“The Worst Spy in History”
It was the Summer of 1988 in Munich, the BRD (Bundes Republic Deutschland, known in the US as West Germany). That seems as good a place and time to begin as any.
I was working on my Bachelor of Arts (two actually) at a small school in Kentucky, Murray State University. I was double-majoring in speech communication and theater. I was also working on two minors, organizational communication and German language.
That last was due to my father’s part of the family having been somewhat mistaken about its origins. Though there was a German line on my paternal grandmother’s side (Zoeller, believed to be descended from the Hohenzollern–something I question, but who knows? Golfer Fuzzy is a distant cousin), Knall was actually not the name some forefather(s) of mine came over with on my paternal grandfather’s side. There was no ‘k’ and it was in fact ‘Nall.’
Strangely poetic (to me anyway), ‘knall’ in German is a sound effect equating with “boom” in English. I had thought it possible that whoever stood in line at Ellis Island or wherever they landed had been brain damaged, likely wounded in some war battle. Possibly, someone had either asked his name and, unable to answer for himself, another German had said “Knallkopf”, which approximately equates with dunderhead, which is just another word for idiot by way of having been struck by lightning or something like cannon-fire or having a hammer dropped on your head by a Teutonic god, I suppose. Alternately, it might have been a hand written sign around his neck attempting to explain the medical condition that was interpreted by Immigration as a last name.
But that was apparently all wrong. ‘Nall,’ on the other hand I was told is old Norse for ‘small harmless bear,’ which might refer to raccoon, a bear cub, both or some other extinct creature. That family line, my father’s father’s, was actually Scandinavian. Nalle still carries the same or similar meaning in Finnish and Swedish. In fact, Winnie the Pooh is known as Nalle Puh in some Scandinavian countries and nalle generally means playful, or teddy-, bear.
Which sort of sums it up. Explosive terrorist or mostly harmless scavenging rascal? That which kills randomly or a fluffy thing that mostly just eats? I know which I think fits.
In 1988 I had not yet been told the origin of the addition of the ‘k.’ I did know that my paternal grandfather, Philip Knall, had been a marine in World War I. I also knew he had joined a year or two too young to sign himself up.
What I did not know then was that his mother had refused to sign for him to join. Undaunted, he ran away to an aunt in another state and had her sign him up instead. In order to cover up the fact that he was in fact not an orphan as they told the USMC, they changed his name and added the ‘k’.
While I don’t know exactly what made him decide to join the military during a time of war, I have some thoughts about that. Grandpa Knall’s own father had gone to prison. Though there might have been multiple reasons for that, one of them was related to bigamy. Not only had he left my great grandmother Nall without divorcing her, he had married another woman. This second woman had been African American.
Being sixteen or so, I can imagine that news of that had been difficult to keep secret. The early twentieth century likely did not look kindly on multiracial couplings and I expect it was a source of contention for a teenager. High school had likely not been kind to Grandpa. Perhaps he wanted to prove something.
In 1988, I was at the time believing that I was visiting one country of genetic origin. On one of our days off, that is the US exchange students in the KIES program visiting Germany, another student and I found an out-of-the-way biergarten on a back street.
He (we’ll call him Mark) had had enough of the touristy bars and wanted to see where the locals watered themselves. We went out without his professor friend in tow on this trip. That was unusual because once it was discovered that I had a theater background as well, the three of us regularly spent time out and about together. His pal was a theater professor at another Kentucky school and my fellow exchange student Mark attended there and frequently played roles in their productions.
On this particular day, after deciding we wanted to find a bar where Germans drank—and not Americans, Brits and Canadians—we found one off the beaten path. (That last country being where we were told to say where we were from should we sense any hostility. The Germans were especially concerned with English and Irish soccer fans who they assumed all wanted to pillage and burn their businesses, homes and Peugots. However, Americans were also unpopular in places though it was never adequately explained why).
The two of us had wandered around the blocks near the park. When we found a mostly empty beer garden with an open air space, there were only three other people present: two men whom I assumed to be Saudis (they were in full desert dress like you’d see in a movie or whenever any POTUS is hosting members of the House of Saud) and a strange probably half-Spanish/half-Arab man wearing a black or dark brown 19th century style suit complete with a “Mark Twain” style black narrow ribbon tie and odd collared off-white or ivory shirt.
It was this last oddball who decided to join the two young Americans enjoying beers. He sat down and ordered an expresso. One of the Saudis looked on dispassionately but I sensed we were not welcome.
The man’s eyes were more than bloodshot. Though it could be time and memory blurring what I actually saw, I remember his eyes being more yellow and red than white around the milky brown irises.
The man’s language was just about as bizarre as his attire. He would start a sentence in English, switch to Spanish, and finish in what I assumed to be Arabic. This continued with no particular order of languages used. He tried his best to be charming. In an odd way, he was.
Not long into this strange conversation our third for afternoon drinks spilled a little of his coffee down his chin. My friend, who reminded me a bit of a young Pierce Brosnan (and he was probably aware of that) immediately handed the stranger a cloth napkin.
The man took this as an affront. Being somewhat snobbish, that’s very likely how my friend intended it as well. Despite probably being a little insane, a lot high on an opiate of some sort, and a problem with sticking to one language, this man still recognized an insult when he saw one.
He scooted back in his chair, the charm and friendly facade replaced by a deadly stare that only lasted a few seconds. He pulled a long chain from his pocket and dropped it on the table.
“Do you know what this is?”
My friend shrugged. Bowtie looked to the Saudis and started with, “They don’t know…” and ended with a laugh. Suddenly, he was able to stick to a single language even if he didn’t finish that sentence.
At this point I was of course thinking this fellow was some likely sort of criminal but almost certainly bluffing where violence was concerned. Lots of people seemed to court reputations that in reality they didn’t live up to, talked tough to cover up insecurities.
The man looked over to the Saudis in mock disbelief at the disrespect shown him by my companion. If the two desert men had a reaction it was well hidden behind what seemed to be cold disinterest.
He stared at my friend for a moment. What he held looked like one of those longish chains that a janitor might keep a ring of keys on or one that connected wallets to belts.
It was just about then that I noticed our table guest’s hands. His forefingers of both hands and the meat closest his pinkies had numerous scars and callouses. He had used the metal garrote from time to time after all. Maybe he wasn’t bluffing.
After a brief, tense moment, the man again regained his composure and the yellow-, brown- and black-toothed smile returned. He invited us to a private place he knew in the park for some beers. We declined, finished and paid, then departed.
Though I have read that the origin of the word assassin (hashishin, a legend about a cult of men who supposedly used opiates and killed people on orders) is untrue, I do think that man likely had killed before and used drugs. It’s no big secret that after some of the economic dips we had in the US that sexual favors for drugs started replacing money. Why not killing for drugs as well? That question would come up again for me twenty-one and a half years later.
Once we were a bit away from there I started laughing. My friend became angry at me for laughing at the situation, though I rather think he was releasing the adrenaline that was building during the encounter that had no where to go since we were walking coolly away as opposed to running.
“That’s why you’d never make a good spy!”
His words stung a bit. Serving my country in the clandestine service of some kind had been a career I had considered years before. I had once spoken to my mother’s brother about it. He, like dad’s dad had been a marine but that had been Vietnam instead of World War I. He said he had been approached after leaving the USMC. He had told me, “Those people don’t allow you to have relationships, family.” That had meant little to me at the time. I hadn’t understood what that meant nor what I’d have really been serving. More recent events have made both abundantly clear.
But I decided against pursuing such a career after Iran-Contra, the Arms-for-Hostages scandal, and several personal problems that all pointed to it being a bad idea in general. I had lost faith in Ronald Reagan and the Republican party due to those scandals and had a bad break up (with a girl).
A few years later, while in Germany, I was also awaiting the inevitable: divorce papers. My life was a mess and I had lost my sense of direction. I’d been brought up to abhor the “weakness” of, for example, Jimmy Carter. So without the GOP and the Democrats out of the question, I became distrustful of politicians and largely apolitical. And then there was the deep-down truth.
For one, I knew deep down that I was gay. I had lived a lie, even gotten married, just to please other people, what I imagined society wanted. I probably also had weaknesses of character that would have gotten me weeded out anyway. I came from a middle class (but decidedly lower middle class) family. That had meant hard work was necessary to excel in that world, somehow attending the right schools, making the right connections. I was, among other things, lazy, though not so much allergic to hard work when necessary. Perhaps a better way of putting it was that I lacked ambition.
Other circumstances seem to conspire so that none of that would happen. I had considered switching to law enforcement and changed my major to criminal justice. I was accused of stealing and didn’t like how I had been treated by some folks in that field. Thus, I had ended up studying fields involving the use of words.
Mark was of course correct. What kind of a spy laughs hysterically when he’s in danger? Maybe not the worst one in the world, but being a bit of a drama queen with a penchant for hyperbole can’t help.
It wouldn’t be the last time something like that would happen.
Several weeks later I was with a different group, this time people from my own school. We had finished visiting East Berlin and were on our way back to the West in order to wait at the bus station for our ride back to Munich.
For whatever reason, the guards separated me from my two fellow students. Then they took their time searching a car whose driver wanted to pass through the gates to the West, as I could see outside the window. I’d say about seven or eight minutes passed and they were really giving that car a thorough search including the mirrors underneath.
There was a camera, I think, in the hall I was in. I started acting a little suspicious. I did so quite intentionally but I don’t know, or didn’t, why I did it. I only know, or perhaps only knew, that I found it exceedingly humorous for some reason.
I stuck a still-wrapped condom in the radiator below the window, as if passing along some kind of microfilm or secret message. Shortly thereafter, they allowed the car to go and I was released to the next area and eventually out through Checkpoint Charlie.
As soon as I cleared the gate I started laughing again. When my fellow students asked why and I explained it to them, they correctly pointed out that that might have been a great way to wind up in an East German prison. They were horrified.
I still found it funny. I don’t–or didn’t–exactly know why.
This theater major would find himself at a Shakespeare festival in New Jersey a year later. I now believe it was likely some combination of experimentation, training, and search for talent for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Also, the Berlin Wall would come down. It was surreal watching that happen when, just the previous summer, I’d heard from German after German that it would never happen.
It only gets weirder from here.