Those big planes rattled the sky, dropping candy bars attached to tiny parachutes. The boys who saw them knew where to run: to that marble-and-stone cathedral to flight, Tempelhof Airport, whose towering facade once symbolized Adolf Hitler's grand and frightening vision for Europe.
The bigger boys usually wrested away the prizes from Klaus Eisermann in those hard times after the Third Reich fell. But the Allied planes kept coming, piercing the Soviet blockade of Berlin with C-47 Dakotas stuffed with food, cement, medicine, socks -- whatever would fit in their cargo bays.
Eisermann, too, kept returning to Tempelhof, where today, keys jangling on his hip, hair bristly and white, he can lead you down hidden corridors.
He's curt when asked the question he's been asked too many times.
"No," Eisermann says, "this airport will never close."
The Berlin Airport Authority wants to shut Tempelhof down in 2006. Tegel International Airport has handled most of the city's commercial traffic for decades, and the planned expansion of Berlin's third airport, at Schoenefeld, would make Tempelhof and its small fleet of budget carriers obsolete. Lawsuits seeking to stop the expansion have won a reprieve for Tempelhof, but this monument to an era is running out of time.
Tempelhof lost nearly $20 million last year, serving only 441,580 of the city's 14.8 million airline passengers. Less than 40 percent of its nearly 300,000 square yards of usable space is rented.
But Tempelhof is grand -- a polished yet fading icon whose tarmac unfurls in the middle of a city that has grown around it. It can be reached by foot or by bike. It is as accessible as it is monstrous, a blueprint from the Third Reich's unrealized architectural dream of recasting Berlin in a style befitting the capital of a new, Fascist empire.
"They wanted to symbolize the rising German state," Eisermann said, standing among the pillars and windows of the airport's 360-foot-long main hall.
The architect Ernst Sagebiel built the airport on former Prussian parade grounds. Hitler's chief architect, Albert Speer, wanted flourishes added that would embody his garish neoclassical designs. But by 1940, World War II diverted the Reich's intentions and Tempelhof, expected to serve 8 million passengers a year, was turned into an airplane factory.
"I stayed in Berlin during the war," Eisermann said. "I lived through air raids and spent a childhood running into basements and listening for planes. The noise suddenly stopped in 1945. There was silence. But in 1948, we heard the sounds of planes again. They weren't bombers, though, they were part of the Berlin Airlift by the Allies. . . . We heard sometimes candy fell from the sky, so we went to Tempelhof to see."
Eisermann began as a baggage handler in 1964, shoveling runway snow and breaking ice, working his way up to become director of the airport's transportation department. He retired in 2002. These days, he leads tours through Tempelhof's vast chambers.
Tempelhof's fat years were the early 1970s, when West Berliners flew back and forth from the free world. In 1975, Tegel Airport, in the city's northwest, became the hub for most airlines. Eventually British Airways and Pan Am, the flagships of the West, stopped landing on Tempelhof's short runways. Hope for a renaissance rose but quickly dissipated after German reunification in 1990, when the national carrier, Lufthansa, briefly returned to the airport.
"It was an illusion," Eisermann said.
Up more stairs and out another door, Eisermann steps onto the roof into a warm easterly wind. The tarmac lies empty and quiet, except for two pilots walking away from their plane. He turns and sweeps an outstretched arm over the city.
The city's political and architectural history is starkly visible from his perch, east and west still not seamlessly blended. There's the Reichstag, the smokestacks, the golden church crosses, the river and, beneath his feet, a grand design nearly forgotten, an airport for an imagined world that never came.
Silver flashes in the sky. "Hear that drone?" Eisermann said. "That's the sound of the Berlin Airlift." He pointed to a DC-3, the Douglas aircraft that became the wartime C-47s that dropped those candy bars on tiny parachutes. "It's a tourist plane," he says. "For 99 euros [$118] they take you up and show you Berlin and Potsdam from the air."