This is part of a series of nodes tentatively titled Sixteen Years Before The (Antenna) Mast: My Life In The Bush With SIGINT. The previous node in the series is No Promotion Board, No Armorer; the next node is Ninety days in the bottle. Your understanding of what the heck is going on in here will be increased if you read Army Security Agency.
In the month after I blitzed the battalion promotion board, I got unexpected orders for temporary duty in Berlin. I had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it was TDY, a break from the regular routine of garrison duty. On the other hand, it was Field Station Berlin, the duty station I'd gone to some lengths to avoid back at Goodfellow. A couple of my classmates had been posted there, but we hadn't been real close in training, and what with things being a tad unstable in Poland at the moment, the Soviets and their little East German buddies were being touchy about access to Berlin. Basically, the only way in or out of Berlin for enlisted trash and scum like me was to either catch a flight into or out of Frankfurt on a US-flag carrier (which meant Pan Am, in those days) or take the duty train, which took twelve hours to reach Frankfurt by way of Wolfsburg. Well, at least it was only sixty days; normally, temporary duty was ninety days, but since the company had an exercise scheduled for early March, my time in Berlin was cut short. Just as well; I'd asked to go home on leave in the last couple weeks of March so I could visit my friend S at Cornell.
So I packed a B-4 bag and headed off to Berlin by way of Frankfurt. The duty train took forever to pass through West Germany on its way to the border, and we were advised not to raise the shades as we went through the border control point into East Germany. It was the middle of the night, so it's not like we could see a damned thing anyway. Several hours later, we arrived in Berlin and headed off to Andrews Barracks for inprocessing. It was quite the experience; whether or not the rest of the Army regarded them as an elite unit, the Berlin Brigade made it very clear that they regarded themselves as such, and expected us to conduct ourselves accordingly. Fortunately, I wasn't assigned to the Brigade, just an attachment to the Field Station, so I didn't have to put up with the spit and polish. I wound up sharing a barracks room in Andrews with three other sergeants from the 331st, all of whom were on different shifts from mine; while I had hoped we'd be on a normal schedule during our TDY, that was dashed quickly: we would be on the same six days on, two days off rotating shift schedule as the rest of the SIGINT troops there, the same schedule that had contributed to Berlin having the worst drug and alcohol abuse problem in US Army Europe. This schedule also made it practically impossible to get out of Berlin for the weekend, since you'd arrive in Frankfurt on the duty train with just enough time for one night of whoopee before having to get back on the train for the return trip. It was like being in the world's largest prisoner of war camp, which is what we all joked that Berlin would be once World War III kicked off. Except POW camps weren't usually full of West German punks dodging the draft (because Berlin wasn't legally part of West Germany, you see), elevated railways which the West Berliners stolidly ignored as East German excrescences in their city -- along with the regular railway stations, which were no-go zones for the West Berlin police and therefore teeming hives of drug dealing and prostitution. Needless to say, both the S-Bahn and the train stations were off-limits to US troops. There was also one hell of a lot of night life in Berlin.
I wound up doing HF voice intercept, which was about as close to a complete waste of time as was possible, since the Warsaw Pact hadn't used the HF band for voice traffic in decades. Nevertheless, I twiddled the dial back and forth through the 30-80 kHz band every fifteen minutes or so and between twiddles, listened to rock n' roll on Radio Luxembourg. This caused some excitement when one of my former instructors from Goodfellow transferred in. One night around 0300, she dropped by to ask what I was listening to so intently. "Radio Luxembourg," I replied without looking up. She flipped her shit, took over my headphones for twenty minutes, and then admitted sheepishly that she couldn't find anything out there either. Welp. Aside from wasting my time during duty hours, there wasn't much going on. I couldn't get a library card since I was only there on TDY, so I hung out in my off duty time with some other Spec-4s from the field station for a couple of weeks until my promotion orders came through -- at which point they ditched me for fear of running afoul of the Brigade's rather draconian fraternization rules, which not only prevented officers from socializing with enlisted men but also barred sergeants from drinking with privates and specialists. I wound up celebrating my promotion alone in the Speakeasy1 across the street from Andrews Barracks' main gate, getting thoroughly drunk. When I got back to the barracks, I borrowed some tape from the CQ and posted my promotion orders on the door of the transit room. Then I peeled off my fatigues and went to bed. Fortunately for me, I slept like a log even when I wasn't drunk, so I missed the drama that ensued when the liaison sergeant, Staff Sergeant W, came in for an inspection. The fact that it was my "Saturday" was irrelevant; it was Monday morning on the calendar, and therefore quarters were to be inspected. Mayhem was narrowly averted by my roommate Ray, a fellow sergeant who managed to get SSG W to let sleeping wombats lie by pointing out that I was the company armorer, and considering that he would be transferring to the 331st in a few months, it might not be wise to piss me off? This argument proved convincing, and I bought Ray many beers later in appreciation for his kindness. Unfortunately, finding out I was the unit armorer led to a disgusting amount of brown-nosing on SSG W's part, and I was very glad that I only had to deal with him for one week in three.
This is not to say that my time in Berlin was eight weeks of complete unrelieved alcoholic depression. For one thing, the regular beer brewed in Berlin tastes worse than horse piss. It was either drink hard booze (at extortionate prices) or Berliner Weiss, and since the latter is carbonated like crazy, I couldn't drink too much of it. I spent a lot of time exploring the bars and clubs of Berlin, went out to Steinstucke and took a lot of pictures of the Wall - including one that showed the Vopos in one tower taking my picture. I also had my first encounter with Calvados after visiting the French Sector's equivalent of the PX (it was horrible) and once accidentally rode the subway through East Berlin after getting on the wrong line while drunk in the wee hours of "Sunday" morning2. Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" seemed to be playing in all the clubs; between the heavy drinking, constant schedule changes, infrequent sunlight and isolation, my head was pretty thoroughly messed up by the time I came back to Karlsruhe, just in time to pick up my field gear, issue weapons, and roll out for a week-long exercise. Being in the field didn't help. The weather was miserable, there was mud everywhere, and the week seemed to last for several geologic eras. We got out of the field the day before I was supposed to go on leave. I spent most of that day inspecting weapons before going to my room, showering, changing into my khakis, and signing out on leave without cleaning my field gear or making my bed. My head was still screwed up, and I would pay for it later in spades.
My friends back in the Washington area were glad to see me, of course, but my main reason for coming back to the states on leave was to answer an odd request from my friend S. She wanted me to come up to Cornell and tell me what I thought of this guy she'd been hanging out with. Well, sure, why not? It wasn't like we were engaged, after all, and we'd both dated other people. I still thought of S as my girlfriend; so much the worse for me. We spent Friday night after I got to Ithaca going out to dinner and getting caught up; this was before the internet, and while we were both pretty regular correspondents, you can't convey everything in letters. It became very obvious very quickly that S had fallen hard for this guy, and the more I heard the less I liked it. Not that he was some kind of scumbag - quite the contrary. He was a grad student, doing his master's in petrogeology and doing well enough that he had a job waiting for him at Schlumberger after he finished his master's. I met him the next night at a wine & cheese party, and as much as it galled me to admit it, he was completely out of my league as far as husband material went. Kind, fit, thoughtful, friendly to girlfriend's male friends, polite, and soon to be filthy rich. They were obviously very much in love. The next morning she asked me what I thought and I had to tell her the truth. He was a great guy, a better man than I was by any objective measure. She hugged me and invited me to the wedding next spring.
I drove home to Washington, crawled into a bottle, and didn't come out for several months.
1The Speakeasy was one of two bars across from the main gate of Andrews Barracks. It was the preferred hangout of the Field Station NCOs who weren't drinking in the regular bars of Berlin or the NCO Club, and also the Green Beanies assigned to Special Forces Detachment Berlin. The other bar, the Home Bar, was a dive populated by disaffected junior enlisted Field Station troops (though I repeat myself) and was notable mainly for being open 23 hours a day. It closed between 0500 and 0600 so they could mop the floor and otherwise de-scunge the joint before the mid shift arrived; it was not uncommon to see people get off the trick bus and go straight into the Home Bar before the bus made the turn into the kaserne.
2Somehow, I managed to get through my sixty days' TDY without visiting Checkpoint Charlie or any of the other touristy things in West Berlin. I did, however, observe that while things in West Berlin were in awesome full-spectrum living color, everything in East Berlin seemed to be monochromatic grey. This should have been a heads-up to me that my mental state was a tad fucked.