Ramble On

Monday, March 25, 2013

Part 7: Air Force Memories at Tempelhof Airport

The Open House events at Tempelhof were very popular.  This photo is supposed to have been taken in 1984 (I do not
know the source of the photo, or I would have credited it) - which means I'm in the crowd here somewhere!

This next-to-last post in the “cultural history” series will be the last one where I draw directly from Christine Heeb’s thesis, and I plan to intersperse some of my own memories to add the context of my experience to her analysis.  I’ve certainly enjoyed my encounter with her thesis about the cultural history of Tempelhof Airport – it served to remind me of history that I used to know quite well, but have forgotten over the years, and there was plenty of new information to learn about. 

If I understand her intention, Heeb’s document sets out to develop an argument for designating Tempelhof as a cultural heritage site.  There is a long history of progressive use of the site that offers a solid justification for this – I’ll see if I can find any additional information about whether or not this is being considered; however, at the moment I am only aware of the airfield’s designation as a “freizeit park” which acknowledges all of the history and culture of the place, and restores it to public use. 

Near the end of her thesis, Heeb mentions the history of Tempelhof when it was under the control of the United States Air Force (USAF) – the situation for most of the post war era, including during the Berlin Airlift – and she mentions the open houses that were held there beginning in 1948.  She writes that the Candy Bomber displayed along Columbia Damm was flown in to the open house in 1973 for the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, and that artifacts from the American space program were displayed in 1974, when 320,000 people attended!

When I was stationed at Tempelhof, the open house was one of the big events we looked forward to every year, but we never had crowds quite that large.  It was the one time of year that we might have a good, close look at USAF aircraft – our situation was such that it was pretty rare to encounter the planes, except to see them taxiing around the airfield from a distance.  It was incredible to see that a C-5, among the world’s largest aircraft, could actually land and take off from those short runways; I also remember seeing a new Pan Am 737 maneuvering around the tight quarter of the airfield, preparing for a flyover during the open house. 

We used the open houses as a way to earn a little money that could be used for morale, welfare, and recreation purposes.  We’d set up little concession stands to sell American food, or American versions of German food.  When I was on “Baker Flight” in 1982 and 1983, we sold hamburgers.  I also helped out with that booth in 1984, but in 1985 I was on “Dawg Flight” and we sold bratwursts. 

We’d raise anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 over the course of the weekends there.  We might use these funds for annual holiday parties, or to help out a colleague who’d had a family emergency, among other things.  But the good times were definitely working in those booths and meeting the Berliners who came to visit, especially those times where the days were sunny and warm.

On Baker Flight, our nickname was The Buzzards.  Over the years, someone had built a 7-foot plywood statue of a buzzard, and we mounted that (very dangerously) on top of our little booth so that it could be seen from all over the airfield.  Then we made little handbills with pictures of the buzzard and hamburgers and sent some folks out into the crowd. 

The little saying that went along with the handbill?  “Buy a buzzard burger or go the fuck home.”  We were absolutely mobbed with all of that, hundreds of Berliners asking for buzzard burgers.  

There was a little confusion – some of the patrons thought they might get a discount or something, but at least they didn’t go home.  We sold tons of burgers, and I remember hearing the sound of burgers hissing on the grill for two or three days afterwards.  At the end of the day on Sunday we were out of burgers, and the Berliners still wanted to buy stuff from us – some of them even offered to buy cups of the “goop” condiment, the equal parts mixture of ketchup, mustard and relish, to take home with them!     

An article about one of the hijacks I saved from the base paper. 
Heeb’s document also reminded me of the spate of Polish hijacks that landed at Tempelhof from 1978 through 1982 or so – a total of 8 according to her research, and then another eight small private planes that flew in from sport clubs in Poland.  I guess I was there for the bulk of them.  Once I was out on a run along the perimeter road and was stopped by the military police, who told me a hijack was coming in to land.  I turned back and watched it land and taxi in from the softball fields. 

Typically they would call in some of the Polish linguists to help with sorting things out after one of these events. There was one Saturday morning in 1984 when one of the small private planes was flown in – an Antonov bi-plane, with a crudely painted red star on the tail fin.  The first thought was that here we had Soviet defectors and the call went out for Russian linguists to translate. 

Here's the An-2 that I mention in this post.
I happened to be around the base and awake that morning, so I went over to see if I could help.  It turned out, as with all the others, these were Poles who’d defected, so they turned me loose shortly afterwards.  That particular day turned into a pretty spectacular one for me – I guess the wake up call to help with the defectors came in at around 7:30 in the morning, and I didn’t get back to my room until around that time the next day.

Ah, youth.  Maybe someday I’ll write that day up in a post.

My next post will wrap up this series.  I hope to bring together my memories, Christine Heeb’s historical and cultural information, and the previous series I did on the development of Tempelhofer Freizeit – the new public park at the old airport into a summary.  That will go up later in the week, so for now, here’s the link to the Heeb thesis I’ve been referring to:

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