Friday, December 20, 2013

For a Better World – Lives of the New Left IV

Indiana University (IU) of the 1960s was a typical conservative Midwestern state university with its sprawling campus, many students, and location in a small town, Bloomington. Like the other schools of the Big Ten Football Conference, IU mainly served residents of the state.

The vast majority of students came to Bloomington to get a good, relatively inexpensive higher education. Tuition was only about $200 a semester for Indiana residents. The general ambition was to earn an undergraduate degree in four years, then find a job and take one’s place in society.

However, the ‘60s was no ordinary decade. It was a time of considerable social tumult as a distant war on the other side of the world roiled and divided American society. Students at a great number of colleges and universities started protesting the Vietnam War and demanding radical change of the prevailing ‘system’, as they referred to the existing socio-economic structure.

They called themselves the New Left. While such critically-minded students were by no means numerous on most campuses and though activism at IU was not as extensive as elsewhere, the IU New Left acquitted itself well in the annals of the time.*

Unlike most of their fellow students in Bloomington who were intent on ultimately fitting into the world beyond the campus gates, the IU New Left’s aim was to end the war in Vietnam and, in the process, transform American society rather than join it – and they preferred radical change. My younger brother, Jeff Sharlet, IU ’67, an ex-Vietnam GI who died young, was part of the IU New Left contingent.

Jeff Sharlet leading a protest rally at IU, spring 1967

This past summer over a half century later, quite a number of the IU New Left turned up in Bloomington for a grand reunion. Not a large group to begin with, some 60 or more reassembled at their old stomping grounds, swapping stories of past campaigns, inevitable setbacks, and eventual victories – large and small, personal and public. They kicked off their gathering with what was dubbed a ‘Town Hall’ at which many of the returnees made short presentations about their activism during and beyond their time at Indiana University.

Their diverse interests and various causes, then as students (long gone were the idealistic dreams of ‘revolution’) and since as graduates, made for a rich mosaic of their continuous striving for meaningful, albeit incremental, social change in America.

The profiles in this post cover the gamut of the ‘60s at IU. The first is of Paulann Hosler Sheets, who arrived at the university in ’59 from a city in eastern Indiana near the Ohio border and subsequently played key roles in two major events of the early decade – the pro-Cuba march during the Missile Crisis of ’62 and the related case of the ‘Bloomington Three’ (B-3), students indicted under the Indiana Anti-Communism Act.

The other profile is of Dan Kaplan, a major campus leader, who helped successfully rally thousands of IU students against President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in 1970.

Many of the future New Leftists who enrolled at IU came from liberal family backgrounds while some had early exposure to radical political ideas. Most, looking back in time in 2013, called their activist experience at IU seminal. A few students of the left came from conservative Indiana families, and their time of political engagement at the university was both initially transformative as well as ultimately seminal.

Such was the experience of Paulann Sheets, who took  her BA degree at IU and subsequently won a fellowship to the grad school. She came to campus a Goldwater Republican and joined a sorority – in the stratified world of student housing, the upper stratum of the campus social universe. In a very short time, however, Paulann hooked up with the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) and became a Trotskyist as well as a premier campus activist.

Her first major action was the Fair Play for Cuba March of October ’62 – in opposition to President Kennedy’s naval blockade of the island during the tense Missile Crisis.  Paulann was part of a very small band of brothers and two sisters who planned to march across campus displaying their opposition on signs held aloft – so-called ‘speech on a stick’ –  with slogans like ‘Hands Off Cuba’ and ‘Stop the Blockade’. However, when the group assembled, they found themselves confronted by several thousand jeering, jingoistic fellow students.

The protest group, mostly YSA members, had previously agreed that Jim Bingham would make the final decision whether it was a ‘go’ or ‘no go’. Seeing the veritable sea of hostile counter-protestors before them, he called off the action, but Paulann and Polly Smith boldly announced they were going to march, mob or no mob. The guys, certainly more conscious of the potential dangers ahead, joined them.

In the midst of the Cold War with the USSR, the great bugbear, the marchers were predictably mobbed, signs shredded, punches thrown – all while campus security and the city police stood by impassively. Bravely, the tiny group marched on, fortunately essentially unscathed, before wisely abandoning the remainder of the route for safe refuge from the hostiles. Nevertheless, their statement had been made.

During the following spring of ’63, three of the YSA leaders – Jim Bingham, Ralph Levitt, and Tom Morgan – were indicted on trumped-up charges of conspiring to overthrow the government of the state under Indiana’s dubious McCarthy-style statute, so-called after the notorious political witch hunter of the ‘50s, the late Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Their persecutor was the young, politically ambitious county district attorney, or DA, Thomas Hoadley.

Encouraged by YSA’s parent organization, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Paulann organized the ‘Committee to Aid the Bloomington Students’, or CABS, serving as its secretary on behalf of her three comrades whose education and lives were disrupted for the next two years by the DA’s willful political crusade.

Valedictorian from a very good high school and a first class student in IU’s Government Department, Paulann interrupted her own education, withdrawing from school for a time to travel the country on behalf of the B-3. The FBI’s Indianapolis Field Office considered her so effective that they recommended Paulann as a candidate for the ‘Index’, the secret list of citizens who, in event of national emergency were to be closely monitored, and in some cases interned.

Paulann Sheets at the IU reunion, August 2013

In her presentation at the reunion Town Hall, Paulann provided the backdrop for her vigorous activism:

I’m from Fort Wayne, Indiana. My name’s Paulann. Well, that’s a story in itself – Paulann Hosler Groninger Caplovitz Sheets. And I think it all goes back to about the 4th grade when I had a teacher, and she taught everything, and her name was Sadie Baker Hatcher Hawkins Simon, and I must have been trying to live up to that.

And something that really stuck was what she said to us probably once a month which is, “History is the struggle of the ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots.’” And it really stuck with me even though as a member of my family I identified as a Republican – a Goldwater Republican by the time I came here in ‘59. That’s where I was.

But at the heart of Goldwaterism in my parents’ creed was standing up for your principles. ‘Be true to thyself’. Well, I was a top student at Northside High School, but I knew nothing about the world. Nothing. And I didn’t know anything about myself. I didn’t know what was beautiful, what was true. I had just tried to meet all the expectations that were placed upon me, and did so, and then I came to Bloomington.

Well, first semester [of my Sophomore year] as a Government student there was a campaign for president going on, and [the Hollywood actress] Angie Dickinson and others arrived [in town to campaign for the Democratic ticket]. Jack Kennedy was running, and Richard Nixon was running. I was for Nixon. And I remember a sign that we put up that said something like, “If you trick our Dick, we’ll flush your John.”

I thought it was so clever, but I just shocked and shamed my Department of Government. You have to remember back then it was the Department of Government, not Political Science, that was pretentious and foolish.

And Bernie Morris – and I bet you remember Bernie [a professor of Government]. When I was still in the throes of my passion for Trotskyism in the sense that this is how I see the world – I can’t call myself a revolutionary socialist because if you’re not making a revolution 24/7, you really don’t deserve to call yourself that. But anyway, Bernie scoffed at this Political Science; he said, “Political Séance.” That says it all.

Anyway, in a nutshell, I began to learn about the world and of course discovered racism, sexism, poverty, all the things everybody else knew about, but I had been protected from. I was deeply shocked. But what’s ironic is that my real activism started with the march against the Cuban blockade in ’62.

That Republican family of mine – my father was quite a salesman for York Air Conditioning equipment. He would win big prizes in his company [including trips]. He went to Cuba in 1958 with my mother. And he was horrified at what he’d seen. This is before Castro came down from the hills [in late ‘58].

My father came back terribly impressed with Castro; it was the greatest thing that could have happened because he had seen child prostitution in the streets of Havana. And so I was predisposed to be a Cuban revolutionary supporter and have stayed one ever since. And unfortunately the struggle has gone on.

[Moderator: Didn’t you work with the Bloomington Three?]

Yes, I was the organizer of the Committee to Aid the Bloomington Students’, thanks to the Socialist Workers Party. It was a great experience. I quit school for a year and a half and gave speeches here and there, trying to provide moral support to our great Ralph [Levitt], Tom [Morgan], and Jim [Bingham] who went through the ordeal imposed on them by DA Hoadley very bravely and with grace under fire.

The ‘Bloomington Three’ at IU – Levitt, Morgan, and Bingham

Floor time at the Town Hall was necessarily limited, and at this point Paulann broke off, unable to elaborate further about the ‘Committee’. Later she told me more of her work on behalf of the B-3, which I’ll summarize.

Ralph Levitt and Jim Bingham, both IU grad students, and Tom Morgan, an undergrad, were officers of the campus YSA as well as the ‘Fair Play for Cuba Committee’. They and others had been instrumental in the march (described above) and during the following spring they had invited a national YSA officer to speak on campus in what Paulann described as “a sedate affair before an academic audience.”

DA Hoadley, claiming that the speaker’s remarks were a call for revolution against the State of Indiana, quickly moved to indict the three YSA leaders. Paulann said they well understood that the grand jury’s decision was “also a reaction to the October ’62 anti-blockade march” – an attempt to intimidate students from speaking out on controversial issues as well as an unprecedented assault on freedom of speech at a university.

Almost simultaneously, YSA called a meeting with Paulann (then Paulann Hosler Groninger) in the chair, posing Lenin’s question ‘What is to be done?’ The national YSA and the SWP in New York recommended the creation of a local defense committee for the B-3. Paulann led the formation of CABS, or the Committee to Aid the Bloomington Students, to serve as a springboard for mobilizing national support for Ralph, Jim, and Tom.

Following the recommended modus operandi, she recruited concerned IU faculty, the better known the better, to lend their names to the committee’s letterhead. She successfully “rounded up about 15-17 worthies,” among whom were some of Indiana’s most prominent professors. The local CABS letterhead in turn provided leverage for acquiring the support of distinguished scholars at nationally-known universities, ensuring high visibility for the beleaguered B-3. Hence, Paulann regarded her recruitment efforts in Bloomington as her most important contribution to the defense of her friends and comrades.

The story of the B-3 continues, but that’s for another time. For now, suffice it to say that after having their lives turned upside down for a couple of years, the case finally ended well for the Bloomington Three.

Paulann later withdrew from the PhD program in Government and went on to Columbia University for a law degree at the urging of David Caplovitz, a sociologist whose work on the voiceless poor, The Poor Pay More, she admired. Eventually appointed an Assistant Attorney General of New York State, she subsequently did a stint as an adjunct law professor and is currently a member of a law firm specializing in assisting homeowners facing foreclosure. 

Paulann later went on to Columbia University for a law degree, was appointed an Assistant Attorney General of New York State, subsequently did a stint as an adjunct law professor, and is currently a member of a law firm specializing in assisting homeowners facing foreclosure.

Unlike Paulann Sheets, Dan Kaplan, IU ’70, appeared in Bloomington politically shaped, if not yet fully formed. He was born and raised in Gary, a steel town in northwestern Indiana. As a youngster there, Dan became acquainted with the Balanoff family.†  

The father of his Balanoff contemporaries was a steelworker’s union leader and a longtime member of the Old Left. Already at a young age, Dan would sit in their living room arguing the relative merits of Trotsky versus Stalin. Balanoff senior got Dan a summer job at a steel plant where he joined the union, the first of several in his long career in labor.

Dan’s activism got underway before his arrival at IU. He had been involved with the ‘Friends of SNCC’ (pronounced ‘snick’, supporters of the Black civil rights group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the Chicago area. Dan had also attended SDS’s June National Council meeting in Ann Arbor MI before entering IU fall term ’66. He was soon drawn to the campus SDS chapter and quickly became a stalwart of the New Left.

Brother Jeff Sharlet was chapter president during Dan’s freshman year, and they became good friends. When Jeff graduated in ’67, Dan was elected SDS president and led the group during the Dow Chemical sit-in, the campus protest against Secretary of State Rusk, and other actions during 1968-69.

Let’s have Dan pick it up from here from his IU Town Hall remarks:

[In high school] I got involved a little bit with SNCC in the Chicago area and somehow ended up going to the SDS National Council meeting in Ann Arbor with someone in this room. Jim Balanoff and I spent a weekend there, so I was very focused on SDS when I came here to IU.

Long story short, or a little shorter, I became president of the SDS chapter here in Bloomington from 1967 into 1969. I later joined the campus YSA just a few weeks before the [national] upsurge against [Nixon’s] invasion of Cambodia [which began April 30, 1970].

Dan Kaplan, 2012

I left Bloomington in ’70; I went to New York for a year where I spent a lot of time at the National Office of the Socialist Workers Party, observing close up the functioning of the party’s central leadership. After a year in New York, I moved to the [San Francisco] Bay Area, where I became a staff member for the Northern California Peace Action Coalition. I organized against the war in Vietnam until the war ended when I lost my job.

I then became a social worker in the Department of Social Services in San Francisco. That gave me an opportunity to join the labor movement. I became a member of the Executive Board of the San Francisco local of the Social Workers Union and was involved in the city’s labor movement for a long time.

Then I went back to school and ended up becoming a community college instructor teaching American politics, international relations, and political philosophy. I always, I must admit – although I wouldn’t have necessarily said this to my students – I always taught from a Marxian perspective. I never had a problem delivering a radical analysis.

Eventually I ended up at the City College of San Francisco, working half-time for the faculty union while teaching Political Science courses half-time at the college. From there, I was hired to be the Executive Secretary of the San Mateo Community College Federation of Teachers, American Federation of Teachers [AFT] Local 1493. And I’m still holding that position today as well as teaching political philosophy classes from time to time.

I must say, as many people have said here at the Town Hall this morning, Bloomington really had a seminal influence on my mind and I think my values. They were already roughly [shaped] values, but they were solidified by my activism here in Bloomington, which has helped me stay really focused on my ideas of how to create a better world and a fundamentally successful movement for social change.

We haven’t been winning that battle obviously, but I’m still committed to engaging in the struggle.

A lifelong activist, Dan continues to serve as Executive Secretary of AFT 1493, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this fall. In addition, he sits on the editorial board of the local’s newsletter, The Advocate, for which he occasionally writes. Dan was a co-organizer of the IU New Left reunion of 2013.
I don’t think it can be put much better than in Dan’s words – in their activist years at IU and during the decades since, Paulann and Dan, each in their different ways, have steadfastly striven ‘to create a better world’.

*See M A Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (2002).

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Good Life in Cold War Europe

I couldn’t quite believe it – there I was in the military going to work in a uniform, yet having a livelier time than my college days. In letters home from Europe to my kid brother, Jeff Sharlet, it probably didn’t sound like I was leading a soldierly life. No tales of bivouacs, maneuvers, or garrison duties.

In my outfit, the ASA, or Army Security Agency, an intelligence group, we weren’t even issued weapons. Ours was a clandestine war, well hidden within the Cold War writ large between the Soviet and American superpowers, but we couldn’t talk about it.

Strict ASA rules prohibited writing home about the highly classified work we did on a daily basis. There I was in central Germany not far from the frontiers of the Soviet empire, but the only thing left to write about was my social life. My letters no doubt sounded to Jeff like a great way to spend your time in the military as long as one had to be there – back then all able-bodied males were required to serve in the armed forces.

I lucked out in Europe, but mine was hardly the typical life of a GI posted abroad. Not long after arriving at my duty station in Frankfurt am Main, I chanced to meet a fellow New England college guy, Jim, a Dartmouth grad nearing the end of his tour.

Jim had a long time German girlfriend, a good looking girl named Kätchen. She was from a Junker family, the former East Prussian landed nobility dispossessed when their estates were overrun by the Soviet Army in early 1945. After the collapse of the Third Reich later that spring, Germany was divided into four occupation zones. Three of them, the US, British, and French zones, were eventually combined as the Federal Republic of Germany, or BRD, known as West Germany.

The Soviet Union occupied eastern Germany and later transformed it into a communist state called the German Democratic Republic (DDR), or East Germany for short. In effect, it was goodbye East Prussia and with it Kätchen’s family’s holdings. Like so many other Germans from the east, her family had fled westward ahead of the advancing Soviet forces. They ended up in the American Zone.

Jim was about to leave her behind and asked me a favor. After his departure for the States, would I take Kätchen out a few times to ease the transition from the inevitable break-up. In return, Jim offered to introduce me into a rather special young German social group. I said, ‘Sure, why not’. Jim was off to Harvard Business School that fall and looking forward to getting a career going after three years in ASA – he eventually became a stockbroker.

Kätchen and I went out several times – very pleasant duty for me – but she was so broken up over losing Jim that they were tearful evenings. Try my best, I could not console or distract her. I knew there was little chance of the two ever meeting again, so what could I say.

Meanwhile, before shipping out, Jim had taken me to a gathering of a German-American friendship group – formally known as the Steuben-Schurz Society, so named for two distinguished Germans who had made notable contributions to the public realm in America during the 18th and 19th centuries respectively.

Sounds stuffy, but it wasn’t. It was a meeting of a small group of young people, the juniors of an adult organization. They were mostly young women with only one or two German men of the same age. The Americans were nearly all ASA guys like me, mostly from the East Coast.

I was astonished to learn that the girls were aristocrats, a social category I’d never before encountered except in novels and movies. Although aristocratic titles could no longer be used in public life in the new Germany, the nobility was not about to completely give up its birthright. Many of the families went back generations, even centuries, and there were no rules against retaining a title in private life.

However, the younger set wore its legacy lightly. All the young women were countesses. They were a good-looking, well turned out bunch, all soon to be seniors at an elite, private secondary school comparable to a good American prep school.

The countesses, who barely took note of their titles, spoke fluent British English learned at school. They were delighted to be acquainted with reasonably educated Americans with whom they could practice their language skills, among other things. We were certainly happy to oblige.

For us Americans, being in close company with classy, attractive young women with whom we didn’t have to communicate in our bad German was quite a hoot. Germany was still a rather formal society compared to the States, so for the girls, mostly younger than we were, there was also a certain cachet in hanging out with laid-back young Americans. Inevitably of course, when young people get together, it ends up being more than just conversation and language practice.

Sure, we were soldiers, and with few exceptions just solid middle class boys, but in the emerging democratic culture of West Germany that didn’t matter to our German friends. In fact, the two German guys in the club, both counts, one of whom was the nephew of the Foreign Minister, were generally ignored by their female classmates. Some of the girls even made gentle fun of the ‘nephew’ who resembled a guardsman in an old Imperial regiment – somewhat stiff, ramrod straight, with a thin mustache out of place on his young face.

Of the girls I remember, Krista was the liveliest, but her family suffered a tragedy during the time I knew her. Her father committed suicide. Then there was Katrine, whose family owned the thoroughbred racetrack outside Frankfurt and was quite prosperous. She later married one of our group, John from a Mayflower family, and came to live in the States.

I’ve forgotten the first name of another young woman, the most mature one, but I remember hearing about her grandfather, Count J H von Bernstorff, who had been the Kaiser’s ambassador to the United States until we declared war on Germany in 1917. Finally, there was the beautiful blonde Karin, the most rebellious of the group. Her parents were divorced, and, coincidentally, her father and stepfather were business rivals, both senior officers at West Germany’s two leading banks. She and I became an item for nearly a year before it was my time to head home.

The first social event to which I accompanied Karin was an elegant ball at a resort hotel outside Frankfurt. It was the final affair of the season before the heat of summer. In a letter home, I described the occasion:

           The hotel is set in a large park crisscrossed by gardens and
           paths. It sits at the head of a long sweep of lawn filled with
           floodlit fountains and spectacular weeping willows. The
          ballroom was large and lavish and teemed with fashionably
          dressed people.

Four friends enjoying the summer ball, July 1957

          A German orchestra and an American band supplied an end-
          less flow of waltzes, rhumbas, tangos, and even a few
          Charlestons for the younger set.

          The highlight of the evening was the processional walk
          through the gardens with each lady carrying a Japanese
          lantern to light the way, while a German ensemble played
          stirring marches from the terrace.   

Soon after, Karin left to spend her school vacation with her father in Hamburg on the North Sea, so the rest of the summer was quiet socially. However, I had come to Germany with a press pass from a newspaper on California’s Monterey Peninsula where I had spent a year at the Army Language School (ALS) learning Czech. The idea was that I’d send a few stories from Europe since a large part of the paper’s readership was military.

The German Grand Prix, a major international road race, was scheduled for August ‘57 – so I decided Formula 1 (F1) racing would make a colorful piece. The event was held at the 14-mile course, the North Loop of the Nürburgring, in the Eifel Mountains to the northwest. Not knowing much about the sport, I did a little reading before driving up. My credentials gave me access to the track, which I drove around in my sleek, front-wheel drive French Citroën – a hair-raising experience on the steeply banked turns.

A few hours before race time, I dropped by the private track lounge, a well-appointed space where the drivers sat around relaxing. It was quite a scene, dashing young racing drivers casually dressed, but sporting colorful silk scarves, with stylish young women at every table. Stirling Moss, the famous British driver, was pointed out to me, but by far the most dramatic personality was the American Harry Schell, a renowned playboy who, when not behind the wheel, could be found at a celebrity bar in Paris.

Harry Schell, Grand Prix driver

A respected driver on the Italian Maserati team, he was from a well to do family that had been involved with F1 racing during the interwar period. That day Harry was busy regaling a bevy of lovelies with lively stories.

The one exception to the festive pre-race atmosphere sat in a corner of the lounge – a middle-aged man sitting quietly with a plainly dressed woman. I was told that he was Juan Manuel Fangio, the Argentine leader of Team Maserati and reigning world champion driver. He had been on the Grand Prix circuit for years and was approaching the end of his career.

Juan Manuel Fangio, F1 World Champion driver

The flag dropped, and the brightly colored streamlined cars were off in an incredible roar of motors – a thrilling sight to behold. Fangio seized the lead, but at midpoint in the 300+ mile race there was a screw-up during a pit-stop, and he fell behind a Ferrari. Then, in what became one of the greatest all-time races, Fangio set new course lap records, came from behind in the penultimate lap, and won by a mere 3 seconds. My favorite, Harry Schell, managed a respectable 7th, but well out of the money. A few years later, he would die in an F1 crash in England.
I filed my Grand Prix article on a borrowed typewriter. My own was loaned out to a fellow linguist, a guy who had been abruptly transferred to a front line unit, and unfortunately my typewriter went with him. I drove to his new post to pick it up. He had been assigned to a combat outfit, the 14th Armored Cav, located on a sprawling cantonment in the open countryside 60 miles northwest of Frankfurt.

The unit was poised along the road running from the ‘Fulda Gap’ on the inner German border to Frankfurt in the heart of West Germany. Topographically, the Gap was a lowland and a historic route for armies moving westward.

In the distance I could see the elaborate East German frontier barriers, high razor wire fences, and tall guard towers – physical manifestations of Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ metaphor. US command knew that formidable Soviet forces –  the 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army – stood behind the wire. The 14th ‘s mission in the event of a Soviet invasion was to delay the advance elements just long enough for  heavy reinforcements to move up – in effect, they were the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

For me as a rear area soldier, it was like being in a combat zone – tanks and armored personnel carriers everywhere, troops in field uniforms. Adding to the effect, a German armor unit was visiting the 14th, and they too were in full field dress. According to German military custom, I, a mere sergeant, was saluted by every passing Bundeswehr private and corporal. In their soft visored field caps, one could easily imagine them at the Russian front in ’41. I felt like I had walked onto a WWII movie set.

Early September Karin, back from Hamburg, invited me to another glamorous social affair, this one in the famous spa town of Baden-Baden in southwest Germany’s picturesque Black Forest. It was a gala ball – a dinner dance – in one of the town’s 19th century palaces. She was going with her parents and wanted some company, so a formal invitation in old German script was arranged for me.

I had visited Baden-Baden once before. The former King Edward VIII, now the Duke of Windsor, had just arrived with his wife and their entourage for a stay, so there was much excitement in town. On that occasion, I took in the famous gambling casino one evening – an elegant place of deep carpets and stylishly dressed people where several languages could be heard at the tables. I played a little roulette and lost.

Baden-Baden, West Germany, 1950s

At the appointed hour for the ball, I repaired to the palace and saw before me a grand stairway up to the ballroom, on every other step of which stood a bewigged footman in period costume like so many statues. I presented my invitation. The head footman looked at me rather apologetically and politely asked if we could step aside for a word. It seems I had mistranslated the invitation. Gentlemen were expected to wear tails, and there I stood in my best dark suit.

Realizing my error, I said ‘Ohmigod, I’m expected by Countess von V.’ The kind man had a solution – he sent me to his friend, the wardrobe mistress at the opera house. The best she could do for me was a tux off the costume racks. I reappeared at the palace hopefully – the head footman was immensely pleased to see me, and, as I triumphantly ascended the great staircase, all of his underlings were beaming.

By early fall I had become pretty adept at my work, so duty days passed pleasantly. One balmy autumn weekend I drove down the Mosel River Valley. My companion was Inge, a German stewardess – in contrast to her, Karin was a schoolgirl whose mother only let her go out on Saturday nights. The Mosel was a famous wine valley, and Inge and I stopped at many little riparian villages to sample the local vintage. We went to the very end of the valley, the City of Trier, birthplace of Karl Marx, not far from the French border.

At our ASA office in late ’57, we took little note of the Cold War winds swirling around us. Although we only occasionally glanced at the few English language papers available on the Continent, one could hardly miss the major news. During the summer, Khrushchev had thwarted a coup attempt against him, then in October victoriously announced that ‘Sputnik’, a Soviet satellite, was spinning around the earth.

Looking back, it was a momentous event; the Cold War had escalated into a space race. Official Washington was in shock that the Soviet Union had leaped ahead so dramatically, but still, Sputnik didn’t have even a ripple effect on our ASA mission. Our beat was ordinary people of Communist East Europe, especially in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, or the northern tier, the focus of my section. Leadership changes in Warsaw, the grinding neo-Stalinism of the Czech Communist Party-state, or Budapest’s political trials following the failed ’56 Hungarian uprising – all of it was above our pay grade.

Our task was to monitor the ‘objects’ of the regimes’ policies from above – for instance, how economic legislation impacted daily life of the little man and what, if any, political grumbling could be detected. In a word, we were watching and writing reports on the indicators of political and socio-economic stability far from the East European capitals and power centers.      

As the year drew to a close, my ALS pal Gordon from the Polish desk and I decided to take a road trip to north Germany. We left after work on a Friday and drove into the night. Unexpectedly, we got caught in a blizzard on a deserted road in the mountains.

My black Citroën was a very cool car, but it was also old with high mileage, and it began to act up. Seems the problem had something to do with the gas line feeding the carburetor. Temporary fixes didn’t work, so zany Gordon climbed out on the cat’s paw fender and manually operated the thing as I drove, but after a dozen miles he gave it up – too cold.

Laughing uproariously at our absurd fix, we pulled off the road. Fortunately the storm had passed, daylight was breaking, and along came a farmer driving a tractor pulling a hay rack. He took pity, and we rode into the nearby town on the back of the rig, grabbed some food, and caught the morning train back to Frankfurt – adventure aborted.

As far as I was concerned, the Citroën was finished and forgotten, that is, until I was summoned by the German police a few days later. They had found the car abandoned and thought I was missing. Meanwhile, my car had been towed to the town, repaired at a local garage – at substantial cost as it turned out – and I was instructed to go back up there, pay the bill, and reclaim ‘my property’. Back up north I went.

ASA gave us a few days off for Christmas. Before leaving the office I wished one of the Russian linguists a merry one, but found him down in the dumps. Seems he had been inducted into an illegal secret dueling society at the university – dueling was outlawed in postwar Germany – and had high hopes of getting the classic nick on the cheek for a fashionable dueling scar, long the German upper-class macho symbol. However, being a tall guy with long arms, he had out-dueled all his opponents and, unhappily, emerged unscathed.

So ended my first year in Cold War Europe, but looking back I now wonder what impression my adventure-filled letters had on my teenage brother – that military life was a lark? That was certainly not the case when he arrived in Vietnam six years later.