This is a long story about a long story. Many years ago I was advised to call it a novel.
I lit up a cigarette and Reed ordered another beer. He took a quick look at my glass and told the bartender, "Get my friend John here another one too." I thanked him and went on with my story,
"Well, guys, for the rest of that summer, Bob made the long commute to the job each day. It was a two hour train ride from Brooklyn all the way out to the school.
When you added the train ride he was actually putting in about 14 hours a day, six days a week. This of course, strictly limited his social life. In fact, ever since he started school he never really allowed himself any time to make a lot of new friends.
His old friends, the ones he grew up with, were all at different schools now. They had all slowly drifted away and even as a kid, I could tell this wasn't a good trend.
The few new acquaintances he did make were limited to ROTC compatriots and one or two classmates. What little social life he did have mostly revolved around attending Russian Cultural Events in the City. But these outing were basically for educational purposes rather than social.
For awhile he tried hanging out with his ROTC buddies. It didn't last long though. He quickly concluded their social agenda was totally based on beer drunks. He tried it for a short period, but it really didn't fit into his busy schedule.
Bob did make one new friend though, a kid named Kenny Ponte. Buck had introduced Kenny to my brother back at school. They soon became buddies and ended up in the same boat...Russian Studies and The Patton Rifles. Kenny wasn't into the ROTC beer busts either.
I liked Kenny; he was a handsome kid from the Bronx and seemed to know where he was going. He was a street kid, okay, but he was also extremely bright.Sometimes we’d get into philosophical debates which we both enjoyed. He was kind of another older brother in a way. I especially liked the fact the he thought I was smart way beyond my years. Naturally that of opinion of his feathered my ego.
There was one really good thing about Bob's friendship with Kenny. Kenny knew how to quit and take a break. Sometimes he’d drag Bob off on a blind date or plan something normal; maybe a movie that didn’t have anything to do with studies, or just a day at the beach. It may not have seemed like much, but relaxing was something Bob was forgetting how to do.
Bob knew that in order to master a foreign language, you had to use that language constantly. That’s why he attended all of the Russian cultural events.
He was also fortunate, in that our neighborhood had a liberal supply of Russian immigrants to converse with. Soon it became Bob’s routine to engage anyone with slightest Russian accent in lengthy Russian conversation. He’d even start up conversations with strangers in the street or in supermarket.Some of them thought he was with The American Secret Police. The rest of them I guess just thought he was a heck of a friendly guy.
Back at the job, things were really going well for him. He was getting big pay checks and a steady stream of compliments on his work. Then one day, a neighbor, Mrs. Rothman, told him that two men had came to her house and asked a lot of questions about him.
“Who were they?” he asked. “Well they didn’t wear uniforms but they said they were with the army.” “What kind of questions were they asking?” “They asked me if you were ever in trouble with the police. Then they asked me if you ever said bad things about the government.” “What did you tell them Mrs. Rothman?” “I told them no, that you were a good boy and never had any trouble.” “These two men said they were with the army?” Bob asked. “”Yes, they showed me cards with their pictures on them. You’re not in trouble are you, Robert?” “No I don’t think so Mr. Rothman, but thank you for telling me.”
This shook Bob up a little, but then he remembered the third commandment. “Report anyone making inquiries.” So the next day at work, he brought the matter to Stan’s attention.
After hearing the report, Stan just smiled, “You’re in the ROTC right?” “Yes”.” Well those guys are probably just army intelligence, Bob.” “Why would army intelligence be checking me out?”Stan explained, “Well to be a commissioned officer Bob you have to have at least a Secret Security Clearance.I guess they are just getting a jump on it Bob, nothing to worry about. But you did the right thing by bringing this to my attention.”
Soon Bob had racked up five weeks and a couple of Sundays too. However, there was only a week left before he started classes again. It looked like the days of the big pay check would soon be over. Then Walt called him into to his office again.
“Sit down, Bob, I want to talk to you about something. First of all, I want to tell you that we are very pleased with your work here. How do you feel about the job, Bob?” “Well Mr. Douglas I really like it here and the work is extremely interesting.” “Well good, Bob. That brings me to my second question. How would you like to stay on here, Bob?” “I sure would Mr. Douglas.” “Well I think we might be able to arrange something for you. We could probably give you ten hours during the week and Saturdays too, if you could arrange it around your class schedule. Would you be interested in doing that?” “Absolutely.” “Well let’s do this, Bob. Take next week off and get all of your class schedules together.Then come in the following Saturday and we’ll see if we can work up schedule for you. Oh! And Bob when you come back they’ll be a 50 cent an hour raise in your pay check.” “Thank you, Mr. Douglas, I really appreciate that.”
The first week back at school was predictable. New books; class conflicts to adjust; you know the usual hectic mess. By Saturday though, all things were as they should be and Bob kept his appointment with Walt. They worked out a schedule together around Bob’s program and he went back to work the same day.
As time passed, Bob’s quality of work and attention to detail was becoming to be quite impressive. He was still translating and transposing the captured Nazi maps, but now he was also researching and adding information to them. After four months, Walt called Bob into his office again for another chat.
“Getting bored yet, Bob?” “Well actually, no sir, not at all.” “Well in any event, I think we're going to make it a little more interesting for you.You see Bob, when the Germans invaded Russia, just like we captured the German maps; they too captured a lot of Russian maps. Some of them are military, and some of them are civilian in nature. So what you are going to be doing now is adding the RussianInformation to the maps you have been working on. And a Bob, consider this a promotion with another 50 cents an hour in your check.” “
Between the job, school and the ROTC, Bob’s schedule was really cramped now. Somehow though, even with his tight schedule, he still managed to hang out with Kenny once in a while.
One day in the cafeteria, Kenny introduced him to a kid named Mark Abrams. Mark shared a Russian history class with them, but Bob hadn’t had the occasion to chat with him before.
Mark was a strange guy; he was a Jewish kid attending a Catholic university. In those days, that was fairly uncommon. The other weird thing was that Mark was a devout Marxist, and wasn’t shy about it.Mark explained his unusual circumstance by just stating, “This is best school in the country for Russian studies.” What made the relationship even stranger was the fact that Bob totally opposed everything that Mark stood for politically. Yet they became friends for a while and Mark even took Bob to some beatnik joints in the Village.
One day Mark introduced Bob to The Intercontinental Book Store on 14th street in the city. There you could get any Russian book in print, plus a good opportunity to converse with some people in Russian. Eventually the friendship waned however; I guess you could attribute it to their philosophical differences.
Around that same time, I was making some new friend myself. I had joined up with a band of Irish street pirates. Although we were in our teens, our main objectives in life were to get beer, drink beer, get drunk and have fun.
On weekends we headquartered ourselves in Bean’s basement on 35th street. From these haunts we would strike out on Friday nights to achieve our objectives.
Sometime, we’d go to Campus Road and break into parking meters. In our vernacular this was referred to as “Meter Tapping”. Once that mission was accomplished, we’d turn the funds over to Deputy Dog and Mr. G. They of course would make the necessary beer and liquor purchases.
When Mr. G was 12 he was already being served in bars. Back then he was already six foot two, weighed about 190 and looked like he was twenty or something.Deputy Dog on the other hand was and 210 pounds with heavy facial hair.
It was seldom a problem for them when it came to purchasing liquor, except for the strange assortment. Their usual purchase went something like, “Let me have six half pints of Old Mr. Boston’s Lemon Flavored Gin, three pints of Smirnoff’s 100 proof, two half pints of Fleishman’s etc., etc. Paying for it with ones with fives and $36.40 in dimes did raise a few eyebrows on occasion. But even back then money was money.
We took an extensive course in thievery; from shop lifting to burglary. But we never stole from individuals or from among ourselves. We were more a commercial endeavor, kind of like business to business. At first we diverted our profits to the purchase of beer, liquor and cigarettes. Eventually, we got so good at it that we just shop lifted the cigarettes and burglarized the beer and liquor.
We constantly raided a large beer distributor who, to his misfortune placed his facility adjacent to the Long Island Railroad tracks. You see the Long Island Railroad tracks were the jungles or Brooklyn.
There were three tracks running north to south that spanned the length of the island. They rested on an 80 wide bed of gravel. On each side there were sloping hills covered with lush vegetation. This is where we started out drinking and were most of us were Baptized in our street names.
There was Mr. G, Deputy Dog, JR, Bean, Whale, Wild Bill, Two Can Dan, Farfer, Flingo, Little Joe, Dino and the list when on and on. I got my name from Little Joe’s old man. His mother was Irish and his father was Syrian. I had a good habit of keeping my mouth shut when I visited friends at their houses. So one day little Joe’s old man took notice of it and said, “You’re like The Sphinx, you know everything but say nothing. That’s what I’m going to call you “Sphinx” It seemed to fit, so it stuck with Little Joe and other guys.
“Now believe it or not, Cody, we weren’t poor street urchins at all. Most of our parents owned their own homes. Most of us were actually passing in school too. I guess we were just the precursor of the sixties’ Party, Party who cares generation.
My brother on the other hand was stuck in the fifty’s “If you don’t get a college education, you’ll end up as a ditch digger” generation. In short, in Bob’s generation, failure was not an option. That kind of stress of course will eventually get to you. Me, I learned early on that everybody fails once in a while. So if you’re tough enough to endure failure, failure is not a big thing at all.
Anyway, Cody, Bob started confiding in me more and more about the job. He knew I was a juvenile delinquent, but he also knew that my code involved keeping my mouth shut.
He could only talk to Kenny up to a point and then Kenny would cut him short. He’d simply say, “This is something I don’t need to know about and it’s something you shouldn’t be talking to anyone about.”
In fact, Bob once approached Mr. Douglas to try and get Kenny in. To his surprise, Douglas told him he knew all about Kenny. He just smiled and said. “The problem is Mr. Ponte speaks Russian, French, Spanish and Italian, but no German.”
Pretty soon Bob started thinking the job through with me, trying to put it all in prospective.
“You know John; I’m doing old German aerial reconnaissance photos now in addition to the captured maps. Now I’ve been thinking, since there’s an Iron Curtain and Russian gas stations don't hand out road maps, where exactly does the military get its tactical maps of Russian from? I mean they are not going to send nuclear bombers out to hit Russian targets on a pre 1917 maps are they?” It was an interesting question, but I decided not to feed a fantasy so I just smiled, “I’m sure they got guys that just steal the maps from the Kremlin or something.” “Maybe John, but there’s one thing else that bothers me about this job. Sometimes I get the feeling that Mr. Douglas and Stan know more about me than I do. I’m starting to get the feeling that I’m being watched.” “Hold it Bob I think you’re getting a little carried away here. It’s just a part time job; don’t read any fantasies into it, it just ain’t healthy. In fact, I think you’re putting yourself under too much pressure, Bob. You’ve got to slack up a little and get yourself some breathing room. If you don’t, pretty soon you’ll be thinking you’re the target of little green space men. You know what I mean?”
“You really think that’s the problem, John?’ ‘Hey, you take psychology, you tell me.”
A week later they moved Bob to a larger cubical at the job. From his new work station, he could now see one of those Authorized Personnel Only doors open on occasion. He’d get glimpses of a large bright lit room with people at large map tables. Then once in a while a general or two in uniform would show up and spend hours with Walt in his office.But he really didn’t give that, too much thought, being that this was a government contract and all.
Then one day while Bob was sitting at his desk he felt a tap on his shoulder. When he turned around there was a gentleman in a suit with an oversized mustache that actually looked fake. The gentleman smiled at him and in a British accent asked, “Pardon me old chap, would you happen to have a pinch of tobacco you could spare old boy?” Bob thought the accent was a put on and beamed back, “Blime me, a bloomin Limie.’ Unfortunately for Bob, it wasn’t a put on and the fellow took strong offense. “I beg your pardon!” he loudly grumbled. What is your name and rank?” Still not grasping the situation Bob replied, “Bob Moran and my rank is civilian first class.” “Well, Mr. Moran he grumbled on, my name is Butler, Major Butler and I am an officer with her majesty’s Royal Air Force. Now you will accompany me to Colonel Douglas’s office. I am placing you on report for your insubordinate and degrading comment.” Bob got up and went with him trying to explain along the way, but the good major was having no part of it.
When they walked into Douglas’ office the major flew into a rage. “Colonel Douglas, I have been unwarrantedly insulted by this..this man of yours” Douglas looked up coolly from his desk and stared back. “Drop the colonel please, it’s just Mr. Douglas.” “Very well, whatever, but I want this man on report and disciplined.” Douglas rose to his feet, “Let’s calm down Major and tell me what happened.” The major stated his case and Bob explained that he meant no malice of disrespect. Then Walt told Bob to apologize and he did.
Butler however, seemed to be one to hold a grudge. He grumbled, “I accept the apology with prejudice, but I truly believe this man is a nincompoop and doesn’t belong here at all.” Then he stormed off in a huff.
Bob stayed behind and watched the major go back into the map room. Then Walt let go. “Bob that was a really stupid thing you did and now I’ve got problems. So from now on, just do what you’re told to around here and in the future do not assume anything. Now go back to work.”
It was dumb okay, and Bob knew it. Bob also knew it wasn’t the right time to ask Walt the obvious question. Why was a British Officer working on an American civilian contract?