Monday, January 18, 2016

My Ties to Bridge of Spies

Gilda and I have seen lots of movies over the past three weeks, the best of which, in my opinion, we saw Saturday night. Bridge of Spies tells the mostly-true-to-life story behind the exchange of prisoners among the Soviet Union, East Germany and the United States. 

In return for sending convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel back to Russia, America received U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (shot down during an aerial spy mission over Soviet territory) and student Frederic L. Pryor (charged with espionage in East Berlin). To scrub fact from fiction, here’s a link:

(Of the 11 movies we’ve seen, in descending order, my top flicks:
Bridge of Spies
The Martian
The Revenant
The Big Short
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Mad Max: Fury Road

How could I not like Bridge of Spies? From the History vs. Hollywood Web site I was reminded that the prisoner exchange transpired on February 10, 1962, the same day as my bar mitzvah.

Even without that coincidence I identified with Bridge of Spies. During one of my trips to Dusseldorf for EuroShop, a once-every-three-years massive trade exposition, I made a side trip to Berlin. I traveled on February 16, 1990, just three days before the section of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate was to be torn down.

I walked many of the same streets the Tom Hanks character followed in the movie, entering East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, then down FriederichStrasse, a main avenue. It was a rainy, sometimes snowy, day. Chilly down to the bones. I had the sniffles, just like Hanks had in the movie.

With their political order tumbling around them, East German border guards were as friendly as a Wal-Mart greeter. And why shouldn’t they have acted kindly? No longer armed, their main job function was to let German nationals pass through while smiling pleasantly at foreigners and directing them to exit where they entered East Berlin. It seemed to be a petty rule, but no more inconvenient than being told in an American department store that gift wrapping could be obtained only in the basement or some other out of the way location.

Along FriederichStrasse I encountered a wide range of visual stimuli. Just as an East German movie character complained that the Russians hindered reconstruction efforts after World War II, I observed many buildings in various states of bombed-out disrepair a full 45 years after the war ended. Intact buildings were generally drab apartment house blocks that made our inner city projects seem stately. 

The disparity between the two sides of Berlin was evident from two cars parked next to each other, one a boxy, eight-foot Russian-made Lada, the other a sleek, four-door Mercedes. Both cars were in front of the Grand Hotel, one of the more impressive hotels I had seen in any major city of the world. In the main lobby burnished wood, marble, chrome, plush carpeting and a majestic central stairway transported any visitor from the gray and gloom of a failed utopian vision to a world of privilege and pomp. The Grand Hotel was not for every, or maybe any, casual comrade. Room rates back in 1990 ran over $200 a night.

Before I left Berlin I chipped away at the Wall. I had stopped at a Woolworth store in West Berlin to buy a small chisel and standard-sized hammer. I soon discovered how pitiful my purchases were to the task at hand. The reinforced concrete gave no quarter. You couldn’t even classify as pebbles the pieces I managed to dislodge.

Standing next to me was a man with a huge sledgehammer and 30-inch chisel. He was breaking off softball-size or larger chunks. He took pity on me and offered me his tools. As I remember it today, my new efforts were hardly more rewarding. He took pity on me once more, and gave the Wall a few choice whacks for me. I left Berlin with a bagful of souvenirs, most of which I gave away to family, friends and colleagues at work. I kept the two largest pieces, one to display in our living room, the other to be mounted on a plaque and hung in my office. It, too, is now in our living room. 

One more tie-in to Bridge of Spies—during a trip to Russia five years ago, Gilda and I saw wreckage of the U-2 spy plane in Moscow’s Central Armed Forces Museum.