West Berlin 1970-71

We returned from Switzerland, New Years Day 1968, to a deeply divided United States. Every time we cracked open a newspaper, 100,000 more troops had left for Southeast Asia. Once more, Robert heard World War III's knock at the door, and we prepared to seek safety elsewhere. This time I was less than willing; we’d barely settled down in our former digs after an absence of 18 months, the kids were back in school, Europe was cold and dark. Nonetheless, Robert transferred a large sum of money, $80,000 as I remember, to Switzerland in preparation for yet another move abroad. For the first time in his life, he would lie on his income tax return. Sending money abroad was laden with restrictions and heavy taxes, and Robert ignored them when filing in April.

But Lyndon Johnson surprised the nation by declaring, January 31, 1968, that he would cease bombing North Vietnam and would not run for reelection. Robert felt much relieved. This was surely the end of the war. We didn’t know that the Nixon administration would keep the war going, and bombing Cambodia, for another seven years. We did not foresee the ignominious scramble of staff from the rooftop of the US embassy in Saigon, April 30, 1975. We cancelled our departure plans, and the money stayed in Switzerland—for all I know, it’s still there.

In the months that followed, I took up tennis. In an unaccustomed display of enterprise, I signed up for an intro class offered by the UCSB Recreation Department. When I walked in with a racket from Fedco, Robert offered a strong opinion: “Honeychild, you can’t be serious about this! Tennis is an expensive game. I can never be a partner for you. You know I will not do anything to distract from production.” I was lousy at the game—the instructor told me later that he thought I would never make it. But I loved every minute in the open air and sunshine, chasing the exhilarating feeling of a good thwock with the persistence of a beagle. Despite Robert’s dour warning, he eventually joined me and tennis became as much of an addiction for him as it was for me. Three sets in the morning, after sending the kids off to school, would grow into a daily ritual. Tennis would hold our marriage together for another decade—the aggression of our play was not just strategy. Afterwards, we showered at Robertson Gym, changed, and went our separate ways—Robert to his office, I back to the house, or later, to my classes at UCSB.

Eric, now three, started nursery school at UCSB, and the house was suddenly quiet and empty after ten years of raising babies. I now had time in my hands, and when a neighbor mentioned, at a coffee klatsch, that she was working for her degree at City College, I had an epiphany—if she can do it, so can I. My first class was Sociology I, then American history, and soon I would enroll in two and then three classes, initially in the evening, then changing to days. It helped that Robert hated his office at UCSB (as well as the students) and wrote his books at home whenever he could, so I had built-in child care.

In 1970 Robert applied for leave without pay once more, this time to move to West Berlin for a year. You might suppose that our prolonged absences inconvenienced the Political Science Department, but, quite the contrary, they welcomed Robert’s leaves without pay. His absences freed up funds to hire a visiting professor, with change left over and a new face on the block. We packed up—by now we were experts—and rented out the house to incoming faculty. We were on our way to Europe the day after the children’s school year ended.

Housing was very tight in West Berlin, especially for a family of six. We spent an uncomfortable couple of weeks in two furnished rooms—it still pains me to remember how Richard cried after his beloved creek, eucalyptus grove and albino pollywog back in California. We eventually located a furnished rowhouse in Zehlendorf, but it would not become available until October. Through word of mouth we found nice, and outrageously expensive, housing for the meantime. It was located in Kladow, on the opposite side of the Wannsee. The house came with an unheated lap pool that we used exactly twice, because the nights soon turned cold. The children attended school in Kladow for a few weeks, Richard very unhappily, but he always needed to be pulled kicking and screaming into a new situation in any case. He eventually got reconciled to the Kladow school, and even the transition, late October, to the Schweitzerhofschule in Zehlendorf.

Germans fawned over the four young Yankees at the local public school—most American kids stayed in the American ghetto and were bused over to their own school. Unlike other expats, we saw a lot to be gained by exposure to a different culture and language. In retrospect, the kids fit better with German discipline than with the looser ways of schools back home—they were raised with Teutonic discipline, after all. Many months later, upon our return to the US, Richard would receive a Riesenbrief, a long strip of letters glued together end to end, from his 30 former classmates. They weren’t just a few scribbles—each child wrote at least two paragraphs in their careful Germanic script. Eric started first grade at age five and soon would be speaking German in his sleep. Laura, now in sixth grade, was more handicapped in a foreign language, but she went camping in West Germany with her class (which meant traveling across East Germany). They would soon be checking out stacks of books from the local library, braving the crabby librarian.

In one of our occasional efforts at socializing, we invited to dinner the rudest people on the planet, a professor at the Freieuniversität and his wife, a singer with the Berlin Philharmonic. The evening wore on relentlessly: the woman never ceased trying to impress us with their social status. She must have been reliving World War II, fighting to establish the Thousand-Year Reich over the two hicks from the New World. She sang a lead part in the Alban Berg opera Lulu, but of course we wouldn’t know what that was (I did). The gala they had attended the night before had served lobster Thermidor, sooo much more elegant than the fare at our table. Alas, the evening mercifully came to an end and they walked out into the night. Hand on the door knob, Robert sighed, “at least we didn’t serve them meatballs.” My thought was, how naïve of him, dog food is what they deserved. That was the last we saw of the pair.

Once more, in our efforts to control everything, we caused a lot of damage to the Schwittai house in Kladow. One side of the dwelling was rented out to an elderly lady who complained constantly how cold her area was. As we prepared to leave, we ignored the instructions left by the owner—after all, what did he know—and shut off nearly all heat registers in our area, so the woman would be cozy warm. She was warm enough, for a while. We heard later that Mr. Schwittai came back to a flooded basement. The heating pipes had burst, and the furnace bled dry and burned out.

Out for a walk in Kladow, we ventured a little too close to the Berlin Wall, and shots rang out. The Wall (http://www.dailysoft.com/berlinwall/) was a constant presence in Berlin. One could not drive for more than half an hour without running into it. It was not just a 107-km barricade encircling the city. On the Communist side, it extended into a 50-foot wide “death zone” of scorched earth, a trench, a corridor with watchdogs, watchtowers and bunkers, and a second wall, floodlights turning night into day, all to keep in their own citizens.

We drove into East Berlin for a day. At Checkpoint Charlie the grim Vopos (Volkspolizei, People’s Police) vanished into a cubicle clutching our passports. They took their time and emerged after a seeming eternity. Free to wander the city, we were first struck by how far back in time one went by merely driving a few hundred yards. East Berlin was a sudden setback to the 1930’s, with ancient, ill-kept buildings pockmarked with bullet holes, a few cars chugging along in near-deserted streets, and a windy, exposed concrete plaza that stretched to near infinity. The plaza was apparently used for mass rallies that the population was required to attend and cheer.

We stopped for lunch at a chicken eatery that literally served only chicken wings. People hunched over small mountains of chicken pieces, the discard plates heaped high with disgusting piles of gnawed bones. Walking further, we bought cups of ice cream all around. The ice cream was pretty tasty, but I stared in disbelief at plastic spoons no bigger than toothpicks—the factory undoubtedly filled a production quota in the most economical manner. Before heading back we visited a zoo of scruffy, sad animals. The alligator was housed in a coffin-like cage, where it could not turn around or move more than a few inches.

Robert was informally attached to the Freieuniversität for the duration of the academic year. I attended the single lecture he was asked to deliver. He spoke in German, and I marveled at how capable he was in a language not native to him. He had expected to be welcomed with open arms, but it came as a nasty surprise that the university in that glittering showplace of the West did not want anything to do with a visiting American professor. Students seethed with hostility toward America, even as ten minutes away people died climbing over the Wall. I never understood the thinking of those who threw stones, waved banners and marched in support of Communism.

We had a TV during that year, a rare treat because back home we were always TV-less. Robert’s excuse for this exception to the Rule of Reason was that it helped the kids learn a foreign language. They especially relished American fare, such as “Baags Bunni” shows. I was enthralled by a show of Gian Carlo Menotti’s children’s opera Help, Help, the Globolinks!, and I wanted the kids to share in the fun. The Globolinks were so obviously large coiled springs covered with silk, so I couldn’t understand why anyone would be afraid, but I eventually had to turn off the TV because of four terrorized kids.

We flew back to California in June, directly this time. West Berlin marked the end of our foreign travels. The children were moving ahead in school, and to transplant them became much more of a challenge. We would now turn to local pleasures such as week-long backpacking trips in the Sierra Nevada.