Friday, May 11, 2012

Listening to the Communists: Devil’s Mountain, Germany

City of Dust is pretty much always on the road and occasionally we even manage to go international. Awhile back we visited the Chong Kneas floating village in Cambodia and, in this post, we’ll check out the Teufelsberg listening station in the northern Grunewald forest of the former West Berlin, Germany.

Teufelsberg translates as “Devil’s Mountain” and it towers over the surrounding landscape for a unique reason; it’s really a mountain of debris. Following WWII, approximately 26,000,000 m3 of rubble, the remains of destroyed buildings and infrastructure, was deposited in the area, making a mountain of sorts. This was also done elsewhere in Germany, but Teufelsberg is of further interest because underneath all that rubble is an unfinished Nazi military-technical school designed by Hitler's chief architect, Albert Speer. After the war, all efforts to blow-up this rather well-built school failed and so it was decided to heap garbage upon it. This continued until 1972, when the site ceased to be a dump and was turned into a park, becoming the highest green space in West Berlin. By then a section was already a very popular ski slope complete with jumps.

By the late 1950’s, the Allied Forces, and the United States, in particular, were trying to find a way to listen-in on nearby Communists from stations in West Berlin. Mostly they drove around the city in mobile units, trying to find the best reception from the East. Then, one day, some smart people decided to go to the top of Teufelsberg and found that from there they could hear the Reds very well indeed. Thus, the construction of several large radio domes was undertaken. Also, the mechanical lifts at the ski slope were removed because they interfered with reception. Just another sacrifice for the Cold War.

Once the proper infrastructure was in place, it was found that at a certain time of the year reception was fantastic, better than at any other time. After some investigating, it was discovered that the Ferris wheel used for the annual German-American Volksfest acted like a large relay antenna. From then on removal of the Ferris wheel was delayed for a bit at the end of each festival. Also, since no one really knew what was going on at the listening station, some strange rumors were born, including one involving emergency exit tunnels that ran deep down into the mountain of debris.

Of course, eventually the Cold War sort of went away and the listening station quickly became useless. The land was purchased by investors soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the intention of building hotels, but there was already too much construction in the newly-reunified Berlin to make the venture profitable. For awhile there was also talk of turning the whole place into a spy museum. Now, new zoning regulations have ensured that this manmade “forestland” cannot be built upon and the only possible use for the listening station is as a Cold War Memorial. The rest of Devil’s Mountain remains a rather nice park.

During our visit, we had to work a bit to find an entrance, but once the easiest option was located, we, along with apparently many, many others before us, had free run of the place. Most of the outbuildings are uninteresting, but the real gems are the radio dome towers, which can be climbed all the way to the top by internal stairs. I’d recommend staying away from the dark, empty elevator shaft. The towers have no walls, so you can get out on whatever floor you like and have a look at the drop below. This day, the wind was howling, making getting close to the edge a pretty risky proposition.

Near the very top of the towers sit tattered domes which seem to have been made out of something like Masonite. The wind is slowly annihilating them and they made a lot of noise in the gale. Then, at the absolute top of the stairs, one emerges into a fairly intact dome where the acoustics are astounding. You can speak in one direction and hear your voice behind you. Every sound is amplified and bounces around the dome in all directions. Easily the coolest echo chamber I’ve ever been in. Ah, Cold War technology; fun for kids of all ages.

Covered with graffiti and rapidly decomposing—not to mention immensely dangerous to the clumsy or chemically-impaired—the most likely fate of the Teufelsberg listening station seems to be its eventual destruction. The area will then be planted with trees and it seems unlikely that the old Cold War relic will, like so many other wartime structures, become a permanent part of the Devil’s Mountain itself. But, if you ask me, it probably should be.

Obviously, it’s not easy to get information on what exactly was going on at the listening station. I got the basics from Wikipedia. The Teufelsberg entry isn't even flagged for being incomplete or inaccurate. Wow.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

One of Those Things

This afternoon I came across a rattlesnake by the side of the house. A big one. Western diamondback. I reached for my pistol, like always, lifted it from the holster and drew a bead. I took one step forward and the snake coiled, watching me with its black eyes as it began to rattle. I pulled back the hammer on the gun. That forked tongue flicked the air as the snake tried to assess the best way to handle a threat it couldn’t even begin to imagine. I stood there for several minutes before I let the hammer slide slowly back into place. I holstered the weapon. It’s only been recently that I’ve come to see beauty in things that can kill me. Maybe only in things that can kill me. I’m not talking about skydiving or driving too fast. This is something else. I can’t say exactly what it is. Not with words, at least. I guess it’s just one of those things.

Both photos taken in the other Las Vegas. The one in New Mexico.