08 February 2012

Short Takes III


I’ve written about some of my activities as a Military Intel officer in Berlin during the ’70s, some of them mighty serious and even dangerous. There were also some less orthodox—if you'll pardon the alternative use of the term here—amusements in which we indulged occasionally. (I did some amateur theater in Berlin, as you'll see momentarily—but I'm thinking of slightly different diversions here.) Living in Berlin got claustrophobic at times, what with the Wall and the security regs, and though the army and the other occupational forces offered outlets, as did the city itself, we could go stir-crazy sometimes if we hadn't been out of the city for a while—especially if we’d been working overmuch for a while, like when I was on 24-hour call for an extended time. We were still pretty young then, my fellow junior officers and I, and we were—or at least I was—still prone to adolescent excesses. Physics suggests that if you put too much pressure on one place, something's likely to pop out somewhere else, and I guess that's what happened to us. At one time, we got a visit from the U.S. Army Synchronized Swim Team. That's what used to be called water ballet—and the team was all WAC's. I don't recall if I actually went to the "performance" (I'm not sure what you call it) or not—probably not, since I don't remember it. But one of my friends, who was especially adept at that kind of thing, had hooked up with the team afterwards. A group of us—mostly lieutenants, but a few enlisted men were included—gathered to party. Nothing lewd, just a moveable drinking and eating event. Think frat party on wheels. Somewhere along the line—I'm sure we'd consumed a fair amount by that time in the evening—someone from our gang, a Special Services officer who was in charge of Berlin Brigade's recreation facilities, announced that he still had the keys for the pool. "Whoooaaa! Let's go swimming with the WAC's," we all decided at once. And why not? It's not like it was against any rules or anything. Not much! (At the very least, it was fraternization since the swim team were all enlisted women.) Well, we organized car pools on the spot—I don't remember where we were at that moment; probably someone's BOQ—and off we went to the pool on one of the compounds. "Hey! Let's go skinny-dipping!" someone suggested. So we did. (There were some wives along, too, by the way. But what the hey.) So there we were, maybe a dozen or so junior officers and EM's, a couple of wives, and the WAC swim team skinny-dipping and partying at the empty rec services swimming pool after hours. I don't recall that anyone brought booze to the pool, but we'd had enough before to keep us buzzed well into the night. I won't describe what went on, but I'm sure you can give it a good guess. We stayed there until after dawn started to show and the buzz began to wear off. I was one of the first to leave—I'd begun to prune up, not to mention sober up—and I took one or two partiers with me (I was one of the drivers—not to say "designated drivers"); I don't know how long anyone else stayed at the pool. Astonishingly, as far as I know, no one ever learned of our midnight escapade. Considering how many of us there were and how much we'd all had to drink during the evening, that's amazing. It's possible, I suppose, that the word got out but no one decided to do anything about it—but I doubt that would have been the case.


As I said, I did some amateur theater in Berlin. The principal outlet for that was the Berlin Entertainment Center, a facility of the Special Services Office of Berlin Brigade. There’d been one incident where I wore my MI hat. Well, cloak I guess. The woman who directed Special Services came to me because a staffer had been telling people he was a spook. He’d even taken to wearing a fedora! Remember, I was an intel agent and a lot of people had an inflated idea what we could and might do because of movie figures like James Bond, Derek Flynt, and Napoleon Solo. I never disillusioned any of my acquaintances of their fantasies—hey! our work was classified, so let them believe what they want—and this Spec 4 or whatever he was one of those in awe of my spook status. So I came to the Special Services office and had a talk with the guy. I believe he thought I might actually make him disappear or something. Now, I never made it official, but I gave him one of my “stern talking-to’s”—like I did in SAEDA (Subversion and Espionage Directed Against the Army) briefings where I had to put the fear of God into some poor GI who’d breached security regs. I put the Special Services guy on notice—like a traffic cop who says, “I’ll let you go with a warning this time, but don’t let me catch you speeding again!” He was ummmm . . . shall we say, chastened? He thought I was King Shit after that. I just let him.

When I was getting out of the army to go to acting school and people remarked that that would be a big change, I used to say it really wasn’t. After all, I’d been acting a role all the time I was in the army. Now you also see what I meant.


When I was a boy, I made construction-paper collages which I give to friends and family instead of greeting cards. (I’d been inspired by an artist whose work had been shown at a small art gallery in which my parents had an interest.) One of my creations was sitting on a table in the apartment of a family friend when she was entertaining a local society lady. The lady spotted the collage as she was leaving and asked her hostess what it was. "Oh," joked the family friend, who had a sly sense of humor, "that's an original Richard K*****." "Yes, I've heard of him," responded the lady, not knowing, of course, that I was all of about 11 at the time.

This story made the rounds in my family—my mother still thinks it's hilarious 55 years later—and eventually reached the ears of an uncle in Massachusetts. He and my aunt were in New York City a few years later, shopping in a gallery on Madison Avenue. While my aunt was browsing, my uncle, who had a peeve about pretensions and phoniness, cooled his heels until a saleswoman asked if he needed help. "Yes," he replied, in all apparent seriousness, "I'm looking for some original Richard K*****s." The assistant told him, "I'm sorry, we don't happen to have any at the moment, but we're expecting some in shortly."

I never did become a famous artist, by the way.


About a dozen years ago, I read about a guy in Germany, Heribert Illig, who denies the existence of the entire Middle Ages. Illig, whom the New York Times described as "an independent scholar" (and who'd hire him, after all?), claims that the 297 years from 614 CE to 911 CE were simply made up by either "a seventh-century Byzantine ruler" or Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (crowned in what we think was 996 CE but was actually 699 CE). Illig, who lives near Munich and has published two books entitled The Middle Ages Invented (Das erfundene Mittelalter) and Who Adjusted the Clock? (Wer hat an der Uhr gedreht?), believes that Otto "conspired with the pope" (Gregory V, elected the same year that Otto assumed the HRE throne) to push the calendar forward so Otto could preside over Y1K. Illig doesn't say why Otto would have wanted this distinction, or why Gregory would have acquiesced. The Times doesn't report if the good doctor explains who made up all that European history we had to learn back in school or who came up with all those monarchs' names like Pepin the Short (751-68) and Eudes (Odo) (888-98) in France and Egbert (802-39) and Ethelred I (865-71) in England. Who'd make up names like that if they weren't real? (The theory also doesn't take into consideration the histories of non-European cultures during this period. I doubt the Chinese, say, who were immensely powerful and sophisticated at this time, would invent nearly 300 years of history just to accommodate some European emperor and a pope of whom I doubt they were much aware, if at all.)

According to Illig, then, what we all just celebrated on January 1 was not New Year 2012, but merely New Year 1715. That means all those folks who hoarded stuff against Y2K a dozen years ago and built bunkers to hide from the millennial terrorists and the break-down of civilization have another chance to use them. In another 285 years. (An MRE ought to last that long, I'd imagine.) One benefit to Illig's theory, though, is that the question of whether the new millennium actually started 12 years ago or 11 (2001 instead of 2000) becomes academic now. The world'll have the better part of another three centuries to figure that out, and none of us will have to worry about it. (And since we all missed the turn of the 18th century without even noticing it, we probably won't have to worry about that question in 85 years, either.)

The conspiracy to perpetuate the hoax of the Holocaust would be pretty vast—bigger than the JFK cover-up. But hiding 297 years for a period of 1,398 years—almost a millennium-and-a-half—now that's a conspiracy! I just wish Illig had exposed it before I got C's in European history.


One figure on whom Antonin Artaud heaps considerable opprobrium in his writings is Isidore Ducasse, a poet who wrote under the pseudonym of the Comte de Lautréamont. He was considered by the Surrealists to have been an important precursor, though he died (mysteriously, as it turns out—possibly murdered by agents of Napoleon III) in 1870 at the age of 24. Now, leap ahead 134 years—to the spring of 2004 here in New York City. A 31-year-old New York-based performance artist who calls herself Shishaldin—I don't know what her real name is—applied to the French president for permission under a Gaullist-era law to marry the dead poet. (I won't detail the law. Take my word for it that it's a real law and has actually been invoked hundreds of times.) As I understand it, only the French president can grant this permission.

Okay, now that's weird enough, I think—but wait; it's not over yet! A French Surrealist film maker, painter, and poetess claimed in June 2004 to have already married Ducasse/de Lautréamont under the law in the 1970s—to mark the centenary of Ducasse's death. "Mrs. Ducasse"—I don't know her real name, either—rejects the performance artist's application as a publicity stunt intended to increase the performance artist's profitability. (Pot calling a kettle black, maybe?) I don't know what the current state of this . . . ummm . . . affair is—but as far as I know, no one has asked Ducasse's opinion on the matter!

Hey, if you can have posthumous marriages, why not a little posthumous bigamy?? (Besides, if you're married to a dead person, that makes you an instant widow/widower. Wouldn't that free your spouse to remarry? Oohh, never mind! It makes my head hurt.)


Have you ever heard about the book Who's Who in CIA? When it was published in East Germany in 1968, it created quite a stir in the circles of official Washington, especially among foreign service officers. Who's Who in CIA purported to name everyone who worked for the spy agency—but it ended up naming almost everyone who ever served overseas, even privately. In fact, it left out actual CIA people: Richard Helms is in there, but the woman who was the Bonn embassy spook isn't.

Now, someone’s first impulse might be that the book was deliberate disinformation and I wouldn't doubt that that was part of it, though the book was "privately" published—the imprint is not a government agency of the GDR. I think mostly the publishers cast a very wide net, plus they assumed, based on common practice in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, that all diplomats were really spies anyway—all theirs were, to one extent or another. My dad, for instance, had served in the CIC during World War II—he interrogated Nazi prisoners during the occupation because he spoke German—though his combat service had been as an artillery battery commander. It didn't help that my dad and many others worked for an agency called the US Information Agency (or Service—it had one name in the U.S. and one abroad). In most European languages, including German and Russian, 'information' and 'intelligence' are the same word. In German, it's Nachrichten and the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND, or Federal Information/Intelligence Service) is the (West) German counterpart to the CIA. (My grandfather thought Dad was a spy until the day Grandpa died. He came from Eastern Europe, after all.)

If you were anybody, you were in the book. In fact, if you weren't in the book—you weren't anybody. There was a rush on copies to see if your name was listed—and, as I hinted, my dad was in it. (Believe me—or don't; it's really too late now, anyway—my dad was not in the CIA!)

Unfortunately, after Dad went into a medical facility, Mom moved to a smaller apartment and had to get rid of things like their accumulated books and records because there wasn't any room to keep them. She didn't recognize his copy of Who's Who in CIA for what it was, 25 years later, and it went with the other books. Ever since then, I'd searched for an affordable copy in good condition (in English—there was a German-language edition, too), but the book usually goes for around $80 and up on the antiquarian book market, often without the dust jacket and with other deterioration. (Soviet bloc publications weren’t known for their high quality so they probably haven't kept very well. Even the copy in the New York Public Library is now on microfilm—you can't get the actual book anymore—and the one at NYU is in the rare books collection. I have no idea how many copies were printed and I guess people who got the book because their names were in it have kept it as a souvenir.) Well, back in February 2005, on one of my periodic searches on BookFinder.com for books I'm looking for, I found a German shop offering an English edition for 18 Euros ($23) shipped. I inquired, and it was reportedly in good condition and with the dust jacket and though the store required cash payment—no credit cards or checks—they would send the book and bill me. I ordered a copy and it arrived at in about a week. It's in excellent condition, essentially a new book even though it's over 40 years old. I gladly sent them the 23 bucks, and I have back that little odd memento of Dad's foreign service life—and the ’60s cold war. It's a kick in its own right as well, and something of a tiny, little time warp.


When I was a little kid, somewhere in middle school, I was riding the public bus home with a friend. The bus must have been a little crowded—after school was the start of the rush hour, I guess—because we couldn't sit together. I was behind my friend, I recall, but I must have gotten seated before he did. As he was sliding into the seat next to the man who already occupied half of it, the other guy announced, "Watch my foot!" My friend sat down, and began staring at the floor. The guy looked over at him—we were all of about 12, I'd guess—and asked what he was staring at. "I'm watching your foot, like you told me," he explained, "but it's not doing anything." I cracked up—I don't remember what the seatmate's response was.

(A history note: That friend went on to become something of a well-known journalist in Washington, an editor and publisher and host of several TV news shows. He also served in several sub-cabinet posts in at least one presidential administration.)


Some years later, when my family was living in Europe and on a vacation to London—that makes it Christmas 1963, my 17th birthday (I recall this specifically because on the plane trip over, my younger brother, in answer to some remark I made, observed, "What do you know? You're not even 17 yet.")—my brother (again) took a similar stance as my friend years earlier. We were at some tourist attraction or other, maybe the Tower or some place like that. Wherever it was, we had a guide, and as we were going into one building, which required climbing a couple of stone stairs, the guide warned, "Mind the step!" My brother immediately sat on the step. My mother asked him what he was doing, and he replied simply, "I'm minding the step." (My brother would have been not quite 15 at the time.)

No comments:

Post a Comment