By Johnny Hughes
So, they caught some Russian spies! Finally. I've been waiting since the end of World War Two when I started grade school. I'm from Lubbock, Texas, the second-most conservative city in the USA. We grew up on imaginary enemies, foreign and domestic. During World War Two, my Dad was a Major in the Texas Army Reserves. They did maneuvers in Mackenzie Park. I was five when a tear gas grenade landed near the car I was in. They had dances and could jitterbug like crazy. We had a Army Ambulance in the backyard. Dad worked for a German! A geologist, and I kept an eye on him for sure. We kids played war all the time, killing Japanese and Germans, not called that. One big deal was that we were always cauterizing imaginary wounds. We'd walk to the nine-cent movies, the money came from selling coke bottles purloined from garages. Then we'd come home and "play" the movie. Wasn't a kid in Texas couldn't make a pretty good machine-gun sound or pantomime pulling the pin of a grenade with their teeth and throwing it or getting shot always in the chest, with a slow dramatic death scene. We also fell on a large number of grenades temporarily dying for our friends. The girls played nurse and they were always "treating" us. Bandages and slings for our arms. I'd get imaginary shot right off the bat, to snuggle up to a healing nurse.
I visited a friend and while prowling his garage, I saw a big box of sunglasses that were round. Wow. Japanese probably, like all the propaganda war movies. I visited my grandmother on the edge of Los Angeles. Japanese-American farmers were growing beans and other vegetables right down the road. I attacked, tearing up as much as I could. I was six.
With the war over, the new enemy were the Godless, Russian communists. It was a tad confusing. They had been our pal and Germany and Japan and Italy for a while had been the bad guys. They showed a T.V. series to all the students in grade school each week entitled, "I Was a Communist For the F.B.I." Its premise backed up by a nut-case, self-promoting, evil U.S. Senator named Joe McCarthy was that there were communists everywhere infiltrating American society. McCarthy said there were a lot of communists in the State Department or the Army. We grade school kids were on the lookout for them.
The House Un-American Activities Committee imagined a nest of Hollywood actor, director, and writer commies. This made the Salem Witch Trials seem like a Cub Scout meeting. Political careers were made chasing imaginary communists who were a lot sharper than the real communists.
Rather often, a New Yorker or some kind of yankee would be mistaken for a possibly-evil foreigner because they talk funny, not like we Lubbockians. Everyone from Richard Nixon on called their opponent a communist in political races. The biggie was "soft on communism" as a common tag put on anybody to the left of Atilla the Hun.
One of my best pal's fathers would go downtown and show these John Birch Society movies on the side of the white walls of the Lindsey Theatre while a line was waiting to see a real movie. I still remember the maps with all the countries the communists controlled in black and arrows of where they were coming after us.
In school, we'd practice fire drills, my favorite part of school, and atomic bomb drills where we would sit under our wooden desks and cover our heads with our hands. That was a good time to slip an Alka Seltzer in the ink well of the girl you were flirting with most and passing notes where she put little circles for the dots on the i, and a row of x s to indicate kisses. These were on blue-lined notebook paper folded four times to fit in a back Levis pocket and easy to pass without the teacher seeing.
Radio and television kept up a steady drone about atomic warfare. The mushroom-shaped cloud was tattooed on our little brains and nobody expected to live too long. Our first readings of Kerouac and the beats confirmed that.
My Aunt was an Army Nurse, a Lieutenant Colonel finally, in World War Two and Korea. From Korea, she'd send funny letters about fighting the communists. This was the first of a series of surrogate wars, Vietnam being the biggie, where we fought the Russians in some other country. Usually North versus South kind of like our civil war. The Germans, historically uncooperative, were divided East and West, but that was our side's doings.
For Korea, we had maps to trace the troop movements. She wrote the university there was named, "O Pusan U." She was in the Mash unit that provided fodder for the TV series. Suddenly, the Chinese communists came flooding down from the north, and our forces, including the field hospitals, were in full retreat. We had a new enemy: Chinese.
The old showman, General Douglas MacArthur, of the corn-cob pipe and long-brimmed Army hat with lots of gold braid wanted to bomb hell out of North Korea. So did conservatives in West Texas, but they are always for bombing someone, now Iran or Mexico or maybe British Petroleum. When President Truman fired MacArthur, the General got this big ticker tape parade in New York, and made a speech. Here again, we in grade school all listened to the speech in our class rooms. He sounded like the hard-shell Baptists' idea of God and said, "Old soldiers never die. They just fade away."
When General MacArthur split the Philippines at the start of World War Two, he loaded all his furniture and personal effects on a ship and left the troops for the Japanese prisons. Being this remarkably quotable guy he said, "I shall return." That would be on free Army cigarettes. And he did return.
When I started college in 1957, we had to sign a loyalty oath saying we weren't communists. We'd all been looking for communists really hard but nobody had ever actually met one. The devious sons of bitches. I played poker to go to college the next eight years. By the sixties, I was subject to the draft, and had to pass in college to keep a deferment. The Army Reserve had this option where you go for six months active duty and six years in the reserves making weekly meetings and summer camp.
In 1962, I joined the Army and truthfully listed my profession as card player: poker, gin rummy, and tournament bridge. Card players had been instrumental in breaking the Japanese code and had worked in intelligence and cryptography, code breaking. I was a 723.1, I think I remember. When they'd take pictures of the troops, me and my buddy would be told to stand aside. We went to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri for basic training in July. Dumb. The Sergeants stole lots of food at night from the mess hall. The psycho, company commander Lieutenant would not allow but one glass of milk, one slice of bread per meal. Everybody was getting skinny.
Once they announced that guys with hurt feet or sore feet could volunteer to ride in a truck to the rifle range and set up targets. A quick IQ test. Several smart and funny guys limped out from varied places. Rather than march 14 miles in oppressive heat carrying packs and rifles, we rode in the back of a truck and joked and joked. We became a cohesive group of a few names: The Unauthorized Stragglers, The Colonels of the Urinal, The Rumor Core. We started rumors often. We rode the truck every day. Guys would pass out often from the heat and hit the pavement with a lot of noise.
After basic I went to Ft. Gordon, Georgia to communications school. I got a Top Secret Clearance but not in time for the cryptography school. A few gambling arrests slowed it down. I typed these five numbers in rows over and over. We also learned intelligence and were trained in keeping secrets. We were to watch out for Russian women trying to talk to us in the bars of Augusta. We got to go to town all the time, but the Russians screwed it up with the Cuban Missile Crisis. One day we go in the rec room, where the Sarge is watching cartoons. It pissed him off when we turned to Kennedy telling about the brink of atomic war. Fort Gordon went wild. They told everyone to write their wills. Real soldiers, career guys, were shipping out. My buddies and I went to a Jackie Gleason movie on post, and did not leave when they made this emergency announcement for all troops to return to quarters. They'd been telling us about the mushroom-shaped cloud since I was in knee britches, so I'd built up some immunity.
In the Army we did a atomic bomb drill. We put on our plastic, rain ponchos. The Sergeant said to sit on the ground and cover your head with the poncho. Then he said, "Now kiss your ass goodbye."
Hey, I'd figured that part out sitting under my desk in grade school.
Paul Krasser had a New York underground newspaper called The Realist
. He sold and I bought a colorful bumper sticker with hammers and sickles that read: FUCK COMMUNISM.
We six month soldiers were often called draft dodgers by the Sergeants. No way they'd use us. In basic, when the Puerto Rican Sergeant would lead us in marching and singing the songs, he had a thick accent, "I got zee girl live up on zee hill. She won't do it but her seester will."
We'd sing in back in the accent. Not great soldiers.
We were confined to the fort until I got out before Christmas. Lots of guys left to camp in the Florida Keys. Marines came through all the way from California riding in the back of a deuce and a half, a truck. Even those scary-looking WACS, built like fullbacks, began to look good.
Back home, I didn't have to go to the Army Reserve meetings every week or the summer camps but twice. I had papers saying I worked nights at Dub Barnett's liquor store. I did work there some. He also staked me in bigger poker games. When Viet Nam escalated, I had to go back to meetings. My first summer camp, I went to the N.C.O. (non-commissioned officer) academy which was silly. I was an E-2, the lowest rank of all the whole six years of reserves. While there, I lost all my money fading dice to some Hispanics from San Antonio. I started out hiring guys to shine boots, take off laundry, etc. I ended up doing it for chump change.
Our unit of the reserves was Civil Affairs basically training to occupy a South American country. Each week, the guy would pronounce words in Spanish and we'd repeat them loudly. He didn't tell us what the words meant, if he knew. It is neat to at least pronounce words well in Spanish.
One summer, I was the Master of Ceremonies and corny joke teller at the Division Talent Show and Beauty contest at Ft. Hood. We prepared a week, and I wore civies, slept late, and had a Captain driving me around. The beauties from all over Texas each thought the allotted minute and a half I would read about them was not enough. Lots of twirlers. They promoted me to Private First Class for only that one night, and got me a shirt with a stripe. My only Army stripe ever. I can claim to be an ex-PFC, like Wintergreen. There were five generals and nine-hundred people at the show. As soon as it was over, everyone but me headed for the party at the officer's club. They put me on days of field kitchen patrol scrubbing John Wayne size pots in the unforgiving Texas sunshine.
After college, I got my first job, as a traveling book salesman for McGraw-Hill Book Company. Half of Texas and all of New Mexico was my territory. Our Dallas office was in the Texas School Book Depository. This was in 1965, two years after the Kennedy assassination. Finally, after decades: a communist was spied, the first real one anybody knew of. A communist had worked there: Lee Harvey Oswald. First rattle out of the box, the owner of the joint has me standing in this sixth-floor window which was Oswald's perch. The people that worked at the Texas School Book Depository believed it was a conspiracy. When William Manchester's book about the assassination and the Kennedys came out, I'd read part of it in each high school or college I stopped at, and had it read in a few days.
We'll never know, but I think Oswald was the only shooter but he had a small group involved, the honcho being New Orleans mafia boss, Carlos Marcello. I'd been in Jack Ruby's strip club when he freaked out yelling at a comic for saying, "Jesus." Hard to believe he was in on a conspiracy but he knew Marcello and probably laid off football bets to him. May have owed a bunch of money. Texas Tech's Southwest Collection has the papers from the Texas part of the Kennedy assassination investigation, including Jack Ruby's phone records. He called out every few minutes before kickoff on big football bet days.
Finally, communism fell in Russia because communism doesn't work. It is so inefficient that it has spies here that couldn't touch a computer-nerd fifth grader when it comes to finding information.
We are going to swap some spies with the Ruskies. They need to go to the Check Point Charley in Berlin, which is probably not there now, on a really foggy night, everybody in a full-length London Fog rain coats, with fedoras pulled over their eyes, and shoulder holsters with barking iron. They can talk about, "coming in from the cold."
The punishment for the Russian spies is that they have to go live in Russia. Serves the son-of-a-bitches right.Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom.