Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Stephanie Burkhart: Berlin, 1988

When I was 18, I decided I wanted a grand adventure so I joined the army and left my home in New Hampshire. While others my age were worried about getting into college, I became on MP. (Military Police) I knew college would come, but I wanted to see the world first. I did my training in Alabama and in December 1986, I was sent to Germany.

Excitement bubbled in my veins when I stepped off the plane and processed in at the Rhein-Main AFB in Frankfurt. Soon, I was off to my first duty assignment: Münster, Germany and the 583rd Ordnance Company.

Germany was new to me, but it seemed to fit like a snug glove. The weather and climate reminded me a lot of New Hampshire. Due to its latitude/longitude, the sun rose at eight in the morning and set at four in the afternoon in the wintertime. The winter air was bitter cold, but I didn’t mind. I was hearty New Englander, after all.

In January 1988, I won the soldier of the quarter board for my battalion. The recognition was something I worked hard for. I was a good soldier. I liked the army, and I was in love with Germany. For my reward, I won a spot on the prestigious Berlin Orientation Tour and that’s where this particular travel log of mine begins. This is my first trip to Berlin, before the fall of the wall, in the closing days of the Cold War. The time is lost to history now, but I’m glad to say I saw a piece of Berlin before it was consumed by the annuals of time.

The week before I left to go on the tour, I had my Class A’s dry cleaned. Class A’s are the green dress uniform the army wears and I was expected to take mine to Berlin. I had to update my I.D. card, go to security briefings, and fill out FLAG orders. FLAG orders are in English, French, and Russian and are the official travel papers needed to travel between the different German occupation zones, specifically, East and West Germany. It was a hectic week. If my paperwork didn’t have the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed, I wouldn’t be allowed on the train.

I had to wear my class B uniform to travel on the duty train. (My dress uniform minus the Class A jacket) In 1988, two duty trains traveled to Berlin, one out of Frankfurt, and one out of Bremerhaven. Bremerhaven is a coastal city on the North Sea. Since Münster was two hours south of Bremerhaven, I was assigned to catch the train there.

It was July 1988, the week after the 4th, and the company’s duty driver drove me up to Bremerhaven. The duty train didn’t leave until 10:00 pm, and he dropped me off at 4:00 pm. I had a long wait. I sat out in front of the train station at a small café, drank a beer, ate a brotchen, and read a book. The hours ticked by as I reveled in the excitement of taking a train to Berlin under the cover of darkness. It was all so mysterious and spooky. My muse came to me during that time and I started furiously scribbling notes on napkins. These notes would hold the skeleton plot of my novel, Destination: Berlin.

Time eventually passed. The train ride to Berlin was uneventful. The shades on the windows were drawn. At the East German border in Helmstedt-Marienborn, the Soviets came on the train and inspected our paperwork. After an hour delay, we were off again. I arrived in Berlin at six am. Tour guides from the Orientation Tour were there to greet me.

Berlin in July is fairly overcast. The sun rarely peeks out of the clouds, but it is muggy. Again, the weather was no bother to me. I was used to the mugginess.

We went to Roosevelt Barracks in the heart of the American sector in Berlin and processed in. Berlin is full of rich history and not just from World War II. Berlin also housed the kings and queens of Prussia as well as several forms of German government. There was a lot to see.

Here’s a recap of my pictures:

#1 – The Soviet War Memorial in the West. This monument was built by the Soviets shortly after Berlin was conquered. They thought it would be included in their sector of Berlin, but when Berlin was divided, it fell in the American sector. The Americans allowed two Soviet soldiers to guard it during the Cold War.

#2 – The Kaiser Wilhelm Church. It was bombed in World War II. The Germans never rebuilt it as a reminder of the horrors of war.

#3 – Checkpoint Charlie in July 1988. I processed through there when the tour went to East Berlin.

#4 & 5 – Treptower Park. This is another Soviet war monument, but in East Berlin. I’m in class B’s. There are five mass graves with 1,000 soldiers buried in each.

#6 – The Berlin Wall. This section of the wall is near Checkpoint Charlie. It says, “Nyet, Nyet, Soviet.”

#7 – Wansee Lake, middle of the day. The Wansee is on the Berlin/Potsdam border. This is a perfect picture to see what the days are like.

#8 – Freedom Bridge. This bridge crosses the Wansee and connects Berlin to Potsdam, Germany. It was used to exchange spies during the Cold War.

#9 – This is me by a sector sign.

On the way back from Berlin, the plot of my novel, Destination: Berlin took shape. Inspired by my own trip, Destination: Berlin became my first novel.

Corporal Sharon Cates has professional accolades and is well respected in her company. Her drive and grit earned her a slot on the Berlin Orientation Tour, but all is not what it seems. While the duty trains travels to Berlin, it derails in the middle of Communist East Germany. Corporal Cates is forced to travel to Berlin with the help of a Soviet soldier, Jr. Sgt. Dimitri Nagory, just as the East German Secret Police, the Stasi, doggedly purse them. Sharon reluctantly puts her trust in an enemy soldier when she realizes her and Dimitri have much in common, despite their governments’ political differences. Will Sharon drop her guard completely with Dimitri and let him into her heart?

The romance factor between Dimitri and Sharon is what I consider “sweet.” It’s a slow, simmering pairing focusing more on emotions. The physical scenes between Sharon and Dimitri rarely go past a kiss.

It took ten years, but Destination: Berlin was published by IUniverse in 2001. It was reviewed by the Midwest Book Review - “A tauntly written military action/adventure.” It’s currently available on, Barnes and Noble, and

Destination: Berlin will always hold a special place in my heart since it was inspired by my own personal adventure. It captures the spirit of Berlin before the fall of the wall, brings history to life, and embodies those memories of the military which I’ll treasure forever.


Lindsay Townsend said...

Fantastic blog, Steph! Both a trip away and a trip in time. I found it utterly compelling.

'Destination Berlin' sounds like my kind of read!!

Thank you for your travel blog!!

StephB said...

Lindsay, if you pick up, "Berlin," let me know. I loved Berlin. I'd be interested to see what it was like now. I'm sure the eastern part is more modernized, but I haven't been there since 1996.


Jane Richardson, writer said...

Steph, what an AMAZING trip, and what a wonderful story! Many congrats on 'Destination Berlin,' I think I would like it too. It's on my list!

all the best,
Jane x

StephB said...

Yay! Thanks, Jane. I'm glad you liked the post. If you do pick up Berlin and read it, let me know what you think! I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Maggie Toussaint said...

I very much enjoyed your blog about your time in Germany. I think this theme of Lindsay's will do a lot for my armchair traveling. I can see that your love of history shines through in your actions, thoughts, and words.
Maggie from The Book Spa

Keena Kincaid said...

What an intriguing blog. You go to see a part of Germany that no longer exists and so few outsiders had a chance to see.

Sylvie said...

I traveled in Germany in the 70's. My hubby and I visited his cousin in Frankfurt. Beautiful country with a laid back lifestyle back then.
Enjoyed your pictures! Thanks for sharing :)

Sylvie Kaye

Savanna Kougar said...

Steph, thanks for this extraordinary travel log. I've never been to Germany or Berlin, so this is even more special to me and seeing the pictures, especially in that old style of film is remarkable.
Congrats on your book and much success.

JaneB said...

What a great blog /travel story. Travel is a great educator, and my own travels through Israel, England and Europe have appeared in my novels too.


StephB said...

Maggie, Keena, it's so nice to see you guys here. I thought it would be neat not only to travel to a different place, but back in time, too.

Sylvie, Yes, it was a laidback lifestyle. I especially liked going to the volksmarches on the weekend. It was a fun way to see the towns and landscape and history.

Savanna, I'm glad you enjoyed my pictures. Thank heavens for scanners! hehe.

Jane, I agree, travel is a great educator. It makes learning fun. Thanks everyone for popping in!


Mona Risk said...

Steph, I enjoyed your post and pictures. I have been to Munich and Frankfurt but never to Berlin. What an exciting trip especially at the time.

Celia Yeary said...

STEPH--I've been right there, exactly at all those places--Checkpoint Charlie now has a Subway across the street from it! I loved reading and remembering our trip there. We walked all over Berline--and entire day--I've never been so tired inmy life. there's so much buiding going onthere, we were amazed--the only thing--every church is being converted to some sort of museum. Berlin really is a facinating city. Celia

StephB said...

Mona, if you get a chance, go to Berlin. There's so much to do. Celia! I'm so glad you had the opportunity to go! It sounds like Berlin is moderinizing itself. When I went in 1988, I thought I was stepping back in time to the late 1940's, early 1950's when I went to East Berlin. It's interesting to hear them converting the churchs into museaums as well. There's a church in the East that was perserved that the Hollerzollen's used as for their services. I can't remember the name, but I remember it was preserved and majestic.

LK Hunsaker said...

Steph, wonderful travel entry! We went to Berlin just after the wall came down and so were able to walk from west to east through Checkpoint Charlie without being stopped. It was truly like walking from a world of sunshine into the shadows. Eerie and heart-wrenching.

Love the photos.