Tag Archives: Cold War

The Double Game

Clandestine meetings in West Berlin.

The Double Game

Dead drops in Prague, the nearby sidewalk marked with yellow chalk to show it’s safe.

Coded messages over unsecure phone lines. Talk for less than two minutes, then move to another booth.

Watching over your shoulder, because it’s obvious someone has been shadowing you for the past three days, and it’s a good bet he isn’t friendly.

Welcome to the world of the spy novel. I used to love those things, back in the late 70s and 80s. I think my first discovery was Robert Ludlum, though I can no longer remember which was the first of his I read, or what sparked my interest. There was something special about all those plots and counterplots, the deceptions, the intricate ways of communicating and keeping secrets. Long before the internet, these people traded in information. Except, for them, the goal was always to get information from the enemy without giving any away.

They fell pretty much by the wayside once the Berlin Wall came down. The big motivator for these novels was the Cold

English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. Th...

English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. The photo shows a part of a public photo documentation wall at Former Check Point Charlie, Berlin. The photo documentation is permanently placed in the public. Türkçe: Berlin Duvarı, 1989 sonbaharı (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

War, and it was hard to find a good spy novel that wasn’t centered around the struggle between democracy and communism. Always we fought what Reagan called the Evil Empire, and along the way discovered things about ourselves and the idea of loyalty that maybe we didn’t know any more.

I could get lost for hours in one of them. Of course, there were variations. Mr. Ludlum was fond of things planted years ago—say during the Third Reich—coming to fruition in later years, with possibly disastrous consequences.

That sort of idea is what’s at the center of The Double Game by Dan Fesperman. It deals with old Soviet secrets that are still hanging around, causing trouble.

The protagonist is one Bill Cage, a disillusioned PR man. He’s a Foreign Service brat and grew up in cities that figured large in many spy novels: Prague, Budapest, and Vienna chief among them. He played at being a spy when he was a kid, and his father collected spy novels, amassing a library of over two hundred volumes, many of them signed first editions.

But Bill wasn’t always a disillusioned fifty-something. Back in the 80s, he was an up and coming journalist for the Washington Post, and in 1984 he got a chance to interview Ed Lemaster, spy-turned-novelist. In an offhand moment, Bill asks Ed if he’d ever thought about spying for the other side, what in the parlance is called turning double. He’d written a novel about just that, called The Double Game, in which his hero spy, Richard Folly, discovers that his best friend, Don Tolleson, is a Soviet double agent.

“As a matter of fact,” Lemaster said slowly, “yes. I did contemplate it. Not for ideological reasons, of course. And certainly not for the money. But it crossed my mind, and do you know why?”

I shook my head, not daring to speak. The revolving wheels of the recorder vibrated against my chest like a trapped bumblebee.

“For the thrill of it. The challenge. To just walk through the looking glass and find out how they really lived on the other side—well, isn’t that the secret dream of every spy?”

Bill doesn’t intend to reveal this. But the next day, hungover and trying to please his editor, he blurts out what Lemaster told him, even as he’s thinking of how to use it in the closing paragraphs as an anecdote. But the editor changes the story, leads with the bombshell, and by 1992, Bill’s career is over.

Fast forward to September of 2010. Bill receives a mysterious envelope with only his formal name on it. He takes it to his study and reads:

Message posted for you concerning the whole truth about your onetime acquaintance, Mr. E.L. of Maine. To retrieve, use Folly’s tradecraft, page 47. Then use book code, line 11. The dead drop will be known to you, just as it was to Ashenden from the very beginning. Welcome to the real Double Game.

The kicker is, he realizes it was typed with his own typewriter, and it’s on his own paper, some he bought in Germany when he was seventeen. His office door is still locked, nothing else missing except one sheet of paper and one enevelope.

Thus begins Bill’s journey back to his childhood. He’ll even reunite with Litzi Strauss, a girl he knew in Vienna thirty-plus years ago. He’ll follow clues left in spy novels, using passages cut from the pages to tell him what to do next. And along the way, he’ll discover that nothing is as it appears. And in the end, he’ll decide that from now on, any novel that uses the usual disclaimer are the real truth, while the so-called nonfiction is full of blatant lies.

I enjoyed going back to something like old Cold War tensions. As nasty and gloomy as that war was, in my opinion it produced some wonderful reading. I ate up all those clandestine actions against the Evil Empire, the dead drops, coded messages, intricate ways of traveling to make sure you lose anyone who might be following. In short, the tradecraft. The methods fascinated me, and the only thing I’ve found since that even approaches it is the cleverness really good criminals—and despite shows like America’s Dumbest Criminals, there are criminal masterminds out there—use to commit their crimes.

So if you liked the old spy novels like I did and would like to revisit them in a modern setting, pick up a copy of The Double Game. If it seems slow at times, you’ll finish it realizing there was always something going on, even if it was offstage.

Just where a lot of action happened in the best spy novels.

And you can revisit old memories, too, in the bibliography the author provides in the back of 222 books (some of them allegedly fictional) in the genre.

And even if you never read any of those old novels, try this one out. It’s got plenty of twists and turns and shadowy figures to go around, and you might just discover a new passion in fiction.



Conspiry Theorists Unite!

 A long time back, I did a couple of book reviews here. Or maybe, just one. I don’t remember and, because of how I have to do this thing, I’m not gonna go back and look. Not that important. Anyway, the point is, I did those one or two reviews—on the first two books of a fantasy trilogy—and have never done anymore.

That’s gonna change.

Partly because I’m finding it harder to come up with new topics about writing every week, and I don’t want to rehash olds ones. And, since this isn’t a political or commentary blog, I’d rather not go off on that tangent. We’ll be here for hours if I do.

So, I’m gonna do more book reviews. I’m no professional at it, but maybe I’ll get better as I go along. Any feedback you can give me is appreciated. Reading is an integral part of writing, so I don’t see this as being outside the scope of my blog. And maybe the opinion of an amateur will give you something else to consider.

I’m a fiction writer, so I primarily read fiction. It’s what I started out reading and it’s where I’m most comfortable. I know of people who look down their noses and say, “I don’t read fiction,” like this makes them special or something, like indulging in fiction is some kind of mortal sin or something. Well, I just figure they’re missing out on something good.

I’m not an elitist like that. I read non-fiction. For one, I like to learn. For another, I need occasional breaks from fiction and need to satisfy that urge to acquire new information. A lot of the topics I read would be considered a little outside the box. For instance, I like Graham Hancock, author of Fingerprints of the Gods. It’s revisionist history, and I wouldn’t say I buy all of it, but he raised some good points, it’s interesting reading, and, perhaps most important, he emphasizes that the operating model of mainstream historians has gotten stuck in a rut. Everything they discover about a civilization takes on some kind of religious significance. But, as my brother points out, what would archaeologists a couple thousand years from now make of one of our courthouses? Most of them have engravings like “In God We Trust” over the doors, things like that. Sounds like a temple to me.

Another thing I enjoy is conspiracy theory. Again, I don’t necessarily buy into all of them, because I don’t believe our elected officials possess the required intelligence and fortitude to keep anything secret for long. But maybe I’m just being cynical. And, there’s the point that, behind every urban legend, there’s a kernel of truth.

Which brings me to the book I want to talk about: Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen.

This ain’t conspiracy theory, folks. This book is based on government documents pertaining to Area 51 that were recently declassified. It also make use of extensive interviews with people who worked there, developing black projects such as the U-2 spy plane and its successor, the Oxcart (what the Air Force called the SR-71 Blackbird). The Oxcart broke speed records that held well into this century, and yet it was built in the late 50s/early 60s.

There’s no way I could relate all there is in this book. The text is 384 pages long. Add to that over 100 pages of documented notes, a bibliography that’s close to 30 pages long, and you’ve got quite a document.

Many of the things she reveals—for the first time, I might add—are scary as hell. Such as the fact we almost went to war with North Korea in 1968. Turns out we were spying on North Korea, gathering SIGINT—signals intelligence—on them from the Yellow Sea. The USS Pueblo parked itself 15.8 miles off North Korea’s Ung-do Island, technically in international waters. But since when have rogue states like North Korea concerned themselves with such things? Anyway, the North Koreans captured the ship and crew, and if it hadn’t been for two Oxcart recon flights—they were stationed at Kadena and doing spy flights over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos—we might well have gone to war.

Then there was Orion, the ship that was supposed to take men to Mars. Except, the way it worked, rather than using rockets as the Apollo missions did, Orion was to use a nuclear reactor. That plan was scrapped after the Test Ban Treaty, but not before they exploded not one but two of these reactors to see what would happen—in defiance of the Test Ban Treaty.

There are also some amusing incidents. Back in 1942, the Army Air Corps was developing the jet engine. Up until that time, all planes flew with a propeller, so to have a plane flying around without one was a worry. They wanted to keep it secret, after all. So, every time a test pilot went up over the Muroc dry lake bed in the Mojave, they attached a fake propeller to the front of the Bell XP-59A. The Bell pilots had a lot of airspace, but every now and then, pilots training in the P-38 Lightning would spot this plane flying around trailing a lot of smoke and they wanted to know what was going on, so they’d fly over for a look.

The chief  XP-59A pilot, Jack Woolams, got an idea. He ordered a gorilla mask from a Hollywood props house and removed the fake propeller from his jet. Next time a P-38 came flying by, the poor guy inside saw a gorilla flying an airplane that didn’t have a propeller. According to Edward Air Force Base historian Dr. James Young, this poor pilot landed his plane and went straight the bar for a stiff drink, then related what he’d seen. His colleagues said he was drunk and needed to go home. But the other XP-59A test pilots got in on the act and more P-38 pilots saw a gorilla flying a plane without a propeller. It’s even said the Army Air Corps psychiatrist getting in on it as well, helping the Lightning pilots understand how they could become disoriented with high altitude and see things that weren’t there—like gorillas flying airplanes.

In another amusing incident, radar technician TD Barnes relates how, when they were doing radar tests on captured MiGs in 1968, the Russians learned we had some of their planes and started concentrating their satellite coverage of Area 51. Since the people working there couldn’t do anything when the satellites were overhead, they ended up locked down for weeks and got bored. So, they’d go out on the tarmac between flights, paint the silhouettes of weird aircraft and heat them up with hair dryers for the infrared photos the Soviets were taking. They also mixed up chemicals to make their tennis shoes glow in the dark. They rewired the Special Projects car so the next poor guy who drive it would get shocked. They even set up a tall antenna in an attempt to get some TV programming from Las Vegas, but ended up getting an international channel in Spain and watched bullfights in Madrid.

But the amusing incidents are few and far between. It’s the scary stuff they did that gets your attention. Such as Project 57: exploding a plutonium bomb in Area 13 to simulate a plane crash involving a dirty bomb. It took place in 1957. Keep in mind that plutonium isn’t dangerous unless you actually inhale particles…but then it’s the most dangerous substance known to man. That human body can’t handle any exposure—if you inhale one-millionth of a gram, it’ll kill you. It gets distributed to your bones and, with a half-life of over 20,000 years, you won’t outlive it. So, they exploded this bomb, then didn’t clean it up. They just threw up a chain link fence around it and left the plutonium there for 41 years. The top layer of dirt was removed in 1998.

For me, this book served as a reminder of what it felt like to live during the Cold War, knowing that, any day, there might be a nuclear exchange. I’ve talked about that in more detail elsewhere on this blog, but reading this book brought back how it felt. And, learning that we came closer to that war than is publicly acknowledged is even scarier. Even with the publication of this book, no one will officially admit that Area 51 exists, and the author ran into more than one roadblock when she made document requests, even under FOIA.

No book about Area 51 would be complete unless it addressed the conspiracy theories associated with the place. For some people, utter the words Groom Lake, Nevada Test Site or Area 51, and they’ll start looking over their shoulders for MIBs and black helicopters. And no study of the UFO/alien tech conspiracies would be complete without reference to the Roswell Incident.

It will please you to know that Ms. Jacobsen addresses these issues—and what she has to say is, in its way, more disturbing than thinking the government had hidden alien bodies and their spacecraft from us for over 60 years. In fact, I’d say it’s more insidious.

I debated whether or not to talk about this, as it’s one of the most surprising stories in the book. This is a serious work, after all. No matter how many sightings of UFOs, no matter how many deathbed confessions have come out of late from people who claim to have seen the Roswell UFO and the alien bodies, this stuff is still considered fringe. Claim you’ve seen a UFO—and I have, in the strictest sense of the word—and you’re labeled a nut. Since what I saw was probably an experimental craft that I couldn’t identify, and since I don’t have much a rep to worry about anyway, I don’t care.

The thing is, what Ms. Jacobsen reveals is insidious enough, and based in the whole Cold War conflict so well, that it’s hard not to believe it. In short, the Roswell UFO was actually a Soviet flying disc, remote piloted and containing surgically/genetically altered children. It was sent by Stalin in an effort to panic the populace as a whole, and he used the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938 as inspiration. When the author asked the man who told her this story—the last living engineer associated with the Manhattan Project—why this wasn’t revealed to the public in order to show up Stalin for what he was, he finally told her that we were doing it, too, and still were up through the 80s that he knows of.

Bill Clinton tried to find out the truth and, according to the engineer, he came very close. Keep in mind these are people who decide that, often, even the president doesn’t have a need-to-know about this stuff. Here’s the final exchange from the book:

 “I think he might have come very close,” the engineer said about President Clinton. “But they kept it from him.”

“Who are they?” I asked. The engineer told me that his elite group had been given the keys to the original facility at Area 51. “Who inherited the keys from you five engineers?” I wanted to know.

“You don’t have a need-to-know,” is all he would say.

Ms. Jacobsen leaves it at that. She doesn’t really give us her opinion, not in so many words, though she does bring this story up several times throughout the book, as if she accepts it as truth. Personally, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s true. We’re talking about a government that has injected poor black men with syphilis, and exposed “volunteers” to radiation to study its effects (that one’s in this book, too).

This post has run a little long, so let me say this: read the book, if you like this kind of thing. I do, and I enjoyed it immensely. And let me leave you with one encouraging quote from her acknowledgments, one that ties in with this blog quite well:

It takes a village to make a writer. I’m one of the lucky ones who has always known writing is what I was meant to do. I arrived at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, at the age of fifteen, typewriter in hand, and wrote for nearly twenty years straight without earning as much as one cent. Only at the age of thirty-four did things shift for me, and I’ve earned my living as a writer ever since. I say that for all of the writers following in my footsteps. Don’t give up… [emphasis mine].

Pretty encouraging, don’t you think? For me, that was worth the price of admission.



Never Forget

So it’s been ten years. Already. In some ways, it doesn’t seem like it. In others, it seems like a lifetime. Saddam Hussein is dead. Osama bin Laden is too, or so we’re told. Kaddafi is on the run. The so-called Arab Spring is supposedly still more or less in full bloom.

And we’re still stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan like a truck buried to the axles in mud.

A lifetime in ten years.

Yeah, I know: there’s more 9/11 Ten-Year Anniversary thises and thats out there than you can shake a stick at. This is just one more, lost in the sea of the Internet and all the other commemorative posts, news articles, blah and etc.

But I ask you: do you remember? It’s supposed to be one of those things that everybody can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

I was at work. I worked at a place called Cooper Power Systems, Kearney Operation in those days. I hear it’s closed down now, all the jobs shipped to Mexico. Imagine that. We made all manner of things for electrical utility companies. The department I was in made what’s called pipe-arm switches, if I remember the name correctly. Basically, they’re the big insulated switches you see on poles outside subdivisions and the like. I worked the table assembling and testing the insulated bases before they passed to the guys who put on pipe-arms and their assorted hardware.

I was in between orders, discussing something or another with a co-worker when a guy came up from the warehouse (they weren’t exactly a busy department) and told us a plane had crashed into one of the Trade Center towers.

Okay, I figured, probably some guy in a Cessna screwed up.

Except, the guy who told us said they thought it might be terrorists. Naw, couldn’t be that. They wouldn’t have the chutzpah to do that, would they?

Something tickled at the back of my brain, though, told me they very well could.

See, I’m a Cold War military veteran. Never saw any action outside war games, but I was in the Army from ’83 to ’87. We trained almost exclusively for one thing: war with the Soviets. Heck, I got to see Germany at the age of nineteen—something that definitely never would have happened any other way—when I went over for forty-five days on an exercise called REFORGER: REturn of FORces to GERmany. The military loves their acronyms. It was practice for the Russians invading West Germany from East Germany through Fulda Gap. It was the hope that the war would be conventional, rather than nuclear.

You never would have convinced me that, only a couple years after my enlistment was up, the Berlin Wall would come down and Soviet Russia would collapse.

The only people who really worried about terrorists in those days was Delta Force, and maybe SEAL Team Six. And I’m not sure if those last guys were around yet in the mid-80s. Either way, I know it wasn’t on my mind.

I happened to be watching the news when they reported that Soviet Russia had fallen. I was sitting in a friend’s living room, a guy who’d been a Marine during roughly the same time, and we both looked at each other and expressed disbelief. Those of you who’ve been born since then need to keep in mind that what I like to call the nuclear umbrella had been spread over us for some fifty years at that point. It dominated everything, no matter what you were doing or talking about. Like some insidious undercurrent. And I’m convinced it’s hard to know what it was like unless you lived under it.

Then it all fell. And we thought we’d won the Cold War, and the US was the superpower now. The future looked bright.

Until we started noticing a few details. Like, some of Russia’s nuclear physicists went missing. So did some of their nukes. Nuclear physicists, once the darlings of the Soviet war machine, were suddenly unemployed, and they had families to feed. The new Russia certainly wasn’t going to do it. The Soviets fell because they dedicated so much of their economy to building up their military—at least that’s one of the major reasons—that there weren’t any private sector jobs to speak of. Especially in the nuclear field.

So, maybe these physicists went to a lot of countries with names that end with –stan. As in Afghani-, Paki-, Uzbeki-, and so on. Countries that don’t like democracy. Or Christians. Or anyone non-Muslim. No let’s be accurate here: anyone non-Islam. There’s a difference.

Makes the world a scary place.

Then boom! Some guy from one of those countries planted a bomb in the World Trade Center. It was 1993, and the thing didn’t work like it was supposed to. We caught the guy, some people died, and then we got distracted by the Oklahoma City thing. And Waco. And Ruby Ridge. Supposed domestic terrorists. Clinton needed to wag the dog, after all. (Okay, to be fair, if I remember my chronology right, Ruby Ridge took place during Bush the Elder’s administration.)

And, oh yeah: Desert Storm. Let’s not forget that little exercise.

Hmm. Maybe having crazy Russkies in charge of enough nukes to obliterate the planet wasn’t so bad after all.

Because, see, the Russians still wanted to live. Unlike those who look forward to the return of the Twelfth Imam. In case you don’t know, what is Armageddon for Christians is the cleansing and purifying of the world for Islamists. Handy, isn’t it?

Now, look. I don’t care if you believe in all the apocalyptic stuff or not. Doesn’t matter whether you believe. What matters is they believe. I’m not worried about you bringing a dirty bomb into the country through a porous Mexican border. Or in a shipping container through the Port of Los Angeles or wherever.

It’s Achmed that bothers me. ’Cause that dude wants to see both of us die for Allah. Or die because we’re infidels who don’t follow the way of Allah and have the gall to draw cartoons about Mohammed.

Yeah, maybe the Russians were a little better. At least they were reasonable.

But, see, the genie’s out of the bottle now. Too late to put it back. And it can’t be done anyhow. It first got out way back in 1945 in a couple of towns called Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. And the nukes we set off over there were firecrackers compared to what’s available these days.

Okay, I’ll concede that you can’t build a nuke—supposedly even a dirty one—in your kitchen sink. You wanna worry about something blowing up in somebody’s kitchen sink, you need to worry about whether or not the neighbor’s cooking meth.

The thing is, we’ve become blasé. In ten long/short years, we’ve already begun to forget.

For shame.

 I don’t care what theory you subscribe to: it was Islamist terrorists. It was our own government bidding for more control of us (a scary possibility I can’t fully dismiss. Witness the so-called Patriot Act). It was little green men from Mars. Whatever it was, the bottom line is that over three thousand people died that day, and they, whoever they are, are just waiting to do it again.

Oh, I doubt they’ll use planes. That’s been done, and the government is using it as an excuse to take away some of our liberties.

Terrorists – 1, Freedom – 0.

Sure, we’ve had some amateurs try it, like the dude who had explosives in his underwear. That, my friends, was simply Darwinism at work. There were probably some folks back in the Mideast who were rolling in the (fundamentalist) mosques over that one, friends and neighbors.

No, it’ll be something else, and I don’t pretend to know what. If I did, I’d have a high paying security job.

So, to come back full circle: do you remember? I’ll tell you what I remember the most: the feeling I got when I finally got to see footage of the planes hitting the buildings. And the people jumping rather than burning to death. And, finally, the buildings collapsing, dust billowing through the streets of New York, people running in terror.

A tower of smoke drifting off in that blue September sky. Replacing the Twin Towers, where so recently three thousand or so people had been going about their day. Maybe thinking about the kid back home, teething. Or the date they had that night. Maybe a relative had come by for a surprise visit from out-of-state, and someone in the building wished they’d been able to take a day off to visit. Maybe someone there was a newlywed, just back from his or her honeymoon.

I can’t know all the details. I’m a writer, but I can’t keep up with over three thousand stories.

In writing, we are told to resolve all the major plot lines. How many were left unresolved on September 11, 2001? How many people are still sitting around, wondering what might have been?

I can’t describe the feeling I got when I saw that footage. I still get it when I think about that day. Maybe this all sounds a little melodramatic, but I don’t care. I’m one of those uncool people who still thinks this country matters, that the Pledge of Allegiance stands for something.

That if we keep restricting our freedoms to try and catch a nut, the nut has won already.

No, I can’t describe the feeling. But, while I can’t put it into words, I’ll never forget it.



Addendum: I just heard Wednesday on NPR that 9/11 is barely even touched on in public school civics and history classes. I will never forget, but will anyone born since then ever remember? Your tax dollars at work.