My Trip Over the Bridge of Spies by MURRAY FORSETER


MY WIFE GILDA and I have seen lots of movies over the past three weeks, the best of which we saw Saturday night: Bridge of Spies tells the mostly-true-to-life story behind the exchange of prisoners between the Soviet Union, East Germany and the United States. 

  In return for sending convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance) back to Russia, America received U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (shot down during an aerial spy mission over Soviet territory) and student Frederic L. Pryor (charged with espionage in East Berlin).
To scrub fact from fiction, here’s a link:
  How could I not like Bridge of Spies? To begin with, the three-way prisoner exchange happened on February 10, 1962, the same day as my bar mitzvah. Even without that coincidence I identified with Bridge of Spies. During one of my conference trips to Dusseldorf I made a side trip to Berlin. I travelled on February 16, 1990, just three days before the section of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate was to be torn down. 
  I walked many of the same streets the Tom Hanks character followed in the movie, entering East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, then down FriederichStrasse. It was a rainy, sometimes snowy, day. Chilled to the bone, I had the sniffles, just like Hanks had in the movie. 
  With their political order tumbling around them, East German border guards were as friendly as a Wal-Mart meet-and-greeter. Why shouldn’t they be? No longer armed, their main function was to let German nationals pass through while smiling pleasantly at foreigners and directing them to exit where they had entered East Berlin. It seemed a petty rule, but no more inconvenient than being told in an American department store that gift wrapping could be obtained only in the basement or some other out of the way location. 
  Along FriederichStrasse I encountered a wide range of visual stimuli. Just as an East German movie character complained that the Russians hindered reconstruction efforts after World War II, many buildings were still in various states of bombed-out disrepair fully 45 years after the war ended. Intact buildings were generally drab apartment house blocks that made our bleakest inner city projects seem stately. 
  The disparity between the two sides of Berlin was evident from two cars parked next to each other: one a boxy, eight-foot Russian-made Lada, the other a sleek, four-door Mercedes. Both cars were in front of the Grand Hotel, one of the more impressive hotels I had seen in any major city of the world. In the main lobby burnished wood, marble, chrome, plush carpeting and a majestic central stairway transported any visitor from the grey and gloom of a failed Utopian vision to a world of privilege and pomp. The Grand Hotel was not for any casual comrade: room rates back in 1990 ran over $200 a night. 
  Before leaving Berlin I chipped away at the Wall. I had stopped at a Woolworth store in West Berlin to buy a small chisel and standard-sized hammer. I soon discovered how pitiful my purchases were to the task at hand. The reinforced concrete gave no quarter. You couldn’t even classify as pebbles the pieces I managed to dislodge. 
  Standing next to me was a man with a huge sledgehammer and 30-inch chisel. He was breaking off softball-size chunks. He took pity on me and offered me his tools. 
  My new efforts were hardly more rewarding. He took pity on me once more, and gave the Wall a few choice whacks for me. I left Berlin with a bagful of souvenirs, most of which I gave away to family, friends and colleagues at work. 
  The two largest pieces I kept for myself, one to display in our living room and the other which I mounted on a plaque and hung in my office until I retired. 
  It, too, is now in our living room. 

FOR MANY years I was able to convince my family it was sacrilegious to celebrate Valentine’s Day. We didn’t ‘do’ Halloween either, for that matter, as Jews aren’t expected to honour saints. 

  So St. Valentine’s Day was a no-no and Halloween, also known as All Saints Day, was definitely beyond the pale — no trick or treating for my kids, Dan and Ellie. But several years ago, once the kids had flown the coop, my wife Gilda informed me we would in future celebrate Valentine’s Day with greeting cards, though gifts were not required. I acquiesced. 
  This year I once more dutifully bought Gilda a card, only to be newly informed we no longer had to exchange cards. 
  Go figure! 

MONTHS AGO we ordered a mat for the wood floor in front of our kitchen sink. We asked for a 93-inch custom length to exactly fit between cabinets on either side of the sink. 

  When the mat arrived it curled up slightly at one end. I measured. It was 94 inches, an inch longer than the size I had ordered. I called the company. 
  A representative apologised and asked if I’d like a replacement. But he cautioned that here in the USA custom work permits a manufacturer to deviate from the desired specifications by as much as seven inches. 
  My next mat could be as small as 86 inches or as long as 100 inches, or anywhere in between. Who knew ordering a custom mat could be such a gamble?
  I opted to keep the original. 

EVEN IN DEATH influential conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia will have a lasting, profound effect on the future of the United States. 

  The debate on the propriety, though not the legality, of President Obama nominating a successor during his last year in office will reverberate throughout the primary and election seasons. That’s a given, as is the Republican-dominated Senate’s refusal to approve any Obama nomination before the election. 
  More lasting will be the impact on voter turnout next November as each party will no longer be talking about the abstraction of the next president having the power to shape the court. Scalia’s death removed any doubt that voters themselves will have a direct say in the political slant the court may take for the foreseeable future. 
  It will be a get-out-the-vote contest in every borderline state, not just for president but for Senate seats, as well.
MURRAY FORSETER, retired editor and chief executiveof the major U.S. retail magazine Chain Store Age, lives in White Plains, NY and  blogs daily at <>


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