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I was in the basement of the downtown Los Angeles courthouse, where I was researching a possible nonfiction book about an overlooked film-noir actor whose offscreen brawling and balling led to occasional trouble with the law, as well as comparisons to his better-known colleague at Warner Bros., Errol Flynn. The basement is where old case files are stored on microfilm, and one of the files I needed was lost, so that I kept returning to the courthouse to see if it had been found. I was out of luck again that day, headed to the elevator when I was stopped by a nondescript man of sixty or so. He couldn’t find his way out of the basement, he said. I told him to follow me. He did, remarking on the flatcap I was wearing.
“I used to know somebody who wore a hat just like that,” he said. “She was a big racing-car driver back in the thirties. She was friends with my family.”
He repeated that. He repeated everything he said. Something was clearly wrong with him, though whatever it was, he was in no way menacing. Evidently obsessed with height, he informed me, apropos of nothing, that he was six feet tall. Then he asked how tall I was, and before I could answer, he said, “Six-one, right? You’re six-one.”
April 26, 2012
Jeffrey Lewis is the author of Meritocracy: A Love Story (2005), Theme Song for an Old Show (2007), The Conference of the Birds (2007), and Adam the King (2008). He has won a string of awards, including the Independent Publishers Gold Medal for Literary Fiction for his novels, and two Emmy Awards and the Writer’s Guild Award for his work as a writer and producer on the critically acclaimed television series, Hill Street Blues.
I don’t know much about the First World War. I know about Ypres and the Somme, and that it was started with Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand… but the details are sketchy and vague… my knowledge of The Great War is a fraction of what I know about The Second World War.
The Second World War is generally considered somehow more exciting. It’s certainly more cinematic; there are hundreds of films set during WWII, and hundreds more that feature Nazis as the villains. I suspect this is largely because the Nazis are easily identifiable villains locked in a clear battle between good and evil. The Waffen SS— literally Nazi death squads— wore, as well as the black uniforms with sinister slashes of red on the left arm, skull and crossbones on their uniform in an almost comical caricature of villainy.
The start of WWII is also easier to understand. Although a lot of Hitler’s military actions were driven by the desire for revenge over the terms of the German’s surrender and Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI, put simply the Nazis invaded Poland, Britain declared war on the Nazis, and every country in Europe (aside from Ireland and Switzerland) picked a side. Once the party was in full swing the US turned up fashionably late, just in time to inject new life into proceedings.
Although a lot of British people still don’t like to accept it, the Allies would have lost the war without American intervention. Without their troops, funding, or munitions we would have run out long before the end and we wouldn’t have been able to keep mass producing the Spitfires and Hurricanes that won the Battle of Britain.
The high involvement of the US in WWII probably explains the high ratio of Second World War to First World War films. The U.S contribution to WWI was vital, but their role always seems less prominent. They were also much more reluctant to get involved the first time around. Although these days American foreign policy has ramifications on a global scale, under Woodrow Wilson the U.S government followed a policy of isolationism. Essentially this made their foreign policy ‘well, that’s not our problem…’
I feel quite guilty about my WWI knowledge gap, particularly given the vast amount of time— in and out of school— I’ve spent learning about WWII. I’ve been to Nuremburg, seen the sight of the Munich putsch, and I’ve been inside the attic that Anne Frank hid in. I’ve spent hours at the Imperial War Museum marvelling at Spitfires, and recreations of the trenches.
I watch a lot of documentaries. I’ve seen one about a man who broke into Auschwitz and survived. He still has nightmares some sixty years later. I’ve seen a documentary about four Jewish men who escaped by stealing SS uniforms, equipment, guns, and a car. It was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.
War is a terrible thing, but it unites and brings out the best in people. Whilst the Nazis were displaying the absolute worst humanity was capable of, so many in the Allied forces were demonstrating the absolute brilliance humanity was capable of.
That brilliance lives on, even today in the 21st century. There aren’t many left, but those who are meet up occasionally— men from both sides. One of the best things I’ve ever seen is a wheelchair bound ninety-four year old Englishman called Henry Allingham sitting in a room with a ninety-four year old German man sharing memories of the war. At one point they realized they were both fighting in the same battle, firing shots across no-man’s land at each other. And they both laughed; they found it hysterically funny, and joked that neither of them could have been much good with their weapons.
They laid a wreath together at a local war memorial to remember the fallen. I’m sure that even if Henry had the mobility to dance he wouldn’t have danced to the deaths of the German’s former comrades. I’m fairly confident that when the Allies finally won the war Henry danced to the end of the war, not celebrating the end of people’s lives… revelling in the end of the suffering, rather than the thought of it.
We have Remembrance Day in Britain primarily to remember those who sacrificed themselves in the World Wars. There are very few towns in the country that don’t have memorials to those who died. Some are bigger than others. In the village where my parents live there’s a very small plaque and although there are fifteen different Christian names, there are only four different surnames. The majority of the names are from the First World War.
The guns fell silent across no man’s land twice during that war— once on Christmas day when the two sides played a game of football, and for a final time at eleven a.m on the eleventh of November 1918.
There was one surviving veteran of World War One.
He was Claude Choules, a British man who was known by his comrades as ‘Chuckles.’ He joined the Royal Navy at the age of fifteen, and served on the HMS Revenge where he personally witnessed the surrender of the German Imperial Navy.
He later transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and saw active service in the Second World War.
He died in the early hours of Thursday May 5th 2011.
And now there are none.
Shortly after writing this I learnt that Claude Choules never celebrated the Armistice, and refused to participate in memorial marches. After witnessing so much suffering and death he became a pacifist; he objected to violence and the glorification of war. I don’t really know what to make of that. I just know that it makes me feel incredibly glad that the last man standing was a good man.
One of our best.
My father served in the 10th Mountain Division, in the Second Battalion of the 86th Infantry Division from 1943-1945. He participated in the bitter cold February offensive against the enemy position on Mt. Belvedere in the northern Apennines, overlooking Highway 65 into Bologna-a baptism by fire for the newly formed alpine division, which resulted in a decisive victory known by the Americans as the capturing of Riva Ridge.
Belvedere had previously been taken and lost by Allied forces repeatedly. The Germans had the benefit of many entrenchments (including fortified bunkers, trip-wired booby traps and hidden “shoe” mines, not to mention the crucial tactical advantage of controlling the heights. The skills and courage of the 10th Mountain Division in rockclimbing, mountaineering and navigation under extreme winter combat conditions played the key role-and eliminated the threat of anti-aircraft strikes from the ground, allowing bombers from the 22nd Tactical Air Force to fly with impunity, carpeting the region with incendiary bombs (which prompted the Germans to call the situation Die berge in flammen, “the mountain in flames.”
From this success, my father’s outfit was directed to lead the Fifth Army’s offensive to take control of the Po River Valley. In the words of my father’s friend, 1st Lieutenant Frederick Fisher of the 85th Infantry, “The 10th was the only outfit that got any opposition at the Po River. It was artillery fire from about twenty 88 mm guns. We had moved in so fast that air cover couldn’t support.”
It was in the course of this action that my father sustained a shrapnel wound in the leg from mortar fire, for which he received a Purple Heart.
He was born on April 4, 1924 to parents who made their living as commercial artists. The family moved soon after to a gray Dutch shingle house in a part of Minneapolis that was still relatively rural then, allowing my dad the freedom to camp in the woods and go exploring with friends, enjoying a decidedly innocent and adventurous childhood view of the Depression years. One of the only points of contact with his stern and hardworking father was a love of the outdoors and shared experiences fishing, camping, skiing and snow shoeing.
This love of nature and the skills to enjoy it would be heightened when the family moved to a more rural property on West Mountain Road in Ridgefield, CT, where my father later graduated from high school. Although conflict continued between father and son, there was reconciliation prior to my grandfather’s sudden death, and it may be that this reconciliation heightened my father’s passion for the outdoor pursuits they had shared.
World War II began during his first year at the University of Connecticut. According to his diary, “I joined the Enlisted Reserve Corp because my eyes weren’t good enough for the Air Force or V-12 Navy program, and then elected the newly formed 10th Mountain Division because I saw a notice on the gym board, Men wanted for new unit, 10th Mountain Division – skiing and camping experience necessary, rockclimbing helpful.“
He went on to train at Camp Hale in Colorado, a newly established military installation at what was formerly a railway stop on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad near the wild and woolly mining town of Leadville. His diary recalls the ruggedness of the conditions. “March in Colorado is colder than a witch’s you-know-what. 20 feet of snow at 10,000 feet.”
He excelled at skiing (not quite a sport at this point in America) and was in his element with other young men who enjoyed the same things. Rockclimbing in Holy Cross Valley, a turkey roast on bivouac and winning one of the big ski races were happy memories, offset by the suicide of his friend Duke and his being passed over for Sergeant for not having an “aggressive enough temperament.”
Upon completion of the high altitude mountaineering and combat training, his division was transferred to Camp Swift in Texas (just east of Austin), to acclimatize them for large scale national maneuvers in Louisiana. Why an elite unit of alpine trained soldiers would be sent into the swamps of Louisiana was something which baffled many people in America, including of course the young men who were forced to switch gears so suddenly-wondering all the time when they would be deployed in Europe. In real fighting-and snow.
Throughout this military training period he underwent a period of increasing tension-in part of course due to the anxiety of going to war, but also because of a war going on within himself about his religious faith. (His grandfather on his mother’s side had been a famous Baptist preacher and missionary into what was in the 1880’s, the wilderness of Minnesota). Did he really have any faith? What kind? Was it enough? This period of deep searching and increasing stress culminated in one of the most significant moments in his life…as his diary relates.
“A critical incident happened on a night maneuver when I was standing watch between 2 AM and 4 AM. I had a vivid impression of a vision of Christ. Jesus comes as one unknown, as of old he came to them by the lakeside in Galilee, and he speaks to us the same words. Follow me…for those who hear in his voice…in their suffering, in their trials and in their silences, they will come to know in their own experience who he is.”
The Louisiana maneuvers were canceled soon after and my father’s division immediately dispatched to the Italian Alps to confront real action and a very real enemy-freezing weather-ruined churches, starving children. His vision on guard duty would go on to have a profound influence in his choice of career-he later became a minister. But it played an even more important role in his war experience. Here are his words recounting the action leading up to his wounding on a chaotic day in April 1945, just after his 21st birthday.
“Artillery fire bursting all around. Mines had killed a large number of men and mules. My best friend Jack was killed by German mortar fire. When I went forward to take his place-seven miles through smoking villages and mine fields…had very little fear. God was with me. When I was hit later that day and started to lose blood, I still knew it would be OK. Days later, waking up in the hospital in Montecatini was almost like being in heaven.”
Of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, 997 men died and over 4,000 men were wounded in 114 days of fighting. I was pleased to read the following poem at a special gathering honoring the achievements of this unique American fighting force in Washington DC.
Only the keen eye
of a Nazi rifle sight could see
that a seemingly empty alpine meadow
might be deadly
White hoods moving
in moonlight reconnaissance,
silent except the sudden scrape
of a ski edge striking
a blue spark
of hidden ice.
Of all my father’s stories,
I’m haunted hardest
by the tales of his time
with the 10th Mountain Division-
visions of nightblooming parachutes
and the fear of ambush,
of Riva Ridge and the secret
of sleeping in the snow caves.
I close my eyes and I can see him
bivouacked with his weird patrol
beneath the winter and the war,
reading of Lazarus out loud
from his breastpocket Bible
with the iron cover to keep
bullets from finding his heart.
Too young to be men,
too old to be boys,
they breathed their brightest lives
as ghosts, rising each day
in clouds of flesh
to telemark and stillhunt,
fresh from the deeper
camouflage of sleep.
*For more information on the colorful history of the 10th Mountain Division, visit the following websites.
Hal Burton has also written an excellent book call The Ski Troops, published by Simon & Schuster in 1971.
The procedure was part-head-hunt and part conventional job-application. I’ve been working on aspects of military and intelligence history for nearly 30 years and was just completing a biography of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, a flamboyant and controversial First World War general who was (among other things) head of British Military Intelligence before 1914, when I was asked if I might be interested in ‘doing something historical’ to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6, as it is popularly known). Since I was assured that this would involve privileged access to the secret SIS archive, the offer was too attractive to refuse. I was not the only person sounded out, and, after I had been asked to prepare a scheme for a history of SIS’s first 40 years—from 1909 to 1949—which passed some sort of test, the process developed into a job-interview situation. I was not the only person interviewed, but, again, I passed the test and was offered the commission.
The SIS archive is the Holy Grail of British government records. None of SIS’s own papers are released to the National Archives, nor is it envisaged that any will ever be so released. The whole lot are also completely exempt from UK Freedom of Information legislation. As a result, when I actually got access to the papers, it was like being a kid in a candy store. The records themselves are not physically very different from other government documents of a similar age. I’ve been working for years in national and other archives—including, for example, the US archives at College Park Maryland—with ‘Top Secret’ military, political and intelligence papers, and the SIS papers are very similar in type. But there is obviously a tremendous thrill in being an outsider seeing classified materials for the first time. I was also acutely aware that there were (and are) no plans to let any other historian into the archive, and that I had only this one go at writing the history, so I had to get it right first time—or as right as possible. So, no pressure there!
What shocked me most of all was the sheer human cost of intelligence work. Working undercover and having to keep secrets for all of one’s life, while doing sometimes extremely hazardous work, is immensely hard. In wartime especially, many officers and agents paid with their lives. Of course we know intellectually that war is dangerous, and that people die. But when you find yet another agent ‘murdered at Buchenwald’ (for example), or stumble on the grainy individual circumstances of real people’s deaths captured in the apparently dryasdust documents on your desk, it gives one pause, and made me reflect (as it must anyone) on what I might have done in such circumstances.
The chief revelation of the book is, in fact, the book itself, and the utterly counter-intuitive action of the most secret department of the British government actually commissioning a history for open publication, to be written by an independent professional historian. Of course, for the very first time, the structure and organisation of the agency, and its development over the first 40 years of its life, is reliably and authoritatively laid out. For the first time, too, the names of over 150 officers are named with the authority of the Service itself. But the history is also ‘warts and all’; failures are faced as well as successes.
There are never-before-told operations which include SIS work against the USA between the wars, focusing on American naval and military targets (the Royal Navy was, for example, particularly anxious to know about US naval construction), as well as American left-wing political groups and Irish nationalists. There is much detail about work against Soviet Russia in the post-revolutionary period, including operations in Romania in the 1930s, where the SIS head of station’s over-trusting attitude led to the loss of agents working in the Soviet Union, and also in Bulgaria, where the head of station got into trouble over money. Details of SIS operations in Latin America in the Second World War have never before been told, including ship-watching for German commerce raiders; a telephone-tapping operation working from the basement of the Santiago embassy; tracking down of Nazi agents across the continent; and unsatisfactory agents (among whom were a French morphine addict and a ‘Chillian Irishman’). The book contains detailed coverage of the Service’s most successful interwar agent, Jonny de Graff, a Comintern officer who came over to SIS in 1933 and supplied a wealth of information about Soviet activities in Britain and across the world, as well as helping to foil a leftwing revolution in Brazil in 1935.
One of the most sensational stories in the book covers ‘Operation Embarrass’ and is as close as you’ll ever get in real life to an espionage thriller. Occurring in 1947–8, it was aimed to disrupt illegal Jewish emigration into Palestine and included direct action with limpet mines to disable potential refugee ships in port (including the vessel which became the famous Exodus); a black propaganda campaign from a bogus Arab organisation, among other thing sending forged letters to the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary; and planting disinformation documents on Soviets in a Vienna night club.
Another operation with the air of a thriller was ‘Climber’ in 1948–9 to penetrate the Soviet Union across the Caucasus mountains, but it also illustrates how human frailty could bring serious risks. The Georgian agents jeopardised security by returning to London ‘with their suitcases bulging with every sort of Turkish delicacy’ and ‘a large number of female garments which they were conveying from mutual friends’ in Istanbul for émigrés in Paris. We presume the famous traitor Kim Philby, then Head of Station at Istanbul, also betrayed the operation.
I was intrigued (as was the Service Chief, Mansfield Cumming) by the discovery during the First World War that semen made a usable secret ink for invisible writing. Apparently the SIS representative in Copenhagen stocked the substance in a bottle ‘for his letters stank to high heaven’, and he had to be told that ‘a fresh operation’ was necessary for each message. I was also impressed by the ingenuity displayed in concealing devices, to smuggle sensitive documents or other materials past security checkpoints. It was reported that in Italy during the Second World War a false horse penis had been manufactured and used.
It has to be the first Chief, Mansfield Cumming, without whom the Service would not exist today. From a standing start in October 1909, he created an impressively functioning organisation which made a significant contribution to Allied intelligence work during the First World War. He fell in love with the ‘business’ of espionage—what came to be known as ‘tradecraft’—secrecy, disguises, cutting-edge technology and so on. He was also stoical and brave and was the subject of many extraordinary stories, including that he cut off his own leg with a penknife after a motor accident in 1914 which left his only son fatally injured. He was clearly a most attractive personality, much loved by his staff, though he was not without frailties, which included a keen eye for the ladies and a penchant for Edwardian pornography.
That the novelist Graham Greene, recruited in the summer of 1941 to work for SIS in West Africa with cover as an army officer, was so physically incompetent and unco-ordinated that he had to be sent to a military training course in Oxford solely to be ‘given the most elementary instruction in soldiering’, in order to ‘wear battledress without embarrassment’.
There are so many, but one of the best was agent ‘Ecclesiastic’, a glamorous 22-year-old Central European woman living in Lisbon, where she was the mistress of a German Abwehr (Military Intelligence) officer. Taken on by SIS, she became a double-agent, feeding carefully-collated disinformation to the Germans. This successful operation is unusually well recorded, including revealing reports from her flirtatious case-office, ‘Klop’ Ustinov (father of the actor Peter Ustinov), as well as a unique image of Ecclesiastic at work taking photographs of documents which she had purportedly taken from the Anglo-Portuguese Air Liaison office where she worked. Her German lover took the photograph as insurance against Ecclesiastic betraying him, and gave her a copy to confirm his hold over her. But she promptly passed it on to her case officer and it survives in the SIS archive to this day.
The real work of MI6 is much more interesting, and much more grimly realistic than the fictional. James Bond is terrific entertainment (or at least the best movies are), but, in the end, he is not much more than a kind of cartoon character, who manages ‘with one bound’ (or so) to get free from the clutches of whatever evil genius he has taken on. Since the real James Bonds are real people, they do not have quite the indiarubber qualities of the fictional one. When they are knocked down they sometimes, alas, stay down. They are, moreover, frequently better trained and prepared than Ian Fleming’s fictional creation, who, for example, does not appear to speak any language other than English (though, arguably, Sean Connery can speak Scottish). But one of the prerequisites for a genuine MI6 officer is a facility with languages. Ian Fleming, who worked in British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War clearly knew a lot about intelligence work and people, and there are suggestions that James Bond might in part have been modeled on a debonair SIS officer called Biffy Dunderdale, who was Head of the SIS Station in Paris during the 1930s. Some other stories seem familiar from the Bond oeuvre, for example, the Dutch agent put ashore in November 1940 on the beach near the Casino at Scheveningen, wearing a tuxedo protected by a specially-designed rubber oversuit. To strengthen his party-goer’s image, his minders sprinkled some drops of Hennessy XO brandy on him before setting him ashore.
There are obvious differences between today’s intelligence environment and that of sixty years ago and before, with technology perhaps being the greatest change, but the essentials of successful intelligence work are amply demonstrated in the 1909–49 history of SIS. At the heart of all intelligence work is trust, not just between case officers and their agents, but also between the agency and its government masters. This is as true of 2011 as of 1911. There were moments in the 1920s and 1930s when SIS, under the ambitious and empire-building leadership of Admiral Hugh Sinclair, got a bit ‘big for its boots’, trespassing, for example, into domestic security work for which it was ill-suited and which dangerously threatened to jeopardise its reputation.
From the very start, Mansfield Cumming recognised the varying motivations of agents: money, patriotism, ideology, revenge. Not much changes in this world. Another constant is the important subject of liaison with foreign security and intelligence agencies. SIS has had to cosy up to potential rival organisations—French Intelligence in the 1920s; the Gestapo in the 1930s—in order to target common enemies—the Italians and Communists in the two examples just cited. Spying against friends and/or potential allies can be problematic, as demonstrated with British operations against the USA in the 1930s. In this case, friendly co-operation and the abandoning of those operations (though not before they had systematically been evaluated) proved to be more productive than keeping them on. One difficulty with a distinctly modern resonance is the experience of the SIS officer who visited Palestine in December 1939. Here the British administration of the territory told him they wanted information about the Jewish Agency, and especially about their support of illegal Jewish immigration. The next day, a contact in the Jewish Agency, in turn, offered their assistance in intelligence-gathering.
Another dimension with a remarkably contemporary feel is the assessment of potential bio-warfare threats to London drawn up by an SIS committee in August 1939. Reflecting on the possibility of anthrax or foot-and-mouth disease attacks on agricultural targets, it also asked if ‘one hundred Nazi agents supplied with bacteriological material and operating in the London Underground Railways during the rush hours, [could] start a serious epidemic in London’. Even on the technology side, many of the changes are purely of scale rather than kind. The pioneering portable suitcase radio developed by SIS’s engineers during the late 1930s is the Second World War equivalent of today’s cell phone, and the careful protocols for using those wartime radios securely remind us, today as much as ever, that any method of communication is liable to be vulnerable if not properly used.
This is a really important question, since it reflects on my status as an independent historian. While I was granted complete and free access to the SIS archives for the period of the book (and this was a potential deal-breaker if I had found my access in any way restricted), and that the history should be ‘warts and all’, the corollary to this was that my final text would be reviewed in-house for what were described as ‘necessary national security requirements’. The most significant dimension of this concerned the naming of agents. SIS’s line, which I accepted, is that it will itself never reveal the name of an agent. In general, only if an agent has ‘outed’ him- or herself, can their name be revealed. This point of principle obviously makes very good sense, and goes to the heart of the relationship of trust between the Service and its agents. If, for example, you are a German hired by the British to spy against Nazi Germany in the 1930s, SIS will say: ‘Your secret is safe with us, in perpetuity’. (One analogy is with an investigative journalist, who may go to jail before revealing his sources.) But after 1945, for example, that German agent might be very glad to have her story told, and may even publish memoirs revealing this. In that case, and in some other cases where the identity of an agent is authoritatively revealed in publicly-available official documents in an archive or museum, I was permitted to name names. Even in those cases where I couldn’t reveal names, I could still tell the stories using cover-names or numbers (which is, after all, what cover-names are for).
There still remains the reasonable suspicion on the part of skeptics that I, having been found suitable by SIS to write its history, might be precisely the wrong person to do an independent and properly-critical job. All I can say to that, is (a) the opportunity (of a lifetime) to be the only historian allowed access to the SIS archives was too great to resist; (b) even if it might be seen as a kind of Faustian Pact with an immensely powerful and seductive organisation, the risk was worth taking; (c) as a senior academic historian with a high reputation to protect, and much to lose if I did only a partial job, I hope my professionalism has enabled me to get the story as right as possible; (d) in practice, while I was prevented from including some details of names etc, I was not restricted from including material about bungled operations and inadequate personnel which was not to the credit of SIS; and (e) in the last resort the ‘proof of the pudding [etc]’ will lie in the text itself, and for that the discerning reader must make up his or her own mind.
My book has been called ‘definitive’, a flattering description but one with which I have some worries. Whether it is already definitive or not, I very much hope that the book becomes definitive, and really only time will tell, as it might take five or ten years for this to be so. The book certainly has been written to stand the test of time. It is authoritative, and, since it is the only work based on access to the SIS archives, will, at the very least and for many years to come (if not for ever), remain the only reliable source for the real story of SIS. If it becomes definitive, I shall be well content. Like any author, my chief hope is that the book will be widely read and bring pleasure as well as conveying information. In the meantime, however, it is an indispensable source for anyone interested in ‘grown-up’ history, particularly that of the most famous intelligence organisation in the world.
Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle created two of history’s most memorable detectives: C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes. Detectives so captured the imagination in the nineteenth century that writers borrowed the word sleuth, which originally referred to the dog that did all the nose work, the bloodhound, for that new superhuman, the detective. Those two nineteenth-century sleuths, Dupin and Holmes, came up with solutions for the most intricately plotted crimes—mostly acts of grisly murder. But the greatest crime of the century took place, over a period of time, right under their highly calibrated noses: the slow and deliberate disappearance of the human being.
I had that dream again last night, the one where I’m floating on my back and looking up at the sky. Surrounding me is the weight of saturated white linen. It tickles my arms and the tops of my thighs as I breathe. The border of the halo of water around my face sparkles as it creeps. There are no clouds—only the intensity of an indifferent sun. The sky at the edges is so blue it produces an ache in a place inside of me that I can only describe as my soul.
I am waiting for something.
Once in a zoo in Copenhagen, I stood before a massive elephant locked behind giant iron bars. His trunk and legs were worn from a rhythmic and persistent rubbing against his cage. He was an old elephant, with long wiry hairs poking through his thick gray skin in a pattern that challenged any claim to divine design, or at least to a divine lack of humor. In the cell next to his, a baby elephant had recently been born and shadowed her mother as the crowds of people watched and pointed. The baby nervously looked from face to face, trying to understand this new life of hers as her mother tried to herd her baby back away from the bars. After a while, I turned back to the old elephant, methodically rubbing at his confines, and tried to meet his eye. But he would not see me. He had stopped looking.
Soon after, I returned to Vienna where we were living for a brief period of our lives. My sister-in-law lives there half of the year and took me out one night. In the dark, we walked past the looming Stefansdom and through the JudenPlatz, the old Jewish section of the city before 65,000 of its inhabitants were slaughtered by Nazi soldiers. We ended up in a small pub where we sang karaoke on the bar with a houseful of Austrians. Neunundneunzig Luftballons. Together we sent 99 red balloons into the sky over Jewish Vienna. And then we went home.
In the place between waking and sleeping, there is a separate existence as illusive as it is real. The moon overhead illuminates the mesh network within and pulls at the tide of unformed dreams lapping at the banks of the mind. Memories of a kind.
On my back, weightless in the water, I am aware of an encroaching cloud of red. It billows around me and I cry out as I am forced upright. Looking into the depths, I see it rising then, its bluish skin covered in white patches. I reach for him against the current and lift him to my breast.
Against the blue screen with my newborn pressed to me, I watch the elephant trapped in its corner of the sky as 99 red balloons drift past in the wind.
I kicked my last dope habit in federal prison and I can tell you, there’s nothing romantic about it. Whatever you might imagine the experience to be will probably not be far off the mark. Picture hellish monotony, cramps that never vanish, months of sleeplessness and of course, that special craving. Making art out of this experience is difficult. My own recollection of the episode is dank and foul. As Dante said of his Inferno, death is hardly more bitter.