As a young GI in Germany in the mid-1970s, I was among many soldiers who took the overnight “duty train” from Frankfurt to Berlin to experience the Cold War firsthand, to see the Berlin Wall and learn what being in the U.S. military was all about during that period in history.

One day during our visit, we all boarded a bus – dressed in our uniforms, of course – and took a tour of East Berlin, where we came face-to-face with the harsh realities of living behind the Iron Curtain.

Inching our way through Checkpoint Charlie; East German guards boarding the bus and checking our IDs; giant mirrors swept under the bus, looking for any contraband.

At the end of the tour, we were allowed a brief time to do some shopping. Later, I wondered why, because there was nothing much on the shelves at the huge department store we went to. But people were friendly, some of them calling out “Howdy, partner!” as we made our way down the street.

When some of us returned to our vehicle, our driver was sitting in the bus and with him was a child, maybe 8 or 9 years old. The driver was explaining to him why he couldn’t take the bus with us to the other side of the Wall. The child was insistent that he wanted to go to “the West.” The driver eventually had to escort the boy off the bus and we sadly left him behind.

That’s the moment I believe I fully realized the meaning of the Cold War and the awful consequences of the Berlin Wall.

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