Watching the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has stirred up some memories for us. Considering that we’ve never even been to Germany, Dearly Beloved and I inadvertently became part of a mystery that involved that wall about 23 years ago.
One of the largest industries in our state is tourism and for several years my friend Martha and I worked locally as “Information Specialists.” Sounds impressive maybe, but after several rounds of budget cuts in intervening years, many of those positions on the state level were eliminated and outsourced to the women’s prison. Call with a tourism question and you’re apt to get a prisoner. Back then, though, we did our jobs enthusiastically, carried around business cards with our high-falutin’ job titles and hey, we were free range!
Most questions were routine, but we answered with flair. Once, when a woman called for directions to the sports arena I asked her where she would be coming from so that I’d know how to route her. I meant what local address, but she answered, “Indiana.” I should have clarified, but since we’d driven from NC through Indiana many times and I knew it by heart, I directed her over the Ohio River, through Kentucky and Tennessee, highway by highway, and delivered her to the door of the coliseum.
She wasn’t even impressed. Just said, “Thanks” and hung up, like that’s the answer she expected. Sometimes, though, the answers weren’t even what WE expected.
When a handsome young man came into the office one summer day and asked, in precise English but with a pronounced German accent, how to get to a small mountain town a couple of hours away, he wasn’t asking for directions, but for transportation options. Because he was under 21, he was unable to rent a car even though he had the funds. There was no bus nor train service; it was an isolated little place. The short answer was, “You can’t get there from here.”
When we asked why he was going, hoping to steer him toward more accessible areas of similar interest, he opened his backpack and, from a neat folder, pulled out a copy of a birth certificate. His father’s birth certificate. An American soldier father he’d been trying for years to find. One of the few clues he had was on the certificate: his father’s place of birth. The little mountain town he couldn’t reach.
Having never known my own father, his story pushed buttons in me I didn’t even know I had. He had managed to come all the way from Germany to North Carolina and it seemed incredible that lack of bus service would stymie his efforts. He was a slightly built young man and even though his English was excellent, hitchhiking was not a real option. Before he left to go back to his room at the YMCA, I had promised to drive him to the little town that weekend.
We went, we saw, we found nothing. A couple of old-timers there had only the faintest recollection of a family by that name, but they’d moved away decades before.
Monday he was back at the office again, pulling out more papers, including copies of some of his father’s military records.
His story was baffling. He had been born and raised in East Germany, getting out by proving to authorities that he had an American father. He had been living with his mother’s brother in a West German city. He had not seen his East Berlin mother and older brother for several years.
“She must miss you!”
“She is COMMUNIST!” he answered, scornfully.
We continued our search, but it is difficult to explain exactly what that entailed because truthfully, I don’t remember all the steps. I talked to military people, law enforcement, DMV personnel. My “Information Specialist” title of a government agency took on new importance when I didn’t specify “tourism.”
The phone calls took me across the country and eventually a sheriff on the west coast agreed to assist. He could not give me information directly, but would send a deputy to leave a message at a home belonging to someone with the name we were seeking.
About 10 PM that night the phone rang and a deep male voice told me he had found a message from the sheriff to call his daughter at my phone number. He said he didn’t have a daughter. I explained that I had been seeking information on behalf of a young man searching for his father.
Our conversation was odd. He sounded guarded and suspicious, wanting to know how I had found him…and why. Was I military? A private detective?
He told me briefly that he had been a prisoner of war, had been involved with Radio Free Europe, had been covertly rescued by the millitary.
I had questions, too. . . prisoner of what war? POW’s marry and have kids during their captivity? Prisoner of whom? Since he didn’t even HAVE a daughter, what made him call? I found his story as baffling as he found mine. I didn’t ask him to clarify; it wasn’t my business. I was helping a teenager find his father. Did I have the right guy?
I gave him the phone number of the Y and the next day, the young man appeared at the office again, smiling broadly. “I talked to my father! I’m going to see him!”
He had to go back to Germany for his university classes though, and would have to do so on another trip. We saw him twice more in the ensuing months and he told us that his newly discovered father was a west coast news anchor. He also traveled to meet a cadre of aunts and uncles all over the country, becoming enmeshed with the family he had been seeking.
After a couple of years, we lost track of him, but when the Berlin Wall came down a few years later, I couldn’t help but wonder whether he and his mother would be reunited.
He’d have to do it without my help. I couldn’t handle a trans-Atlantic search. Besides, by then I was no longer working in tourism. But someplace behind bars, an Information Specialist with literal–if not conventional–ties to law enforcement, could perhaps make a few calls. . . .