Tuesday, February 21, 2017


There's been a lot of talk lately about a wall. Let me tell you about my experience with a different  one.

The Berlin Wall.

Berlin, Germany.

I used to live in Berlin.

My father was in the Air Force and that's why we moved there. It wasn't the first time we lived in Germany. When I was little Mark we lived in a town called Zweibrucken. That's German for "two bridges" and my younger sister, Karen, was born there.

Some of my earliest memories are of that time. Think hard of your first recollections. It almost hurts. It's like seeing everything through a haze, through a curtain. At least that's how it is for me.

So, Berlin.

We moved there in 1962.  There were six McEwens when we arrived. When we left there were eight, I had two new brothers.

Talk about a stranger in a strange land.

Some streets were cobblestone, I had never seen that before. The mark was their dollar and when I was there it was four of them for one dollar of ours. My allowance was a dollar a week. Guess who was always converting dollars to marks? I would spend all my allowance on gummi bears and sweet treats from the bakery.

Television was new and we didn't have one. That's where reading took hold and I read everything. Well not everything, things that a kid would read. Mad magazine, the Hardy Boys, Chip Hilton, Tom Swift.

Don't tell anyone but I even read Nancy Drew books.

I read "The Call of the Wild" by Jack London. It's set in Canada during the Klondike Gold Rush and introduces you to a dog named Buck. I know, I know, too much information, but I remember shivering from the cold, in July, because of that book.

It was the first time I played baseball in little league.

There was a German kid named Roman in my school. His mom would give him a Schmaltz sandwich for lunch every day. Schmaltz is chicken or goose fat used as a spread on bread and he hated it.

I did not.

I bet you know who ate his lunch every day.

There was a park behind our apartment building, Berlin was full of pretty, green, parks. People would walk through it holding hands sometimes, deep in conversation at other times, or just saying nothing. You weren't allowed to ride your bikes there, you were supposed to walk them.


We would ride ours, laughing the whole time. The older park ranger would shake his fist, yell at us in German, and chase us on his bike. It was on. Great fun for us kids.

The Wall.

You know the story. One day there was no wall the next day there was. People who just happened to visit their boyfriend, their girlfriend, their family, and spent the night in what became known as East Berlin, were trapped and could not go back home.

I'd never heard of anything like that.
The Brandenburg Gate

People in a state of shock that their brother, their mother, their good friend, was on the other side of that wall. I do remember going to the Brandenburg Gate on a field trip from school.

There were wreaths in places along the Wall where people had been shot trying to escape.

They had wooden platforms where you could look over the Wall into East Berlin and I did.

I saw nothing moving as far as the eye could see.

I remember thinking, even as a kid, "How could the streets be empty, how could nothing be moving?"

Not even a bird flying.

An image that has stayed with me forever.

Also being black you were like a rock star. German people were always wanting to touch your skin and squealing when they did. In my school there were three black people.

And the rest?

A sea of white faces.

In 1965 we moved from Berlin to Montgomery, Alabama where we definitely weren't rock stars.

To the people there we were other things.

I went from a sea of white faces to having one white face in my school. And, repeat after me, everyone knew his name.

It was a Catholic school, St. Judes, and we all had to wear uniforms and ties.

It was there I ran into a totally different wall.

All the kids knew each other and had gone to school together from kindergarten. I was new, just moved there, and was, how do you say, different.

No big deal, right?

Let me tell you why it was.

Patricia Douglas, I still remember her name, took a fancy to the new kid. She kept smiling at me in class. Just one thing, Marco Pendarvis, still remember his name as well, liked Patricia. And the fact that she cottoned to me didn't sit so well with him.

Before I knew it, Marco, me, and a group of kids were heading to the schoolyard at recess for a fist fight.

I didn't want to go. Told Marco I didn't want to go.

No matter.

So there we were, in the middle of a circle, fists up, when I used the only move I knew. I faked to his stomach with my left hand, he went for it and dropped his fists. It was then my right fist said hello to his face.

After I hit him everything stopped and a tear slowly trickled down his cheek.

Marco never bothered me again.

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