“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
§ § §
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.
§ § §
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.
Eventually, 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.