Tales of a Cold Warrior – Neurosis in the 70’s

Schieße nicht! Ich kenne Geheimnisse!


Don’t Shoot! I know Secrets!

            I joined the Army right out of high school, and my knowledge of the Army at that time consisted of what I had learned in history classes at Boyd County High School and the war movies I watched on TV.  Oh, and there was the occasional war stories my Dad and Uncle Ray would tell me from their time in service.  Now there was a dichotomy, Order and Chaos wrapped up in two brothers.  Uncle Ray was a Staff Sergeant who trained troops at Ft. Knox.  In 1949, he was part of occupying forces post WWII in Japan.  With Uncle Ray, it was all about the order and discipline and you could tell that he really enjoyed his time in the service.  In my adult years, he would reminisce and there was a sort of wistfulness in his voice as he spoke of those days.  I knew that he had regretted leaving military service.

            Dad on the other hand was a rebel without a cause.  He was stationed near Philadelphia, PA, and only stayed the required time of his enlistment reaching the rank of Private First Class.  When Dad spoke about the Army, his stories always started out about how he was a great soldier, always passing inspections above and beyond what was required of him.  This, in his telling, was to the chagrin of his barracks mates as he was

 held up as an example to them by their Sergeants.  This generally caused them more work and in the military sub-culture, you didn’t volunteer for anything and you certainly didn’t want to do any more than you had to.  He would inevitably then relate the story of how he saw a crusty old Sergeant, a paragon of the warrior caste, being reduced in rank by some snot-nosed young Second Lieutenant. 

            From then on he said his mission was to see what he could get away with.  He would tell me how he read the UCMJ (the Uniform Code of Military Justice) just to see what he could get away with.  He once, when being reprimanded for an offense, requested trial by Courts Martial with General Eisenhower either as defense counsel or as a judge.  He once told a superior who said to him, “I’ll see you busted” (reduced in rank), “Yeah, and I’ll see you at the Gray Rock Tavern.”  It promised to be a showdown at the OK Corral indeed.

            So, when it came my turn to serve, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  When I started this journey through the military sub-culture, I was a young, naïve, wet behind the ears, kid that had not really spent too much time out of the hollows of Eastern Kentucky.  My mind was dominated by oversized fantasies of being this great soldier saving the US from all of its enemies.  I could be the hero, getting a ticker-tape parade down Times Square.  Freddie Davis, Clay Lucas, and Dicky Tiller, local characters from the thriving center of my universe of Rush, KY, would welcome me as a paragon of manly virtue, having been regaled of my daring exploits by my overly proud Dad.  Now of course, in this regaling, Dad would get a lump in his throat which he would quickly suppress because real men didn’t cry.

            But how was I to serve?  Fortunately, the Army in its wisdom, tested their applicants somewhat rigorously and based on the results, recommended job categories to its prospective enlistees.  I scored well on the General Technical portion of the test and they told me that they had just the job for me.  Now before the reveal, I must say that I also scored well on the portion of the test that indicated I would be a great cook.  But that’s another story.  I remember the Sergeant at the recruiting station in Louisville, KY telling me, “Based on your scores and the Army’s need, the best job for you would be….. Drum roll here, “98J10, Non-communications, Signals Intelligence, Interceptor Analyst.”

 Ok that sounded really cool, but I had absolutely no idea what that meant, or what I would be doing.  I got the impression from the recruiting Sergeant that he had no clue either.  But he did tell me that the job required a Top Secret security clearance with “Special Compartmented Access.”  Ooh, I get to know SECRETS!!!  In addition to all of those war movies I watched, I also watched James Bond movies and the idea that I could be a spy was absolutely thrilling.  In my mind I was already on dangerous missions, being seduced by or seducing femme fatales, all the while saving the world from SPECTRE or the Commies, equipped by the latest in super-secret technology handed over to me by the Army’s equivalent of Q.  By the way, I got a lot of mileage with my family and friends when I told them I was going to be in Military Intelligence.

He informed me that I would have to be investigated by the FBI to make sure that I was not a risk to National Security and thus began the subtle and not so subtle inculcation of paranoia into my psyche.  I was going to be INVESTIGATED!!!  By the FBI!!!  Oh no!!! There would be G-men in dark suits and dark glasses coming to my neighborhood looking for evidence that could screw the whole spy thing up.  What if they found out about the time I, somewhat accidentally, shot my sister in the ass with a BB gun?  It would be Ft. Leavenworth for me, breaking rocks for the rest of my life.  Still though, life was good at that time in my life and it was with a nervous, but hopeful excitement, I signed the enlistment papers.

Once I had finished my Basic Training and my job training, I was shipped off an Army Intelligence unit in Germany and this is where the inculcation of paranoia began in earnest.  You have to understand, this was 1978 and the Cold War was a very real thing.  There still was an East Germany and a West Germany and the whole of NATO doctrine was aligned in opposition to the threat of the Soviet Union and its allies.  As an 18 year old boy/man from the hollers, (hillbilly version of hollows), of Eastern KY, this was thrilling, but also terrifying.

We received training in SAEDA; jeez the Army loves acronyms, which translates to Subversion and Espionage Directed at the Army.  We were briefed regularly on how East German and Soviet agents were all over the place just looking for unsuspecting soldiers that they could recruit or blackmail.  We were given horror stories of how this occurred and the poor bastards who got caught lost their security clearance, were dishonorably discharged, and sent to prison. 

We learned about “Smellums” and “Usmellums.”  Again with the acronyms, we have Soviet Military Liaison Missions, SMLM and US Military Liaison Missions, USMLM. See, that’s pretty funny, isn’t it?  Basically, these were the official spies that were given specific areas where they could operate, but always sought to stretch that boundary to see if they could observe and report back to their superiors the intelligence they gathered from their clandestine and not so clandestine activities. Our superiors would tell us of car chases through towns and areas where those wicked Smellums got too close to one of our bases or training grounds.

We were taught that if we were detained by one of these nefarious agents of evil that all we were required to give was our name, rank, and serial number.  We were told that we could also face the possibility of confinement and torture if we fell into their clutches and that we were to resist by all means necessary.  Now at this time, the only things I had real cause to be scared of was the bully who had picked on me in English class and the dog up the road that chased me every time I passed its house on my bicycle.  So, you can imagine the very real fear and paranoia that they were fomenting in my young, impressionable mind.

We were taught that lurking at every bierhaus at every gasthaus, in every place that we may congregate, that there were active agents looking to lure us into dishonor by betraying our country.  Femme fatales waiting to seduce us and then cruelly blackmail us into giving away our secrets, thus insuring the victory of those dirty commie bastards and destroying the American way of life that we were bound  and called on to export to every corner of the earth.  I mean they even had a Communist Party headquarters in Frankfurt!  I remember riding past it on the strassenbahn, seeing the red flag with its all too sinister hammer and sickle emblazoned on it, taunting me threateningly as I furtively looked at my fellow passengers wondering which one was the commie agent out to steal my secrets.

It was in that environment that I first heard the phrase; Schieße nicht! Ich kenne Geheimnisse!  It was taught to me by one of the lingies, or in civilian speak, linguists, specifically a German Linguist, that were assigned to our unit.  It meant, Don’t Shoot! I know secrets!  At first blush, I was taken aback at this blatant lack of patriotism of my comrade, no that sounds too Commie, my brother in arms, expressed in this statement.  I mean weren’t we supposed to be the heroes, not betraying our country for our own physical safety???  Laying down our lives to protect and promote the American Way was part and parcel of our credo, our ethos. 

You can imagine all of the thoughts running through my mind as one day I went to the Post Exchange to buy some stereo gear and while standing in line, I saw of all things, a Soviet Army Major in the line with me, cassettes in hand, waiting to be checked out.  Oh my God!!! We’ve been invaded!!!  Is this the dreaded Smellum I had been warned about?  I started to sweat as I imagined all sorts of scenarios playing out in my head.  Would he at some point turn to me and say in a thick Russian accent, “My comrades are taking pictures of us talking, if you do not tell me what you know, these pictures will be sent to your commanding officer.  You will be contacted by Natalya where she will give you instructions on how to make the drop.  If you are good boy, she may…”

Or, would he produce a hidden pistol and turn to all saying, “Spetnaz (Russian Special Forces) have infiltrated the city and are now seizing control of all communications and governmental buildings.  You will be detained and questioned.  Failure to comply will result in summary execution.”  Then turning to me he says, “You, yes you Capitalist dog, we have something special in store for you my friend.  We know that you have secrets and we will have them.  Don’t expect to see the sun for awhile.”  He puts the gun in my face and his heretofore unseen accomplice grabs me roughly, cuffs me, and hauls me to some dungeon where I’ll be tortured until I give up God and country and die in agony as the secrets of my country are ripped from my very flesh.

Then there was the time that I took a trip with our Company Commander, the Battalion Executive Officer, and my Platoon Sergeant to one of our listening posts near the East German border.  It really was a pretty boring trip which was more to assess the materiel needs of the post and really had no cool spy stuff to report or discuss just things like mess hall needs, barracks and equipment repairs, just really mundane issues.

It was on our way back when the trip got interesting.  We are winding through the bucolic German countryside, cows contentedly grazing in the fields.  It was a sunny day I believe, and I was struck by how the countryside might resemble the farmlands of my own Kentucky.  My Platoon Sergeant and I talked in the back, while the officers rode in the front, my Company Commander driving.  We were in a sedan, a Ford LTD which was a real land barge, painted with the Army OD green and I was thinking how cool it was for me, a mere Private First Class, getting to hang out with all of the mucky mucks, the “Important” people.

I had fallen into a half doze when all of a sudden there was a screech of the brakes and I was thrown forward against the front seat.  I shook my head and staring me straight in the face was a very grim sign which stated in German and English for all US forces to stop, 1 kilometer to the East German Border.  It was only roughly 3300 feet to the enemy.  I looked around quickly, expecting to see East German armored vehicles surrounding us, and grim soldiers leveling their Soviet made AK-47’s at our vehicle.  Would the CO try and make a run for it?  Would there be bullets and tank rounds falling all around us as we sped back to the safety of the “good” side, the Americans and our valiant West German allies?  Would the trusty LTD take a hit to the front end, disabling the vehicle and causing us to be captured, possibly injured by the crash and our being taken to some dank East German prison where we would be tortured for our secrets?  Would we languish there, forgotten by our government for years only to be traded in exchange for some low level East German or Soviet spies?  My heart raced as I considered our dire consequences.

Ok, so maybe I was a little impressionable at the time.  Nevertheless, it seemed that good old Uncle Sam had succeeded in their quest to make me suspicious of everything and everyone I encountered while in Germany.  The reality regarding the conclusion of both stories was really quite ordinary and really a little boring.  The Soviet major, you know the one that was going to blackmail me or torture me in my imagination?  Well it turns out that all he really wanted were cassette tapes.  He stood there with an indifferent, bored expression on his face.  When it was his turn in line, he paid for his purchase and left, having never looked at or acknowledging me in any way.  I had come within feet of the enemy and he didn’t even know or care that I was standing a mere two people back in the line.  He was just a guy out to get some stuff. 

And what was the conclusion of our flirtation with the East German border and the howling hordes of Communism?  No troops arrived to arrest us, we weren’t surrounded on all sides and we weren’t hauled off to prison.  The CO just said, “Shit, I must have made a wrong turn back there.  I wonder where the autobahn is.”  He turned around the car, drove back the way we came until he found the signs leading to the autobahn, and took us back to our unit’s headquarters.  On the trip back, the major who was our battalion’s Executive Office remarked that if we had been detained, it would have been the officers who would have been tortured in spite of the fact that the Platoon Sergeant and myself probably knew more about what was going on than they did.  His assessment of our knowledge did give me some little pride.  He respected our abilities and acknowledged them. But I still wasn’t so confident about the “not being tortured” thing. 

By the time I left Germany, I had found the tongue in cheek attitude of the phrase, Schieße nicht! Ich kenne Geheimnisse!  While there was a real presence of agents working against the West, we in the everyday world of our work there realized that the chances of us being really involved in espionage as envisaged by James Bond, were really pretty slim.  It was a self deprecating way of acknowledging the importance of what we were doing on the one hand, and on the other and not to take ourselves too seriously.  It helped to lighten the burden of being so far from home doing a very important job.

As I reflect on my time in the Army, I realize how completely green, no pun intended, I was.  It was an exciting time, filled with many new experiences, people and places.  I have been out of the service for 31 years and on certain days it seems like yesterday.  It shaped me and gave me an education on many things.  I learned how to appreciate and cooperate with people different than me; it allowed me to see different cultures, people and places.  I got to do that and never had to fire a shot in a war as we had been trained to do.  Part of me wants to groan in embarrassment or shame as I look back on the events of my life, but on the other hand, these experiences made me who I am today.  Still though, if we ever develop time-traveling capabilities, or I run into The Doctor, I’d like to pay a visit to the young me and tell myself, “Lighten up, you’ll live longer and the ride will be a lot more fun.”


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