10/22/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Before the Fall of the Wall

The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989.

In 1964--25 years before the fall of the Wall--I was a 19-year-old college student making his first trip to Europe. I'd never been out of the United States. In fact, until I went away to college, I'd never been outside of Hartford, Connecticut except for an occasional trip to New York for a Yankees baseball game. So this was an entirely new experience for me--especially since I was traveling alone.

I did the usual summer tour--London, Paris, Amsterdam, and then I ended up in Denmark. I had planned to fly from Copenhagen to Berlin, or, more correctly, West Berlin, since it was still the Cold War and the city was divided between east and west, between the Allied sector and the Russian half. I assumed that since I was an American I couldn't travel through East Germany at all, and Berlin was in the middle of East Germany. But I was wrong. Another student I met on the trip said that, yes, I could in fact travel through East Germany to get into West Berlin with an American passport. I could take a train, so that's what I did.

Photo courtesy of visitBerlin

The train ride was long and uncomfortable. It began in Copenhagen, and we wound our way through East Germany headed for Berlin. Along the way, we made a lot of unscheduled stops, usually in the middle of nowhere. The reason: The Vopos, the dreaded East German national police, came on board frequently to check people's papers. The Vopos were a carryover from a small fraction of the Nazi police apparatus that had been all but disbanded after the war.

I, of course, thought this was a great adventure. First, I had been able to do something I hadn't expected, that is, travel through communist East Germany. Second, I was young and thought that nothing bad could happen to me. There was no way I would end up in prison or suffer some worse fate. After all, I was an American, and we were the good guys, or so we'd been told.

In fact, it was the height of the Cold War, and tensions between the U.S. and the old Soviet Union were high. In 1961, just three years earlier, the Americans and Russians had had a standoff at Checkpoint Charlie, the border crossing between East and West Berlin. About 10 Soviet tanks and an equal number of American tanks faced each other from either side of the checkpoint. The crisis was peacefully resolved a few days later, but it only went to illustrate how potentially dangerous things could become.

When we arrived in East Berlin, we departed the train and then had to walk to Checkpoint Charlie, one of the few crossings in the Wall. There were guard shacks on either side, one for the Russians and the other for the Americans (West Berlin was divided between the Allied powers; the U.S., Britain and France, each had its own sector).

Unlike what you see in all the spy movies, it was relatively easy to cross over from East Berlin into West Berlin, especially if you were a foreign national. It wasn't a problem for me as an American. It would have been a problem if I was an East German trying to get into West Berlin. I showed my passport and was allowed to cross over.

I also learned that I could keep crossing over the makeshift border at Checkpoint Charlie, and I did on several occasions. Once was to visit a museum in East Berlin. Another time I went to hear some music. The difference between the two halves of the city was startling--West Berlin had been built up into a sleek, modern metropolis, albeit with evidence of the war still to be seen. East Berlin, on the other hand, looked as if the rubble from the war had just been swept up. There were blasted-out buildings everywhere, giving this half of the city an eerie, ghostly quality.

Today, Checkpoint Charlie is a tourist attraction (see photo), recreated where the old crossing used to be.

The moral of this story? There is none, really, at least not a political one. Maybe the moral of the story is that when you are traveling to parts unknown, don't rely on received wisdom ("You can't travel through East Germany because you are an American"). Ask questions, be curious and you may often surprise yourself. That's really the essence of travel, isn't it?