Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Farewell Europe, Hello Vietnam

Late summer ’58, my European Cold War tour was drawing to a close. I had secured an ‘early-out’ on my three-year enlistment. That meant getting out of the military three months early to return to college. My adventures on the Continent would soon come to an end.†

Karin, an attractive young German girl whom I had hung out with much of the past year, was not yet due back to school for her last year. She was an only child of divorce – her mother, remarried, lived in Bad Homburg, an upscale suburb of Frankfurt am Main; her father lived up in Hamburg on the north coast of West Germany, a Cold War composite of the American, British, and French post-WWII occupation zones.

Karin proposed a farewell fling before we’d inevitably have to go our separate ways – she soon to university in her homeland, I back to college in the States to pursue my new aspiration of ultimately becoming a professor. Since her father was off in London on business for his bank, she and I would stay at his place. We caught an express train to Hamburg, a city largely destroyed by allied bombing during the war, but rebuilt since and again a flourishing center of sea commerce at the intersection of the North and Baltic seas.

Hamburg was Karin’s second home, and she knew the city and environs well. We spent the first day on the Baltic Sea beach at Travemünde. For the last leg of the trip out to the beach, we rode a rickety two-car trolley-train that clattered along a lengthy spit of land parallel to the sea. The day was sunny, but windy. Obviously German bathers knew how to deal with the elements, for the beach had row upon row of open-ended, wooden cabanas, each with a colorful awning. We rented one to get out of the wind and warm-up after swimming.

The beach at Travemünde

The next day we went down to Hamburg’s great harbor, the second largest in Europe, on the River Elbe, its access to the North Sea.  It was a bustling place with tugs crossing to and fro and freighters from many ports of call. Karin’s cousin was a Merchant Marine officer, and his ship was in port. He welcomed us aboard, and we toured a working ship that plied the world’s trade routes.

Then he took us for a swing around the harbor on a small craft that nosed in and amongst the jetties and ships. Putt-putting amidst hovering ocean-going vessels was akin to exploring mighty canyons. We stood off a safe distance and watched cargo ships loading and off-loading hard goods and grains at the port’s various terminals. Quite fascinating.

The harbor at Port of Hamburg

On my final day in north Germany – Karin would be staying on to see her father on his return from England – we took the train and ferry across the Baltic straits to Denmark for dinner in Copenhagen, an especially festive European city. Returning very late to Hamburg, we picked up my overnight bag and taxied to the main railway station. I was due back at my Frankfurt garrison for ‘separation processing’ – in the Cold War military full discharge came much later after several years in the inactive reserves – and to pick up my travel orders for stateside.

As planned, I caught the last train of the night from Hamburg’s Hauptbahnhof to points south. Standing in the cavernous departure hall on the nearly deserted platform, Karin and I said our fond goodbyes – for me it was Farewell Europe.

Final out-processing from my intelligence outfit, the Army Security Agency (ASA), took place at Agency’s HQ in the I G Farben building where I had worked in a well-guarded, tightly secured classified operation. Summoned to the office of the commandant, I expected a little pro-forma chat on leaving the Agency. I presented myself, saluted the colonel, was put at ease, and then pleasantly surprised when he rose from his desk, a document in hand, and solemnly began to read from it.

It was a special ‘Letter of Commendation’ in which he wrote:

               Upon your departure from ASA Europe, I wish to take
               this opportunity to express my appreciation and
               commend you upon the manner in which you have 
               executed your assigned duties while on duty with this 

              Your willingness to earnestly apply yourself and the
              skillful use of your linguistic talents have contributed
              abundantly to accomplishment of not only the branch
              mission, but also of the entire ASA Europe….

Needless to say I was pleased ASA had noticed, came to attention, gave a sharp salute, and left his office, believing the time had come to hit the road. Not so fast – I was instructed to report to another office before leaving the building for the final time. Locating the office, the legend on the frosted glass door merely bore the letters ‘CIC’ in modest black caps.

The author off-duty, Frankfurt am Main, West Germany, 1958

I had been ‘invited’ to a so-called exit interview by the Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC), a shadowy branch of the Army charged with preventing treasonous activity by US military personnel, especially those of us bearing secret information that could give aid and comfort to the enemy. With the utmost seriousness, a gruff CIC sergeant (sgt) warned that if I divulged any classified information about my mission, I would face 10 years imprisonment plus a $10,000 fine – serious money in those days.

With that sobering message filed away, I shouldered my duffel bag and began the long return home. While I had arrived in Europe by air so that ASA could get maximum mileage out of me – at the end of my tour I was to depart by slow troopship. My orders took me back up to the North Sea, but this time to Bremerhaven, the US military’s port of embarkation. Ironically, I was retracing the steps of my grandparents who had emigrated from the Tsarist Russian Empire in the late 19th century, making their way to the New World from the very same port to which I was headed.

My ship was waiting. Named the USNS Geiger for a Marine general, it had been acquired by the Navy for Korean War service. The Geiger carried a crew of 200+ and could transport 2000 troops. For this crossing, its complement of passengers was to be an ‘element’ – Army-speak – of the 3rd Armored Division. After its role in WWII under General Patton, the 3rd had gone on to serve for years as a frontline unit in Cold War West Germany facing large Soviet forces across the border in East Germany.

USNS Geiger steaming out of Bremerhaven

I was fine with riding the waves with such a distinguished combat outfit except that I was the sole ASA soldier on the ship’s roster. In berthing arrangements aboard ship, the structure of the 3rd Armor was maintained, meaning that all troopers in a given formation along with their sgts were assigned to a common compartment. Officers were of course bedded down separately above decks and far more comfortably.

As an outlier, I was attached to the unit’s oddball collection of GIs –  soldiers designated to be mustered out of the Army under less than honorable conditions, as well as those slated for ‘Section 8’ discharges, men with psychological problems.

As you can guess, the oddballs along with me were given the least desirable accommodations on the Geiger – down near the ship’s screws with the immense, noisy driveshaft turning the propellers constantly running overhead. I found myself assigned for the return home in a densely packed, hot, humid, and relatively airless space. Uncannily, like my family leaving Russia, I too would be crossing the North Atlantic in steerage.

On our first day at sea, my fellow passengers were already becoming restless, loudly arguing among themselves as some whiled away the time lying in their bunks while others played craps against the bulkhead. There were even a few fights in one of which I glimpsed the flash of a short blade. Underscoring that we were in the butt end of the boat, I noticed when we exited for chow that an armed sentry was posted at the hatch.

I settled into my bunk with a book, figuring it was going to be a trip to forget, but shortly after lunch I was startled to hear my name shouted down the hatch – ‘Sharlet, Sp-5, report topside’. I climbed the two-story high metal ladder, and was met by a sailor who escorted me to the office of the ship’s chaplain. The chaplain, a Baptist minister and naval officer, invited me to take a seat and explained that he had two things he wanted me to do during the journey.

I was puzzled that he even knew of my existence until he gestured to the file on his desk, my file, from which he had apparently learned that I was the only detached GI aboard with some college education who was also Jewish. The two tasks were that I was to edit the ship’s daily paper for the troops, and with a Jewish holiday coming up – to preside over religious services for Jewish troops who wished to observe the occasion.

I had no problem with editing a paper, but wasn’t sure about my other assignment. I didn’t have much of a religious education, but I did my best. The chaplain had given me an office on the bright, sunny promenade deck and even assigned me an assistant, a company clerk from the 3rd Armor with office skills.

Every morning after chow I’d head to ‘my office’ and set up for the day’s paper. Then, at a designated time, I’d go up to the captain’s bridge to meet with the ship’s exec or executive officer (XO), a starchy type. He’d tear several sheets off the ship’s teletype, glance through them, and hand them to me as the source for the latest news. If he passed the material on without comment, I was free to use any of it in the day’s paper, a single legal-size sheet mimeographed on both sides.

However, if the XO drew my attention to a section of the teletype he had bracketed, that meant it was censored and could not be shared with the troops. That happened on two occasions – the first was a brief report on an aerial dogfight between Chinese Nationalist and Red Chinese fighter jets over the Taiwan Straits.

The other censored story concerned US airborne troops in Lebanon. President Eisenhower had ordered them ashore to combat ‘communist subversion’. I naturally followed the XO’s orders, musing to myself that, although I was soon putting the military behind me, the Cold War remained alive and well.

We published that day’s paper, and I gave the Middle East no further thought. Usually my assistant and I would hang out in our comfortable office the rest of the day, not returning to our billets until after evening chow. That afternoon was an especially pleasant one with a soft ocean breeze and just a light chop on the water. I was standing at the rail of the promenade deck taking the sun when suddenly I noticed that the ship had begun a 180-degree turn mid-ocean.

As the Geiger took a new heading back toward Europe, I thought, so long fall semester back in college. I figured it had just been decided on high that the 3rd Armor Division was needed as reinforcement in Lebanon, and I was along for the ride, stuck with them. But the ship continued turning, now making a full circle in the Atlantic. Puzzled, I shouted down to sailors on the deck below wearing big, blocky life jackets and asked what was going on.

Fate smiled on my academic plans as I learned the whole thing was a routine exercise, a simulated man overboard drill. We steamed on to our destination and my future. Only years later did I learn that just two months earlier it was the Geiger that had transported the paratroopers from US European bases to the shores of Tripoli.

After what seemed an interminable crossing, we sighted the outer banks of New York Harbor, and then the Statue of Liberty came into view. Though I hadn’t been overseas that long and was certainly never in harm’s way, I felt a little emotional tug at seeing the Lady of the Harbor.

Along with me, my French Citroën stowed below decks, and the 3rd Armor, the Geiger pulled into the Brooklyn Navy Yard docks on schedule. We disembarked, Navy longshoremen off-loaded my car, and I was once again a civilian. I headed north toward Boston and my junior year in college. ‘My war’ was over, but brother Jeff Sharlet’s lay ahead on the far side of the world. For him, it would be a reluctant Hello Vietnam.
† For those adventures from college to Cold War Europe, see previous posts:

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Long March from Bloomington – Lives of the New Left V

Most of us went to college, followed our youthful enthusiasms, and later moved on to grad school and career tracks, but not the New Left activists of Indiana University (IU) during the ‘60s. Many of them had arrived on campus politically aware, while the others were soon politicized and radicalized by the inescapable crisis of those years, the Vietnam War.

For the New Left, the war seemed emblematic of the ills of American society – thus, opposing the war while supporting the Civil Rights Movement and other ‘freedom’ movements and causes became the order of the day.
The New Leftists at IU were never numerous – essentially a small minority of students on a large campus – but they were a tightly knit band of brothers and sisters determined to stop a war and change society. I’d been aware of the IU New Left for some time in the course of researching a memoir on my brother Jeff Sharlet, IU ’67. He was part of the group, one of the few ex-Vietnam GIs on the campus left at that time. He became a campus leader of the SDS chapter, the Students for a Democratic Society.

Jeff’s activism didn’t end with graduation. Winner of a prestigious Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship, he went on to the University of Chicago, but soon withdrew to continue the struggle against the Vietnam War. Until his early death in ’69, he was a founding leader of the emerging GI opposition to the war. †

During summer of 2013 I had the opportunity to get better acquainted with my brother’s old IU comrades. They had gathered for a grand reunion of the New Left back in Bloomington where it all began for them. One of the kick-off events was an informal assembly called a ‘Town Hall’ at which a couple of dozen rose to speak about their activist days as students and their lives beyond Indiana University.

Sure, they graduated, left town, and moved on, although the activists took away not only parchment diplomas, but the political commitment that had marked their university experience as well.  In effect, Bloomington for them was the point of departure for a ‘long march’ down through the years. And although the war in Vietnam is long over, new as well as extant old domestic issues still preoccupy most of the IU New Left who are carrying on the struggle to this day.

The profiles at hand are of two of those ‘long marchers’, Marilyn Vogt-Downey and Sandi Sherman. Their early experiences at Indiana with the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) and other left groups have informed and shaped their life choices. For both, their initial political commitments have guided their respective paths from Bloomington through many years ‘on the road’, so to speak, as they continued the pursuit of social justice.

As committed Trotskyists and, for a long period of time, members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), their journeys have taken them far and wide, Sandi throughout the States while Marilyn has also traveled extensively abroad. Each is a paragon of the activist life on the left.

Marilyn Vogt-Downey arrived at Indiana University as a grad student. Since leaving Bloomington, she has had a notable career as a long-time revolutionary, a scholar, translator, union activist, and secondary school teacher. Her work has taken her to New York, Paris, Moscow, the former Leningrad, and Tallinn, capital of Estonia.

Along the way, she has made many valuable translations from Russian, contributed to a number of books, and, during the ‘90s, published two books of her own – The USSR 1987-1991: Marxist Perspectives (1993) of which a reviewer wrote that “serious historians of the Soviet Union would ignore at their peril;” and Notebooks for the Grandchildren: Recollections of a Trotskyist Who Survived the Stalin Terror (1995) with Mikhail Baitalsky.

Marilyn also made presentations at a number of conferences on Trotsky’s legacy,  both here and abroad, and has championed numerous causes, including the posthumous rehabilitation of victims of Stalin’s purge trials of the ‘30s, opposition to NATO’s Balkan bombing campaign, a statement against the war in Afghanistan, petitions on behalf of various individuals prosecuted by the US government, and most recently, support for the post-9/11 Muslim hunger strikers at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in the Caribbean.

 Marilyn Vogt-Downey at the ‘Town Hall’, Bloomington IN, 2013

With verve, she described her life and times at the New Left reunion of August ’13:

I am Marilyn Vogt, actually Marilyn Vogt-Downey, and I came here from Bloomington, Illinois [with a BA degree]. We had had a committee … and when I got here we set up the Committee to End the War in Vietnam [CEWV]. Was anybody here in that?

So, yeah, and then pretty soon the [national office of the] YSA figured out we were here, and Russell Block* and I, Randy Green and Dennis and one other woman reconstituted the [IU] YSA. How many of you knew Russell Block? I think almost everybody knew Russell Block. Yeah, so we reconstituted the YSA [chapter] that had been disbanded earlier on. Then we were involved in all the things everybody here has been talking about, all the antiwar work and everything that was going on here in the ‘60s.

Professor Russell Block, Munich, Germany

Then I left here, I was married, and we went to Albany [NY]. The women’s movement kind of really hit in the ‘70s, and I left my husband, went to New York City and joined the Socialist Workers Party [SWP]. They hired me to work at Pathfinder Press [SWP’s publication arm] so I got to work on translating Trotsky’s [books] for the writing series. That was exciting until they had no more money in ’75 and laid us off.

I worked [at Pathfinder] with George Saunders, rather George Shriver [his actual name], and we put out the samizdat stuff. We started translating all this stuff that was coming out of the Soviet Union, all the underground literature. We started translating it and getting it into ‘Intercontinental Press [a Trotskyist international weekly] and to the International Socialists and others.

SWP made the ‘turn to industry’, and I ended up becoming a pipe fitter. [However,] unfortunately I got caught with a sailor smoking pot and got expelled [from the party] (laughter). I didn’t actually smoke, but it was a time when the party was having trouble with COINTELPRO,** and they were going to trial. Suddenly it occurred to us that Larry the sailor might have been a cop, so we thought it was a good idea to get me out of there. So SWP expelled me, they were very hostile.

Then I went to Paris and worked with Gerry Foley *** [an IU alumnus] who was an international editor on ‘International Viewpoint’. I was a typesetter for that. When I came back, I remarried. I married a Welshman, a lovely Welshman named Nicholas Downey. Unfortunately, he died just about a year and three months ago.

Anyway [on return from Paris] I had decided to become a high school teacher. I taught Trotskyism. Yes! I taught socialism and the workers and the US rogue state. I taught that for about 12 years and then I retired.

I was in the UFT [United Federation of Teachers] and fought the horrible leadership, the so-called leadership – the Unity Caucus of UFT, horrible people … those bastards, those sell-out creeps. I had also been in other groups that worked on the [US] Labor Party.

In defense of Marxism, I got out a couple of books that you can’t afford to buy because they’re too expensive. Lastly, I want to say that lately I’ve been working on Lynne Stewart’s case and on behalf of Bradley Manning.**** I’m going to his court-martial in Washington [where] I’m going to support the Gitmo [Guantanamo] hunger strikers as well.

All these causes are very important, but I’m not in a party so I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to make things work. You can’t do it that way, it doesn’t work that way. Lynne Stewart should be released from prison, she’s dying from cancer. How many of you have heard about her case? All right, how many of you have done something about it? Okay, this is really serious, so if you want more details we’ll talk about it later.

For the other speaker, Sandi Sherman, opposition to the Vietnam War while at Indiana became seminal for a lifetime on the left. As a student it took her awhile to find her political direction, but soon she was active on the emerging issues of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s – abortion rights and women’s liberation. She received her BA degree in ’73, left Bloomington, and joined the Socialist Workers Party, spending nearly the next two decades as a party activist in various parts of the country.

During the past several years, Sandi has focused primarily on labor issues at the University of Minnesota (MN) where she is a ‘program/project specialist’ at the university’s cancer research center. As a member the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), she was a major activist, playing a significant role in two strikes against the university system over wage issues.
Most recently, in June 2013, Sandi testified on behalf of her union local before the Board of Regents, speaking in opposition to the university’s plan to shift more health insurance costs to the clerical staff, the lowest paid stratum of the MN community. Like the deeply committed person of the left she has long been, for Sandi the issue was not just a local matter. As she wrote, “Our fight is a fight for all working people.”

 Sandi Sherman testifying, University of Minnesota, 2013

From the IU Town Hall assembly, here’s Sandi Sherman telling of her long march in her own words:

I’m Sandi Sherman. I was here from ’69 to ’73. I grew up in Indianapolis and was born in Maryland. My parents were Democrats, my father a liberal Democrat. I came to college with a kind of – well, I wasn’t a Republican, but I was very naïve.

I remember going to the ’69 moratorium event [to hear a speaker] and I was completely turned off. I thought he was a jerk so I went right back to my dorm room and said, “This is not for me.”

So it took me a little while to get active. But through Ike [Nahem]†† and David and Barbara Webster, I became active in the Abortion Rights Movement. I was also very active in the Gay Liberation Front. I had a lot of gay friends, so I was very active in that.

[Those issues] helped radicalize me and then of course, the war in Vietnam, I would say much more than Bloomington was the seminal influence on my life. It changed my life, it made me see that we live under imperialism, and I was opposed to that.

I wanted to fight to change the world and joined the Young Socialist Alliance. After graduation I left Bloomington with Barbara Webster in my little VW packed to the gills. We drove out to San Francisco and broke down in the Wasatch Mountains (laughter) ….

From there I joined the Socialist Workers Party and was very active for the next 19 years. I lived in San Francisco, San Jose, Kansas City, New York – where I met my husband Bill – Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and now we’re in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’m a clerical worker at the University of Minnesota and an activist in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. We were on strike twice in 2003 and 2007. I was an organizer – I was a picket – I organized all the picket squads in 2007.

Now if you want higher wages let me tell you what to do
You got to build you a union, got to make it strong,
It ain't quite this simple, so I better explain
Just why you got to ride on the union train.
'Cause if you wait for the boss to raise your pay,
We'll all be a-waitin' 'til Judgment Day.†††

Right now, I have to go back tomorrow because on Monday we’re having a big rally at the President’s office in opposition to some really big take-backs in our healthcare coverage that they’re planning to blame on Obamacare. I’m still a supporter of SWP; I organized volunteers to get ‘The Militant [SWP’s newspaper] online weekly, but I’m not as active as I was.

I don’t have the energy, but still have the heart. I still believe in this fight.

So for Marilyn Vogt-Downey and Sandi Sherman, veterans of the left, the long march from Bloomington continues – the fight goes on.


† Jeff Sharlet created 'Vietnam GI' in 1968 as the first GI-edited underground antiwar paper addressed to Vietnam GIs, see

*Russell Block, a friend of Jeff Sharlet’s at IU, arrived at the university in 1965 where he earned an MA in Linguistics in ’67. He subsequently studied at the University of Washington, Heidelberg University, and the University of Hamburg where he took his PhD in English and German. He currently teaches at Hochschule München (Munich University of Applied Sciences). While at IU, Russell was affiliated with the New Left as a member of YSA and a leader of CEWV. He was nominated by the IU Revolutionary Student Party to run for student body president. At the University of Washington, he continued his involvement with YSA.

**COINTELPRO or ‘Counter Intelligence Program’ was created by the FBI during the ‘50s to sow disinformation,  carry out illegal break-ins, and perpetrate other ‘dirty tricks’ against dissidents of various persuasions, especially those on the left. The program’s secret existence was exposed in the early ‘70s when a group of anti-Vietnam War activists broke into a regional FBI office and hauled off thousands of classified documents which they sent to the media. For the story of the break-in, see Betty Medsger, The Burglary: The Discovery of J Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI (2014).

***The late Gerry Foley, American socialist, prolific journalist, and master linguist – he reportedly read 60 languages and spoke 12 fluently – was a full-time revolutionary who supported the causes of oppressed and persecuted people at home and abroad. Gerry attended grad school at IU where he met George and Ellen Shriver, founders of the campus YSA, and became part of the group during his time at the university. After he left IU, Gerry participated in the national defense of the ‘Bloomington Three’ while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he was active in the campus YSA and Fair Play for Cuba Committee.

****Progressive defense attorney Lynne Stewart represented defendants in the terrorism case following the 1993 bombing of the New York World Trade Center. She in turn was charged with and convicted of aiding and abetting terrorism and other charges as a result of her work as defense counsel in the case. Disbarred and dying of cancer in prison, she applied for compassionate release under federal law which provides for sentence reduction under extraordinary circumstances, foremost of which being life-threatening illness. She was granted a release on December 31, 2013. Bradley Manning, now known as Chelsea Manning, was diagnosed with gender identity disorder while serving as a US Army intelligence analyst. In 2013 he was convicted of espionage, among other offenses, for leaking thousands of classified documents into the public domain. Dishonorably discharged and sentenced to 35 years in prison, there have been mixed reactions to his punishment. Many felt his actions were traitorous, but some saw the leaked material as a positive catalyst for the ‘Arab Spring’, while others simply believed the sentence was overly harsh.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Cold War Blues – Trieste Forsaken

I was anxious to get to Berlin, epicenter of the Cold War and a flash point between East and West. The former capital of the Third Reich, located in the middle of Communist East Germany, was like postwar Germany itself a divided city. It was where Americans and Soviets came face to face at the heavily guarded crossovers, the ‘Checkpoint Charlies’ separating democratic West Berlin from East Berlin.

In West Germany, where I was based with the US forces, the only way to get to West Berlin was via narrow land, rail, and air corridors that cut through East Germany. The Border Troops of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) closely monitored and controlled the access corridors. Whenever tensions flared between the US and the USSR, Moscow merely had to give the signal, and the Border Troops created pretexts to hold up road traffic, delay trains, and hassle flights from the West.

Under the Four Powers Treaty dividing up Germany, there were limits on numbers of American troops in West Berlin, so the only way I could visit the city was as a courier carrying classified documents. I was a linguist, lingy for short, in a communications intelligence outfit, the Army Security Agency (ASA). In Frankfurt am Main, I was assigned to ASA’s European HQ which regularly sent documents to its West Berlin station.

Only personnel with high security clearances were eligible for courier duty. In early January 1958 I was called to an unfamiliar office where I was briefed and given travels orders to West Berlin along with a weapon and a briefcase. The holster contained a loaded .45, the briefcase was locked – I didn’t have the Need to Know its contents – and it had an attached handcuff. They cuffed it to my wrist, gave me the key, and told me the briefcase and I were never to be separated until I reached my destination. I was sent off to the Hauptbahnhof, Frankfurt’s main rail terminal.

On my orders, printed in the languages of the four powers, the Cyrillic Russian was the most prominent. The train was sealed; no one could get on or off until it reached the terminal in West Berlin. Provincial East German towns flew by, but it was too dark to see much. However, once we reached the outskirts of West Berlin things came alive.

On arrival we were shunted to a siding brightly illuminated by overhead flood lights. East German customs officers came through the cars checking passengers’ documents. The delay continued. Looking out the window, I could see soldiers from the Border Troops, identifiable by their green shoulder straps, using German Shepherds and long handled mirrors, methodically inspecting the undercarriage of the each car.

It was an eerie deep winter scene in central Europe – steam rising from beneath the heated cars, the troopers in greatcoats, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, big dogs straining at their leashes.

Clearing the border late, I was met by an ASA security guard with an enclosed jeep. He dropped me off at the ASA station in the administrative complex of the US Berlin Command. The halls were predictably deserted, but I was surprised to see helmeted GIs manning .30 caliber machine guns at every intersection of the corridors.

An alert was underway, and the gun positions were SOP, or Standard Operating Procedure. Should West Berlin be overrun, the gun crews were to fire on any attackers who penetrated the building in order to buy time for destroying secret documents. After delivering the briefcase, I had two days leave in Berlin before heading back.

The following month I drove to Switzerland to meet Peter, an old friend studying there. We were both avid skiers from a small town in the Adirondack foothills of upstate New York. Peter and I spent a long weekend at Grindelwald, a small storybook village in the Swiss Alps. Skiing conditions were excellent; we stayed at a traditional chalet, most notable in memory for a lovely French girl on a ski holiday with her father, a retired French admiral.

Mornings, the three of us would climb aboard a big horse-drawn sleigh with jingling bells and glide along snowy roads to the base station of the mountain ski train. At the summit, a number of steep but wide trails lay before us, each falling thousands of feet to the valley below.

Whichever trail we took, the runs were long and scenic, and around mid-point there would be a clapboard trailside café where one could warm up, have a welcome hot chocolate, munch a hardboiled egg. Glorious Grindelwald, a memorable weekend.

Ski train, Grindelwald, Switzerland

That spring I managed to get to the World’s Fair as well as to Paris, more adventures thanks to Uncle Sam. The World’s Fair of 1958 opened in Brussels in early April with much hoopla. I mentioned to Karin, a German girlfriend, that I was driving to Belgium for the weekend to visit the expo, and she wanted to come along. I said, ‘Your mother keeps a tight leash, how are you going to manage it?’ She coyly replied, ‘Leave it to me’.

Karin and I headed to Brussels and booked a room at a down at the heels pension; no questions were asked. We toured the American exhibition and a few of the more exotic-looking pavilions, sampled various national cuisines, went on a couple of rides at the adjoining fair grounds, and generally had a pleasant time in spite of rain.

The following week Karin called to say she was grounded for a month. She had told her mother she was invited to a girlfriend’s for the weekend. However, her father called his ex-wife’s house and was given the girlfriend’s number, so the truth was out.

Understandably worried, Karin’s father had a setback and had to be hospitalized. Before the war, he had played on the German Army’s, the Wehrmacht’s, polo team, later serving on the Russian front. Captured, he languished some years in the Soviet Gulag, the USSR’s vast penal system. The harsh regime had taken a toll of his health, so I felt sorry I had unwittingly contributed to his crisis.

My trip to Paris later that spring went a lot smoother except for a briefly alarming incident enroute. At the time, France, defeated by the Vietnamese in ’54, was in the midst of another colonial war, desperately trying to hold on to Algeria. I had little awareness of this when I stopped overnight at an inn on the outskirts of the city of Nancy.

The next morning I had a coffee and croissant and hit the road early. Opening my garage door, I noticed a man looking at my Citroën and writing notes. In my clumsy schoolboy French, I asked what he was doing. He gave an indignant shrug, pointed to his pad, and replied he was writing down my license plate number.

I became concerned – I had several days leave, but had taken off a day early and was technically absent without leave, or AWOL in military jargon. Switching to English, I aggressively asked, “What the hell for?” Don’t know if he knew English, but he caught the drift and explained he was on the lookout for Algerians entering France from the north.

Relieved, I told him in a friendly tone I was a GI – I was wearing civvies – and part of an intelligence group in Germany. At that his face lit up, and he said he too was in the intelligence game, the French Sûreté, France’s national police. He even pulled back his coat to show me his shoulder holster. We parted comrades in arms.

I made it to Paris late morning, cruised along the Left Bank, and chose a dinky, inexpensive hotel on a street abounding in eateries and shops. I walked the neighborhood soaking up some of the atmosphere of La Ville-Lumière, the City of Light. Even so briefly, I felt the magic of Paris.

I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles…

I stopped for lunch at a modest place with four or five tables. As I crossed the threshold into the semi-dark interior, I noticed Madame flip a switch; the lights went on, a waiter with towel over arm came into view, and the little place suddenly became animated like an old-fashioned juke box warming up. The meal was excellent and cheap, which was good – GI pay wasn’t much to brag about.

Next day I ventured farther, taking in the street life of the great city. Near dusk I passed an imposing building; through the well-lit first floor windows I could see elegant rooms. As I wrote my 16-year old brother Jeff – the subject of this blog – about my Parisian adventures:

          I stopped at what appeared to be the entrance to its
          broad courtyard. My curiosity aroused, I ventured
          toward the entrance arch only to be quickly challenged
          by a guard emerging from a sentry box I hadn’t noticed
          in the dark. He was smartly uniformed, a policeman or soldier,
          I’m not sure which, and politely confident as only a man
          with a sub-machine gun can be.

Apparently I was about to wander into an off-limits French government complex. Jeff wrote back an appreciative note, adding among other things as he was wont to do about his teenage life, “I can really drink beer now, and I almost like it.”

Back at the hotel, I had a message from Inge, another friend from Frankfurt – she had asked me to let her know where I was staying in case she could get away. While Karin was a schoolgirl of 18, Inge, a stewardess, was several years older and could come and go as she pleased. She flew to Paris the following day to join me.

I was glad to have her company. Aside from being a comely young woman, Inge spoke fluent French, having studied at the Sorbonne, and knew the city well. With her as guide, we wandered far and wide, riding public transport, taking in the Sacré-Cœur as well as the paintings of the Louvre, then spent a balmy afternoon wandering the parks and gardens. Dinners were in a better class of restaurants since Inge and I always went Dutch treat. My leave over, we drove back to Deutschland uneventfully.

The author, Paris, spring 1958

Duty beckoned, and it was back to the Cold War on Monday morning. Most of the time I worked both as a translator from Czech, the language ASA taught me, and as an intelligence analyst of classified material. Interesting though I found the work, it was a far cry from the popular image of ‘cloak & dagger’ associated with the secret world. However, my moment was soon to come – cloak, if not dagger.

One early summer afternoon in ’58 I was told to report upstairs to the office suite of the commandant of ASA Europe. Ushered into one of his well-appointed rooms, I found another fellow sitting there in civilian clothes; we nodded. A staff officer arrived, introduced the two of us, and announced we’d been selected for a hush-hush mission. He invoked the Need to Know rule; I was to tell no one in my office.

The captain briefed us, but we were not told our ultimate destination or assignment. The other GI was a German lingy from a different intelligence outfit. Actually, he looked like a German to me – he was wearing a German suit and had long hair, certainly not GI short. As it turned out he was of German-American background. As I wrote home, before the draft got him Rolf had been a press agent for a carnival.

We were each given cover names – I’ve forgotten mine – and relevant ID, instructed to wear civvies complete with fedoras, and told an old Mercedes would await us at our intermediate stop for transport. My cover was as an American Philco salesman while my partner was to be a German rep from our Frankfurt corporate office. Rolf had grown up in a German-speaking home in Ohio and turned out to be so fluent and accent-free that he could easily pass.

We took a fast trans-European train, the ‘Rheinblitz’, to Munich to receive further orders. We had an address for our local contact, but were not to go there immediately. Instead we hung out for a day or two like real traveling salesmen away from the office, ‘borrowing’ a little time from the company. The city’s hotels were jammed with 100,000 gymnasts in town for a convention, so Rolf had booked us into a rustic pension in the alpine foothills outside Munich, a low-cost vacation spot for Germans.

With time to kill, my enterprising partner got acquainted with a couple of pretty young secretaries vacationing at the pension. They joined us for an afternoon at a nearby lakeside beach. I paired off with the one who spoke office English. She asked what I did, so I gave her my cover story. She politely replied, “Oh how interesting, tell me about your company.” I had to fake it since all I really knew about Philco was that they made radios. When I was a kid during the war, we had a stand-up model in the den.

At the designated time on the appointed day – 0800 – we made our way to the rendezvous. Our contact was an undercover ASA captain, a stocky man, probably early 40s, with thinning blonde hair and a casual manner, a former college athlete who looked the part. Still in his PJs, he opened the door and showed us to the living room.  

Just then I noticed a lovely dark-haired young woman tiptoeing out of the bedroom and quietly scooting out the front door. Ah, I thought, this would be the life for me.

There’s a man who leads a life of danger.
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger.
Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man
They’ve given you a number and taken away your name.††

To business. The captain moved over to a large Philco radio/record player – no doubt he was the source of our covers. He put on a record and turned up the volume. Then he whispered the crux of our mission – timetable, destination, to whom to report. That completed, Beethoven was turned down, and we joined him for morning coffee.

Very casually he asked about my background, the duration of my tour, and future plans. I had only several months left in ASA and intended to return to college, though I hadn’t decided which one. Then, unexpectedly, the captain put an intriguing question to me – would I possibly be interested in staying on in Europe as a civilian contractor for the Agency.

There would be an opening in Trieste at the head of the Adriatic, an international city under joint sovereignty of Italy and Communist Yugoslavia. I thought, great, I could live the life, the romance of the secret world. He said think about it, and get in touch after the mission if you’re interested. A plum assignment, a great adventure, a no-brainer.

As seen from the sea, Trieste’s main square

Our new orders took us over back roads down toward the border of Communist Czechoslovakia. After an hour or two, we came to a dense forest, then continued on a winding unpaved road that ended abruptly in a roadblock manned by armed guards.

We had arrived at our destination, a secret US Air Force (AF) listening post right up against the frontier of the USSR’s East European satellite empire. We parked and entered a long, prefab building. A senior AF sergeant told Rolf to take a seat – no further Need to Know – then escorted me to the major’s office.

I presented my orders with my real ID, and the major put me in the picture. Seems his post had snagged a Czech military defector who had managed to get through the frontier barriers. AF intelligence had interrogated the man, who had brought out valuable information to trade for his freedom in the West. Amongst the trove was a piece of intelligence of great interest to ASA Europe’s mission that I’d been sent to retrieve.

I was shown into a large room, empty but for a row of chairs along the wall. Invited to take a seat, I was joined by two junior AF officers who sat down on each side of me, the three of us like actors in a play without sets. One of the lieutenants had brought along a very thick, folio-sized binder with a single marker peeking out. He placed the book on my lap and opened it to the marked page. 

There before me was a nugget about Czech military communications that would indeed be of value to my organization. I made notes as the officers each kept a hand firmly on a side of the open binder should it have crossed my mind to attempt to turn the page. No way, this was an AF scoop to be passed on up their chain of command to Washington for kudos. ASA, a rival outfit competing for bureaucratic favor and military appropriations, was entitled to just that one item of information.

My fellow Philco rep and I made our way back north to Frankfurt where I handed in my report at ASA HQ. Mission completed, I eagerly called home long distance to relate the fantastic offer I’d received to stay on in Europe, in Trieste no less, a city of intrigue. My mother, an education hawk, was not impressed and quickly scotched the idea of my secret agent career, saying, ‘Come back here and finish college. Trieste forsaken.