I originally wrote this story on Facebook in reply to a picture someone posted, but it's too good not to share -- and there's no way I'm letting all this typing to go waste.
It was either 1983 or '84, which means I was 9 or 10 at the time, and we were living in Europe because my father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army. (Name dropping for those who would like to fact-check: the base was AFCENT; it was in Brunssum, the Netherlands; my father was part of the Readiness Group that handled, among other things, the Fulda Gap strategy. If you know what Able Archer 83 was, you can blame my father for part of that.)
So anyway, for our yearly vacation we decided to visit Berlin. The thing about Berlin at the time was that West Berlin was this little island surrounded by East Germany, and so there were only three ways in or out: take a plane to the Berlin airport; drive 100 km or so along a tightly restricted highway through Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo; or ride into the city on a train. I believe that, because we were military and my father was an O-5, we weren't allowed to drive and if we had to take the train we were required to take a military troop train. We could have flown, of course, but that was expensive.
So we took a British troop train, because we were cheap, and it was a long, crappy ride through a desolate countryside with husks of buildings on the horizon that looked like they'd been abandoned since the 1940s. I remember being disappointed that the British troops weren't dressed like WW1 Tommies with Brodie helmets on their heads and puttees on their legs. I was a kid, I thought dumb things.
So we get to West Berlin, and see the sights, and then we get on a bus to visit East Berlin. We go through Checkpoint Charlie and there's the usual drama of having our vehicle inspected with mirrors and dogs by armed guards. Because of some kind of treaty, all active duty military personnel were required to be in uniform, so my dad was wearing his Class B's, and because he was an O-5 he was senior officer aboard.
I told you ALL THAT so that you won't think I'm bullshitting you when I tell you the rest of this story. Hopefully I have established my bona fides that I really was there and not making stuff up.
So we do the usual tourist thing in East Berlin: see the Wall from the other side, see the goose-steppers changing guard, see the Brandenburg Gate, etc. Then we went to the only church (cathedral? My memory is fuzzy on this) in East Berlin. While there, my dad goes to use the toilet, and mom sits down on a bench to rest her feet. I was playing nearby.
While she's there, this German guy comes up to her and starts chatting. Says hello in German, mom says she doesn't speak much, so he does the "Oh, you are American? I speak English!" kind of thing. You know, friendly and enthusiastic, and he goes from asking her questions like "Do you like Berlin?" to subtle pointed ones about the size of the tour group, etc... basically pumping her for information.
About this time, my father comes back -- remember, O-5 in full uniform, fruit salad, the whole bit -- and he sees the guy, and dad just *knows* the guys is KGB. Guy sees my father, excuses himself, and makes himself scarce.
Dad doesn't think much of this, other than the usual "KGB trying to get information from an officer's wife" until about 15-ish years later, when he sees Putin on television. Dad says to mom, "That's the KGB agent who tried to pick you up in East Berlin!" Mom isn't entirely sure -- she doesn't have a good memory for faces -- but she doesn't disagree with him either.
So according to my parents, Vladimir Putin tried to turn my mom into an asset when we were visiting East Berlin.
The Fine Print
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