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How I brought down the Berlin Wall

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hardware store cashier gave knowing look as producer bought maul and chisel
  • Tools were used to smash away at the Berlin Wall
  • Pieces showing graffiti were the most prized

Today, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, CNN Homeland Security Producer Mike M. Ahlers recalls his role in the wall's destruction.

(CNN) -- How do you tear down a wall? Do you use diplomacy or force? Offers of neighborly assistance, or the threat of nuclear annihilation?

In November 1989, the answer seemed self-evident. Force was necessary. Massive, overwhelming force.

So I walked into a West Berlin hardware store and gave careful thought to my purchases (cost was a consideration) before approaching the checkout counter. I put two items down and looked at the cashier, an older woman who seemed bored, tuned-out, and utterly disinterested in a customer who spoke not a word of German, save his last name.

Then she looked down at the items -- a hefty maul and a foot-long steel chisel.

She raised her eyes to mine and didn't say a word. But she gave me the most knowing, mischievous, devilish smile I have ever had the privilege of receiving.

So there we were. Me and the hardware lady. Silent conspirators in one of the greatest acts of political vandalism in our time: the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

I have not lived a perfect life, and there's ample evidence that my youth was misspent. Destruction of government property, however, was never on my list of indiscretions.

But in November of 1989, I was a gainfully employed reporter for a local newspaper, who had accumulated a few days vacation, and had a desire to witness a story way outside my beat. So I traveled to Berlin to join the party at the wall.

The international news media had, of course, reported that the Berlin Wall had "fallen," and they used the word with such abandon that I almost expected to find the wall laying in rubble -- concrete slabs toppled like the dominoes that we had all been warned about.

But in the days after the wall "fell" -- and the carnival atmosphere lowered to a more peaceable level -- the wall was still a formidable presence.

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  • Berlin Wall
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The East and West German governments reasserted control over the border while their rulers figured out how to consolidate two nations into one. Guards returned to their prison-like towers, East German border guards patrolled the wall, and visitors to "Checkpoint Charlie" still had to present documents to reach the other side.

Nonetheless, thousands gathered all along the wall to celebrate and talk not only about the past and the future, but also about the joy-filled present. It was, if not a movable feast, a linear one.

So here's how you tear down a wall:

First, find a section that is out of sight of authorities, because well chipping was still forbidden.

(I discovered this in a most unexpected way, when a fellow wall-chipper -- an elderly lady -- started yelling at me. It took me a few seconds to comprehend. "Polizei! Polizei!" She was warning me about the police! An old lady was warning me about the police! My hammer fell and my heart lifted.)

Second, start at the wall's seams -- the joint between two massive slabs. Find a place that has been pre-chiseled, to give your chisel a better grip. And make sure the wall has a colorful piece of graffiti. Because, when you get down to it, a piece of Berlin Wall concrete without paint is just a piece of concrete. You might as well chisel the sidewalk in front of your house.

Third, remember that the Berlin Wall is tough. It stood for more than a generation. It can take a beating. So don't hit that wall like a timid souvenir hunter. Hit it with all your might, like you're knocking a repressive, tyrannical government off the face of the Earth. Because you are.

But try not to shatter the best pieces -- the pieces with graffiti. Because pieces of wall with graffiti are like chunks of gold.

For the better part of a day, I chipped away at the wall, blistering my hands and flattening the head of the chisel until it looked like a mushroom. Inevitably, when I finally dug a piece of wall, a girl would appear, flutter her eyelashes and walk away with a little piece of history.

At the end of the day, I had given away virtually my entire cache of graffiti-speckled pieces of the Berlin Wall. (There were a lot of pretty girls in Berlin in November of 1989.)

So here's my final guidance for tearing down a wall:

When a pretty girl asks you for a piece of wall, instead hand her a hammer and a chisel. And after she has labored hard to liberate several chunks of concrete from the wall, politely ask her for a piece. How can she refuse?

Take a piece with graffiti.

And concede that sometimes it takes both overwhelming force -- and a touch of diplomacy -- to tear down a wall.

Part of complete coverage on
How I brought down the Berlin Wall
How do you tear down a wall? Diplomacy or force? Offers of help, or threat of annihilation? For CNN's Mike M. Ahlers, the answer was obvious.
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CNN iReporters share their memories of a seminal event in history.
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