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Kindnesses the wall could not block

In contrast to the celebration that accompanied the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the recent 40th anniversary of its construction (Aug. 13) passed almost unnoticed.If I hadn't seen a small blurb about it in my local newspaper, I don't think I would have remembered it myself. This, despite my having an actual piece of the wall mounted neatly alongside a photograph I took back in 1985, when the most formidable and durable structure created by East Germany still stood as the quintessential icon of the cold war.

I have three distinctive memories of my interaction with the wall, each, in its way, denoting a certain poignant aspect of its existence.

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I first saw - and touched - the wall during a Fulbright year in 1984-85, in what was then West Germany.I wasn't living in Berlin, but I knew that the erstwhile capital of a united Germany would eventually be on my itinerary.Suddenly, in March, I was there, running my hand along the wall, over the myriad graffiti covering its western face. Then I scaled an observation platform to view the bleak, heavily mined no-man's land that formed a deadly buffer between the inhabited sections of East Berlin and the wall itself.

The very next day, I decided to cross over through the notorious Checkpoint Charlie.Sticking to the narrow white-painted, prescribed path, I sauntered along to a window where I obtained my day visa from the East German authorities before continuing on my way.

A moment later, a German motorist called to me from the car path a short distance away. He had broken down and was beckoning for me to help him push his vehicle.Without thinking, I stepped off the path and began to walk over to him.

Within the instant, three guards were upon me, demanding to know just what I thought I was doing. With my hands up I explained - breathlessly - about the car that was kaput. The guards conferred.Then one of them grudgingly allowed me to go offer assistance while he guarded me.

My second interaction with the wall came a few days later.I was on a tour bus to East Berlin with other American Fulbrighters.We alighted in the heart of the city and visited some prescribed sights, none of which I recall.

But I did take note of a little boy of about 8 in our tour group.He had struck up a ready friendship with a similarly aged East German boy who had gravitated over to the Americans.For the rest of the afternoon, the two boys romped and laughed, each chattering in his own language.

The time finally came to reboard the bus.As we headed for the checkpoint, the American lad hung at the back window, waving and gesturing to his new friend, who was running to keep up with the bus.When we stopped at the checkpoint, the two boys took advantage of the brief pause to shout to each other through the glass.

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Then the bus surged ahead.The East German boy ran after us again, but when he came to the wall, he stopped dead in his tracks and stood there, arms at his sides, staring long and hard.Then he offered a plaintive wave, turned, and disappeared down a dark alleyway of his gray city.

THE third and last time I saw the wall was in 1990, when it was being demolished.There were Germans and foreign tourists everywhere, hammering away, getting their own little chunks of history.

I walked over to a place that only months before had been part of the no-man's land, heavily mined, barb-wired, guarded.Nowa Madonna concert was planned for that very spot. How surreal.One day a place of death; the next - music.

I didn't dwell on these thoughts for long, for I had my hammer, too.I approached an East German policeman who was standing, smiling and unarmed, by a section of the wall, where not long ago he would have been a dour-faced monolith carrying a submachine gun.Showing him my hammer, I asked, "May I?"His smile broadened. "Help yourself," he said, "and have a good day."

So I hammered away, feeling the weight of history in my hands.And as I pounded the concrete, I didn't think of the wall as such, or of the Madonna concert, or that little Fiat I'd helped push, or of 40 years of East-West tension. Rather, I imagined myself hammering a hole big enough for a boy to run through.