In the late 1980s, communism in Europe fell. I was stationed near Stuttgart, Germany in a little place called Nellingen Kaserne when it happened. It was a surreal time to be in Europe. A lot of people from the former communist countries flooded into the rest of western Europe as quickly as they could. It was a crazy joyous time until the flood of people became cumbersome for the rest of Europe. For many of the escapees, it would be the first time they ever saw Americans. There were a lot of conflicting emotions for these people as they met us. Some were overjoyed, some were afraid, and some just stared.
The other thing that flooded free Europe was stuff. Stuff like old clunky communist cars, barely held together it seems as they rolled along the autobahn at a lightning pace of about 25 miles per hour. If you blinked, no big deal…the cars were still there moving along.
Another thing that made it’s way specifically towards Stuttgart was a double section of the old Berlin Wall, complete with graffiti. It finally found it’s home at Kelley Barracks, home of the VII Corps, where it was to be placed into a cement base to be permanently on display near the entrance. The problem was, how to place it into the base. The wall was surprisingly fragile. It was also incredibly heavy and the two sections were held together with metal brackets at a slight angle to each other. It would be a challenge.
Somebody had the bright idea to use a 10,000-pound forklift to lift it with straps, drop it into the base, then cut the straps so it would fit snuggly. Of course, had this somebody ever driven or operated a 10,000-pound forklift with tires taller than a man and the grace of a Musk Ox shaking water off after a trip in the lake, they would’ve rethought this strategy. Unfortunately, they hadn’t, and we received orders to bring the forklift the 15 or so miles to Kelley Barracks from Nellingen. It was my forklift…well, not mine personally, but since I was signed for it and if something bad happened to it I could possibly end up paying, it was mine.
Being a young Sergeant, I immediately decided to drive it there instead of going through the trouble of trucking it on a low boy. Besides, I thought it would be fun to drive it through the winding roads. It was fun. I could only max out at about 25 miles per hour, thus keeping up with the old clunky communist cars, but being roughly 10 feet up in the air in my cab and bouncing like crazy along the route, I definitely commanded more attention and less amusement. Like I said, it was fun.
When we got there, I climbed out and looked at what we were expected to do. I was really close to expressing my appreciation to the idiot that dreamed this up when a dark sedan rolled up. The driver jumped out, ran to the other side of the vehicle, and opened the back door. Out came the Commander of the VII Corps. He walked over to a patch of grass about 25 feet from the cement base we were to drop the wall sections into and waited as his driver ran up with a lawn chair, a small table, and a little cooler. He sat down for the show.
I was no longer concerned about the idiot who thought this up. For all I knew, it was the General himself. What I did know was that I couldn’t screw this up. I looked back at the wall and wondered if it would be easier to disassemble the brackets holding the two sections together and place them into the base separately. Touching what appeared to be a loose bolt holding a bracket, I turned it counter-clockwise. The wall crumbled behind the bracket. What did the communists use when they built this wall? Sand and water? Heck, those people driving their old clunky communist cars could’ve arrived sooner had they just ran through the wall…of course, the bullets from communist guards might’ve been an issue, but still. There was nothing to do other than to strap up the wall and get it placed…and pray. This General had the power to bust me not only to a Private but back to my infancy. Yes, I was concerned and a bit anxious.
I widened my forks as wide as they could go and we went for it. It took a few minutes to line up the straps just right and I lifted the wall. It wobbled, it shook, but it held together. I drove it to the base and parked it with the wall swinging just above it. I got out, looked it over, had my buddy look it over, then got back into my forklift. That’ll be fun, I thought. I’ll drop it in and the wall will disintegrate…just like my Army career. I took one last look at the General before committing my suicidal act. I stared at the slightly swinging wall and tried to time the swings. Once I felt I had it timed, I dropped the wall into the base. It slid in like butter and held still, fully intact. I looked back towards the General. He waved for me to come over.
I climbed down from the forklift and walked quickly towards him. As I did, I noticed the driver had brought another lawn chair. It was while I was saluting that I noticed what the General was drinking, a beer. The driver produced another one from the cooler, opened it, and handed it to me. The General told me to sit down and I did.
GENERAL: Was it your idea to use the forklift Sergeant?
ME: No Sir. I just received orders to bring it.
GENERAL (smiling slightly): Did you think it was a good idea?
ME (deciding to be honest…after all, we were having a beer): No Sir. The wall’s kind of fragile.
GENERAL: That’s what I thought when we rolled up and I saw you with the forklift. Stupid idea…must’ve been one of my pencil-pushing officers that thought of it. Stupid idea.
ME: Yes Sir.
GENERAL: But you pulled it off, Sergeant.
ME: I think I was lucky, Sir.
GENERAL (laughing quietly): Yes, you were. A lot luckier than whoever thought of this, once I find out who they are.
ME (smiling as I drank my beer): Yes Sir.
We spent about 15 minutes just talking while the other guys cut the straps and made the wall presentable. It amazed me that this man who was in charge of tens of thousands of soldiers was so down to earth and took the time to talk to me personally. He gave me a memory that I could be proud of. I only saw him again during Desert Storm and he actually walked over to me and shook my hand during that busy time. In my mind, he was a soldier’s officer. He actually got it.