Mea culpa, I plead guilty to the symptoms of this malaise more than once in my life, but the one instance that sticks out most in memory is in the spring of 1969 on a trip to Berlin.
As in East Germany. Yes, that East Germany: Checkpoint Charlie, spies in trench coats and fedoras, the Wall, building facades pockmarked with artillery damage a quarter century after the end of World War II. After the Abu Ghraib photos and the NSA disclosures, the Cold War seems an almost romantic place. Nothing romantic about it, however, if you were on ground zero at the time.
Berlin was ground zero for the Cold War.
It was not a smart time for me to display my Arschloch side.
It was actually quite a safe and cozy trip arranged for us students abroad in Vienna. A nice little bus trip from Vienna west toward Salzburg and then north into the Federal Republic of Germany, West Germany, and then finally into the belly of the beast, the German Democratic Republic, East Germany.
This was the year after Prague Spring; the Cold War was not always without shots fired.
So it was a serious trip, but it was also a lark. Blend the misguided sense of invincibility of youth with the equally benighted bulletproof feeling of the tourist, and you have a dangerous brew leading to rash actions.
The nudge of my inner asshole-ness came upon me as we were loading our bus in
Vienna. Good friend Jim had the seat just in front of me; he was bending over adjusting his luggage under the seat and I caught the glimpse of the green edge of his passport just peaking out the back pocket of his Levis. Was I playing Fagin’s Artful Dodger? Who knows. Tempted, I gave in without a second thought and snicked that passport out of his pocket as calmly as you please. He never felt a thing; no witnesses to my intended prank. I could just see him later on in the trip as we neared the border, his hand reaching back for the prized document and finding an empty pocket.
Or did I even think that far ahead? After all, who in their right mind is going to find such a stunt anything other than bloody minded?
I tucked the passport away with mine in the inner pocket of my cord jacket and thought nothing more of it, caught up in watching the view out the window or joining in a song fest as we jolted along the autobahn.
We stopped somewhere near Salzburg for a snack and bathroom break. It was a warm spring afternoon; I found a grassy slope near the rest stop and stretched out in the tall grass, watching a kestrel wheel in the sky high overhead.
It was about ten minutes later when I finally headed back to the bus and it was as if a bomb had exploded there. Luggage was strewn around the perimeter of the bus; a row of seats had been unbolted and moved outside; there was an urgency in the air with the other students that was clearly not right.
And then I remembered.
Jim was frantically going through his luggage for the third time.
Okay, at this point I still get the queasy feeling I had back then–enough to say I asked him if he was looking for his passport, tried to apologize, handed it back and skulked back to my seat like the moral leper I was.
We made it to Berlin later than evening, crossing the border without incident. We each had lodgings in guest houses around West Berlin. I roomed on my own. I climbed out of my clothes, threw them on the one easy chair in the little room, slipped into the narrow, lumpy bed, and fell asleep more quickly than I deserved to.
The next morning we were scheduled for a bus tour into East Berlin. We would most definitely need our passports with. I checked my cord jacket to make sure it was in the inside pocket, and no passport. I went through my pockets, my overnight bag.
You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. I mean, I guess I believe in karma, but instant karma?
I went through everything again.
There was the hint of a smile of satisfaction on our group leader’s face when I told him my sorry tale. He had been put through the wringer with my prank yesterday, and now he was almost pleased to tell me I needed to get to the U.S. Mission–the embassy was in Bonn–and have a replacement issued. The U.S. State Department had a consular division in one wing of that mission.
Did I mention that we were in Berlin over a long weekend? This was Saturday; regular consular hours were Monday through Friday. Arriving at the U.S. Mission Berlin in the suburbs of Zehlendorf, I was feeling not only panicked but utterly confused about where to go. The Marine guard at the gate, who could not have been a whole lot older than me, listened to my Madam Butterfly tale, then pointed a bony finger in back of him and said in German with a Kentucky twang, “Geradeaus to the big building on the left.”
“Straight ahead,” he meant. Straight ahead to karma, I heard.
I finally found a sub-sub-consular who was doing penance on Saturday and he guided me through what became a full day process of issuing an emergency replacement passport to get me out of East Germany by the time my bus left on Sunday afternoon.
“Pretty bad place to lose a passport,” the sub-sub said with more than a touch of irony.
“Pretty bad,” I agreed.
The photo in the replacement passport shows a pretty harried looking young
man staring into a camera as if daring it to click.
It clicked. I got the passport as darkness fell over Berlin and made my way back to the center where I was staying. I was too exhausted even to bother with dinner. Another night on the lumpy bed, and I was up early to get packed and be sure to meet the bus on time.
I threw my crumpled pile of clothes into the bag, dimly aware of knocking something off the seat of the chair in the process. Looking down at the parquet floor I saw it lying there in all its olive green glory. My “lost” passport. I’d spent my whole time in Berlin humping about getting documents signed and testifying with a hand on the Bible, and all the time the passport was in my room, covered up by my mess of clothes, overlooked by someone with a bad conscious who was expecting karma anyway.
And now I had two passports and had to figure out what to do. Burn one? Where? And have the landlady come running? Tear it up and try to flush it down the toilet. Ever try to tear a passport?
I happily report that I did not for a moment think of trying to sell one of the passports, even though there was a very healthy market for such documents at the time. A modicum of maturity on my part.
In the end, I stuck the old passport down my pants until we were out of East Germany, and then tried to turn my tale of woe into an adventure for my fellow travelers.
They were more interested in singing “Kumbayah.”