My daughter and I have been digitizing the thousands of print family photos that we’ve accumulated over the years. I was looking through them and came across some that were memorable and also brought back one of the few twinges of regret that I have.
Those of you who are serious history buffs may recognize the significance of the date of November 1989 to the Berlin Wall. Well, the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. November 9 to be specific. Let’s go back.
In the fall of 1989, I was a young scientist/manager at Johnson & Johnson’s Ortho Pharmaceutical leading the dermatological toxicology group. We studied the effects of topical drugs on skin and other organ systems. One of our marketed products was under considerable challenge from competitors and regulatory groups regarding potential toxicity issues. We felt that our science was strong in support of our position. This was what my group was responsible for. I’m being deliberately vague with regard to the product. It’s not really relevant to the story.
I had found a journal article by an international expert that fully supported our internal position. This expert was on faculty at a university in West Berlin, Germany. We spoke by phone (this is before when email was big) several times. I reviewed his work and our discussions with my director and vice president. They said that someone needed to go to Berlin and meet with this scientist. I assumed that meant one of them would go to Berlin. But they decided to send me instead. I suspect it was partially a test to see if I could handle this on my own.
This was my first international trip on behalf of J&J and I was all on my own. That wasn’t an issue. I don’t mind traveling with others, but I’m one of those people who actually prefer to travel alone.
My Berlin host and I communicated and worked out the details of my visit. I was only going to spend one day with him. That was more than enough time to get the details of his studies on our product. My trip is scheduled for the middle of November 1989, just before the Thanksgiving holiday.
By early November things are getting interesting to say the least in Berlin and on the 9th, the Wall is officially opened. President Reagan’s request of Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” had been answered by the people of Berlin. On November 9, 1989, thousands of East Germans flooded the gates of the Berlin Wall to the surprise of many guards, who had not yet heard the news that their government had lifted its ban and was now allowing East Germans to freely pass into West Berlin. No visas required. Euphoria erupted. Germans from both sides danced on the wall. Families were reunited. German flags unfurled. Berlin was no longer a divided city. The iron curtain was torn apart.
I don’t recall the exact date, but sometime during the second week of November, 1989 I flew off to West Berlin and landed at Berlin Tempelhof Airport. I forgot to change dollars to Deutsche Marks in US and figured I would convert them in Berlin. However I landed very early in the morning in Berlin before the currency converters were open. Fortunately it was not hard to convince a taxi driver to take US Dollars. Here’s some trivia: Tempelhof Airport is built on land that was controlled by the Knights Templar in medieval Berlin.
My meeting was one day and I had added a day before and after to look around West Berlin. As soon as I settled in at my hotel and got ready for my meeting, I took a taxi to Brandenburg Gate.
There were news crews with cameras on cranes and large crowds. The wall itself was much bigger than I thought. Near the Brandenburg Gate, the wall was maybe 10 feet wide. There were armed East German soldiers marching on top of the wall.
I recall that looking from the West into the East was like looking at a color photograph, then looking an older black and white version of the same photograph. East Berlin looked to be a cold, grey, dark and foreboding place.
In West Berlin I saw familiar looking cars, Mercedes Benz, Volvo and other western European cars. The East Germans were being allowed to drive into West Berlin and I recall that the East German cars looked and sounded like small toys compared to the cars of West Berlin.
I was able to walk up to the wall, which by now was covered in graffiti, and touch it. So, I can say that I was able to touch the Berlin Wall as it was coming down.
My meeting in Berlin was successful. My director and vice president pleased with the results. We were able to use the outcome with regulatory authorities to make our point regarding the safety of our product.
I had nearly forgotten about my brief visit with history in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate until I came across the old photographs. What was my one twinge of regret? I did not bring home a piece of the Berlin Wall. It would have been very easy. Kids were taking sledgehammers to the wall and there were small pieces available and this was before TSA security at airports.
But that is okay – I have my memories and the photographs of my day with history.
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