"All of this started with Solidarity, you know," said the middle-aged Yank chiseling off chunks of the Berlin Wall near Checkpoint Charlie.
He was among hundreds of us wall bangers who paused 25 years ago to witness the ceremonial removal of the storied portal in the Berlin Wall, built by the East Germans with the Soviets' blessing in 1961.
Our fellow American rented his hammer and chisel from some enterprising Poles. What the Solidarity union movement began, Polish entrepreneurs were helping finish. My wife, Melinda, and I took turns banging an Austrian hammer against a West German chisel, the latter bought in Munich.
In the Old Testament, the blare of Joshua's trumpets brought down the walls of ancient Jericho. Polish hammers and chisels did a number on the Berlin Wall, which symbolized the chilliest days of the cold war.
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"Ten minutes, five marks," a tall, lanky Pole in a red track suit grinned and shouted in English. Such was the going rate in West German money for a hammer and chisel combo.
We spent the summer of 1990 studying in Bregenz, Austria. I borrowed a hammer from Frau Polzer, our landlady. We told her about our trips to Berlin in the '80s and our encounters with East German customs officers, who seemed to pride themselves on bureaucratic officiousness.
Frau Polzer nodded sympathetically. "The Germans were always the worst communists," she said, frowning. "They're Germans — all those rules."
East Germany's communist brass built the wall to stop their citizens from fleeing. They claimed they put up the wall to keep us out. The official name was Orwellian, like the wall itself: the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or Anti-fascist Protective Barrier.
Call it serendipity. We chose June 21-24 for our wall-wrecking trip. We had no idea Checkpoint Charlie was to be taken away on June 22.
U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union headlined the festivities. We were too deep in the crowd to get a good look at the VIPs or hear much of what they said. But we were close enough to see a big red crane lift the 20-foot long, white-painted Checkpoint Charlie guard shack about 15 feet off the street and ease it onto a flatbed truck.
The Checkpoint Charlie guard shack is preserved outside a Berlin museum. A smaller replica occupies the checkpoint site.
Germany didn't officially unify until Oct. 3, 1990. So East Germany was still a state, if barely.
While I took my cuts on the East Berlin side of the wall before the ceremony, a couple of East German border guards ambled up. Guards had shot to death as many as 235 people who tried to surmount the wall.
These guards weren't packing heat. They ignored me to gab with one of West Berlin's finest who had moseyed eastward.
Heretofore in East Berlin, it was strictly forbidden to photograph border guards. I aimed my camera at the younger of the two guards. He doffed his hat, flashed a hint of a grin and shrugged.
The shrug and grin said it all. The killing ground had become festival ground. American kids in college sweatshirts, cutoff shorts and white Reeboks were roosting atop the wall, gabbing and guzzling cans of beer.
Below, we human jackhammers blithely chipped away. I preferred the pristine whitewashed bits; others were partial to chunks multihued with graffiti.
Some Berliners joined in the wall whacking, too. A young man in a blue sports shirt pried loose a golf-ball size piece of concrete. He smiled and handed it triumphantly to an elderly woman who threw it down.
They hugged. She cried. Many others had shed many tears on both sides of the Berlin Wall.