The Fourth Life of Herbert Philbrick

Saturday afternoon in Central Pennsylvania; it was Buck’s regular bi-monthly overtime shift, when he usually took calls and rewrote stories from upstate stringers to spread throughout the Sunday pages, and made the regular round of police-beat calls if no police reporter was actually out working the beat. If worst came to worst, he did obituaries, just like when he was a cub reporter eight years ago. But it was an easy shift, four to midnight at time and a half, and he hardly ever stirred out of the office. Tonight was a little different.

The Sunday editor, sitting in the slot where the daily news editor usually sat, called him over and asked him to run over to the West Shore and cover a speech at a Camp Hill Young Republicans dinner.

“If you want to eat, buy a meal ticket,” the Sunday editor said. “The paper will reimburse you.”

“This better not be one of those hundred-buck-a-plate-deals,” Buck said. “Unless they take American Express.”

The Sunday editor snorted. “Nothing like that. Just a social gathering, they order off the restaurant menu, maybe ten bucks or so.”

“Okay,” Buck said.

No one was using the two staff cars parked out front so he took one of those. He was crossing the Susquehanna River when he flashed back to nightside news shifts two blocks from the Savannah River in Georgia. Crossing that river put you in South Carolina, home of all-night unregulated bottle clubs of which he had been a frequent habitué. That had been in the sixties, which already seemed historical in the changed seventies. Buck was beginning to think of those times as the last days of old-time innocence in the newspaper business.

The Damon Runyon-like characters that peopled the Georgia newsroom had a standing bet about who could cadge the most free social dinners that month to stretch their paltry salaries. Losers bought the winner the meal of his choice. There was always a place set for reporters back then, whether the organization hosting the meal got any ink or not. Usually the only ink they got was a lite-agate mention in the “meetings this week” column, but they never gave up hope and they never once thought of trying to charge a newsman for a meal.

But now reporters who accepted free meals were suspect and there were rules against accepting gratuities. The notion that a reporter’s silence on a good story could be purchased with a free meal would have made those old nightsiders in Georgia roar with disbelieving mirth.

Buck pulled into the Camp Hill motel where the Young Republican banquet was being held, and found the banquet hall. There was a blown-up photo of the speaker for the evening on the wall behind the ticket-taker above a 72-point headline: “I Led Three Lives.”

“Oh,” Buck said to the ticket seller, “that Herbert Philbrick. I saw some of those TV shows back in the black-and-white days.”

“He’s just beginning his remarks,” the ticket-taker sounded excited and pleased that a reporter was here. “Go right in. There’s space for the press right up front.” He didn’t ask for money; so Buck didn’t offer.

Buck had the table below the podium to himself. He supposed any radio newsman who wanted to cover Philbrick probably had done a telephone interview, and the TV stations obviously weren’t interested. With Vietnam in full swing and Nixon in the White House, Philbrick’s fifties counterspy adventures were worse than old news, they were ancient history. But within five minutes it was clear that he still had the burning passion of his convictions; he spoke compellingly about the Red Menace. The brochure the guy at the door had given Buck said Philbrick was a sought-after speaker on the cocktail circuit.

As the sought-after speaker offered anecdotes about his role as an FBI counterspy back in the day, Buck noticed that the young Republicans were paying rapt attention.

“My old Communist comrades of Pro-Four are still active,” Philbrick intoned. “The Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, the Mobe, et cetera — all these anti-war and anti-establishment groups — still are being bankrolled out of Moscow Center. Destabilization of our society is their game, and always has been.”

Buck didn’t really remember much about the TV show. Philbrick’s first life, as the story-line went, was as an American advertising executive. His second life began when Communist infiltrators approached him, seeking to influence the influencer of public opinion. He began his third life — and eventually became famous — by approaching J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and volunteering to infiltrate the infiltrators, with what the FBI later characterized as excellent success.

“So now,” Buck scribbled on his pad, “Philbrick is leading his fourth life, as a cocktail-circuit speaker, more than twenty years after he came in from the cold. “ The Communists were, according to Philbrick, still trying to unsettle America from the inside. So what else is new, Buck wondered cynically.

“Poor guy,” Buck wrote, “repeating his tales by rote.”

The speaker seemed almost to be on automatic pilot. From time to time he would blink rapidly several times, as if overtaken by a memory — perhaps a memory that did not square precisely with his prepared remarks. The effect was one of extreme nervousness. But the audience was very forgiving.

Buck wanted to ask Philbrick if he wasn’t sick to death of it all by now, having talked every piece of his experiences so thoroughly to death in front of so many audiences. But why be mean? His strongest feeling was one of sympathy for a man who had, once in his life, lived a great adventure, out on the sharp edge of secret doings, working in the shadows for his country against a worthwhile foe.

Some things were too important to talk to death, Buck always believed. But nobody had advised this man of that danger. Buck thought that he would never again recapture the visceral thrill of rubbing shoulders with the enemy, because all the memories now were tweaked and tangled and tainted by his cocktail circuit riding.

The most poignant moment came at the end of his remarks. Philbrick paused and then said, his voice rising in fervor, “God bless you! God bless you all!”

The audience rose to its feet with a warm, admiring round of applause. Buck joined in, thinking that the man’s blessing was the most heart-felt thing in the whole speech: God bless you for your attentiveness, which for a moment perhaps tinted the ghosts of his memories with a sepia-tone washing of the rich and dangerous adventure he once lived in full color.

“Not much of a story,” Buck told the Sunday editor when he got back. “Just repeating the same old stories that they made into that TV series about him as a double-agent. Plus he says the SDS and Black Panthers and so on are all Commie fronts, but offered no corroborating evidence.”

The Sunday editor made a face. “Hard to let go of the limelight, once you’ve been in it.”

“Well he was preaching to the choir in front of that group.”

“Can you give me five graphs? Just that he spoke to the group and recounted his experiences as a counter-spy? Something like that? For the Camp Hill section of the paper?”

“The man who famously led three lives as a counter-spy against the Communists now is leading a fourth life as a cocktail circuit speaker, discussing his experiences?” Buck said.

“Hey, that’s not bad! But keep it to five graphs, okay?”

“I can do that,” Buck said.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.