By Rick Kaempfer
Today is the 50th anniversary of the East Germans completing the Berlin Wall. I grew up in Germany during the Cold War years, and I have my own story of Cold War intrigue. This seems like a good day to share it.
The year was 1980.
A sixteen-year-old boy is attending his junior prom in Heidelberg, Germany. The setting of the prom is magical. It is being held at the Heidelberg Castle, a beautiful, 17th-century structure built high in the hills above the Neckar River. The boy is wearing a blue velvet tuxedo; as soft and fuzzy as the “mustache” on his lip. His date, a diminutive gymnast, is wearing a powder blue gown. There is a slight chill in the air on this May night, but as the sun sets over the mountain, two Defense Department officials are in the bushes, witnessing the festivities from afar.
Their orders are direct and simple: keep an eye on the sixteen year old, and take whatever precautions necessary to avoid being recognized.
They sit at a table on the other side of the castle courtyard, sipping tea and watching the boy dance. After the dancing, they follow him down to the restaurant district where a group of the youngsters stop for a (ahem, let’s say) Coca-Cola. There is a close call when one of the officials sneezes, and the young man turns in their general direction–but he sees nothing in the darkness of the evening.
When the car arrives to pick up the boy and his date, the driver somehow instinctively knows which girl is the teenager’s date–even though he hasn’t been told her name or what she looks like. The nervous and uncomfortable teen doesn’t recognize the rookie mistake. The surveillance is another Cold War success.
That’s a totally true story.
The very real Defense Department officials were my father and one of his coworkers. The sixteen year old they were following around that night was me.
I didn’t find out about it until several years later. By then I was in my early twenties, and we were living in America. My dad’s friend and his wife came to town for a visit, and accidentally spilled the beans. During dinner he turned to me and said, “I understand you have a girlfriend now. Do you still walk ten paces in front of her like you did with your prom date?”
That comment elicited howls of laughter from everyone in the room . . . my dad, my mom, my dad’s friend, his wife, my sister and my brother. I was the only one in the room that wasn’t laughing.
“Did somebody spy on me or something?” I asked.
“You really didn’t know?” my dad’s buddy asked between cackles. “I thought it was a dead giveaway when your dad knew which one was your date. How did he know? You wouldn’t let him meet her before the prom, remember?”
“One lousy mistake,” my dad protested, as if he had heard this taunt a thousand times. “I told you he didn’t notice. Plus, you were the one that sneezed at the restaurant. You could have blown our cover, too.”
“I thought you were looking right at me,” my dad’s buddy admitted to me.
“You both spied on me?” I asked.
“C’mon, put yourself in my place,” my dad explained. “You were being so mysterious about this date. You wouldn’t even tell me her name. I was curious.”
“At least you didn’t poke that poor girl trying to pin on her corsage,” my mom added. “It was a good idea to just hand it to her.”
“Mom, you were there, too?”
She nodded. I looked at the wife of my dad’s friend. She nodded, too.
“I had to see that blue velvet tuxedo,” she added.
I know I should have been mad, but by my early twenties I was all too aware of how entertaining it must have been to watch the awkward and uncomfortable 16-year-old me wearing a blue velvet tuxedo, struggling through a very expensive date with a girl I barely knew.
To think that these two couples made my disaster into their own double date seemed somehow appropriate.
“So, did I put on a good show?” I asked.
Everyone laughed again. When they regained their composure, I got the best picture of what it must have been like to watch me that night.
“By the way,” my dad’s friend said, “‘Play That Funky Music, White Boy’ is not a slow dance.”