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The Frequent Flyer - 4

 

Frank Thomas Smith

 

 

When the coffee appeared and Frau Schmidt had left the room, Wolff became serious. “Here’s what we plan for you,” he said. “Lieutenant, you and your wife will defect to the west. Oh, by the way, you and Miss Baumgarten will officially marry as soon as possible. A secret love affair, you see. You will receive the necessary training in spycraft and, much easier, the travel agency business. This will take about six months. Once you are deemed ready, you will defect to West Berlin and report to an American military post. This is a logical step for one of our army officers. You feel more at home with your peers. We don’t want you in the hands of West German intelligence or the CIA. American Military Intelligence is stupid and amateurish, which ours is also, by the way, that’s why we don’t let them handle anything of importance. But the Americans are different and much worse; their various intelligence services compete with each other, and very often one doesn’t know what the others are doing or what they know. Army intelligence is the worst, mostly because they rotate officers and enlisted men in and out, so that once they have gained sufficient experience to know what they’re doing, they’re gone. There are individual exceptions to this, but they are few and far between and only handle important items and people. You will not be deemed important enough.” He drank his coffee slowly but completely and looked at them. “Are you following me so far?”

            Both nodded, somewhat hesitantly.

            “Good. They will interrogate, but courteously. You will be treated as guests, VIPs even, most probably at their interrogation center, Camp King, in Oberursel, just outside Frankfurt. You will be cooperative, as behooves defectors seeking a new life in the consumer society.”

“What should I tell them, Herr Direktor?” Cornelius said.

“Everything. Unless you know some deep dark secrets about us, you won’t be able to tell them anything they don’t already know. They will want to know about Order of Battle of course, but especially morale. They will question you about our army’s morale. You will tell the truth.” Wolff looked at the Cornelius, waiting for his reaction, which gave the latter the courage to ask it.

            “Morale isn’t really very good, Herr Direktor.”

            “You don’t say,” Wolff smiled. “That’s what you’ll tell them then. They already know it anyway. You must tell the truth about such things so you will not be under suspicion. Understood?”

            Jawohl!

            “Good. Now you, Mrs. Cornelius, they will interrogate you as well, but not with much interest. You have only to confirm your husband’s account and tell them about life in East Germany in general, the truth. We have invented an employment for you, in the travel department of the foreign ministry, which will provide a rationale for taking up the same profession in Argentina.”

            “Argentina, Herr Direktor?” God, she thought, one surprise after another.

            “Yes, your ultimate destination. But we’ll go into that tomorrow. I have an appointment with the President now, and don’t want to keep him waiting for more than is his due.” He stood up. The others followed suit. “Until tomorrow, then, at nine o’clock here.”

            “In the morning?” Cornelius asked.

            “In the evening,” Wolff replied. “You may go now. I suggest you get to know each other.” He pressed the intercom button and told Frau Schmidt to call the President’s office and advise that he was on his way. 

                                         

            Camp King, 109th Military Intelligence unit, Oberursel, West Germany. Winter, 1953. Second Lt. Marvin Jacks tied his sneaker shoelaces and stood up. He heard basketball sounds coming from the gym: hard bounces on a wooden floor, the clang when the ball hit the rim, a whumpf when it went through cleanly. Shouts of triumph or despair. He looked at himself in the locker-room mirror and smiled with satisfaction. Smiling back at him was a young handsome face, the only imperfection on it being a slightly bent nose broken in a street fight during adolescence. He'd never had it straightened because it provided the manly touch his baby-face needed if he was to be taken seriously. He was only slightly above average height, too small for basketball, at least for the professional sort.

He opened the door to the gym and was surprised to see one person, playing by himself, in the act of sinking a jump shot. He retrieved the ball and said "Hi" to Jacks.

"Hi. I thought there'd be two complete teams in here, judging by the noise," Jacks said with a smile.

"Yeah. I like to make it realistic. No fun otherwise." He trotted over and offered his hand. He was about Jacks' height but heavier. "Jack Quinn. You're new, I guess."

            "Marvin Jacks. Yeah, just got in."

"Welcome to Spook's Paradise." He flipped the ball to Jacks and stationed himself under the basket. Jacks was conscious of the dramatic effect a basket on first try would make. He bounced the ball twice, drifted to the center of the court and let loose a long jumper that bounced vertically off the rim, touched the backboard and went in.

            "Good shot."

            "Lucky."

            "Same difference."

They spent the next fifteen minutes dribbling, passing behind their backs and shooting with uncanny accuracy. An observer would have thought they'd been playing together for years.

"You from New York?" Jacks asked, knowing he was because the accent was unmistakable.

            "Sure. You too, I bet."

            "Brooklyn."

            "No kidding. What part?"

            "Flatbush." What other part is there?"

            "Crown Heights, that's what other part."

            "You play good ball," Jacks said as he missed a jumper. "Who'd you play for?"

            "Playground ball. You?"

            "Erasmus High."

"Good teams." Quinn drove in, feinted at nobody, glided under the basket and sunk a twisting left-hander. He retrieved the ball and placed it under his arm, a gesture that indicated that the conversation would get serious. "Play any baseball, Marvin?"

            "A little, nothing to speak of."

            "That’s OK, you're a good athlete. I can shape you up."

            "What do you mean?" Jacks asked, wiping the sweat off his face with his arm.

            "I mean this here's an M.I. unit,” Quinn said, “but it's also a jockstrap outfit."

            "No kidding?"

"Sure. The old man's a sports nut, played for Georgia Tech. Don't see how myself. His best, let's say his only shot, is a hooker. I mean Jesus, that went out with Ebbets Field."

"Unless you happen to be seven feet tall."

“Which he ain't." Old as the fuckin' hills though, so what can you expect. Comes in to work out most every day when he's here."

As if to emphasize what he would say next, Quinn dribbled the ball between his legs, gave it a kick-flip with his toe and caught it. "What I'm saying, Marvin, is that you could spend your whole tour right here in Camp King just playin' basketball and baseball. No football, not enough jocks and anyway the equipment's too expensive." He sighed at that misfortune. "It's a great place, food's fantastic, Frankfurt's a half-hour away on the trolleycar, nothing to do but play ball."

            "Nothing?"

            "A little interrogating if you don’t object. Basketball in the fall and winter, baseball in the spring and summer. That's all. We're in the service units league. Bunch of beer-bellies. We win everything. Just say the word. I coach both teams."

The locker-room door opened and a man walked onto the floor in gym clothes. "Hey, I thought no one was here. Didn't hear anything."

            "Howya doin' sir? We was just takin' a break," Quinn said.

            "Who are you?" he asked Marvin.

            "Jacks, sir. Arrived today."

            "Oh yeah." He stood in the key and Quinn passed him the ball as he moved to his left. He hooked it high off the backboard into the basket.

            "Good shot," Quinn cried. "Sure haven't lost the old touch."

            Colonel Moultrie Banks, Commanding Officer of the 509th M.I. Unit, wasn't exactly as old as the hills. He was forty-five, tall and once lanky, red-nosed and high-voiced and came from Moultrie, Georgia, which one of his ancestors founded during the eighteenth century.

The three of them tossed the ball around a while, until Banks began to huff and puff and the sweat poured off him in streams.

            "See you guys," he said and disappeared into the locker-room.

            "See what I mean?" Quinn winked. "Think about it and let me know. What barracks are you in?"

"BOQ," Jacks said. From the look of surprise on Quinn’s face, it was obvious he hadn’t known that Jacks was an officer. He knew exactly what Jack Quinn was thinking because he'd have been thinking it himself if the roles had been reversed: Why didn't you tell me you were a fucking officer?

But all Quinn said was "Oh". Then, "See ya," and he went into the locker-room leaving Marvin Jacks alone feeling like a traitor, which in a sense he was.

When the Korean War broke out he had already been influenced by the romanticism of books like From Here To Eternity and movies like Paths of Glory, which depicted officers as an arrogant, selfish, privileged class of incompetent, immoral parasites who did not hesitate to send soldiers to certain death for no purpose other than their own aggrandizement. When he was drafted into the army and underwent six months of basic infantry training at a dilapidated Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky, he saw no reason to change his opinion. He applied to the Army Language School in Monterey, California in the hope that the war would be over by the time he finished, and was surprised to be accepted.

What did change in Monterey was his perception of moral necessity. While his comrades from basic training were being killed and wounded in Korea he had become one of the privileged ones - still a Private, true, but in a university atmosphere obtaining an education for which he was being paid. Most of the students were enlisted men, but the few officers were enveloped by enhanced privilege. They were paid much more, had new or nearly new cars and were treated almost as equals by the aristocratic staff of Russian teachers, who invited them to their homes, something a mere soldier could never attain to.

Marvin saw all this but, now, combined with resentment he felt envy. He began to like army life. He was part of a great family, the members of which were fed, clothed, housed and paid without having to work. The possibility of having to suffer or be killed in a war was always present of course, but he had been able to avoid that so far.

Halfway through his one-year Russian course he applied for OCS. Again, to his even greater surprise, he was accepted and duly attended the Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia for six months, still not long enough for the war in Korea to have ended.

But there was still the Cold War. So he was sent off to Germany and still another school, the Intelligence and Military Police School in Oberammergau, Bavaria, where he was supposed to learn how to be a spy. It was only a three-week course and very amateurish. The only thing he remembered from it was how to conduct surveillance (follow someone) and a two-day long course in German history, given by a Master Sergeant who really knew his stuff. Jacks wondered what the hell he was doing in the army, and as an Enlisted Man. He could have become an officer but probably didn't want to, for which Jacks admired him more than for his historical erudition.

 

Lieutenant Jacks reported to his Commanding Officer, Colonel G. Moultrie Banks, on the day after his arrival at Camp King.

            "Just get in, Lieutenant?" Banks asked, reading his personal file.

            "Yesterday, sir. We sort of met at the gym yesterday."

He looked up at Jacks and frowned. "Oh yes. I thought you were a friend of Quinn’s."

            "No, sir. Never saw him before."

            "Good ball player, Quinn."

            "Yes, sir."

            "Sit down." Jacks sat down. "You're pretty good yourself."

"I could say the same for you, sir." It was the right thing to say. In fact, if Marvin hadn't used exactly those words at exactly that time and in that place and in that admiring but matter-of-fact manner, his whole life might have been  different.

The Colonel smiled modestly. "Oh, I used to be pretty good, had a great hook shot if I do say so myself..."  He then entered into a long account of his basketball prowess at Georgia Tech. "I don't regret turning down that pro offer because that's about when the really big guys came along and my hook-shot wouldn't've stood a snowball's chance in hell against them."

            Marvin didn't dispute it. He waited.

Banks looked down again at his file. "My problem now is what the hell to do with you, Jacks."

            "Sir?"

            "I see you're a Russian linguist. Three fluents.

            "Yes, sir."

"Do you have any suggestions as to what we're supposed to do with another goddamn Russian linguist around here?"

            "Well...no, sir."

            "Of course you don't. Are you expecting a war with Russia any time soon?"

            "Not really."

            "Neither am I. Of course we've got the shit squad, but there's already a Major and two Captains there who do nothing and three naturalized Russian Enlisted Men who do the work."

            "The shit squad, sir?" Jacks asked, worried.

            "We got spies who steal the garbage from the Russian garrisons in East Germany and send the papers to us by the truckload. And the Russians use anything they can get to wipe their asses with...get the point? But at least it's dry shit. So our shit squad reviews these...documents, we call them... for potential intelligence data. Ninety-nine per cent of it is shit, love letters, pleas to Mom to send food, and so forth. Every once in a great while something of remote intelligence value is found. Get the point?"

            "Yes, sir," Marvin replied, more worried.

            "Is that what you'd like to do?"

            "Not really, sir." A spark of hope. Was he being given a choice?

            "Would you like to infiltrate the Soviet Union?"

"Well, I speak fluent Russian, but I don't think I'd pass for a Russian. No, I don't think there'd be much point in that, sir." Worried again, very worried.

            "No. But they keep sending me Russian linguists. Get the point?"

            "Yes, sir."

            "Do you know what I need?"

            "German linguists, sir?"

"Right, by God". He lit a cigarette and offered one to Marvin, who accepted it. "I knew you had a head on your shoulders. Do you know why?"

"I'd rather pass on that one, sir, as I don't know much about the operation yet. Except to say that we are in Germany, after all."

Banks grinned. "It's really obvious, isn't it? This here's an interrogation center. We get a Russian once in a blue moon and we get to keep him about two days before the CIA comes and grabs him. But we get loads of Germans: Volkspolizei, politicians, spies, double agents, phonies, the works. So they send me Russian linguists. I get some Germans, linguists I mean, but most aren't up to the job. Do you know why?"

            "No, sir."

            "No balls." He waited for a reaction, but Jacks was impassive, feeling that was the appropriate stance for someone with balls. "They can be interrogators, but do you know what I really need?"

            Jacks could tell that the Colonel was an experienced interrogator. "No, sir".

            "Recruiters. Do you know what they do?"

            "More or less. They mentioned the subject in Oberammergau."

"Yeah. Well, you gotta be able to drink beer and talk soccer to Germans to gain their confidence. Do you do those things?"

"Yes, sir," which was half a lie. He drank beer - who doesn't? But talk soccer - who does?

            "Goddamn," Colonel Banks exclaimed. "You play soccer?"

            "Used to. Not too much, but I could hold my own."

            "Where?"

            "High school?" A lie, he'd never played soccer in his life and didn't know the first thing about it. He resolved to get a book on the game first thing if he got out of this interview without the Colonel asking technical questions and finding him out.

"Well, waddaya know. Can't stand the thing myself. Sorta sissy game, don't you think?"

"Not really, sir. Of course it's not football, but it can be rough and you have to be in good shape". Couldn't be anything wrong in that, he thought.

Colonel Banks sighed. "I guess you're right. The Germans aren't exactly pansies and they go for it big".

            Jacks nodded wisely.

            "You'd make a good recruiter, Jacks, but you don't speak German, do you?"

            "As a matter of fact I do, sir."

            Banks opened his eyes wide. "You do? Where’d you learn German?”

            “From my mother. She was German.”

            “Well, I’ll be dollgarned. Read and write it too?

            “Not as well as speaking. But yes, though I make mistakes writing.”

            “Who the hell doesn’t? How come that’s not in your records?”

            “Don’t know, sir. I guess because they never asked.”

“Son, you have come to the right place. What do you know about interrogation?”

            “What they taught us in Russian. I guess the technique’s the same.”

“Yes, well, what they taught you and the reality aren’t exactly the same. But practice makes perfect, just like in basketball. 

            "Right, sir."

“You can observe interrogations for a while, then do some easy ones on your own. Meantime tell Quinn to set you up for the basketball team. Play baseball too?”

            “Some, Sir.”

            “OK, glad to have you aboard, Jacks.”                

            "That's good of you, sir." He was saying all the right things, he realized. Prewitt of From Here to Eternity would act differently. Well, you have to watch your own ass in the real word.

 

Marvin Jacks was ebullient. He went to the Officers' Club because he was passing it and was thirsty after that throat-drying interview with C. Moutrie Banks. It had been the German Officers' Club before the Americans took it over and it was opulent. Marvin passed an empty reading room and entered the bar. There was only one early bird in civilian clothes perched on a bar stool reading Stars and Stripes. Marvin did a double take: it was Jack Quinn. So he was an officer after all. What had made Marvin discount that possibility? Something straight, honest, unhypocritical about him? He was relieved and at the same time somehow disappointed. He approached smiling and said, "Hi, Jack."  Quinn turned his head sideways, saw who it was, said "Hi", and resumed reading. A brush off. What's wrong?

“How's everything, Jack?"

Quinn looked at him stonily. "Look, top grade enlisted men can use the officers' club on this base, which I don't normally do. I'm waiting for Colonel Banks, who wants to talk to me about the sports program and this is his favorite place. That's just in case you're wondering what I'm doing here or in case you might confuse me with an officer," - as though it were a dirty word. 

Marvin ordered a beer and tried to think of what to say. It would be stupid to apologize, he had nothing to apologize for, rather it was Quinn who was being rude. Better be matter-of-fact.

            "What rank are you, anyway?"

            Without looking up from his paper, Quinn answered, "Master Sergeant."

            That's who he reminded him of: the Master Sergeant Burt Lancaster played in From Here To Eternity. He despised officers, too. "You're pretty young to be a Master Sergeant," Marvin said.

            Quinn sighed and closed the paper, in a show of resignation.

"Thank Korea," he said, "in case you've heard of it. Rank comes fast there if you stay long enough."

            "How long were you there?"

            "Long enough." Then, to the German barman, "Noch ein Bier, Hans, bitte."

            "Do you speak German?"

            "Everyone learns to order another beer after three days here. But as a matter of fact I do. That's why I'm in this outfit."

            "Language school?"

            "No, my old lady. What's your language?"

            "Russian and German."

            Quinn said nothing.

            "German speakers being in such short supply,” Jacks said, “I'm surprised you aren't employed differently".

"I told you, Colonel Banks is a sports nut. Look, Jacks, I shot off my mouth yesterday about all that thinking you were...not knowing what you were. I'd appreciate your keeping it to yourself".

He talks to me as though he was the colonel, Marvin thought, but that's the way Master Sergeants are. "No problem," he said. “By the way, Colonel Banks told me to tell you to set me up for the basketball team.”

"Wow, good for you. You must have made a big hit with the old man. And it takes an expert ass-kisser to do that." Nasty.

"You seem to be pretty good at it yourself," Marvin retorted, giving up the attempt to be friendly, let alone make friends.

But he didn't know Jack Quinn, who frowned, then grinned. "The only genuine, successful ass-kissers in this man's army are officers, of which select group you are one. But maybe you're different. After all, you are from Brooklyn, so you can't be all bad".

Colonel Banks clapped Quinn on the shoulder. "Hello, Jack." He ignored Marvin.

"Hi, Colonel," Quinn greeted him. Marvin picked up his beer, mumbled an apology and slunk off. They didn't hear him.

           

            “Are you comfortable in your quarters, Frau Cornelius?” Lt. Jacks asked the attractive young lady seated across from him in Bavarian-American accented German. It was his first interrogation on his own, but he had been advised that it was routine, she was merely a defector’s wife. The room was small but tastefully decorated and they sat in padded chairs. During the war the Germans had used it for the good cop part of interrogation. If the P.O.W.s, American and British flyers, were not cooperative they went next to the dungeon below for a few days for softening up, no torture, just isolation, were then brought back up for more officer and gentleman treatment. Most stuck to the name, rank and serial number bit, but some were willing to discuss personal things like wives, children, home towns, with their interrogators, and this inevitably led to elements of military information. Either way, they all wound up in P.O.W. camps. The East Germans whom the Americans questioned were told they were there voluntarily and were free to go at any time – which was partly true: they could leave, but if they didn’t return within twenty-four hours they would be picked up by the German police and turned over to West German Intelligence, where they were threatened with being sent back East, the result being that they rushed back to Camp King apologizing profusely.  

Jacks had read her husband’s interrogation file and had to corroborate the personal information, then ask her about the Foreign Affairs Ministry, where she had worked in the travel department. Finally, what they asked all defectors: conditions in the German Democratic Republic.

She had it all down pat: told Jacks about her husband’s military career – going nowhere because of his lack of motivation, which created suspicion – the names of Foreign Affairs Ministry officials and their travel history, as well as she could remember. Mostly they traveled around the Eastern bloc, including Moscow; only the higher ups went to the west, and they were too important for her to handle. Conditions? She was supposed to tell the truth, and she did: shortages of almost everything, although she was privileged in that respect because of her job in the Ministry. But all her relatives and friends expected her to buy things for them, and she had to ask an official, which she didn’t like to do, especially as most of them expected sexual favors in return, which she refused to give. The Stasi informers were everywhere, so there was no freedom of speech, no freedom at all in fact. They had wanted her to be an informer and she refused, which made any possibility for advancement impossible. And everyone knows that the Russians are really in charge, that the GDR government is nothing but a puppet and the Russians Are hated. She added, almost as an afterthought, that if the wall came down the whole population might go over to the west. Did they already know that? She asked herself. Was she going too far? Then the epiphany: it was true, yes, and she was happy to be out of it, and if she weren’t in the west as a spy, she would be even happier, much happier. What had happened to her ideals, her father’s great communist ideals? Was it the Russians’ fault that they had been perverted, or were they rotten to begin with?

“Frau Cornelius,” her American interrogator was saying. “Is something wrong?” And she realized that there were tears in her eyes and she had almost forgotten his presence.

“No, I’m sorry, it’s just that…”

Marvin Jacks’ epiphany arrived a few seconds later, but it was different. He realized that he was in love with her, not madly, no, not that, but the process had begun.    


       

            Continued in the next issue of Southern Cross Review.

Part 1