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Personal, Politics, Spies

Paradise By The Dashboard Light

December 24, 2015

“Time will bring to light whatever is hidden;
it will cover up and conceal what is now shining in splendor.”
– Horace

§ § §

Did I ever mention that I was chased out of Area 51 by the camo dudes a few years ago? Honest to God Wackenhut brush cuts with mirrored glasses driving a regulation-issue gray-coloured truck (Built Ford Tough, apparently). True story. One for another day, perhaps. For now, this…

The acknowledgment by the CIA of the existence of the infamous top secret desert location known variously as Groom Lake, Dreamland, Skunk Works and Paradise Ranch, was accompanied by the release of an ‘official’ 407-page internal document detailing its lengthy classified history. To those of us who pay attention to such things this was not news; the admission, yes, the existence, not so much. But thanks for the paperwork anyway, guys.

The whole story reminds me of one of my trips to the American Southwest and my brush with military secrecy.

After zipping past the ‘Deadly Force Authorized‘ signs about 16 miles down a dirt road off Nevada’s Route 375, I received an abrupt about-face and the bum’s rush from the blacked-out windows of the knobby-tired four-by-four, one of several dotting the hills around the main gate. Yes, I knew exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing, but I wanted to see if the envelope could be pushed a little. I pushed, and they pushed back.

rachel_nevadaReturning somewhat hastily to the Extraterrestrial Highway’s blacktop, I headed northwest toward the town of Rachel, Nevada and the comfort of a cold beer at the bar attached to a loose affiliation of mobile homes called the Little Ale-Inn.

After checking in, I was quaffing a pop and listening to Little Ale-Inn owner Pat tell stories about the ‘camo dudes’ to a group of four Brits. I overheard them say they were in Las Vegas for a convention, and they’d rented a vehicle for two days so they could come to the desert see and the aliens. One of them had a hand-drawn map of the small town, and I noticed a crudely-drawn squiggly line on it leading into the desert next to where it said ‘Rachel’. It just stopped in the middle of nowhere with the words: ‘Back Gate’. I was unaware there was such a thing.

After the Brits had left, I asked Pat what this ‘back gate’ was all about.

“How do you know about that?!” she said. “There’s not even much information on the Internet about that – a couple of fuzzy pictures maybe, but…” I mentioned the map squiggle, and she dismissed it with a ‘pfft’ and a wave of her hand. Then she paused. “You wanna go…?”

Hell yes, I wanna go, I thought. “That might be fun,” I said.

Outside the bar next to the kitchen she pointed to a road a quarter of a mile away that lead to a ranch. “When you get to the ranch, hang a left and stay on it. You’ll know when you’ve gone far enough,” she said with a sly smile. “If you’re not back by dinner time, I’ll sell your shit and give your room away.” Her laugh was more of a cackle. The screen door to the kitchen slammed and bounced.

§ § §

Anyone remember that cool TV movie from the 70s called “Duel“?  It starred Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke, McCloud) as a haggard travelling salesman heading home after a long road trip (I can relate!) It was Steven Spielberg’s first foray into big-time directing, in fact.

Early in the film the salesman accidentally sideswipes a semi truck hauling gasoline and spends the rest of the movie trying to escape the evil intentions of the rig driver who wants him to pay for his driving indiscretion. All this is played out with almost no dialogue, and you never see the driver of the semi – never. So when the Weaver character sucks the semi driver into a duel between the vehicles – ergo, the title – and the truck, driver and all, goes to its fiery death off a cliff, you still have no idea who the driver was.

At one point in the film, the salesman spots the rig at a truck stop cafe and watches as the driver enters the restaurant. But he only sees his boots. The Weaver character enters the restaurant and tries to ‘unmask’ the driver by surreptitiously checking the footwear of everyone in the cafe.

Okay – now that you’ve got that premise locked in your mind, on with my story.

§ § §

The road was not unlike the main Area 51 road I’d been chased from earlier, though closer to the rolling hills that conveniently blocked surreptitious views of the massive hangars that housed reverse engineered flying saucers (I read that somewhere). The dust I kicked up was surely acting like an environmental smoke alarm to anyone who might be paying attention. Mind you I was driving a metallic blue Chrysler PT Cruiser – in the blazing hot desert sun they could see my ass from space!

area_51_back_gateAbout thirty minutes in, at a respectable speed of around 30 miles per hour, I found myself doing the usual ups and downs, lefts and rights until I came to a sharp bend to the left at the base of a small mountain. It was getting toward dusk, and although the road was becoming increasingly difficult to navigate, I resisted the urge to turn on the headlamps.

About a mile further, I began to make out tall poles with large lights on them, a small building with windows, and a gate with an oversized ‘stop’ sign. I could also see that the gate was up, and a car was coming towards me… at a high rate of speed! The gate dropped. The dust from the oncoming vehicle was swirling like a vortex behind it. Not sure what to do, I continued my slow pace toward almost certain arrest and a $600 fine.

As the approaching vehicle was about to reach my position I noticed the driver had his window rolled halfway down just like the camo dudes from earlier in the day. There was only one occupant in this gray Ford four-by-four. All I saw was a hand. It waved at me! I waved back. I also made a quick mental note of the government-issue license plate and drove on toward the gate which was now only a few hundred yards away.

Four of the tall poles indeed had lights, for they suddenly came on and were pointed in my direction. A fifth pole had an immense video camera attached to it, and it too was pointed in my direction. The objective lens on this thing must have been six inches in diameter – probably worked in conjunction with night vision for clarity.

I could see the guard standing, silhouetted in the shack from what sunlight was left coming through the glass on the other side. There were a few small outbuildings scattered around, an unusually long semi trailer with a white tarp covering its cargo, and a sand-coloured school bus sitting empty just beside the semi. I’d seen that school bus before, up close at around 8:00 am that morning at a Chevron station in Alamo, Nevada fifty miles back. The driver was filling up his tank one pump over from me. I had followed this bus – empty then too – all the way to the Area 51 turn off, where I began my day. It continued, apparently, taking the back door to Groom Lake.

I was stopped. I got out of the car and considered walking the final hundred yards or so, but site security appeared to have other options in mind. Vehicles such as mine (‘unauthorized’ is a word that came to mind) had nowhere to go but forward and back. My interest in the school bus, the gate and what lay beyond was broken by movement in the lights. They were on remote control gimbals so they could be directed anywhere. I scanned the horizon, and the guard gate now directly in front of me. I was apparently of some interest, as a second human appeared at the gate. It was then that I noticed a familiar sign: Photography Prohibited – Deadly Force Authorized

It was pretty clear that a guided tour was going to be out of the question.

The second human was slowly shaking his head from side to side. The international symbol for, “Don’t Even Think It”…? Maybe. I got back in the car, drove a little further, then did a three-point turn and began my trek back to the main highway. One last glance in the rearview mirror revealed a beautiful sunset as the lights snapped off and dimmed.

little_alien_motelArriving back at the Little Ale-Inn in a cloud of dust (there’s no other way), I noticed a Ford truck parked in front of the bar. A GRAY Ford truck with government-issue plates. Pat had commented earlier: “…since no one knows what they look like they might be comin’ in here every day and drinking beer in their down time. I’m sure someone around here knows people on the other side of those hills.” That seemed more than a little prophetic.

Shit! So now I’m at a disadvantage. If the guy’s inside, he will most certainly recognize me: baseball cap, beard, fear-of-God look on face… yeah, I’m busted. But how would I recognize him…? More importantly, who would he be seated with? Who would he be talking to? Do other people in here know him and what he does?

I went in.

There were seven people not including a young woman tending bar, and the cook. Three seated at the bar proper – a pair and a single – and four at tables, two and two. Pat was nowhere to be seen. Now, where is he, I wondered? I suddenly felt a certain kinship with Dennis Weaver. Yup – life was definitely imitating art.

I took a seat at the bar and as coolly as possible under the circumstances ordered a beer. Calmly, I surveyed the situation and attempted to study the faces. Alternating sips of beer with furtive looks, I managed to spill most of the beer on my shirt. Okay – ‘cool’ is out, plan ‘B’ is in.

I discounted three of them right away – they were women. The other four didn’t look quite right: one was overweight, scruffy and wearing a ratty ball cap. I took him for the five ton moving truck out front. Another two were clean cut, Jehovah’s Witness types sipping iced tea. So… that left one – a single sitting at the bar. Could be. Didn’t seem to be talking to anyone in particular and wasn’t paying much attention to anything going on in the bar. I stared at him for any tell-tale signs of government-issue.

In the back, I heard the cook say, “Sounds good. See ya Saturday.” An eighth?

The screen door in the kitchen slammed and bounced. A beat later a car door followed suit.

Looking out the sliding glass window beside the bar I watched as the gray Ford truck reversed, turned, and drove away in a cloud of dust.

So, someone here DOES know people on the ‘other side’!

Personal, Politics, Spies

I Spy With My Little Eye

September 30, 2015

“Then we got into a labyrinth, and, when we thought we were at the end,
came out again at the beginning, having still to see as much as ever.”
~ Plato

§ § §

Even after all this time (and perhaps BECAUSE so much time has elapsed), artwork and artefacts from World War II are still being discovered. Purloined paintings spirited away by the Nazis during the latter years of the war will always take centre stage, and rightly so. This story, about a looted oil painting, found hanging in a small home in Columbus, Ohio for 20 years, is a good example of what’s still missing and yet to be found. So too, is the recent unearthing (literally, in this case) of the so-called Nazi ‘gold train’ buried deep in Poland.

However, it’s not just precious metals and works of art from the war years that have remained ‘buried’, and eventually discovered in odd places. Documents, maps, letters, paperwork of all kinds continue to show up in long-forgotten, dust-ridden attic and basement boxes in locales that defy simple explanation.

My recent trip to L.A. was initially a short research excursion in support of a new book I’m writing. The job at hand involved viewing and making notes on a recently discovered cache of formal Nazi documents written in 1945 as the Russians closed in on Berlin. Those documents – including a crudely drawn map that lies at the heart of my new tale – were nothing short of eye-popping. But it was the story of how and where they were eventually found that was equally exciting.

No spoiler alert here, but this is the Reader’s Digest version.

As the top echelon Nazis increasingly saw the writing on the wall in the Spring of 1945, much of their work was occupied, not with trying to counterattack the Russian Army who had already infiltrated the Berlin city limits, but rather in attempting to squirrel away and/or destroy documentary evidence of their war crimes. Included in that effort was the mostly successful attempt to find secret repositories for material central to the their basic thesis of a ‘thousand year Reich’ – a FOURTH Reich, as it were, to rise from the ashes and live to conquer again another day, in another place – South America, as it turned out.

Eventually, more than five years later, some of that material ended up in the hands of the East German secret police archives – the Stasi. Amongst that material was a 22-page dossier – the one I made notes on a few weeks ago. How and why Nazi documents found their way into a massive archive in East Germany – a Communist bloc country (the Nazis, of course, were virulently anti-Communist) – is another, far more lengthy story, and odd enough for any researcher. However, it’s what happened to those documents next, in the early 1990s, that confounds imagination.

As the Eastern Bloc Communist manifesto-driven lifestyle began to falter politically and socially, and eventually fail completely in 1989, the Berlin Wall tumbled to the ground. The GDR, or the German Democratic Republic as East Germany was known, was caught completely off guard according to some historians. Two things were becoming abundantly clear to the members of the GDR politburo. Their ‘partners’ in the Soviet Union were going to do nothing about this deteriorating (to them) state of affairs, and, therefore, it would only be a matter of time before everything collapsed, and newly ‘freed’ citizenry would begin storming political offices and trashing or stealing everything in site. The decision within the secret police was to destroy everything. Ironically, this, in fact, is the reason so much Stasi documentation exists to this day.

The Stasi was the largest, most detail-oriented intelligence organization the world has ever seen. It was also the most devious, ruthless, and arcane. Their interrogation techniques were… creative, to say the least. It is said that at one time or another ALL residents of East Germany were working for the Stasi whether they knew it or not. The smallest, simplest detail rarely went undetected by someone, who then either ‘reported’ it to the police, or spoke about it to someone else in a bar, or on the street, and THAT someone revealed the information to someone else, which found its way to the Stasi. A phone number written on a used paper napkin in a small bistro and thrown away by restaurant staff after the meal would be retrieved and presented to the police in hopes that one day this little act of ‘patriotism’ would be remembered and, therefore, deflect any investigation or interrogation of THEM. It’s no wonder that the Soviet KGB would often send their agents to East Berlin for training in ‘technique’.

The Stasi, by design, destroyed nothing. They kept, and cross-referenced everything! As such, they had no incinerators or paper shredders! Their job was to KEEP everything, not DESTROY it – such was the root of their power.

While they scrambled to find incinerators and shredders in other parts of Berlin and beyond, the police concocted another scheme. Staff members of the Stasi (there were literally tens of thousands of individuals and married couples, as it turned out) were tasked with spiriting away bits, pieces, chunks, boxes, and crates of material. One such box was taken into the German countryside by a husband and wife team and hidden away.

After the tumult of the fall of Communism began to fade away, and Germany once again became unified, this couple emigrated to the United States taking some of the Stasi archives with them. The story goes that the 22-page dossier in question was found less than five years ago. In a steamer trunk. In a barn. On a farm. In the fields of Nebraska!

The dossier became part of a larger assemblage of Nazi documentation, and through some deep, forensic research over the better part of two years, I located its resting place.

Its discovery made me dig into what might have happened with the rest of the Stasi archive. Did it survive in some form? How much survived? How much was destroyed – eventually shredded or incinerated? Where is it?

In a large, very secure ‘business park’ within an office/warehouse complex just outside Berlin, lies the Office of the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records. It is the new international ‘home’ for the Stasi archives. Aside from materials that were ‘taken away’, most of the archive was NOT incinerated, and only a partial amount was shredded, although the word ‘partial’ here is entirely relative.

Inside this complex of buildings, an extensive staff of paid workers, volunteers and even students work tirelessly around the clock, seven days a week piecing back together the entire surviving archive. It is estimated that the job of reorganizing will take decades to complete. Why?

The archive as it now exists comprises almost a billion individual pages of data, which translates to about 111 kilometres of shelf space if it were all laid end to end. That figure doesn’t include 1.8 million photos, negatives, and slides; 30,000 films, videos, and audio recordings; 39 million separate file cards; 47 kilometres of microfilm; and 15,500 garbage bags stuffed with shredded material. Volunteers are painstakingly reconstructing the contents of those bags back into their original individual pages… one shredded sliver of paper at a time. This specialist group is known as ‘the puzzlers’.

Finding a needle in a haystack suddenly seems like so much child’s play!

Personal, Politics, Spies, Travel

Nights Of Living Dangerously – Part 1

October 20, 2013

TEASER

Life is strange. One minute you’re sitting there, sipping your tea, reading the newspaper (remember newspapers…?), and suddenly a thought occurs to you… “I wonder what soandso’s up to these days…?” Then your mobile rings and it’s soandso on the other end wondering what you’ve been up to.
Coincidence, happenstance, fate, serendipity… synchronicity, if Jung’s your cuppa tea. It happens all the time. But sometimes there’s a subject, an incident, a story that you think has nothing to do with you, that seems completely inconsequential, that keeps resurfacing, over and over, throughout your life; an event that holds no more significance for you than a pocket full of small change. Except that over time, as it resurfaces like a nagging football injury, you start looking for connections, seeking the links. And wondering… what the fuck…?!
This is one of those.
This story covers a twenty year period. It begins outside a truck stop in Northern Ontario in the middle of the night, and ends at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. more than two decades later. And yet for me it really all takes place during the course of a couple of very entertaining evenings in Bangkok. Before I was done I would come face to face with automatic weapons, mercenaries, spies, secrets, a redhead and a handful of the most colourful characters I’ve ever met.
But let’s start where all good stories begin – at the beginning. Time to connect the dots.

§ § §

“You know the day destroys the night,
Night divides the day.
Tried to run, tried to hide.
Break on through to the other side.”
– ‘Break On Through’, The Doors

PART ONE

It’s the middle of the night in sub-zero February, 1982. My friend Steve is sitting at a table in a roadside diner on Highway 102 just outside Thunder Bay, Ontario. His wife is breastfeeding their newborn daughter while he chugs his third cup of blackstrap coffee to try and stay awake.

Steve recently got a job at a new television station in Vancouver. He was moving his family west dragging a U-Haul behind a beat-up old van containing their combined earthly possessions.

The diner was a nondescript eatery of the type you’d find anywhere in North America – likewise the patrons. It was their first stop, other than for pee breaks, since leaving Southern Ontario behind ten hours earlier. They were making good time, considering. Besides, it was nice to not be driving for awhile – to just sit still for half an hour.

The baby was asleep now, and Steve decided to step outside to the parking lot to retrieve a fresh diaper and have a quick smoke.

Realizing he’d left his lighter on the table back inside, he noticed a flatbed semi with U.S. plates, and the driver checking out the ropes and tarps. He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth, so Steve approached and asked for a light.

As the small talk ensued, Steve asked him what he was hauling. “I’d tell ya, but I’d hafta kill ya!” The trucker laughed, thankfully.

Never the introverted type, Steve kept up his side of the conversation and soon discovered they shared a fascination for military aircraft and air shows. Steve’s dad had been a commercial pilot, as had this trucker’s. They seemed to hit it off.

The trucker looked at his watch and said, “Gotta get back on the road. My escort bagged it for the night in Kenora. Gotta meet up before I call it a night. C3’s… gonna wonder where I am…” His voice trailed off.

“What’s C3?” Steve asked innocently, “And why do you have an escort…?”

The trucker looked around, perhaps realizing he may have misspoken. “You work in television, yeah? Are you a reporter…?”

“No – I’m a techie,” Steve said.

The trucker thought for a second. “Come here.” They walked around to the back of the truck and the driver undid a couple of the straps. He pulled back the tarp so Steve could see just the edge of one of the crates securely fastened to the deck.

“I’m not going to say what’s in the boxes. I can’t – even I don’t know,” the trucker said. “I just back the cab up, hitch it up to the trailer, grab my paperwork and hit the road.” He pulled the tarp back down, fastened the ropes and returned to the cab – Steve followed.

“Then I drop it off, collect a cheque – sometimes cash, and head back. Good money, too. Two, sometimes three times as much as I’d make hauling spinach.” Tapping the side of the trailer he said, “These ain’t vegetables.”

The remainder of the conversation unfolded this way: According to Steve, the trucker said he had buddies who did the same thing he did. That’s how you get hired on, he said, you gotta know someone.

One driver said they were transporting nuclear warheads (some crates bore the radioactive symbol). Some said the crates contained freshly printed hundred dollar Franklins. One guy had an accident when he hit a patch of ice in Oklahoma and spilled part of his load. A crate split open. Inside, he said, were packets of old 50s and 20s, wrapped with paper ribbons with the admonishment, ‘DESTROY’ printed on them. Each packet had three large holes punched in it. Old money headed for the incinerator perhaps.

But regardless of the cargo, it seemed there was another sinister element to these surreptitious midnight jaunts.

This particular trip had started in Tennessee and wouldn’t end until late the next night in a place called Mountain Home, Idaho. Oak Ridge, Tennessee is the number one nuclear weapons plant in the United States. Mountain Home, Idaho, was the location of a U.S. Air Force Base and home to a tactical fighter wing and ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) testing.

The trucker said that it wasn’t so much of a secret anymore – governments on both sides of the border allowed it to occur, mostly for security reasons. There’d been news stories, and a couple of truckers had been ‘caught’ with illegal cargo – dangerous, explosive cargo even. Residents of the areas where they were ‘caught’ went to the media. The media reported it and put local aldermen and provincial MPs on the hot seat, and in turn the politicians rattled their well-worn cross-border sabres at the Americans, chastising them for illegally shipping dangerous cargo across sovereign territory. After a few weeks the fuss would die down, and everyone would be back in business.

He said they all travelled at night, skipping past the weigh scales on the highway when time was of the essence, flying along back roads when trying to avoid urban centres.

Simultaneously, again according to what the trucker told Steve, there was, that night, a military convoy being transported by rail under heavy security across the American midwest destined for the same location. The difference between the two was, the train was the decoy… or maybe HE was the decoy, he never knew which and he figured that was the point. There may even have been a third decoy also, according to one of his buddies.

A little courier ‘sleight-of-hand’, the trucker said – did it all the time, always a different route, this time through Canada under diplomatic license – his words. There was an armoured unit only a codeword away via his mobile radio if he ran into any trouble. That unit was in an unmarked van loaded to the gunwales with everything required to ‘take care’ of the situation – again, his words.

This armoured unit was the ‘C3’ the trucker had referred to.

dangerous-courierVersions of C3 do exist – initially the brainchild of the Secret Service (Department of the Treasury) – and they don’t exist only in the United States. They have taken different forms over the years and served many diverse functions. But their prime task is to provide logistical support to the ultimate mission, whatever that may be.

C3 is an alphanumeric acronym which used to stand for ‘Courier Communications and Control‘. Its teams are mobile coordination groups assisting in the transportation and delivery of anything the government deems too ‘hot’ to be handled by the U.S. Postal Service or private courier. Sometimes it’s weapons-grade plutonium travelling from Hanford, Washington to a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility via lead-lined steamer trunks; sometimes coin dies for a new commemorative $20 gold coin hidden in an old valise destined for the U.S. Mint production plant in Denver; sometimes it’s human cargo – a spy or suspected terrorist – being transported from a safe house in New York City to prison in Leavenworth, Kansas (Gitmo is entirely an Army operation).

C3 teams are usually groups of no more than two or three people – retired Secret Service, FBI, CIA and/or U. S. Marshall Service personnel – posing as husband and wife or a small family or just friends on a golfing trip. In their luggage, however, is enough firepower and communications equipment to start a small war. They are the contact point for the person or group surreptitiously transporting the ‘goods’ from point “A” to point “B”. Their job is to remain in contact with the courier and stay one step ahead of them, supplying assistance whenever and wherever necessary and reporting back to headquarters on the progress of the mission. There are several, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of false apartments, houses, offices and warehouses across the United States that serve as contact points for the couriers. The tenants, usually members of the Secret Service, come and go at regular intervals so as not to arouse suspicion. Inside these accommodations is the materiel required to support any and all eventualities that might arise from a covert delivery. False walls hiding weapons and communications equipment, plus money, credit cards and disguises are only the tip of the iceberg.

Sounds like an episode of “Homeland” I realize, but I know of a building in Vancouver that the Combined Law Enforcement Unit (CLEU) used to run that’s now in the hands of CSIS.

The early media reports on 9/11 announced a complete “site lock down” by the CIA immediately following the crashing of the first jet plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. This was before the second plane hit and before anyone had seriously considered the possibility that it was a terrorist act, let alone that the buildings would actually fall. In fact, the main reason was that the CIA had a C3 office in the WTC and they were very concerned that material – everything from secret files to weapons – could be compromised.

During the Reagan administration in the eighties, the President signed an Executive Order allowing the CIA to expand its counter-terrorism activities domestically. Although the activity of domestic spying on Americans is against the law – if you believe the Constitution – the Order remains in effect today. In fact, it has expanded greatly with the creation of the Office of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act as exemplified by the National Security Agency’s ‘warrantless surveillance’ controversy. As part of Reagan’s secret order, the business of C3 was apparently transferred over to the CIA, which administers a multi-agency version of it to this day. Its acronym now meaning ‘Communications, Command and Control’.

I got most of this story verbatim from Steve via a phone call the next night from Brandon, Manitoba – the rest of it when he arrived in Vancouver a few days later.

The World Wide Web as we know it was still many years away back in the Winter of 1982, but online tools for searching public library databases and private information repositories – WAIS, Gopher, and other tools – were available. I had a VUCOM terminal at home hooked up to an old teletype printer for screen dumps and a 300 Baud modem/data telephone combination the size of a Volkswagen. The research I was able to glean using Steve’s information as a starting point filled in the blanks.

I could never be certain whether what I was hearing was just a tall tale made up by Steve to pass the time during a long, cold, arduous trip across the country, or whether part of it was true and he’d embellished the rest just for my benefit.

After a while it all became just another interesting story and life took over once again.

I didn’t give the whole C3 story much thought again until I met Frank almost three years later in a bar on a beach in Thailand. That one little phrase, C3, dropped into the middle of an innocuous conversation over a few bottles of Kloster Beer set in motion the events of a night I will never forget.

End of Part 1 of 4 ~ Continued In Part 2

Personal, Politics, Spies, Travel

Nights Of Living Dangerously – Part 2

October 18, 2013

“When you’re strange
Faces come out of the rain.
When you’re strange
No one remembers your name.”
– ‘People Are Strange’, The Doors

§ § §

PART TWO

In December 1986, I was well into my second month in Thailand. After a few days in Tokyo, I’d come down the Asian coast to spend a few weeks lazing on a hot, sunny beach to burn off the remaining angst incurred from having spent almost a full year working at Expo ’86 in Vancouver.

Downtime in a practically deserted beach paradise near the islands of Koh Phi Phi in Southern Thailand would also help me get back to research on a crime novel I was planning to write (Subduing Mara – another story!)

Through a friend who was also staying nearby I met with a former U.S. Army private named Frank Davies. He’d retired to the south of the Thai peninsula after the Vietnam War and opened a small beach bar and hotel.

At the bar over several bottles of Kloster (a beer referred to locally as high grade ‘cat’s piss’), he would tell me stories of the Vietnam War, Special Forces operations he’d supposedly participated in, the implications of the My Lai massacre and various other ‘indiscretions’, and why he stayed in Thailand instead of returning home. All of it was very entertaining and punctuated with references to other people, places and events… but it all didn’t ring quite true to me. I was never certain if he was just spinning yarns or telling the truth, or if his version of history fell somewhere in between. However, three incidents that I experienced solidified my belief in Frank’s stories and information… well, most of it anyway. Here’s the first.

I asked Frank one day why he decided to join the Army at a time when most kids his age were burning their draft cards, smoking dope and listening to The Doors. It was his father’s influence. Frank told me that his dad had been in the Second World War and seen plenty of action. After returning stateside he joined the Military Police, and then became a cop. He retired early because of a limp that developed due to a piece of shrapnel in his left leg. However, he was a good strategist and had a ‘nose for the bad guys’, as Frank put it, and his superiors were always looking for a way to keep him around.

Frank was a good storyteller and I was an avid listener. Then one shoe dropped.

His father’s last job was working as part of a small covert division of the Secret Service hardly anyone knew even existed. He said it was called C3.

Cat’s piss came out my nose. I apologized and asked him to elaborate.

Frank told me his father continued to perform this duty long after retirement since he could travel as a senior citizen with an older woman (also retired Secret Service – both using canes) and no one would be the wiser.

“I saw what my dad had become, what he’d managed to do for his country, and I wanted to follow,” Frank told me. “Besides, I was going nowhere fast in Louisiana.” Frank noticed the look on my face. “Yeah – no one believes that story. I got more stories you won’t believe either, if you want to hear them. But right now I have to check-in some new guests.” He got up from the barstool and wandered over to a folding card table in the corner that served both as the check-in desk and buffet, depending on the time of day.

That evening there were really only two options for after-dinner activities. You could head down to the end of the second beach and set off fireworks, or grab a chair from your bungalow and find an empty spot in the open field to watch a movie being projected on the side of a bed sheet. The fireworks were fun, but if previous nights were any indication it would deteriorate into drunken competition. The Thai festival of Loi Krathong was just a recent memory, so many who had missed the original decided for the instant replay. On the other hand, the movie was the same as the night before… and the night before that… and the week before that. Once you’ve seen Streets Of Fire dubbed in German with Spanish subtitles (Strassen und Flammen / Calles del Fuego)… well, you’ve seen it.

I found Frank in his nearly empty bar chatting up one of the local girls. I knew I was interrupting, but I didn’t care. “Let’s talk about C3,” I said.

The pristine white sand had retained its heat from a stifling hot and humid day. The flickers of the movie projector a few hundred metres away, and the bright flash boom of the fireworks a short distance in the opposite direction were the only sources of light – there was no moon. Sitting there in the sand Frank and I chatted about C3, and Frank related some of those ‘other stories’ he’d mentioned earlier. Our faces bounced out of the night with each flicker or flash, and for the first time I noticed that Frank’s face was just a little too shiny, a little too tight.

Frank had fought in the Vietnam War and been wounded twice. The last time, he’d taken shrapnel in the face from a Viet Cong RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade) and spent a year and a half in a Thai hospital having painful reconstructive surgery. He spent the intervening time learning the difficult Thai language.

He decided not to return home after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and instead parlayed his savings and disability pension, not to mention his contacts, into the small bar and hotel on the beach. At the time he purchased, Kho Phi Phi, and nearby Phuket and Koh Samui were just a halfway oasis on the 750-mile overland trip from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. It was now the hottest holiday destination in Southeast Asia and Frank was making serious money.

Foreigners can’t take up permanent residency, own property or become ‘naturalized’ citizens in Thailand, Frank said. They can, however, live quite well, lease property and buildings and take what are called ‘visa sabbaticals’ from Thailand. The sabbaticals allow for the immigration people to re-stamp your passport upon re-entry for a further ‘work permit’ of six months. All just red tape of course, but Frank had a collection of red tape dating back years.

What this meant was that Frank had to leave Thailand every six months for a couple of weeks vacation. One of these vacation periods happened to coincide with my trip. So, after a week and a half in Australia he returned to Thailand via Bangkok and agreed to show me around the Bangkok that he knew and introduce me to a couple of his friends that might add more fodder to the research for my novel.

He called me at my hotel late one evening and asked me to meet him at a bar on Patpong Road – a notorious area of four-square-blocks where everything from shoulder-launched missiles to thirteen-year old boys and girls were for sale. This is the Bangkok no one wants to talk about. Unfortunately, it was the Bangkok I needed to research for my book. As a friend of mine who has spent much time in Bangkok put so eloquently:

“Never have I been in a city where I felt so much like a sinner without having done anything.”

The Patpong area is still ‘owned’ (that is to say, controlled) by the Chinese-Thai Patpongpanich family, one of whom is a General in the Thai Army. Although to outsiders Thailand has a King and Queen and appears to be run as a Kingdom, it wasn’t always so. Until the democratic revolutions (quiet ones) of 1991 it was run by the armed forces. All the ministers and lawmakers had military rank. One could do anything with any commodity that was available – buy, sell, trade and steal (some say even kill) with impunity as long as the right palms were greased. This was the Bangkok that I was getting all too familiar with as my time with Frank went on. He may have been American, but his years in Southeast Asia – over twenty at this point – and his mastery of the Thai language allowed him to haggle and deal with the best of them. It also allowed him to move throughout the darker corners unencumbered, so too those in his company.

At a large crowded disco 60s music blared from the huge ceiling-mounted speakers as scantily clad girls danced and plied their trade. Frank told me that a friend of his ‘from the old days’ was returning from Africa and he wanted me to meet him. Fascinating guy apparently. They’d “…executed covert recon patrols in-country during the latter days of the police action.” He actually talked like this and it became apparent to me over the weeks of my stay that those who stayed on in Thailand after the war all communicated in this anachronistic ‘Viet-speak’ of 1960s-70s occupation.

What Frank neglected to tell me was that this ‘friend’ was a mercenary and was returning from Angola where he had ‘hired on’ with the Cubans to help depose a rebel leader. I took that to mean ‘kill’.

At oh-two hundred hours Frank’s friend entered the bar. All 260 pounds, six and half feet plus of him. Still dressed in camouflage fatigues and with the remnants of battle paint on his face, he carried a specially outfitted (I was to learn later) AK-47 Russian assault rifle, sometimes referred to as a ‘Kalashnikov’. This last accoutrement didn’t seem to phase anyone but me – apparently he didn’t go anywhere without his ‘baby’. I was to see more of these weapons a few days later under less amiable conditions.

The attention he received upon arrival was preceded by almost dead silence. Then several of the dancing girls erupted into laughs and smiles and threw themselves onto him like he was a ride at Disneyland. He was obviously well known, entirely welcome and not considered at all out of place, even with the weapon.

The name patch Velcroed to his fatigues’ left breast pocket read: JESUS in Army khaki green on green. He had ripped it from his dead buddy’s chest after a particularly fierce fire fight near Da Nang in ’68, and ‘borrowed’ the name. He’d had it so long he’d practically forgotten his own. Besides, that was a life and half ago, he said. Friends were forbidden to utter the name in his presence out of respect to “…the best damn Marine I’ve ever known”. So, his friends got in the habit of calling him D.B. – short for Dash Board, I was told. Funny guy, this mercenary.

A short conversation with D.B., Frank and myself followed, but I could tell my scintillating company was no match for the entertainment promised by the girls, now numbering six, vying for D.B.’s attention. He seemed to take an immediate liking to me, however. Perhaps it was because Frank introduced us – Frank, apparently, didn’t like anybody I was to learn later. Perhaps it was because I was genuinely interested in what he did for a living and his ego was being massaged. All I know is that two nights later the four of us (my friend from Vancouver showed up and joined the party) decided to go to the Bangkok Press Club so that we could talk in less frenetic surroundings. D.B. promised to answer all of my questions that he could, but that there were others that if he “…told me, he’d have to kill me!” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that phrase, but it was the first time it had been directed at me personally. I got the impression that this was a response he’d had personal experience with.

dangerously-dusit-thani-hotelThe Bangkok Press Club used to sit atop the Dusit Thani Hotel at the conflagration of King Rama IV Road – five major thoroughfares that converge into the most congested roundabout known to man.

The four of us arrived in the hotel lobby at different times – I arrived first to scope the place out. After the reception I’d seen given to D.B. at the Patpong bar, I was curious to see if his magnetism transcended the choking vehicle fumes of a few blocks away into a more upscale locale.

I was in for the second surprise in as many days. It was Frank, arriving in flowered shirt, drawstring pants and rubber beach thongs that aroused the staff of the hotel once he set foot beyond the immense revolving door. He could have been royalty – I’ve never seen such a fuss. Everybody seemed to know him.

Once the four of us had exchanged pleasantries, it became apparent what the commotion was about. The Press Club was closed for renovations. Too bad. I just assumed we’d move on to another bar, but Frank wouldn’t hear of it. Best view in the city, he said. D.B. didn’t have the patience that Frank appeared to have and as his voice got louder and less conciliatory, there were a couple of shoves, a potential fist in the face that never quite materialized, and, as an especially affecting exclamation point, several AK-47s pointed our way by slowly advancing army personnel.

Being a graduate of the less chaotic ‘table for four, si vous plait’ school of restaurant etiquette, I found myself on the verge of a losing battle with incontinence. Suddenly, the hotel manager who had been hastily summoned by a freaked-out bellboy appeared from behind the registration desk.

“FRANKLIN!” he bellowed, “This IS a surprise! How long’s it been…?” TOO fuckin’ long, that’s how long, I thought. Now, let’s all make nice – quickly.

The last time someone got in a fight in the lobby of the Dusit Thani Hotel was during an aborted military coup the year before, in 1985, when rebel forces within the army tried to overthrow the country. The flashpoint was King Rama IV Road, a local radio station, and, through sheer proximity, this hotel. One tank shell and several rifle bullets had pierced the plush velvet and rattan décor of the hotel lobby wounding three and killing Neil Davis, a famous war photographer and his sound man. At the time, Neil was Bangkok bureau chief for NBC News and, like Frank, had stayed behind after Saigon fell. In fact, the two were such good friends that Frank delivered the eulogy at Neil’s wake.

Neil was famous for any number of reasons, not the least of which was his bravery. He owned a very small Elmo 16mm movie camera and he was able to photograph much of his footage surreptitiously. But he will always be remembered for two short films that everyone the world over has seen. One was the crashing of the gates of the Presidential Palace by a Vietcong tank on the day Saigon fell. He was the only newsperson left in town when the North Vietnamese arrived. So impressed were they that he had the balls to stay when all others fled, that they arranged exclusive on-camera interviews with much of the so-called ‘enemy’ military once they’d secured Saigon. NBC ran those exclusives for weeks after and to this day remain the only first-person document of the period.

His other – his MOST – famous bit of footage made the cover of both Time and Life magazine. He was again the only photographer present during the interrogation of a captured Vietcong lieutenant. The ‘coercive questioning’ – no one liked to use the word torture – ended abruptly when the inquisitor, Saigon’s chief of police, pulled a pistol from his belt and shot the officer in the head. Neil was filming the entire time. Ironically, the police chief went on to become the new Ho Chi Minh City’s first mayor under North Vietnamese rule.

In September of 1985, Neil was covering another coup attempt and got caught in the crossfire when a military tank fired a shell at the radio station both he and his sound man were crouched beside. In fitting style, the final footage Neil shot was that of his own death as the camera fell from his hands and spun around to show his lifeless body being dragged away.

This incident was still fresh in many minds, and any argument in or near the hotel was met with pounding hearts and crystal clear memories. Frank introduced all of us to the manager, D.B. apologized to the manager (good move!), and then the manager said the words that solidified the veracity of Frank’s stories in my mind. It was the culmination of the first of the three incidents, as if D.B. arriving in full war paint wasn’t enough. “For you, Franklin, anything! ” he said. This from a guy who ran one of the most exclusive hotels in Asia, to a guy wearing flip-flops!

With that, the four of us were escorted to the private elevator that led to the Press Club. A padlocked chain was removed, the power turned on and the patio doors opened onto the wrap-around balcony that afforded the best views in Bangkok. Frank had been right.

End of Part 2 of 4 ~ Continued In Part 3

Personal, Politics, Spies, Travel

Nights Of Living Dangerously – Part 3

October 16, 2013

“Don’t ya love her madly.
Don’t ya need her badly.
Don’t ya love her ways.
Tell me what you say…”
– ‘Love Her Madly’, The Doors

§ § §

PART THREE

The manager bade us farewell, “Good to see you, Franklin. Enjoy your evening,” and left us in the company of an Army sergeant who proceeded to lay his weapon down on the bar and mix us drinks for the remainder of the night. A more surreal scene I could not have conjured.

At one point Frank excused himself to go to the ‘head’ and D.B. leaned in toward me in that way that can only mean one thing: I’m going to convey some information here that Frank would probably rather I not talk about… but what the hell.

D.B. told me that Frank had become quite the media source after his discharge from hospital those many years ago. Because he had been part of a Special Forces team and stayed on in Bangkok, the various news outlets sought him out for counsel whenever they ran into a dead end, journalistically speaking. The Army also realized Frank’s usefulness as an ‘un-named source’, as they call it. They would give Frank information that the U.S. government wanted released but couldn’t be seen as releasing through otherwise normal means. Sometimes it was factual data, sometimes it was a fabrication – disinformation. According to D.B., Frank never knew which. To that day Frank continued his uneasy alliance with the government that sent him to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia, although the service he was providing ten years after the war had officially ended was anybody’s guess.

D.B. stopped and looked at me. “You don’t believe any of this shit, do you?” he said. “An open mind is a terrible thing to waste,” I answered.

Everything I’d seen and heard about Frank and his cronies in the last few days was shrouded in a healthy skepticism. I didn’t so much care whether any of what I saw and heard was fact, as much as I considered how I would utilize it in my story, which was fiction. But, if this was all some kind of elaborate game, being played out simply for my entertainment, I was quickly buying in.

Thus began the second epiphany of my relationship with Frank.

“Frank’s KIA, you know. He doesn’t exist anymore,” D.B. said.

As in any war, when your tour of duty was finished you either returned home or you were listed as MIA, Missing In Action, or KIA, Killed In Action. There was a third category that no one really talked about – it had no official sanction. It was DA, or ‘Don’t Ask’. The DA moniker was reserved for those personnel who decided after they arrived in Vietnam to become ‘conscientious objectors’, or, more in keeping with army-speak, deserters. There were over seven hundred American deserters during the Vietnam War, not including draft dodgers and resisters… where are they now, I wonder.

According to D.B., Frank was KIA. This needed explanation. I was about to question him on it when Frank returned to the table. Apparently he’d overheard D.B.

Frank suddenly became quite animated, like he was unloading information he’d kept hidden for years. He told everyone at the table that in ’68 when he went ‘covert’ the government erased all traces of his prior history – including his life. Okay, now we’re on to serious ‘Willy Wonka’ territory, I thought. But still, it made for a great yarn.

He told the story about how one rainy morning he and several dozen of his fellow regular army privates were gathered around a faulty camp stove drinking awful coffee and force-feeding themselves RTE’s, Army slang for food (Ready To Eat).

There was a ‘hiss’. Someone yelled, “IN COMING!” The RTE’s went flying to the ground as every enlisted man reached for his weapon and dove for the best piece of cover they could find from what was sure to be a mortar attack.

Out of the blue a black UH-1B ‘Baby Huey’ helicopter swept into the small clearing and landed quickly with a thud.

Frank said the helicopter was all black – no markings. The pilot cut the engine and feathered the rotors, just in case a rapid extraction was necessary. They were just 30 kliks (kilometres) from the DMZ and no one was supposed to know Frank and his cavalry unit were there.

Frank described what happened next as like watching Liberace take the stage in Las Vegas.

The side door slid open and a perfectly polished black combat boot came to rest on the chopper’s starboard skid. Then another. Standing there, looking at the rag-tag group of grunts, was a Special Forces colonel with a handlebar moustache. He was decked out with a pearl-handled .45 pistol, a white silk scarf and a black beret. The rest was regulation khaki. Frank told me that when he first saw the film Apocalypse Now and watched as the Robert Duvall character came on screen he laughed so hard the theatre manager wanted to throw him out.

The colonel shrugged, smirked and stepped off the skid onto the wet grass. No one spoke. No one even saluted this superior officer, so mesmerized was everyone in attendance.

He grabbed a couple of food boxes and placed them on top of a crate, then asked for assistance as he climbed atop his hastily prepared pulpit.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, in a deeply southern accent, as Frank recalled it.

“Cav units such as yours have a mortality rate of about fifty percent. Take a look around. That means that half of you ain’t gonna make it home to your cushy little beds. And while you’re waitin’ for some gook to put a pungee stick in your eye or a bullet in your brainpan, you eat shit, drink shit, live in shit… you ARE shit! Well, ladies, I offer you an alternative.” According to Frank, this colonel couldn’t have held their gaze any stronger if he’d been painted blue. The colonel continued.

“I run a small group of Special Ops into areas of this war that you don’t know about and into territories you haven’t even heard of. It’s secret, it’s dangerous, and it pays ten times what you shit-eaters accumulate for your family’s estate. I’ve been authorized to tell you that I’m recruiting and I’m in dire need of a couple of replacements – now, today. Come with me and I guarantee you’ll drink the best booze, eat the best food and fuck the best pussy this side of the lower forty-eight.”

The interest level of those in attendance continued to grow.

“But there’s one small thing,” he continued. “Our mortality rate is ninety percent! That means the odds of you living through this are one in ten. Agree to come with me now and the tour on this duty is six months… unless, of course, you’re stupid and die. In which case you’ll be home all the sooner.” He pulled an expensive cigar out of his fatigue pocket, bit the end off and lit it with one flip of his Zippo. “So, what’s it to be…? Rust, or blaze of glory?! You’ve got five minutes,” he said.

Frank had been ‘in country’ for almost a year and seen most of his friends die in combat – most of it vicious, some of it hand-to-hand. He hadn’t waited for the draft – he’d enlisted. He’d done his six weeks of basic, got handed a rifle and told he was going to Vietnam to make the world safe for democracy. Frank knew he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. What was he going to do when he went back stateside? What if the colonel was right and he was the next body bag filler?

The colonel looked at his Rolex President (Frank now had one just like it), turned and walked toward the chopper, and with a swirl of his hand signalled for the engines to start-up. Frank looked at his sergeant and then at the lieutenant who had been wounded earlier in the day. He followed the colonel to the helicopter and reached him just as he was getting in.

“What do I need to do… now, I mean?” Frank inquired. The colonel looked at him and sucked on his stogie. A couple of seconds later he said, “Where you from, son?” “Louisiana, sir,” came the less than regimental reply. Another second, then, “Gimme your gun.” Frank handed him the regulation issue M-16 carbine he’d had since basic and the colonel looked at him again. “You sure you want to do this…?” he asked Frank. Frank turned and looked at his cav unit. “Yeah,” was all he said.

The colonel threw Frank’s rifle to the ground and told him to get in. “You won’t be needing this where we’re going,” he said. The chopper was already airborne and turning into the wind when the colonel added, “…or these.” He ripped Frank’s dog tags from around his neck, chucked them outside and slid the door shut with a bang. Frank was dead. Long live Frank.

That’s the way Frank told the story that night at the Bangkok Press Club, almost verbatim, with asides from D.B. I tape recorded most of our conversations and transcribed them when I returned to Vancouver, so I have most of the story correct complete with the inflections Frank added.

Now, I didn’t know much about the American armed forces, but I knew that the purpose of dog tags was to identify you in case of death – the sole purpose in fact. It was said that if you had the option of losing your balls or your dog tags you’d choose the former. You’d have them personally removed by your superior officer anyway if you lost the latter and self-determination was the last thing they beat out of you in army!

Frank explained that the group he joined was so covert the government didn’t want any record of ANYTHING they did. So, if you joined this force, you ceased to be accountable to your original unit. Also, if you happened to be captured the enemy couldn’t use you for propaganda purposes if they didn’t know who you were.

This type of covert operational procedure, although not common, has a history dating back to post-war, OSS days (pre-CIA) and the reign of über-spy ‘Wild’ Bill Donovan.

The super-secret groups were colloquially known as SOG, or Studies and Observations Group. This was an innocuous little term that fit the acronym perfectly, but in fact obfuscated the actual role of the group. While sounding like it might refer to someone ‘auditing’ an operation, in fact SOG stood for Special Operations Group and ‘observing’ was the least lethal activity involved.

A recent TIME magazine article elaborated:

“If a soldier is assigned highly clandestine work, his records are changed to make it appear as if he resigned from the military or was given civilian status; the process is called ‘sheep dipping’, after the practice of bathing sheep before they are sheared.”

With the exception of two men who were seriously wounded and air lifted back to the United States, his entire original cavalry unit was wiped out in a booby-trapped village some three weeks after Frank ‘went black’. The dog tags that had been jettisoned from the helicopter were picked up by a buddy of his and pocketed for safekeeping. During the heated exchange at the village, this particular buddy was killed and the dog tags were found.

“I’m on the wall, apparently,” Frank said wistfully. “There are a lot of guys on the wall who don’t deserve to be there,” D.B. added, not so wistfully. Another story, perhaps.

The two warriors exchanged a long knowing glance that spoke volumes and I was just about to interject with, “I don’t mean to question your memory, but…,” when Frank jumped up and said, “C’mon, we’re leaving. ”

“Where to now, master? ” D.B. joked. We all giggled, the alcohol combined with the heat and humidity starting to take effect. Frank looked at me and said, “Wanna meet some real spooks…?”

dangerously-thermaeD.B.’s eyes widened. “The Thermae…?!” he said. “You’re takin’ them to the Thermae? Are you nuts?! I can’t be seen there, you know that!”

Frank continued to look at me. “When do you go back to Koh Phi Phi?” he said. “I don’t,” I said. “I go to Hong Kong in two days, then home to Vancouver.”

Frank looked at D.B. and weighed the options. “We’re goin’ to the Thermae. I’ll see you later,” he said pointing to D.B.

“Watch your back and don’t be seen smoking nothin’ funny,” D.B. said to me. “You know what I mean… funny…?” “I get it,” I said. But I didn’t. I still don’t know why D.B. couldn’t ‘be seen’ at the Thermae. Considering his line of work it could have been anything. I didn’t want to know.

I said goodbye to Jesus – not by name of course – nodded and smiled at the heavily armed bartender as we exited the press club, and then the three of us hopped into an air-conditioned taxi and headed out into the hot fetid extremes of the Bangkok night.

Most of the short drive was accomplished in silence, but I could see Frank was excited. He was riding shotgun. I leaned forward and said, “So, what’s the Thermae? A club or something?” Frank didn’t react, he just said, “Or something… you’ll see.”

End of Part 3 of 4 ~ Continued In Part 4

Personal, Politics, Spies, Travel

Nights Of Living Dangerously – Part 4

October 14, 2013

“Into this house we’re born.
Into this world we’re thrown.
Like a dog without a bone,
An actor out alone…”
– ‘Riders On The Storm’, The Doors

§ § §

PART FOUR

The taxi pulled up in front of a high-walled compound and stopped. As I got out I noticed a heavy black gate with a large golden seal of some sort affixed to it. It took a moment, but I soon realized we were at the American Embassy. Frank saw the look on my face and laughed. “Don’t worry,” he said, “no one’s home. They’re all over there,” he said, pointing.

He started to cross the busy street so we followed. Even at this hour in Bangkok traffic was congested. “Hurry up,” Frank said. “It closes to the public at midnight. We’ve only got six minutes.”

The building was a square box of a thing, comprised of glass and black granite. Only one story, but about half a city block big. My cameraman friend and I followed Frank around the side of the building and down some stairs. A couple of people were coming out of the basement through a heavy steel door. We rushed past.

By the time we caught up with Frank he was already exchanging pleasantries with a small Thai man dressed in a black tuxedo. He appeared to be a doorman. He smiled at us, checked his watch and waved us inside. “You just in time, friends of Frank. Come in,” he said.

The smell of expensive tobacco and cheap cologne filled my nose as I tried to come to terms with my new surroundings.

As my eyes became accustomed to the light, or rather the lack of it, the trappings of this basement bar became clearer: there were none to speak of. Mostly small round tables, wooden chairs of the type you’d find in any western restaurant where the word ‘family’ formed a part of the name, a short bar with various and sundry liquors lining the mirrored shelves, and men, mostly men, in suits with unknotted ties, wearing the aforementioned cheap cologne and smoking cigars. It was a small room with a particularly low ceiling. The fact that the walls and the ceiling appeared to be painted black didn’t help matters much. Who would do such a thing…?!, I thought. This room was not designed as a bar. Claustrophobic was an understatement.

“Frank – over here!” a male voice said. Frank turned to us to make sure we were in tow and ordered, “Follow me – don’t get lost. And if anyone asks who you are or who you’re with, just point to me.” Follow we did.

In short order I was introduced to ‘Jim’ and ‘Alexei’, another pair of ‘old’ buddies from the ‘old’ days. I only discerned their names through conversation later in the evening – there never were introductions. Strange, I thought.

We chatted with Jim, Alexei and a few other expensive but unkempt suits for about twenty minutes. I kept nodding and smiling like I was listening, all the while scoping out the room and taking note of the others in attendance.

There was something about this location, the Thermae, which I found oddly exciting – like I was being allowed to see inside a special place. Maybe it was the way that no one seemed to acknowledge anyone else by name – just a nod here and a smile there as they jockeyed for position around the bar, or the entrance to the bathroom.

Then I noticed something peculiar. I could make out another language being spoken in other parts of the room. But because of the constant din of conversation and the occasional raucous laugh, I couldn’t tell what language it was – but it wasn’t Asian-based. I decided all the drinking of the night had caught up with me and excused myself to go to the bathroom. “Don’t. Get. Lost,” Frank said – a little more seriously that I thought necessary. It’s such a small place, how can I get lost? I thought. I would have said this out loud, but the time and effort involved in forming a sentence at this point would have seriously cut into my much-needed peeing time. Off I went.

For such a small, dank little bar the bathroom had several unusual features. Aside from the garish fluorescent bulbs, there was only one bathroom and it contained no urinals – only Eastern-style stalls. No toilet bowls – just big holes in the floor with the painted outline of footprints on either side as a sort of ‘you are here’ directive – one not to be taken lightly, I assure you. These stalls were a cruel joke to those westerners who found themselves in need of one while inebriated! The mechanics of such a restroom (what a misnomer!) combined with its co-ed characteristic made the experience a highlight.

It also featured something normally found only in the ritziest of hotels – a WC attendant. Looking very much like the twin brother of the doorman, Lui also wore a tux – a white one in this case – and dispensed both fresh terrycloth towels and matches with equal dexterity. Individual matches, at that!

It was an easy connection to make – the matches with the proliferation of cigars. But I still found it strangely odd.

I must have been wearing my quizzical expression like a Benetton billboard, for I hadn’t made more than a few steps back toward our table when a distinctly female hand lit upon my shoulder followed by a distinctly female voice mere inches from my left ear asking, “So, how do you know Frank…?”

I turned and found myself looking into the smiling, questioning face of a beautiful, petite young woman with a shock of red hair. She was also wearing a business suit, but somehow her clothes just seemed to fit better that anyone else. Strange how you notice little things like that.

I’d made eye contact with her when we first arrived, because she was one of only three or four women in the place. But mostly because she was the only woman smoking a cigar.

“I’m a friend of Frank’s,” I said, offering my hand. She continued to look at me somewhat devilishly. “That’s not what I asked,” she said, not taking my hand. Regaining whatever composure I had left, I managed, “Yes, well, it’s so noisy in here I couldn’t quite make out what you were saying.”

“Oh, you ARE good!” she said, smiling even more, if that were possible. “Yes, I suppose – noisy and smelly.”

“All that cigar smoke and cologne, I guess,” I offered weakly, thinking I was actually making conversation.

“That’s not cologne, dear boy,” she said. “That’s testosterone.”

I made note of the slightly upper crust British accent. “You’re not American,” I said, continuing my perverse string of non-sequiturs.

Her smile continued a leisurely swim across her face. “Neither are you. Buy you a drink?” She turned and headed back to the bar acting as if the invitation had been entirely rhetorical. I had no choice but to follow. Apparently, I was choosing to evade Frank’s admonition of not getting lost. Too late.

As we devoured our iced concoctions of Mekong Coke – a deadly mixture of Vietnamese whiskey and cola that causes either unwanted hair or permanent blindness, depending on whom you speak to – she filled me in on exactly what the Thermae was, why names were never used and the mystery of the bathroom matches. She spoke fluent Thai, Cantonese, Spanish and Russian. Russian was the other language I heard.

One has to remember the temper of the times to understand the openness of the people I found myself associating with here. People who were known, famous even, for their obfuscation.

In the closing days of 1986, the face of terrorism was still that of a bearded foreigner spewing rhetoric in grainy videos. Al-Qaida and Bin Laden were still more than a decade away from becoming household words. Afghanistan was a place the Soviet Army had come to loathe and didn’t want to hear about anymore. And the Iran Contra affair was the latest ‘above the fold’ headline.

Less than a month prior, Reagan and Gorbachev had completed their ill-fated summit in Iceland. The Berlin Wall was only going to hold for a few more years and the dismantling of the Soviet totalitarian state had begun – ‘perestroika’ was all the rage – but the Soviet Union still flew the hammer and sickle. The cold war was in the process of warming up and former foes were now having drinks and talking about the ‘good old days’ of spy vs. spy.

That was precisely where I found myself at 12:30am in a basement bar in central Bangkok, Thailand – Christmastime 1986. And it was why Frank had asked me earlier, Wanna meet some real spooks…?

Spooks, in this instance, were spies. It’s what the CIA and the KGB used to refer to themselves as back in those ‘good old days.’ The Thermae was their watering hole, so-to-speak, situated as it was, crawling distance from both the American and Russian embassies.

It’s an unspoken, but well-understood concept in journalism circles, that if you are having a discussion in a press club that discussion is, as they say, ‘off the record.’ No one can quote anyone else on the matter or matters discussed. So, too, was the understanding here in this tiny, smoky, testosterone-filled basement.

The Thermae had been here forever, the redhead told me. Bangkok had been at the crossroads of much of the war trade since the French occupation of ‘Indochine’ during the fifties, and continued right through the American ‘police action’ of the sixties and seventies. The Thermae became an oasis of sorts – a respite from the day-to-day business of espionage.

No one remembers who started it, how it got its name, or even who suggested that American spies and Russian spies should have drinks here together. But, together they were.

“Take a look around,” said the redhead. “Everyone here’s in the business. No one’s undercover anymore – everything’s quite open. We just continue to meet here because… because it’s still fun. Our last little piece of… of… covertness, I suppose.” She paused, looking around the room herself. “It’s all ending, you know.” She sounded almost plaintive.

“No more James Bond?” I asked, trying to be humorous. She didn’t react.

“I was a good spy,” she deadpanned. “I don’t know what I shall do now….”

Her candor surprised me. But I didn’t learn much from her that night – certainly not her name, which in my book came a close second to her phone number… which I also didn’t get, incidentally.

She’d been on loan to the American Embassy in Bangkok from MI6 and was being “…recalled to Whitehall” she said. No more need for a senior, multilingual cipher clerk, apparently. She couldn’t have been much older than thirty, but I got the distinct impression that she thought her age was the problem. She’d missed the ‘good old days’ and she came to the Thermae to hear others speak about them. A little vicarious thrill – espionage by association, perhaps.

She did manage to explain the ‘Frank’ phenomenon to me though. Her version of it at least. She took me into her confidence particularly because I knew Frank, and as I had discovered earlier, Frank didn’t like anybody, so perhaps I was an oddity. Maybe my timing was just right.

Frank had kept his business and his contacts close to his chest once he became an informed, un-named source – his second career. He was the one everybody came to, either to get information from, or to have information distributed, to all and sundry. Apparently, he worked both sides of the fence. Information was the most saleable commodity during the war years, and he bartered it better than most. You want the home phone number of the new Australian charges d’affaires…? Get me a copy of the ship’s manifest for that Liberian freighter that just docked yesterday and I’ll see what I can do. That sort of thing. He was, as Graham Greene once wrote of Harry Lime, ‘our man in Havana’ – except Frank was deadly serious.

And so, everyone was Frank’s friend. You never knew just when you might want that little bit of information, that last piece of the puzzle. You didn’t want to piss him off, because if ‘it’ was attainable, Frank could attain ‘it’. And you never knew when you might want, or need, ‘it’.

Frank, it turned out, was part courier, part confidant, part source, part procurer (yes – he could even act as pimp if the job called for it) and 100% all-American spy! But he was the spy everyone knew. If you looked up the word ‘double agent’ in the Bangkok Yellow Pages, I imagined, there was Frank, all-smiling, all knowing. Underneath would be the line: “If I can’t get it, you don’t need it!”

The two guys Frank was talking to at the table were the big spooks in the room – the ‘real’ spies, if you will. According to the redhead, one was the CIA station chief in Bangkok (Jim) and the other was the Southeast Asian correspondent for TASS, the official Soviet news agency (Alexei). “But everyone knows he’s GRU,” she said – the Russian army’s secret intelligence service.

I was tired and my head was spinning.

At 4:30am, feeling as though I’d inadvertently stepped into a John Le Carré novel, I left Frank and his buddies to continue their reminiscing and began the long walk back to my hotel. It had been a day.

My redhead (possession is nine tenths of the law!) had excused herself to go to the bathroom and not returned. Was it something I said? Yeah, probably. God knows what.

As for the matches… Well, this was the part that really solidified my thoughts about Frank and his supposed life. Who makes up a story like this?!

Apparently, back in the early sixties Russian, American and British government types in Thailand agreed that détente would best be served if they got together to discuss the problems of the world once in awhile in a third-party, non-confrontational setting. The Thermae was it, and it became a serious and ultra secret venture known only to a handful of top diplomats.

It became standard for the inviting party to offer a gift of some description to the other party and this became the coded message, “let’s meet”. “Can I buy you a drink, perhaps?” might have been the question. It was understood that ‘drinks’ would be bought at the Thermae, which at the time had no bar, ironically. It was just a storage room in the basement of the Thai Military College with a few tables and chairs where the cadets played checkers or dominoes in their off time. This explained why there was only one bathroom.

Strict protocol had to be followed in these secret meetings. No recording devices of any kind (the room was swept for bugs by both sides prior to the meetings), no cameras, no weapons and only those involved in the meeting with their interpreters (if necessary – they weren’t always) were allowed access.

One day, so the story goes, a Russian diplomat offered an American diplomat a Cuban cigar during a meeting. This was a commodity the Russians could acquire by the caseload considering their close ties to Fidel Castro, and a much desired, but illegal perk for Americans.

The American went through the ritual snipping of the cigar’s end with a tobacconist’s guillotine he just happened to be carrying, lit his cigar with a metal lighter and then passed the lighter to his Russian host. The Russian mimicked his guest with the lighting of his cigar and took a special interest in the lighter. “Keep it,” said the American, “as a gift from Uncle Sam.” They both laughed as the Russian pocketed the shiny new keepsake.

Three months later the Russian was recalled to Moscow and spent his remaining days in a Siberian Gulag breaking rocks and recounting the day he was screwed by the American government.

The lighter had contained a transmitter and every conversation the Russian diplomat had for three months was recorded, transcribed and cabled to Washington.

Soon thereafter, another Russian called the American Embassy offering ‘drinks’. The Embassy was understandably wary and nervous of such a meeting – anything could happen. The offer was accepted nonetheless. Protocol dictated.

The American arrived first and was kept waiting. Just when he thought he’d been set-up the Russian arrived. But this was no ordinary Russian – this was the ambassador himself.

The American stood-up from the table and extended his hand, introducing himself in pitch-perfect Russian. The ambassador ignored the salutation and instead withdrew a box from inside a leather valise. It was wrapped in butcher’s paper and tied with string. He slammed it down on the table between the two of them, turned and stormed out.

The American was alone. Was it a bomb? A gun? Why would it be a gun?

Slowly he sat down. Instinctively he put his ear close to the package to see if it was ticking. It wasn’t. Carefully, he undid the string and unwrapped the package. It was a cigar box. He opened it, ever so gingerly. Inside he found, not cigars, but matches… it was filled with hundreds of individual wooden matches.

The story, true or not, stuck. And the Thermae became the legendary home to spies of all stripes. Meetings continued to happen, the affairs of the world continued to unfold, and eventually someone thought: “Hey, let’s put in a real bar!”

But names were never exchanged and cigars were always lit with matches, just to be safe.

And so it was that I found myself smoking my cigar, lit with a match, and sauntering along the boulevard as the percolating blaze of the sun began its daily ritual of burning through the thick polluted haze of Bangkok.

That sight held the threat of another hot and humid day, but was no sensory match for the dozen bald, saffron-robed monks and their alms bowls, engaged in their early hour quest for food. I leaned against a tree and tried to take it in – all of it.

§ § §

EPILOGUE

My third epiphany about Frank wasn’t to occur until sixteen years later, November 2002, while I was in Washington, D.C. on yet another research trip.

One day I decided to take the tourist trolley from Union Station to see the sites. It’s always fun to play tourist in a new city and the tour trolleys are frequently the best way to gain one’s bearings.

Around the White House, past the Smithsonian, slowing down long enough to get a good look at Lincoln, over the bridge and into the state of Virginia for a quiet trip through Arlington Cemetery to see the perpetual flame at President Kennedy’s resting place.

dangerously vietnam war memorialEventually, my fellow tourists and I found ourselves at the Vietnam War Memorial. The memorial is a long “V”-shaped granite wall cut into a grassy knoll on the Potomac River. The names of 58,229 dead and missing soldiers are hand-carved into its gleaming surface. But it didn’t take long to find it.

There, amongst the ‘Smiths’ and the ‘Joneses’ and the ‘Fitzwalters’, was ‘Davies’ – Franklin Boyd Davies. Frank. He was right, he was on the wall. It had taken awhile, but I’d finally come full circle. Frank was dead. Long live Frank.

READ THE FIRST THREE INSTALLMENTS HERE: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3