Door Number One

Or, How I missed the fall of the Berlin Wall for a redhead named Louise

We had just returned from a dusk climb up Solsbury Hill, that grassy lump of Peter Gabriel fame outside the ancient city of Bath, the song whose bum-bum-bum-balm-bomb-bum-balm-be-dum-bum always seems to pop into one’s brain at the oddest moments, when I heard the news about the Berlin Wall falling and in an instant I could see all the pictures I was going to take.

Two old women—sisters, I imagined—hugging each other after years of separation, the crumbling wall in the background; young Berliners screaming as they took turns swigging from a champagne bottle; and, finally, a confused East German soldier looking on, not knowing whether to throw off his uniform and join in the celebration or skulk backwards into a dark alley. This last one seemed a stretch, perhaps, a bit too nuanced for a photograph that was still just pure fantasy, but as my brain tried to process these unfolding historic developments, I was swept up in the possibilities.

This is the way a photojournalist’s mind works. Like Babe Ruth pointing towards the outfield bleachers, we go into a story envisioning the photos we want to take first, and only after that do we begin the series of negotiations and compromises that lead to the photos we do take. The Berlin Wall! Fallen!! The champagne photo would be on the front page of every newspaper in the country; it was simply a matter of who got it on the wire first.

I could be in Germany in no time, hours before the older and more seasoned news photographers in Washington and New York could get their acts together. I’d have at least a day’s head start on them if I hopped a train for London immediately. In my mind, I could already see Larry De Santis, the foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping photo boss in United Press International’s New York bureau, the legendary and decrepit wire service where I worked, the guy who had a hand in cropping the famous picture of John John saluting the casket, shot when I was not even one, finally learning my name and telling me I had “done good, kid,” the highest praise his Brooklynese vocabulary was capable of.

But first, negotiations and the compromises. They come so fast that the original thought doesn’t even stand a chance. I had climbed Solsbury Hill, after all, not by myself but with Louise Waylett, pretty Louise with the flaming hair, a girl I had met a year earlier as she looked for a map in the Trover Shop on Capitol Hill. Pretty Louise, who drove a red vintage Citröen, straight off the set of Alfie. (No one I ever knew drove a Citröen, certainly not on Long Island in the 1960’s and 70’s, where most people drove Buicks and Chevy’s.) As the television cackled on about the rapidly unfolding events in East Germany, the sight of Louise’s flowing red locks was getting in the way of my impending Berlin Wall triumph. This just how John Wayne got sidetracked in The Quiet Man, I thought. Must concentrate.. This was my moment, that once in a lifetime chance where fate or serendipity or some combination of the two comes sailing through the window on an arrowhead, complete with the boing! sound as it firmly implants itself in the wall. Grab your things, I’ve come to take your home—isn’t that what Peter Gabriel sings in that damn song?

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