Here’s my brush with fame as a Mormon missionary in
So it’s the winter of 1991 and I’m looking for an
apartment in this nasty old high-rise in East Berlin with Chuck Ames, a former
childhood buddy who just happened to be serving in the same place. The Wall had
come down almost two years earlier, but East Berlin still looked as decrepit as
it had been under the communist regime. I’m guessing the apartment building had
originally been painted one color or another, but like every other building on
the block, its façade was coated in drab, gray soot from the thousands of
coal-fired furnaces across the city. I only had a few engineering classes under
my belt at the time, but I knew enough about shoddy reinforcement to realize
that any seismic activity would level the entire concrete structure in a
We stomped our boots in the entryway, and the sound
echoed through the noisy corridors and stairwells. The interior was bleak and
dimly lit, but it sure beat the damp chill outside. I checked my address book
for the apartment number. Vacant apartments were definitely rare at the time – although many
of the building’s younger residents had split for the west, the previous tenants
were now being replaced by new immigrants from Poland, the Balkans, and
elsewhere in the disintegrating East Bloc.
Most of the elderly German residents,
on the other hand, had stayed put – feeling it was too late for them to pursue
new opportunities elsewhere. A couple of the old-timers were checking their
mailboxes in the entryway. I overheard their complaints about this new onslaught
of foreign languages, strange aromas from foreign dishes, turbans and burqas,
and other unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells – from their comments I gathered
that these particularly hardened
Germans were nostalgic to have their tightly controlled borders back. The newly
arriving immigrants sure made them nervous, but none so much as two white guys
in suits. They immediately fell silent when they noticed us.
In days past, the only people who had dressed in
suits and traveled in pairs were agents of the now defunct
Staatssicherheitsdienst – East Germany’s secret police. I wondered if these
old pensioners, who were a bit out of touch with the rapidly changing political
scene, had mistaken us for Stasi agents.
I found the apartment number, and we started making our way
down a dark corridor. An elderly lady approached us
from the other direction, but in typical fashion she scurried past us, trying
hard to avoid eye contact. I decided to introduce myself, so she’d realize we
“We’re from America,” I said, “We’ll be moving in
She turned and looked at me with suspicious
bewilderment, squinting to try and read my nametag.
“What?” she asked.
Apparently she was nearsighted, farsighted, and hard
of hearing. I gave it another shot, trying to be as loud, clear, and succinct as
“We’re Mormons!” I said.
“Oh, you’re the Ramones!” she replied, instantly
lighting up and dropping her guard, “Well, why didn’t you say so?”
Now in German you pronounce Mormon by
stressing the second syllable with a long “o”, as in “moan,” so I could
understand why she misunderstood me. What I couldn’t understand was why the
Ramones would mean anything to an old East Berliner. I knew they had a huge fan
base, but come on!
“Well this is just wonderful,” she said, digging
through her purse for her apartment key, “Follow me and we’ll catch up.”
As we followed her to her door, I gave Chuck a brief,
puzzled look – which was instantly reciprocated.
“Come on in!” she said in a welcoming, friendly tone.
Sure enough, her humble little box of an apartment
was fully adorned in Ramones regalia. And right in the middle of the oversize
posters on her wall was a framed picture of her holding a bass guitar. At her
side, with his arm around her, was Dee Dee Ramone, a founding member of the
“Boy was that guitar heavy,” she remarked, “I don’t
know how he jumps around with it on stage!”
“Did you see their concert here?” I
asked, having seen Ramones posters plastered all over Berlin for a show they had
done a few months earlier.
“Oh no,” she answered, “This
was taken in New York - my Douglas flew me all the
way to America for a show there.”
“Douglas?" I asked.
"Yes, Douglas Colvin," she
answered, "Or do you call him Dee Dee like his fans? I always thought
that was a funny nickname!"
still confused, but I just nodded and made my way
to the next pictures on the wall.
takes good care of his grandma," she added with pride, "I got to stay
with him in his apartment the whole week.”
Suddenly it all made
perfect sense: this was
Dee Dee's grandma, and she thought we were part of the band - maybe dropping by
to invite her to our next show! I wasn't quite sure how to let her down, but in
the meantime I was cracking up with the thought of Dee Dee trying to entertain
his grandma between shows for a week in New York. Going straight from East Berlin to a backstage
Ramones party in New York must have been quite a shock to her, but she didn’t
seem a bit phased.
I have to admit, as Ramones fans, Chuck and I were
wondering whether we should play along in an attempt to land some concert tickets or autographed memorabilia
from the meeting. I, for one, was even wondering how we might manipulate this poor old lady
into arranging an introduction to the real band. Perhaps
I was even blinded by some brief, grand delusions of converting the
Ramones to Mormonism! What a story that would make - we'd be the rock
stars of the mission for sure! With band members
quitting left and right, maybe they'd be looking for some replacement
With four power chords and a capo, Chuck and I could already play along to most of their songs, so who better to
fill in than the two of us? While we were still in uniform, I guess we'd both
have to call ourselves Elder Ramone, but we could seamlessly fit that
into our new Mormones logo!
logo hasn't made it onto any T-shirts yet, and the delusions turned out to be
just that. And in the end that night, we did just give in
and try to
clarify what we were really doing in Germany. I'm not sure whether the
sank in for Grandma Ramone, and
the only thing we took home with us was a story we could wear out time and
again in retelling. But once we got back to our apartment, I sat down
and wrote my own grandma a letter. And to this day, whenever I hear a
Ramones song I think about how long it's been since I called my grandma.
So I guess if there's a moral to the story, it's this: if Dee Dee can do
it, so can you! If you hear a Ramones song on the radio or see some
walking down the street in a Ramones T-shirt, instead of thinking "You
were still in diapers last time the Ramones toured," go home and write
your grandma a letter! To quote Dee Dee's own lyrics: "Hurry hurry
hurry, before you go insane!"
By the way, for the rest of my mission, just for kicks when we’d knock on doors, sometimes I’d say, “hi, I’m Elder Ramone
and this is Elder Ramone..."
No one ever got it, though.
did always wanted to add, "We’d like to share with you a message of
sedation. Do you wanna be sedated?"
Probably wouldn't have gone over so well either...guess it's a good thing it doesn't
translate into German...
next time you hear the Ramones, think of Dee Dee and go call your grandma, your grandpa, your mom, your dad, your kids,
whomever you love...Hey,
ho, let's go!