“Every government has its secret service branch. America, CIA; France, Deuxième Bureau; England, MI5. NATO also has its own. A messy job? Well that’s when they usually call on me or someone like me. Oh yes, my name is Drake, John Drake.” — Danger Man, British TV series
Secret Agent Man*
ASHTON WAS A GOOD-LOOKING kid, you had to admit. Had that big-city swagger too. He strutted around the Fort Jackson Army Induction Center in his civvies like he owned the place, with his Kooky Kooky Lend Me Your Comb hair styled just so. When they marched us to the Army barbers you should have seen the guy’s eyes light up that got Ashton in his chair. Maybe he thought shearing Ashton would trim his attitude like Delilah took Samson’s strength. Fat chance.
“Cut it away carefully, my man,” Ashton instructed airily. “I’ve promised lockets of my hair to a number of lonely ladies back in the City.”
Damned if that Army barber didn’t do it, too, and swept up the blonde curls carefully and presented them to Ashton with a flourish. I had a crew cut already, but my guy leaned on my skull with the clippers like he’d been cheated. I was bald as Yul Brynner when he was through. Go figure.
I’d never seen Ashton before we were shoved into our first transient barracks together there at Fort Jackson. The way things worked out in those days, the two of us and about a platoon’s worth of other draftees from all over the East Coast wound up going through Basic Training together and then to Fort Gordon Military Police School. After over sixteen weeks of living in each other’s hip pockets, some of us were lifetime buddies and some of us had to be pried apart to keep us from killing each other. They called the fistfight between me and that Wop truck driver from New Jersey the clash of the titans. Ended in a draw and we didn’t shake hands and make up, either.
Ashton sailed above it all with his big city strut and smart mouth. His wisecracks were funny enough to relieve the olive-drab tedium, nothing truly memorable, just funny at the time. Drill Sergeants’ harassment bullshit rolled off him like water off a duck. Even the Drill Sergeants had to laugh at his cockiness and smart mouth.
As MP School wound to a close we all hung around the day room bulletin board in spare moments, waiting for our orders to be posted. The day most of our names went up, slotted for Saigon, things got quiet around the barracks. My name was on there, and so were Ashton’s and a lot of the other guys who’d been together the whole way.
Viet Nam was heating up, and it looked like we were going to be tossed into the fire as Saigon embassy guards. We knew that made us sitting ducks, even though it was before that VC bomb that took out all the windows on one side of the embassy. That blast gave a CIA guy I got to know years later a face full of glass fragments when he incautiously went to the window when he heard gate MPs shooting. He survived the experience, but decided he’d had enough and took a civil-service transfer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an option I never even knew existed until I heard it from him.
But a bunch of us on that bulletin board never saw Saigon.
At the next company formation the first sergeant read out twenty names. Mine. Ashton’s. A lot of the others who came all this way with us. We fell out and formed up on a staff sergeant we’d never seen before. He marched us away across dusty red-clay training fields to one of those stand-alone classrooms in which we’d been taught military law enforcement. An officer we’d never seen before was waiting. The staff sergeant and an SFC went around lowering blackout curtains over all the windows. It looked like we were going to be shown a movie. The captain locked the door.
“This briefing is classified Secret,” the captain said without preamble. “This is an order: you will not discuss this briefing with anyone outside this room.”
Then he said we’d been especially handpicked from among the best, blah blah blah. The words ran together. I didn’t like this at all. The last time a lifer captain gave me a sales pitch it was because my test scores had him trying to recruit me into Officer’s Candidate School and a longer tour of duty. No thank you very much. This time they weren’t giving us a choice. We had already been recruited without knowledge or consent. We weren’t going to Viet Nam after all. We were going to Germany. The Sergeant First Class doused the lights. The staff sergeant operated a squeaky old movie projector. For a minute it was like back in high school, about to watch an “educational” film. Then it wasn’t.
We were looking at grainy black-and-white footage of old Nazi V-2 storage bunkers in a German forest. But the soldiers in the film were American, and the warheads on the rockets were nuclear.
“Your job will be to protect these missile sites from Communist infiltrators and spies,” the captain intoned. “This is our real priority in the world today. Any grunt can go shoot it out with the slopes in the jungle. You have been selected to be on the front lines of the Free World.” We would be the first defense against the Godless Soviet Bloc, he told us, authorized to shoot to kill. And a lot more in that vein. When we were marched back to the barracks area, Ashton was positively aglow.
“Man this is it, this is what I’ve been waiting for,” he said. “Secret agents, man! James Bond stuff. Then he hummed a few bars of “Secret Agent Man” from that old TV series starring Patrick McGoohan. “Giving me a number, and take away my name,” he crooned. Swear to God.
The rest of us thought he should get a grip. No matter what the Army promised you, there was always a catch. Somebody dubbed Ashton “Double-0” in disgust, and the moniker stuck. It didn’t bother him a bit. He was insufferable from then on, suddenly full of all kinds of secret knowledge about the mission that sounded like bullshit from spy novels, and probably was. I heard that crap from Ashton all the way north on an old TWA Constellation prop job that bumped and rattled over air pockets like a stagecoach. At Fort Dix, N.J, they sequestered us “security police” away from other Army replacement troops moving through the repo depo. Then we were hustled onto a chartered 707 to Frankfurt, along with a bunch of Military Intelligence people in civilian clothes: cheap suits from J.C. Penney and Sears, Roebuck. They pulled the plane off by a hangar in Frankfurt to unload us. A buck sergeant wearing the first AWSCOM patch I had seen on his fatigues herded the MPs onto a military bus with the windows blacked out.
We off-loaded in the middle of the night into a bullet-scarred stone courtyard that must have been through a hell of a firefight in the last war. We got an interrupted night of sleep in small windowless rooms converted into four-man squad billets. They fed us in a large basement mess hall. We sat around half the day before they formed us up in the courtyard to get on the bus again. For reasons known but to Army bureaucracy, they took us off the bus on a Frankfurt street corner four blocks from the bahnhof and marched us the rest of the way, staggering under our heavy duffel bags. Then they gave us train tickets and left us alone on the platform. As far as I know, none of us spoke ten words of German.
We formed a khaki island among the thronging German civilians, slumped on our duffels, some playing cards, most of us still trying to catch up on our sleep. Mostly the Germans ignored us. A lot of them were in bright-colored sweaters, lugging skis and knapsacks. The frauleins were rosy cheeked. There wasn’t a single crew cut among the young German men.
Of course Ashton had to put on a show of trying to talk to the girls. He got some smiles and a laugh or two, don’t ask me how, and claimed he had at least one girl’s Frankfurt phone number, in case he needed a “safe house” later. I’m telling you, he was out of control with that bullshit.
It was coming twilight again when our train was called. We loaded into first- class compartments behind one of those tootling electric locomotives bound for the hinterland. The conductor had his instructions; he wouldn’t let any civilians sit in our section. That got us a few dirty looks, and it also got Ashton going again. He whistled “Secret Agent Man” halfway across Germany. He did have a tuneful whistle.
Ten of us finally detrained at two in the morning at a whistle-stop town. We were collected by yet another AWSCOM sergeant in starched and tailored fatigues, and crawled exhausted into the back of a deuce-and-a-half, tarped over like a covered wagon, for the last leg up winding mountain roads. I dozed uncontrollably to the lurch of the big truck. It was cold as hell after spending the summer outdoors in Georgia. We were miserable in summer khakis. All but Ashton, who acted like a kid on the way to Christmas.
We finally rolled through a raised checkpoint pole onto a darkened company street lined with silent barracks in the middle of a Brothers Grimm forest. The MPs on the gate were anonymous under their helmet liners, armed and silent as they watched us go by. We were in a whole different part of the Army than any of us had seen or imagined. Except Ashton, of course.
The truck stopped in front of a lighted mess hall that looked more like a civilian cafeteria than anything on an Army post. The night cook had a full breakfast laid out for us. It was actually good food, scrambled eggs, unburned toast and hash browns. The coffee smelled wonderful in the crisp mountain air. The sergeant who brought us in told us to eat all we wanted. I began to wonder if Ashton might be right, and we’d stumbled into something good. They put us to bed in a Quonset hut reserved for transient troops. The beds had inner spring mattresses, a far cry from stateside Army cots, and the curving walls were painted a soft cream instead of baby-shit green. The softer side of the Army. I went to sleep wondering if Ashton was going to have the last laugh on us doubters. They even let us have eight straight hours of sack time before they rolled us out mid-morning and told us to get into fatigues.
When we formed up in front of the Quonset hut, we could see a lot more than when we came in. It was a misty autumn-like day, and the evergreen forest surrounding the installation was dotted here and there with the gold and red of deciduous trees, shining in the buttery German sunlight. The other end of the company street stopped against the double gates of an eight-foot-tall steel hurricane fence that came out of the forest to the left and swung away at an angle to the right before vanishing into the trees. There was concertina wire along the top of the fence. We could see two guard towers from where we stood. I could make out an M-60 mounted on the nearest one. It looked like a maximum-security prison. In our duffel-rumpled slick-sleeve fatigues and OD baseball caps we fitted right in: we looked like convicts.
A master sergeant came down the company street, his Corcoran jump boots gleaming like black glass in the sun, and called us to attention. His fatigues were so tailored and starched that even MacArthur would have approved. His sunglasses could have been filched from the Great Man’s hip pocket. It was hard to believe we were wearing the same uniform. He looked us over with something approaching disgust.
“Okay,” he said finally. “First, we’re going to feed you lunch. Then you report right back here for painting detail, grass cutting and policing up the company area.” As of that moment we were back in the Army we had come to know and loathe over the hot summer months in the scrub pine and clay hills of Georgia. I heard the sergeant say we wouldn’t be assigned our permanent billets for a few days, because the men we were assigned to replace hadn’t rotated home yet. He asked if anybody had any questions.
Ashton did, of course.
“I thought our mission was to guard the missiles,” he said.
The sergeant snorted. “Oh, you will. Eventually. After you get your Security Clearance. First we gotta fingerprint you. We’ll do that tomorrow after we get the company area policed up. Then we gotta send the fingerprint cards back to the States for the FBI to do a background check. Can’t have any Commies sneaking into the ranks between MP School and here, you know.” He thought that was funny, so he laughed.
“That could take weeks!” Ashton said in something like horror.
“Yep,” the sergeant said, very satisfied. “Sometimes even months. Good news for me: I haven’t had a work detail worth anything in months. We’ve got an Inspector General’s inspection coming up. I’ve got tons of work needs done. Painting the curbs in front of the orderly room, new stripes on the gate poles, lots of brush-cutting to clear fields of fire out along the exclusion fence.” He waved vaguely toward the guard towers. “Yep, lots of work. Now head on over to the mess hall. Dismissed.”
I fell in behind Ashton in the chow line. “Your mission,” I said, in my best imitation of the somber Mission Impossible voice on the tape recorder, “should you decide to accept it …”
“Oh, go to hell,” Double-O said bitterly. “Just go to hell.”
*From Shadow of a Soldier, AAeB.com.