The year was 1974. The Vietnam War was still going. So was the cold war. My mother, sister, and I had traveled by train for several days, sleeping on the train at night and touring the cities of Europe during the days. Leni, the Mata Hari of our group (and my flirtatious, gorgeous, 13-year-old sister), had packed thirteen suitcases for the trip, one for each year of her life. Our mother, the third person in our party, had packed only one. Bless you mother!
Boarding trains wasn’t always easy, as we quickly discovered, especially with our fifteen suitcases (yes, I had one too). Destinations were irrelevant to us. We had Eurail passes – the gold card that let you travel anywhere – so we just hopped whatever was available. As one train to Berlin was starting to pull out, we quickly loaded everything on the last car. Breathing a sigh of relief, we noticed a sign stating that the last ten cars (including the one we were on of course) were breaking off and heading to Russia. Mind you, I had a Top Secret security clearance and was certain that if we didn’t travel ten cars with fifteen bags in the fifteen minutes we had before the switch, I would likely spend the rest of my life in a Russian Gulag as a spy.
Luckily, my body was a lot spryer then than it is now and we succeeded in our Marathon task. On our last of multiple trips through the ten forbidden cars, I could almost sense my would-be captors nipping at my heels. No wait, that was our Mata Hari hitting them with her load of suitcases. Oh well.
Having survived the train-car fiasco (and having caught our breath), we continued through no-man’s land to East German territory as machine-gun toting guards checked identity papers and searched for… we never did see who they were searching for, but someone was hiding somewhere and they were determined to find them. Luckily it was apparently not the American soldier with her security clearance. However, I began to suspect that my own mother was a top ranking spy when an East German soldier confiscated her camera and the suspicious pictures she had taken, although she claimed they were nothing but countryside. I’ve heard that one before. After all what does an American housewife need with a professional Retina camera anyway? After exposing the film (yes – back then we used film), the guards returned the offending camera with surly growls and warnings about future attempts at espionage.
We continued our trip into the divided city where I had grown up. But my world had changed. The guards weren’t interested in the American soldier with the Top Secret clearance. They weren’t even interested in Mata Hari. They were worried about a middle-aged mother of four and I suddenly began wondering what my mother had been doing in Berlin all those years ago when Daddy was assigned there with his security clearance. What do you know? The world really doesn’t revolve around me.