Spies and Beer in Cold War Berlin

When I first arrived at Field Station Berlin in August of 1983, I was assigned to monitor German construction workers who were doing some remodeling in the main building at Teufelsberg. The idea, according to the less-than-one-minute briefing I was given, was that my presence, along with the presence of a couple of other low-ranking Army types similarly assigned, would act as a deterrent to any thoughts the construction workers might have had about placing listening devices on behalf of our Cold War enemies in the walls, floors, or ceilings of the newly constructed areas, and to make sure those same workers didn't wander off into any classified areas of the site. My recollection is that this mind-numbing duty, referred to as "ops guard" as I recall, lasted about three weeks before I was assigned to a team and allowed to do what nearly two years of training prepared me to do.

Standing around watching other people do interior construction work is about as stimulating as it sounds. It isn't long before one starts hunting around for a distraction. One of my colleagues, an analyst I'd met at the Defense Language Institute, told me when I came on board for my three-week stint, "Different people have different ways of handling the assignment; personally, I'm drinking my way through it." That seemed like a reasonable course of action, but I decided against it, which made me decidedly in the minority. Even the construction workers would start pounding the beer during the first break of the day, usually at 9:30 in the morning. They had these small trailers at the site, and after working for about 90 minutes, they'd break off and head into the trailers for the morning's first leisurely, on-site beer, a routine they repeated at least two more times each work day. So far as I could tell, the quality of their work never suffered. No doubt they could have picked up the pace a bit, but why hurry, right? Back then it seemed as though the Cold War would go on forever, and so what if one of the occupying forces had to shell out a few extra deutschmarks so some local nationals could keep a low-level buzz going for most of the day.

We weren't allowed to bring cameras to the site with us for obvious reasons, so I don't have any photographic record of my time as an ops guard. However, as I was flipping through my pictures of Berlin I found the one below. It's an amateurish shot of the Victory Tower, a fairly famous landmark in the heart of the city. What I like about the shot is the inclusion, on the left side of the picture, of a couple of those small trailers referenced above. No doubt some construction work was going on when I took the picture. I like to think that if it were possible to peek into those trailers you'd see a half-dozen guys, in no kind of hurry, working on their first beer of the day and looking forward to the next. Not bad work, if you can get it.

The Victory Column in Berlin, and, just maybe, a few guys pounding the suds in the trailer on the left.