Sergeant Bonham walked the streets of East Berlin, finding a city mired in despair. President Reagan’s words hung fresh on the western side of the Wall. No graffiti marked the eastern side. Razor wire and sniper rifles kept would-be vandals at a distance. His counterparts on this side kept a watchful eye from imposing guard towers, in contrast to the humble structure on the other side of the checkpoint from which he stood his watch. This was an odd way to spend his R&R, but he needed to understand.
He kept his papers hidden in his inner jacket pocket but had parked the car, a mid-1970s Opel borrowed from a West German Office, in plain sight. It was unremarkable except for its number tags from the other side of the Wall. Despite being only a kilometer from his post, he was not welcome here. People passed with downcast eyes and jacket collars pulled up against the cold drizzle. Black umbrellas kept the space between strangers who passed on the street.
Rows of graying buildings lined the narrow street. Utilitarian curtains hung in windows, and each stoop was swept clean. The narrow lane opened to a grand park. Black, red, and gold flags flew high against the green backdrop of the trees. Bonham walked the park’s cracked cement path until he found a large memorial scarred by a war that ended over forty years ago. The wounds never healed completely. There was no more significant scar than the wall that ran through the city. This monument withered with the Cold War’s neglect and resentment. Three statues, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, stood tall in commemoration of the city’s rich history. Music was returning in the guise of American pop music. History left nothing unchanged. These statues stood broken and pock-marked from bullets. Bonham ran his fingers over the cold marble and admired the stone’s innate beauty. Only he would appreciate the beauty of the stone.
Fitful rain began to fall. Just like in the mountains of Vermont and on the plains of Québec. Home, where people quipped: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. He was from a long line of men who harvested rock from the mountains and lumber from the forests. They did so without regard for the imaginary line between Vermont and Québec. Ça n’avait pas d’importance. For as long as there had been colonies, the Bonhams had helped build and protect the New World. Here he stood in a city much older than his country under the impression that he was here to protect what his family had built. He ran his fingers over the cold marble, feeling its coarse weathered surface. Stone is real. It has history.
A man approached and startled him.
“You, sir. American. Yes?”
“I must ask you a favor.” The man trembled.
Bonham looked him up and down. The man gazed past him, eyes darting left and right as he spoke. He wore a drab jacket, its breast pocket torn. The sleeves, a touch too long, were rolled up to reveal his meager hands. His hat rested upon his head at a curious angle. Black dust soiled his rust-colored shirt, and soot stained his pants. Once, his clothes might have fit. He wore brown boots scuffed at the toe. Bonham noticed the uneven wearing of the sole.
In passable English, the man spoke. “My daughter. She is sick. Her mother? She tried to cross, but …” The man looked at his boots. “My daughter, she needs medicine. She has…” He rolled his eyes up and to the left as if the word were floating amongst the clouds. “Sie hat Epilepsie.” He pantomimed a fit. “If we cross, she gets medicine.”
Bonham knew what the man would ask, but he needed to hear the words. He looked about. Were the police patrolling? The Stasi? Was this a trap? The man motioned for Bonham to follow him. Bonham turned up his collar against the breeze and followed the man to a Volkswagen. The man placed a hand on the rear window and peered in. The car was like every other car on the street, except for the child sleeping in the back, bundled in a blanket. “She is always so tired after.”
“Usually once, maybe twice, a month. Today? Many.”
Through streaks of rain on the window, he saw a girl with long brown hair that fell in front of her face. She was tall and slender. Stocking clad toes wriggled out from the edge of the blanket, which she pulled up to her shoulders. Her chest rose and fell in a comfortable rhythm.
Bonham took a step away from the vehicle. He looked about. Still no sign of the police. His pulse throbbed in his ears. Perhaps this child does need help. Maybe this is a trap. He was legitimately on this side of the Wall, but he had no interest in proving that point.
“But my daughter needs medicine. The doctors here will not help. Who is she to them? Sie hast eine Nobody.”
Bonham’s cheeks flushed. “I can’t,” he said. He stepped further from the car, from the man, from the girl. He turned and walked away from the park toward no destination in particular. The sun was setting, the rain had stopped, but cold wind still blew from the north. He peered at reflections in bumpers and car mirrors to see if he was being followed. Only after several blocks did he feel comfortable enough to look over his shoulder.
Had the man been sincere? This question burrowed under his skin like a splinter. Every other person had ignored him with cold indifference. Why did he mistrust this man? Bonham recalled his frail eyes, steel gray with the churning intensity of the deep sea. He passed a church, and its clock struck nine. Twilight approached. It was time to return to West Berlin.
He returned to the park and found the man sitting on the curb still slumped against this car. He propped his elbows on his knees and cradled his head in his hands. He seemed to be studying the filth upon his bootheels. The American stood quietly and waited until the man could no longer ignore him.
“May I?” asked Bonham, gesturing to the curb.
The man nodded.
He sat next to the man, leaning back against the rear quarter panel of the Beetle. He took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offered one to the man. The man declined. Bonham took one and lit it. In a voice just above a whisper, he said, “Tell me again.”
The man introduced himself as Werner, and he and his daughter needed to get to the other side of the Wall. Border guards had shot his wife when she attempted to cross to get medicine for their daughter’s epilepsy. They could find no doctor to care for her in East Berlin. The West offered the promise of hope. Werner had heard of people crossing in the trunks of American soldiers. He had exhausted other options.
Bonham took a long, deep drag from the cigarette. He held the smoke in his lungs until he could no longer ignore the burning in his chest. Looking skyward, he exhaled a slender jet into the gray June dusk. He sat with Werner, and the streetlights flickered on. Occasionally, the car would creak with the girl’s movements. The clouds broke to reveal a waxing moon. No one spoke until the car door opened.
“Papa,” said the girl.” I am hungry.”
“She’s been practicing her English. For the West.” Werner stood and walked to the front of the car. He retrieved a loaf of bread from the trunk. She started to tear chunks of bread with her yellowed teeth and swallowed large pieces whole. Bonham could not understand such hunger. Werner returned to sit beside him. “She likes bananas. I have bread.” His shrug said what’s a father to do?
Bonham stubbed his cigarette on the curb. He flicked the flint of this lighter repeatedly, never allowing the flame to burn. The girl curled up in her father’s lap. He wrapped his oversized coat over her shoulders. She shared her father’s frame, but her gaunt, aquiline features were unlike Werner’s bulbous nose and loose cheeks that threatened to slide off his face. Her blue eyes were dull in the fading light. Her mother must have been beautiful. She buried her face deeper into her father’s chest as a gust of wind swirled about the three of them sitting against the Volkswagen Beetle.
A van marked Polizei passed on the far side of the street. It neither slowed nor turned at the intersection, but its presence commanded attention. Bonham pocketed his lighter and, while watching the van disappear into traffic, asked, “When can you leave?”
Werner sat still. Bonham wondered if the traffic noise had drowned out his words. Werner embraced the girl against his chest. “We are ready.”
“Meet me at the far end of the park in twenty minutes. Can she make the walk?”
Bonham described the Opel. They would need to be quick and purposeful. He did not invite questions, and he left the two sitting on the curb.
Werner and the girl stood at the far entrance to the park. The Opel pulled up to the curb, and Bonham opened the passenger door. They got into the car without hesitation. The girl curled up on the back seat, and Werner sat up tall in the front. Bonham merged into traffic, and he did not look at his passengers as he spoke.
“I found a place. Out of the way. When I stop, you get into the trunk. I know a safe place on the other side. A restaurant. After we get through the checkpoint, I’ll take you there.”
“A restaurant?” The small voice came from the backseat.
“Shh,” said Werner. “Yes, that will work.”
They drove in silence. The wind had died, and the flags hung limply from the flagpoles in the stagnant June air. It was muggy in the car, and Bonham rolled down the window. The wind started gusting again, and he closed the window. If you don’t like the weather …
“The spot is up here,” said Bonham as he slowed the car. They were a few blocks from the Friedrichstaße. He turned onto a cobblestone street that ran between two rows of houses. It was little more than an alley, too small to warrant a streetlamp. He stopped the car and turned to Werner.
“I will step out and look around. If it’s clear, I’ll open the trunk. Then, and only then, make your move. Be quick. And once you’re in the trunk,” he looked over his shoulder to address the girl, “Not a sound. Got it?”
Werner and the girl nodded.
He stepped out of the car and left the engine running. He scanned the curtained windows. No signs of life. He walked to the back of the car and opened the trunk. Werner and the girl opened their doors just enough to slip out into the alley. The girl crouched low as if it would make her invisible. They climbed into the trunk, and Bonham reminded them, “Not a sound.”
He returned to the driver’s seat and put it into gear. He stopped at the main street. No police vans seemed to patrol this block. His eyes flitted between mirrors as he drove. It may be difficult to tell if we’re being tailed. All the cars look the same. He took a circuitous route to the checkpoint. They’ll search the car because it’s late, and if they search the trunk… He did not finish his thought.
A van made a turn onto the road and pulled in behind him as he approached the checkpoint. Bonham signaled and changed lanes. The van did the same. Coincidence, he thought as he turned left, away from the checkpoint. I’ll make a loop, just to be sure. At the next intersection, he turned left, as did the van.
He wiped his sweaty palms on his pant leg and eased off the gas slightly. He wanted to fall back into traffic. He drove straight for several blocks, as did the van. It seemed to be following more closely. He tried to get a good look at the vehicle, but the headlights blinded him in the mirror. He knew he could delay his crossing no longer. He signaled late as he entered the next intersection and turned suddenly. The van continued straight, hardly slowing as it passed.
He turned onto the Friedrichstaße and slowed as he approached the border. There were no cars in front of him. “Not surprising at this hour,” he said to no one. Floodlights illuminated the checkpoint and shined directly into his eyes. He stopped the car, and the backlit shadow of a soldier emerged from the light. Bonham knew the routine. Had they been on the other side of the border, he would be the one approaching the vehicle.
The soldier did not hide the pistol on his hip. Bonham rolled down the window and handed over his papers without a word. Although he could not see the guards on the wall, he knew snipers aimed at him. He sat calmly in the car, looking at his counterpart but not making eye contact. No need to worry. This is a routine stop. The soldier walked around the vehicle to conduct his inspection. Bonham felt naked without his papers. Without my documents, I’m a nobody.
He followed the German’s movements in the car’s mirrors.
It’s the papers that make me a soldier.
The soldier paused at the rear bumper and crouched to examine the wheel on Bonham’s side of the car.
I’m certainly an American soldier if he opens the trunk.
The soldier stood and walked to the other rear wheel.
The Army will not hesitate to discipline me.
Bonham could not see the German as he inspected the other side.
I will be imprisoned.
Bonham cleared his throat, a nervous tic.
It will disgrace my father, and his father, and every Bonham who has ever served.
The German soldier stood and walked to Bonham’s window.
No, I will be shot.
“Step out of the vehicle,” the soldier demanded.
I hope they kill me. It’s cleanest that way.
The German led him to the back of the car. He pointed at the bumper with the butt of his flashlight. “See how it is too low?” He then pointed to the other side. “That side, too.” The soldier placed his hand on the butt of his pistol and stepped closer to Bonham. “Open the trunk.”
He felt the soldier’s eyes upon the back of his neck. He knew the German was lining up a clean shot through his heart. It’s what he would do if he were the soldier on duty. He could almost feel the bullet biting into his back, tunneling past his spine, and ripping through his chest. He didn’t think he would feel the exit wound.
Handprints stood out from the grime on the trunk, hinting that it recently had been closed. Bonham hesitated before opening the trunk, trying to predict the soldier’s actions, trying to plan. He had not anticipated this situation. He had wagered and lost. Not just his life, but also those of Werner and the child. No, they had dragged him into their gamble, not that it mattered. Waiting longer wasn’t going to change a thing.
And then the car began to shake.
“Open it!” the soldier commanded. He drew his pistol.
Bonham fumbled his keys as he unlocked the trunk. It opened, and the soldier pointed both his gun and the flashlight into the darkness. Werner looked up. His eyes seemed too big. He wiped sweat and tears from his face, leaving smudged trails on his grimy cheeks and brow. He had shoved his wallet into the girl’s mouth to keep her from biting her tongue. He lay on top of his daughter, trying to stifle the seizure. The stink of urine rose from the trunk. The girl’s fit stopped. Her eyes were as wide as her father’s. She seemed to struggle to make sense of what had happened and where she was. Werner wiped spittle from her mouth with his thumb, as only a parent can. Bonham realized he had yet to feel the bullet tear into his chest.
The soldier returned his gun to its holster and placed his hand upon the lid of the trunk. He spoke under his breath. “Do not look up. Keep your eyes straight ahead.” He lowered the flashlight and allowed his words to tumble into the trunk. “Meine Schwester hatte auch Epilepsie.” It took a moment for Bonham to realize the German did not speak to him.
He did not call for a second soldier. He closed the trunk and directed Bonham to get back into the car. He returned the papers and instructed him to proceed through the checkpoint. As Bonham was rolling up the window, the German said, “When the alarm sounds, do not look back. Keep driving.” He hit the top of the vehicle, indicating that their business was complete.
The floodlights offered no cover, and Bonham felt exposed. But he followed the directions and slowly proceeded through the checkpoint. He held his breath and made no unnecessary movements. Once through the gate and approaching West German soil, he exhaled and allowed the tension to drain from his face.
A siren pierced his sense of relief. He could not resist the urge to look back, and his eyes darted to the rearview mirror. He knew enough not to turn his head. A clatter of guards rushed out of the post, weapons raised and trained upon the soldier who had let them pass. The soldier raised his arms and let his pistol fall to the ground. He did not fight back, and he held his head high, proudly perhaps, as one of the guards prodded him into the utilitarian building at gunpoint. One of the guards stopped, and turned toward the gate at the border. He raised his gun and pointed it at the aging Opel.
The guard then lowered his gun without firing. He must have realized that the vehicle was no longer on Eastern soil. Bonham suppressed an upwelling of guilt as he drove further from the checkpoint. His mind turned over the soldier’s words. “Meine Schwester hatte auch Epilepsie.” Hatte. Had. And what about her now?
The neon sign in front of the restaurant flickered. Bonham pulled into the alley beside the building and parked out of sight from the main street. He stretched as he stepped out of the car. The same fetid air hung over West Berlin, but the breeze was somehow different. He opened the trunk and helped Werner and the girl out of the urine-soaked trunk. The girl wrapped Werner’s jacket around her waist to hide her wet pants. Bonham gestured to the entrance to the alley. “There’s a telephone inside,” he said. He handed Werner a pocketful of change, enough to cover a phone call.
Berlin Wall Image: Roland Arhelger, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons