Meixner raced to the last steel bar, ducked his head, floored the accelerator and rocketed into West Berlin. :-)
Walls are usually erected to keep enemies out. The Berlin Wall was built to separate East Germany`s 17 million people from West Germany`s 62 million. A heavily fortified system of barriers, the Wall is 101 miles long, 28 miles of it in East Berlin. It is fortified with concrete, metal pipes, barbed wire, some 14,000 heavily armed guards, attack dogs, alarms and other electronic devices, mines and trenches.
The barbed wire would extend 6,000 miles if stretched end to end. Guards have orders to shoot to kill, and they do. More than 70 persons have died trying to escape to the West, but still they try.
When the Wall was new and not so heavily fortified, one young German stole a 9 1/2-ton Soviet troop carrier and crashed through the barricades to West Berlin. During the Wall`s first year, 14 heavy vehicles broke through it. One 70-year-old grandmother conquered her fear of closed spaces to follow her son to the West. One evening after dark she was nailed inside a large box destined for the other side of the Wall. The box was loaded on a truck, and she began her journey.
She listened to the harsh questions of the border guards as they inspected the driver`s forged papers for the ``merchandise.`` The driver passed inspection, and three hours later the box was opened by the woman`s son, who cried, ``Welcome to West Berlin, Mother!``
Audacious schemes to smuggle out sweethearts, family members and friends have often used particular types of automobiles. The House at Checkpoint Charlie displays an Isetta, an Italian-made mini-car so small that it was exempted from the usually meticulous examination at the Checkpoint.
Although the Isetta looks barely large enough for a driver, it had been modified to hold an escapee in the space once taken up by the battery and heating system. One at a time, nine refugees escaped to the West huddled in those cramped quarters.
As time passed, guards became harder to fool. They began to search cars more carefully, using calibrated rods to measure the dimensions of all types of vehicles. Mirrors to examine the underside of vehicles were added to their arsenal.
But the courageous kept trying. Heinz Meixner, an Austrian, began working in East Berlin in April, 1962. His passport enabled him to travel through Checkpoint Charlie at will. Then romance entered the picture.
One evening Meixner met Margarete Thurau at a dance in East Berlin. As love grew, they made plans for marriage, and Margarete asked permission to emigrate to Austria. East German authorities denied her request.
Undeterred, Meixner decided to drive under one of the steel beams that stretch across the narrow exits in the Wall. He chose Checkpoint Charlie, and riding a borrowed motor scooter, stalled it while the guard checked his passport. Meixner managed to measure the height of the barrier. It was only 37 1/2 inches above the pavement.
Meixner began a painstaking survey of West Berlin`s car rental agencies to find an automobile low enough to slip under the barrier. He selected a sports car, a red Austin-Healey Sprite. Without its windshield the sports car measured 35 1/2 inches in height. He chose a Sunday, shortly after midnight, for his run.
A few hours before starting he removed the windshield and, for added insurance, let some air out of the tires to lower the car even further. Margarete huddled in the tiny section behind the driver`s seat. Meixner`s future mother-in-law was crammed into the cramped luggage area. For protection against possible gunfire, Meixner had surrounded her with 30 bricks.
Sunday, May 5, 1963. It was time for the run. In the early-morning darkness, Meixner drove to the first barricade on the East Berlin side of the checkpoint. He displayed his passport to the guard, who motioned him on to the customs shed. Instead he gunned the motor, whizzed around the vertical bars and skidded past the startled guard.
Before the guards could fire their submachine guns, Meixner raced to the last steel bar, ducked his head, floored the accelerator and rocketed into West Berlin. He was traveling so fast that when he finally hit the brakes the tires left 96-foot-long skid marks.
After the American guards recovered from their shock at this apparition that had materialized out of the early-morning gloom, they welcomed Heinz Meixner, Margarete Thurau and her mother.
Meixner told the Americans, ``I figured it would take the guards three seconds to draw their weapons once they knew what I was doing. I knew Margarete`s mother was protected by the bricks. I felt I could make it with about three inches to spare . . . Now we can get married." :-)