing terrifying signs that the Empire and everything they’ve known is about to come apart in a cataclysm. The images are medieval, but the stark division between the “princes” and the “barefoot servants” brought their conversation into our room. First it hit me that the Thief and Joker’s furtive conversation was something like our little huddle around a stack of black market records. Listening to music, any music, was something I never thought twice about before. In that spirit, I had treated our late-night jaunt across Leipzig as casually as I would have at home. But suddenly I felt a stab of fear as the song made clear the extent of the risk these young Germans were taking, and it nearly brought me to sobriety.

Then it began to dawn on me that Andie, John, and I were seeing the utter failure of the East German/Soviet juggernaut. The determination of our new friends, and millions like them, had found peepholes into the outside world. How could that ever be stopped? I now believe that their vitality and ravenous hunger to know what was forbidden to know, and the interconnectedness that allowed them to spontaneously come together when a group of foreigners presented themselves, were the creative response to the vacuum of stimulation that I had wondered about.

My eyes searched for John’s and Andie’s. I didn’t know what they were thinking, but I was bursting with feeling. Did our new comrades grasp those lyrics and relate them to their lives?

The recording faded into a deep silence. With some concern in his voice, Hans asked me if I had liked it, and I realized that the expression on my face during my trance was one of pain. In fact, it was the agony of the extreme ecstasy of having been taken somewhere, given something invaluable, and then deposited back into my own skin. Andie explained to Hans that I always appeared to be most miserable when I was most happy, and the Germans’ laughter broke the tension.

I don’t recall what Hans played for us next. It could have been Led Zeppelin, something long and reflective like Stairway to Heaven, because what happened next was so shocking. The door connecting Hans’s room to his family’s apartment flew open, revealing a stout woman in a well-worn housecoat, with dark hair rolled into curlers and dark circles under her eyes. She roared, and I mean like a lunatic. It required no advanced German vocabulary to get the drift. We were blown out onto the street in seconds, leaving Hans to deal on his own.

It was quiet out on the sidewalk. Hans’s lit up window was the only one in sight. We moved away from his building, still feeling his mother’s will. As far as we could see up and down the street, impenetrable closed doors sealed us out of countless lives. In whispers, we asked about Leipzig nightlife options. There aren’t any, Sylvia and Puck told us.

Puck knelt like a camel so that I could climb on his shoulders, his trot forcing a stutter in my breath. Somehow, the streetcars were still running. We were the only passengers the whole way back. We said goodbye to our friends on the sidewalk at our hotel entrance. The streets were ablaze with electric streetlamps, but there wasn’t another soul out and every window was as black as the night sky. Our German friends made their way home, each to their own darkened window; we would be on a bus the next morning, headed for Berlin to cross back into the land of neon freedom.

John Peters is a Clinical Social Worker and psychotherapist living in Wayland, Massachusetts, with his wife, Maureen. Much of his writing is about things and characters he knew while growing up in Nashville. Before a midlife crisis in his mid-40s brought him to his senses, he was a software developer, jazz concert promoter, mouth percussionist, and shameless collector of large automobiles.