Can You? Would You?
For some reason, the Brits seemed to favor me. I think it was because I never, ever played the bragging Texan or the arrogant New Yorker.
Once I was lunching solo on the riverside terrace of The Störchen Hotel in Zurich, watching the swans swimming by on the Limmat, when an American woman loudly addressed me from a nearby table: “Excuse me, but are you British?” “No madam, I’m Canadian” (*) I smiled. It with one of the nicest compliments I had ever received from a stranger, to be mistaken for British.
(*) SIDEBAR: Unless I had to show my US passport in the context, I always pretended to be Canadian. My US passport had a bright Canadian maple leaf cover over it. Got waved through Passport Control by a lot of hostiles who just loved to screw Americans. Why? Because the Canadians never seemed to be bombing little brown or yellow people or strafing their water buffalo for fun like the Americans did.
I also had a fake Irish passport and a UN cachet for cover, but hardly ever had to use them. I was shocked how many foreigners hated Americans. Made me feel ashamed. Conversely, Canadians are generally peaceful people and well liked, God Bless them.
So, I would be “seconded” to the Brits. That’s not like being on American-style TDY [Temporary DutY with another outfit]. Nope. When you were “se-CON-ded”, you were theirs. Little recourse. Being On Her Majesty’s Service was not to be taken lightly and I never did. I must confess to getting goose bumps from the honor.
I learned the words to “God Save the Queen”.
I respected the Brits because they operated bare bones—no frills—and certainly no mountains of Coca-Cola. [I don’t think they could understand why sane people would drink that sweet, fizzy stuff when there was perfectly good Guinness and lagers and ales about, or a good cuppa.]
I had favorite places. The Sunday operator in the telegraph office on the Thames near Tower Bridge would let me leisurely compose and type my own Teletype tapes for transmission if I slipped him a couple of bob (i.e. shillings in old English money) and he could go watch football [soccer] on his Telly in the stock room. My authenticating signature sign-off was always “How do you like them apples?”
Food outside major hotels was often mediocre, but a cuppa [tea] and a scone, or a lager and chips often would suffice. A couple of pubs and tearooms I found seemed to tolerate Yanks better than others.
I liked to work on weekends when contacts were able to focus better. I’d go up north to Elstree, the British Hollywood, and down south to Surrey. Saw a lot of beautiful countryside. Good train, bus and cab service. Superb travel on the London tubes [subways]. Cheap and convenient. London’s cabs and cabbies were phenomenal.
Once, going through the “Nothing To Declare” exit at Heathrow, Her Majesty’s Customs Agent motioned for me. I was carrying a one-gallon unlabelled aluminum paint can. “What’s in there, sir?” “Cement for laboratory testing” sez I. “Really? May I look?” He pried off the top to reveal a whitish powder that surely resembled cocaine or heroin.
Wetting his index finger, he took a generous sample to his tongue.
Silently, he replaced the lid and motioned me on. I wonder if he ever got all that cement off his clacker.
The Brits had an unsettling habit of giving me slick brown-striped A4 envelopes with “On Her Majesty’s Service” printed in black on one side and the flap glued shut. “Isn’t that too obvious?” I would protest. “Deliberately” was the usual reply. “A thief will think thrice about the mortal penalties, before nicking (stealing) it”. Cheers.
Walking And Gawking
I walked and explored all my business assignment [and vacation] cities.
Often I just walked and gawked, tasting and enjoying and absorbing sights never seen before: Bremen. Stavanger. Belfast. London. Kowloon. Vaduz. Vancouver. San Francisco. San Diego. Tokyo. Penang. Bern. Brussels. Jeddah. Amsterdam. Frankfurt. Den Haag. Houston. Singapore. Manama. Isfahan. Baghdad. New York. Paris. Vienna. Zurich. Montreaux. Adelboden and probably others forgotten. One time I got blisters on my insteps from walking around Londinium (London).
Afraid to walk alone? Sometimes. But before luggage x-rays I could take a cold piece [throwaway] apart and spread it and the ammunition around in my luggage, then reassemble as needed. Beware the boy from Mulberry Street.
Pull your cap low, hands in pockets, 2-pound folding brolly [umbrella] clenched in hand.
Hunker down like Jack The Ripper and nobody would mess with you.
Flip the pages of your pocket notebook, if you thought you were being watched.
(Impossible to smuggle guns in your luggage you say? I knew a guy in Sand City who had a Browning .50 cal machine gun and ammo cans under his bed in case we had a Tehran-style takeover. Imported it in pieces.)
Business Assignment: Around The World In 40 Days;
And Why I Don’t Fly Over The South China Sea Anymore
Once, I was doing a worldwide study of “vendors” for “them” and had to visit several cities in several countries while juggling some fragile spinning plates.
I did 2 weeks in Las Vegas, which is one of those cities—like Phoenix—that is a forced solution to a self-imposed need.
Stuck right in the middle of a broiling desert—Death Valley II.
I was offered a job there—by a Brit connected to a Triad in China—but once you saw all the Casino shows, there wasn’t much left except bright lights and gambling.
[I am not a gambler. If I can’t win, I won’t play.]
At the time, there were estimated to be 2000+ hookers in Las Vegas, but I was not propositioned once; swear to God.
Visited Miramar NAS [Naval Air Station] in San Diego. Beautiful city, beautiful setting. Looked like a tropical paradise, just up the road from Tijuana’s delights.
I wound up beachside at sundown. California Girls in bikinis roller-blading on the beach’s wooden sidewalk. Sweet Jesus. I tried to get my driver to find a telegraph office so I could wire Sand City and cash in my chips.
(Got some good poop on chemically stabilizing blowing sand on remote helicopter LZ’s [landing zones] from the Navy people at China Lake—sent it back to Sand City.)
Vancouver was stunning. Take a cable car from downtown and be on the snow-ski mountaintop in minutes. Clean. Good-natured. Fabulous salmon cuts and dishes.
The local business didn’t jell, but the visit was personally enjoyable.
Hong Kong. My second [or first] favorite city, tied with Zurich. Every Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorey and Dragon Lady stereotype imaginable. Clean as Zurich. Mountains sticking up out of the bay. Live fish for your dinner at a sidewalk vendor’s table—phhffft—done. Staggering scenery. Rolls-Royces by the dozen.
I couldn’t sleep for looking at it all. Brisk, no nonsense business people. No currency restrictions in Hong Kong. Swiss banks. Piles of gold. Mountains of wealth. Way beyond stunning.
Hire a sampan through the maze of boats to floating restaurants in Victoria Typhoon Harbor. Take the Star Ferry ride back and forth across the green salty-smelling bay from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island for only a nickel’s equivalent.
Supposedly, there were 2000 people per acre in Hong Kong, but it didn’t seem cramped. Orderly people. The courteous crowds onto and off the Star ferries made New York’s subways seem like cattle stampedes.
Tokyo is interesting, but I can’t get excited about a place that charged 6 bucks for a cup of coffee [Imperial Hotel]. And Tokyo gives new meaning to the word “frenetic”. Not for me.
Singapore. Lovely tropical city with exotic sights and sounds, but weirdly Big-Brotherish. I almost blew a fuse getting past the magnetic wand-wielding customs agent searching for a gum-wrapper in my jacket. [Possession of chewing gum is illegal—it is considered as bad as dogshit.]
Invitations to British clubs and parties were nice. The famous, but seedy Raffles Hotel and its bar was a good visit. The huge serpentarium across from my hotel on Orchard Road really bugged me (I hate snakes).
Singapore is a major ship-design and construction port. Nothing too big or too small. Good people. And very helpful to me.
Taiwan was exotic, but the industrial grunge outside of Taipei was awful. Looked liked 1940’s Pittsburgh, but they could build anything imaginable.
My hotel was awesome. Great red-enameled pillars and gold leaf everywhere. But mosquito netting? Where the hell was I—in Nairobi?
Consults with ABS [American Bureau of Shipping] for SOLAS [Safety Of Life At Sea] “floating hotel” style ship design standards in London were very productive and made a big contribution to the project.
Den Haag (The Hague) is a wild, windy and wooly vacation spot [and home of the International Court of Justice, et al.] on the North Sea coast of Holland. Surprising Asian and Indonesian influences. As usual, Markey’s office did business briskly but pleasantly.
In between juggling other items, I had scoped some info for “them” from water buffalo country east of Penang, hosted by Brits who lived in that paradise.
Fortunately for me, I had got into the strong Chinese beer in those liter-sized green bottles, tureens full of chillie crab and bowls of me-hoon, and missed my flight back to Singapore. Good thing, because some Red Army Faction on my-should-have-been flight pulled a pin on a grenade and blew the whole thing into the South China Sea.
I don’t fly over the South China Sea anymore.
Zippered On 3 Sides—I Only Need An Inch; The Getaway
While waiting to go to La Guardia for a flight, I walked around downtown Manhattan and wandered into a luggage store. I found a tan leather portfolio, zippered on three sides with pull-out leather-covered handles. Best snooker I ever had. I could open it about an inch, slip contraband into it and be gone in “A New York Second.”
I learned to read text upside down and triage piles of open papers on a desk or table, to pick the most important. If the office occupant was too settled or had a secretary, I’d hover in the vicinity and watch for restroom breaks, or lunchtime, for a chance to swoop. [Burglary involved too many complicated local locks and risky timing.]
Secret technique: Walk out like you owned the joint, not like a thief.
The Fish Market: WhatChaGot?
We’ll Give You 3 Albanians For A Yank
At one time there was an international supranational “fish market” where supposed adversaries would make offers for repatriating hapless colleagues who had been scooped up, like Gary Powers of U2 spy plane infamy. Usually done through embassies, it was somewhat like trading American baseball cards: “I’ll give you 3 Albanians for a Yankee spy.” “What? Don’t be daft, make it 3 Albanians, a Russian and 2 Ukrainians.”
Trafficking in human life reduced to a cipher. Obscene, but so typical of unfeeling governments and “the intelligence community”.