I Helped Tear Down the Wall

Twenty years ago, in November 1989, I found myself in Berlin with a rented hammer and chisel, chipping away at the Berlin Wall. My husband, a captain in the U.S. Army, was deployed to Germany. Jobs for military spouses were hard to come by. I come from generations of Southern, Black entrepreneurs, so, I decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge, start a business, as a sole proprietorship, doing what I knew best, installing and repairing mainframe computer systems. Success was a long shot; my prospects weren't great. I had no investors, no employees, no significant assets. Like most entrepreneurs, what I did have was hope, a big dream and a willingness to tackle difficult jobs.

A DoD mainframe had crashed in Berlin. A large defense contractor needed a technician quickly and they couldn't find anyone willing and able to get there quickly. I was already in country, and was willing to travel through the night, from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where we lived, to Berlin. I could be there faster than any consultant flown over from the U.S., and at less cost, so I got the job. It was my first big opportunity.

I was not the only one pursuing a dream and an opportunity. Berlin was abuzz with rumors flying. West Germans were wondering: would Gorbachev and the Soviet Politburo going to relax draconian travel rules and allow East Germans to travel across the Iron curtain for the first time? No one knew the answer, but everyone was asking the question.

Hungarians were already fleeing Communist control. Berliners wondered if they would be allowed to follow. Or, would the Warsaw Pact crack down and stop the trickle of people crossing the borders before it became a flood? No one knew the answer, but everyone was asking the question.

Lots of Berliners talked of Ronald Reagan’s speech, delivered in Berlin, almost two years earlier, when he demanded:”Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down this Wall!” Was President Reagan’s dramatic call about to happen? Some Berliners worried the soldiers would take charge. No one knew.

Ironically, the worst source of information was the media, perhaps because in 1987 so many had underestimated the importance of Reagan’s speech. The New York Times declared that Reagan had “lost the air of authority” and suggested that Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech was “surreal” and indicated that the “presidency had ceased to function.” The Washington Post, and U.S. News & World Report has also been highly critical.

But, in November 1989, Berliners remembered the power of a U.S. president calling for the hateful wall to be torn down. Each person to whom I spoke, seemed to know someone, a family member or friend, who had been trapped on the other side of the wall. Hope was alive, powerful and focused on tearing down the Wall.

Nine hours later, the DEH mainframe was operational, and my first job was done. I was tempted to crash at my hotel, but the air in Berlin was electric. I'm still not sure how it started. Maybe someone finally got tired of waiting for someone else to act and decided, on his own to pick up a sledge hammer and start whacking the wall. Others soon joined. Within hours, thousands of Berliners were tearing down the wall.

I was one of them.

The Berlin Wall was solid, reinforced concrete. Chipping a piece wasn't easy. I banged on the wall for 30 minutes before it yielded the smallest of pieces. Here's a lesson: Anyone thinking that monumental change occurs without hard work is a fool. Change is hard.

Change is also scary. Even as we were chipping at the wall, folks around me were skittish, their glances darting nervously left and right, as if expecting the Volkspolizei or the military to order them to stop. But, no one objected.

After an hour, I joined the curious and crossed into East Berlin to look around. I had never been to East Berlin, but I could see that 40 years of Communism had left the city impoverished, dingy and unkempt. This side of Berlin was crowded too, with people were pushing, moving towards the crossing. I was so engrossed that I did not realize that East Germany guards were slowly moving to exert some control and border restrictions were once again being enforced.
Unfortunately for me, the decision to restrict movement across the Wall found me trapped inside East Berlin and big, East German goons would not let me cross back over to the West. Jubilation quickly turned to fear. How long was I going to be trapped inside the Eastern bloc? Would the Volkspolizei round us up and send us to a gulag? Most pressing of all: how in the hell was I going to get back to the land of the free and home of the brave?

Another great lesson: when you're stuck in a bad situation overseas, nothing looks quite as good as a young, American sergeant in the U.S. Army. I called out to a young American soldier, still manning his post at Check Point Charlie, who seemed as confused as I. He said he couldn't let me through, but he told me not to leave the crossing. About an hour later, the crossing reopened. I moved quickly with the crowd to enter the West. Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," which had been blaring all day, never sounded so appropriate.

What did I learn? First, never underestimate the power of a focused and easily understood dream. When Reagan demanded “Tear Down this Wall”, Berliners understood the message, even if the media missed it. Reagan's call was clear, focused and specific. He didn't make some vague reference to "Change" but instead focused attention on the exact nature of the change desired --"Tear Down This Wall!" There is an important lesson there. Vague calls for "change" can't be implemented and certainly can't animate the population. Reagan knew that.

Second, people demolished the wall on their own, without any type of official, government sponsored event. Today, our actions might have been called a Tea Party. Change happens spontaneously when folks get tired of waiting. An intrepid guy picked up a hammer, and soon thousands of hammers demolished the wall. Yes, one man can make a difference.
Third, the United States truly is the greatest nation on earth, and the freedom of democracy is worth the fight.

Lastly, I was in Berlin because I was pursuing the American dream of entrepreneurship. Dreams, whether the American dream of entrepreneurship or the dream of a unified Berlin, have their own power and can take you far. They certainly can take you to places and events that you never thought possible. My company, started on that fateful day in Berlin, would eventually grow to employ 200 people and countless small businesses. The trick to success is to have the courage to go, the willingness to pick up a hammer when you get there, and the good sense to be grateful for strong, American soldiers, not far away, should things get scary.

Lurita Doan is the former Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration and a commentator on Federal News Radio