With some trepidation, I enlisted in the US Navy in late December. Even after I got on the train to Great Lakes Naval Training Station, I was worried that some FBI type would come marching down the train aisle, pull me off, and tell everyone that I was unworthy to be a seaman recruit.
Why? Well, it had a lot to do with Fred.
The reason I was so nervous had to do with a bookstore. But, of course, it wasn’t any bookstore. It was Mr. Lee’s New World Bookstore in Baltimore. Mr. Lee’s was where you went to buy your political literature if you harbored any political sentiment that was left of center in those days. Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, and probably Primitive Democrats gathered at Mr. Lee’s. Political discussions were subdued, and courtesy was the rule. Mr. Lee served a wide gamut and liked to encourage peaceful coexistence. Anarcho-Syndicalists abided peacefully with the occasional Trotskyite.
What was I doing there? I was with my anarchist friends and trying to hit on Liz, a staunch Socialist who would talk for hours about Tito’s “Independent Paths To Socialism.” I would listen to her while trying to get her to come to our apartment for a more comfortable place to converse.
But this isn’t about Liz, Socialism, Anarchism, or any other Ism. It’s about Fred. Fred is the name we assigned to one of the FBI watchers who regularly stood across the street snapping photos of us and making notes. How did we know that they were FBI? Their suits, ties, short haircuts, and evident interest in Mr. Lee’s to the exclusion of other things on the street were dead giveaways. A group of about five rotated camera and observation duty. There was nothing subtle going on. Walk around the block and down the street; there was a non-descript government-issue style car with off-duty cadre members sipping coffee and reading the Washington Post.
If they were to treat us as dangerous fifth column types, we would observe them as idiot neo-fascists. Since they felt free to photograph and watch us, we countered by taking photos of them. The black and white mug shots we hung inside the bookstore. At the bottom of each picture was the name we assigned to each of our shadows. After a while, we could recognize them individually.
They decided to penetrate the store and sent an agent to ask to use the bathroom. On the way out, he chanced upon the mug shots and had a major panic attack when he saw his name and photo. He cried out, “How did you find out my name?” as he rushed onto the street. It was the agent we had named Fred.
Having “made” Fred, we now worked on other detail members. Again, we threw aside caution for guile. During bad weather, we’d take coffee over. The horror on their faces was wildly amusing when they struggled to refuse the coffee and asked that we stop calling them by name.
We decided that we should attempt to ” turn” Fred. Yes, you are aware that we read way too many spy novels as a group. Being that I had exchanged a few words with Fred the day he accepted coffee from us ( “so one lump of sugar or two,” “just one, thanks”), I was chosen to entice Fred into our little plot to frustrate the FBI.
The following day I passed a coffee to Fred with a note taped to the side. ” The central coordinating committee wants to meet you—Druid Hill Park Saturday, ten AM, by the dead oak. Come alone.”
By Saturday, I was in Boston, having decided that my attempt to generate a relationship with Liz was going nowhere and hoping that in Boston, I might have a conversation with a woman that was not all about party doctrine. So, I was not there to watch the agents’ car unload, hunt through the many dead oaks, and search for the Central Coordinating Committee. Instead, my friends informed me by phone that a new group of agents had replaced the ones we had corrupted.
After his disgrace, I had always imagined that Fred had been relegated to the basement of some field office, sorting field reports and filing summaries. If he were like me, he’d be plotting revenge – seeking any mention of me, and selecting the right moment to arrest me for sedition. Animus is a wonderful thing.
And that’s why I had some guilty trepidation on enlistment. Somehow I knew that many photos of me giving agents the finger must exist somewhere and that the Druid Hill Park caper was recorded carefully in some ledger. Also, after doing penance, Fred must be seeking me out for revenge.
Just telling this story may put me in danger…if you don’t hear from me again, you’ll know what happened.