It was Christmas Eve, my last as a child in Berlin. Admittedly, at 16, I no longer felt like a child and had in fact long lost that magic that seems to make Christmas so special to the very young. Following the German tradition, we'd opened our gifts as soon as it grew dark outside, and now that anticlimactic ennui had settled over us that always seems to materialize once weeks of anticipation have come to an end and there's nothing left to look forward to but the formality of Christmas Dinner the next day. We were all happy with our gifts, to be sure, or at least we said so as we'd been taught. But they were opened. No more surprises. It wasn't Christmas anymore.
We decided to save what was left of the evening and pay a visit to Barney and Feyra Denton, who lived in the apartment next door. Barney and Feyra were as Bohemian as it was possible for a military couple to be. Normally, that in itself would be enough for my parents not to want to have anything to do with them, but Barney and Feyra were smart, funny and vibrant; everybody liked them. They couldn't help it. Feyra was 11 years older than Barney, her fifth husband. Five husbands -- imagine that. Somehow, though, it was impossible to judge her in the same harsh light that fell upon other frequent matrimonial fliers, even though she spoke blithely and openly of this, that and the other lover when Barney wasn't around. That was just Feyra, so it was forgiven. She was also a Rosicrucian and passionate about seemingly everything in the world around her. Barney, as was everyone who came into contact with her, was smitten. They drew people to themselves -- the bored, the curious and the dispossessed, and their apartment was rarely empty.
And so we found a party in progress at the Dentons'. My parents immediately gravitated to the dining room, where a discussion about politics was taking place; my father had long found favor in their circle as their beloved token conservative, and he quickly and cheerfully fell to waging the same battle that he lost every time he engaged in it. There was a group of single GI's in the living room, and so I stayed there. Like I said, I was 16. I met my first love, Gary Coles, that night. He was 23, from Wyoming, and he worked with my father. That in itself was enough to ensure that he always remained the perfect gentleman. But that's another story.
Hours passed, the apartment grew smoky enough that windows had to be opened despite the swirling snow outside, what there was to be eaten had been eaten, what there was to be drunk had been drunk, and no one was ready to let go of the conviviality and go home just yet. We had at least an hour and a half to go until midnight; how thus to spend it? I've tried in vain to remember over the years who came up with the original suggestion; it was as brilliant an idea as any I've ever heard in all the years since. We decided to go Christmas caroling -- all of us, en masse. And not just through the German neighborhoods, where we were as likely as not to have the Polizei called on us for disturbing the decorum of a holiday held sacred. No... we were going to go caroling at the Wall.
The cars parked in front of the apartment building could only accommodate so many people, and thus we elected to take the U-Bahn, Berlin's subway, making our undertaking even more of an adventure. Reaching our destination took a good 45 minutes, during which time we discussed what carols to sing. As all but a few of us knew only English lyrics, it was important that we chose songs that also had translations in German, so that they would at the very least be recognized as Christmas songs. Half of the younger GI's were well on the way to being drunk, so this process was laced with merriment.
Finally we arrived. The sight of the Wall immediately plunged us into a more somber mood. It was immense, imposing, forbidding, colder by far than any winter night, topped with broken glass and razor-sharp concertina wire. The harsh glare of floodlights bathed the area on either side in an eternal artificial day. It was a scar on the landscape, a nightmare given substance. Sobered, we ascended the two flights of stairs up to the rickety wooden observation decks and took our positions. Snowflakes swirled in eddies in the yellow haze of the floodlights. The wind chilled us to the bone. But we'd started this madness, and it had to be done.
Before us lay what was known as no-man's-land, a stretch of barren ground criss-crossed with more concertina wire and studded with land mines. Beyond that, Russian and East German soldiers patrolled with guard dogs. More manned the guard towers at the eastern perimeter of the border area. And just beyond that was a street in another world, with houses and apartments in which people lived and died and rarely opened the drapes that covered the western windows of their homes.
With no cue to prompt us, we began to sing. We had decided on ''Silent Night,'' it being the quintessential Christmas song and originally German. No one bothered to consider that none of us knew more than the first verse. And so, once we'd finished, we just launched into it all over again, stronger and with more confidence the second time. The guards patrolling the perimeters slowed their pace and relaxed their grip on their weapons. A dog began to bark. Much to our bewonderment, a gloved hand reached down to its muzzle, silencing it. And that's when the real magic started to happen.
Across the expanse of no-man's land, beyond the swath of the militarized zone, in the darkened shadow of an old apartment building, a pair of curtains parted. Just 18 inches or so, but enough to tell all of us that we'd found an audience, and one brave enough to risk the appearance of communication with the West. The silhouette of a human figure appeared in the light of the window. ''Sylvia.... sing Stille Nacht!'' Feyra whispered to me, taking care to properly enunciate the glottal ch, as we'd practiced together so many times. (''It's disrespectful to the spirit of the language if you don't get it exactly right!'' Pure Feyra.) No one ever said no to Feyra. And so I began. One young voice, alone, strong above and beyond the horror surrounding it, gave the message and the gift that is and has always been more powerful by far than the circumstances in which it finds itself. There was no sign of the stage fright that plagued me until my late 30s. I was a part of something bigger. All that existed was the song, the night, and the figure in the window. And it was perfect.
The figure disappeared when I finished and returned with a light that it placed upon the window sill. The curtains thereupon closed but the light shone on, a greeting to us and a testament to hope, courage, and to triumph. We sang together one more time, and then began to make our way home.
No one said much on the trip. Gary and I held hands. And I don't think Christmas has been the same for any of us since. Every year I remember and am touched by the wonder of it all. God bless the watcher, if he or she still lives. God bless the guard who silenced his dog, recognizing a sacred thing in spite of his atheistic indoctrination, and God bless our ragtag group of carolers, who were given Christmas that night for all time. May we all always remember. And may you all find your own light in a faraway window, to elicit the gift of what's always been within.
Sylvia Greeney Morris is a self-described Army brat who lives in Knoxville. She came to the area from New York to get married to a man she met on the Internet, causing her daughter no end of embarrassment. She's a nurse currently looking for work, preferably in women's health. She says she's also been called a ''granola-head.''