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Excerpt for A Hot Time in the Cold War by , available in its entirety at Smashwords
  • Hot Time in the Cold War

  • By Sam Warren,

former attache staff specialist assigned to the US Embassy in Moscow, USSR.



  • Winter, 1967

There I was, crossing the Finnish/USSR border high up in the sky with Finish Airlines. Down below the white, wild countryside lay still and quiet, wrapped in snow. What would happen to us if we crashed? What am I doing? A simple Mennonite Kansas boy of 26 flying over enemy territory? Seven years in the Army and I'd never met the enemy once - and here I was going to live with them. How did it all happen? Time for a flashback.

  • Washington, D.C.

In 1962, I was stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC. That's another story for later. I saw a lot of interesting people there, like Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. I also went to General MacArthur's funeral. I had duty at the front desk the night he died, so I was invited. He was just a shriveled up old man. Later I shook hands with Nixon in California. I washed my hands afterwords.

I was a staff sergeant in charge of assembling the data needed for the promotion board to do their job in deciding who was going to be promoted. I had a PFC who was assigned to helped me. It was a very tedious job. We had to sort all these 3 x 5 cards with information on all the enlisted personnel assigned to Walter Reed, and then type out a list with nine carbon copies of those eligible for promotion. As this was “B.C.,” before computers, it was a very boring job. Kids today don't understand what it was like in these “dark ages” of technology.

A friend of mine worked in the EDU (electronic data processing unit) where he worked sorting data with punch cards. I thought this would be ideal for my job, so I suggested to my boss to put all the promotion information on punch cards. But my idea was turned down.

So I got my friend to teach me how to use the keypunch machine and I spent my off-duty time transferring all the 3 x 5 cards into punch cards. After that, a job that used to take three days only took a few hours. Now the problem was boredom. What was I going to do with all this free time?

So I started to take night classes at Maryland State University and taking four-day weekend trips by catching hops on Air Force planes. In the military, if a plane is going your way and has the room, you can hitch a ride. A friend of mine in personal fixed it so I could get two days leave and a two days weekend pass when I wanted it. I wouldn't know which planes were going where, but it didn't matter to me. I went to Bermuda, Miami, L.A., Wichita and even San Diego. There were also applications for special schooling that would pass over my desk. I applied for a lot of different things, including a computer school and a job as a defense attache specialist who worked in embassies. I didn't think I would get either but I got both.

What to do? Which one should I choose? Two different career paths. The embassy job with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) sounded more exciting so I chose that one and started to go to spy school through the State Department and Naval Intelligence. Why Naval instead of Army I don't know. My training was heavier on administration than spy craft.

One odd thing happened. Although the mixing of ranks was against regulations I was living off post with two lieutenants. The house was at the end of a three-way intersection with a maximum of 72 hours of parking. The house was owned by an elderly Jewish couple who spent most of their time in Florida. Our landlord had her own room and would come for a visit once in a while to check up on things. She was a nice lady who spoke with a heavy Jewish accent and would sometimes cook Jewish dishes for us.

One day a motor home was parked on the vertical side of the intersection with the back of the RV pointing at our house. It was a ratty vehicle with a slit in the back window facing right at our front window. It stayed there a week without a ticket so we were careful what we said and did. Whoever that RV belonged to clearly wasn't very subtle.

One day while listening to a lecture at the State Department's Intelligence branch the speaker told us, “I supposed you read about the nine homosexuals that we found in the State Department. Well, don't worry, we've found them all.” I was worried about the interview I had coming up with a psychiatrist. I was asked the usual questions, like: “did I hate my mother?” “did I like girls,” etc. At the end the psychiatrist admitted to me that he couldn't actually tell who was a homosexual or not. All he had to go on what what we told him. I was worried that I might have to take a lie detector test.

To qualify for the job, one had to be over 25, with no financial entanglements, and unmarried. I was told by someone that the DIA might have even picked me because I was gay, because I wouldn't be at risk of being seduced by a Mata Hari. But in those days, I would have to be very careful to keep my secret hidden.

I also had to sell the two houses I had bought as an investment and rented them out. One house was half of a duplex in an area that was breaking the color barrier. When I first bought the house, the area was mostly owned by “white trash” hillbillies. The whole street was a mess, with cars on blocks and refrigerators on the front porch. I worked part time as a real estate agent and had a license. So I sold the house to myself for $13,000 and received a $3,000 cash commission back. I went back later and the whole street was immaculate with all the houses owned by Afro-Americans (or whatever the current politically correct term is now). I sold the house to the family who was renting it from me.

  • Spy School

In spy school I learned various things. As I was only going to be James Bond's secretary and not a field agent, the course was very general – sort of an intelligence overview. I learned how safes and vaults were cracked. I was told that surprisingly, the large safes were often easier to crack than the small ones. Just because something was big didn't mean that it was more difficult to open. I learned all about eavesdropping and how one could hear a conversation from a vibrating window glass. Of course back in the '60s we weren't as sophisticated as we are now but we were still more advanced than what the general public seemed to have thought.

I learned some spy stories – such as one about a large wooden seal of the United States with an eagle on it, given to the American ambassador. It also had a hidden microphone built into it. The eagle was a beautiful work of art, supposedly donated to us by the wood workers union in Russia. They thought we would never find it as the work of art would have had to be destroyed to get to it. It hung over the ambassador's desk until we somehow found out about it.

After I came back from Russia, I was assigned to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. No, I had nothing to do with the famous prison. While there, I took an extension course in history at the University of Kansas. For my term paper; I wrote about true spy stories from World War II. The US War College was also in Ft. Leavenworth and I used its extensive library to read about true spy stories. Many of the true stories were even more exciting than the ones on TV.

At first I was told that I would be assigned to Thailand. However, I began to wonder otherwise when I received my clothing allowance. It included wool suits, formal wear, heavy coats, warm boots, gloves, and the like. I had the suits tailor-made by Sears Roebuck and instead of a tux, I oped for a black suit that I could use for formal occasions by putting on a cummerbund. When I asked if there was a mistake with the winter wear, they told me I was going to Moscow. Wow! It may not seem much now, but back then we were in the middle of the Cold War.

  • Finland

Moving right along – I stopped over in Helsinki, Finland in the middle of winter for a few days. You think it's cold here? Luckily I had all the winter clothes the Army had given me. Bored, I stepped out to get a cold one at a local pub. I still remember striking up a conversation with a Finnish student who spoke not one word of English. Of course I spoke not one word of Finish. But the more beers we consumed, the better we were able to communicate. I don't know entirely how we did it, but we used a lot of sign language, pantomime and drawing pictures on napkins.

When I went for breakfast, I noticed that most of the diners had whole eggs standing up in a special cup. They would tap around the egg with their knife, lift the top, and then scoop out the insides with a spoon. I think our way is much more efficient. We crack the egg and then fry it without the shells.

I went to a museum where I saw a viking exhibit with a couple of old ships they had dug up, plus a new one they had recently build. The Finnish are a lot friendlier today than they were back in the Dark Ages. It's funny how some of the most vicious people in the past turn into some of the most peaceful now. Maybe we Americans will eventually learn to be more peaceful.

  • Welcome to Moscow

We landed at the Sheremetyevo International Airport a few miles outside of Moscow. There were a couple of people from the Embassy waiting there to meet and guide me through all the red tape (pun intended). Most of my luggage was coming later through diplomatic channels, but the luggage I had with me was put into a Plymouth Station wagon and a Russian employe of the Embassy, along with my reception committee, drove down a two lane road to the city. What struck me as interesting were the old log houses I saw along the way, where some of the poor still live today.

In town I noticed that most of the building looked the same. They had screened awnings that protruded out above the entrances. The reason for these, I was told, was because in winter, it was often so cold and the workmanship on the buildings so bad that bricks often fell off the building and killed people. I saw where one brick had fallen through the screen. I hope no one was hurt. All the buildings were painted the same color, except where they started at one end of town to repaint them. Can you imagine San Diego with half of all the building the same color? They must have gotten a good deal on the paint.

There wasn't much traffic since at that time the average Russian could not afford a car. Although it was 1967, many of the cars on the street were “liberated” from Germany after the Second World War. Like Cuba today, they were kept running no matter what it took. There were underground repair shops and machinists for parts. The Communists only manufactured two makes of car. The cheapest one was the Volga which looked like a 1940 Dodge but a lot chunkier. The other one was a Zil and it was the luxury car that the higher ups drove or were driven in. The USSR bought the entire Packard factory lock, stock, and barrel. But the only thing different from a Packard then was the logo on the front.

  • The American Embassy

The Embassy compound was not far from the center of town. It was a 10 story building with the top two floors secured for intelligence work. This is where I would be working. After being checked in, I was given a tour of the facility. The main building had two wings. The lower floors were offices and the upper ones were apartments for the diplomats.

The top floor of the right wing was the barracks for the Marine guards. The embassy had seemingly picked the best looking young Marines they could find. In their quarters, they had a full bar given to them by Playboy Magazine. It was self-service, on the honor system. Each person would mark his 3 x 5 card for each drink he made and paid his tab on payday. I made friends with many of them and was made an honorary member of their club with my own 3 x 5 card. I spent many a pleasant evening there as there wasn't much to see on TV.

Behind the main building was the motor pool. There were three kinds of cars there: a Cadillac Limo for the Ambassador, a number of Plymouth station wagons, and a couple of Russian made Volgas. The Volgas were for the diplomats when they went on road trips so they wouldn't stand out, and could also be repaired easily. The Plymouths were chauffeur-driven by Russian drivers. As non-diplomats did not have full diplomatic immunity, we were chauffeur-driven wherever we wanted to go. All we had to do was to call the embassy and ask for a car, and it would be by our door in a few minutes. Our drivers pretended not to speak English, but of course they were all KGB agents.

Playboy gave us free Playboy Magazines and one day I showed one of them to our driver. He said that he thought they were too skinny. “We Russian like our women with a little meat on their bones,” he said. Nowadays, you can't tell a Russian woman from a Western one.

To the left of the courtyard was a commissary and restaurant run by a German couple. We made our own breakfast and dinner at home but we had lunch in the restaurant. The food was good and cheap but they never could make a decedent hamburger. They used homemade hamburger buns that just couldn't compete with our American hamburger buns.

In the commissary we could buy US Beer and Russian vodka. The vodka was only 50¢ a liter. No wonder Russian have such a high rate of alcoholism. A friend of mine from one of the other embassies traded me a case of Bud for a case of Heineken. Every once in a while the embassy plane would fly to Norway to buy supplies. Once, I was deputized to go along and help.

The ambassador and his family lived in a luxurious mansion a ways away. There, he entertained foreign and domestic dignitaries. I was only able to see it a couple of times. One time I was there when a famous American jazz musician played a special concert for the embassy staff. I remember it because one of the diplomats leaned over to ask me, “Do you really understand that stuff?”

Another time I was assigned a job to take pictures of foreign diplomats, especially Russian generals, at an Americana-themed Armed Forces Day celebration. It was a soirée right out of the movies. As it was our Armed Forces Day, the military attaches from all the embassies were there in their finest uniforms. Our uniforms looked rather dowdy compared to most of theirs. I remember taking a picture of a Russian general and he turned around and gave me a dirty look. I wish I still had copies of some of the pictures I took. A friend took my picture and I looked rather sharp in my uniform, if I do say so myself.

  • The Ninth Floor

The ninth floor of the Embassy was where all the secret stuff went on. Although I had a top secret clearance, there were parts of the floor that even my security clearance wasn't high enough to get me into. My office was a room inside of a larger room where my door faced some windows overlooking the street. My job was preparing all the secret reports and getting them ready to send out to the DIA, CIA, and a bunch of other government agencies. As the copy machine hadn't been invented yet, there were a number of carbon copies.

I noticed across the street there was a building with windows that faced the window that my door was in front of. In those windows were a couple of parabolic antennas, pointing directly at my door. I asked my boss what they were and he told me not to worry about it. Later, after getting back to the States, I received a visit from a doctor from John Hopkins Hospital. It seemed that the antennas were beaming microwaves at me and no one told me about it except the doctor. Rather than protect me from the beams, they let them continue so they could monitor my health to see if I would come down with cancer. Luckily – no thanks to our benevolent government – I haven't yet so far. I wonder if I ever come down with cancer if I can get a Purple Heart.

In another room, where you had to use a door code to enter (they didn't have eye scans in those days), they kept a lot of records and a Beta VCR with a wide strip of tape. This was relatively new technology as the Japanese had just recently invented it. It recorded all the radio and TV signals that could be obtained from antennas in the attic. Back in Washington DC, my brother, who was in the Defense Communications Agency with the job of operating the teleprompter for President Johnson, recorded TV programs for him on a VCR donated by the Japanese government.

One day I accompanied another agent up into the attic of the Embassy building. It was an old building and inside the attic were huge wooden beams that supported the building. Inside were a number of antennas and a large telescope with a 35mm Leica camera. I helped take pictures of all the antennas on top of all the buildings that could be seen from up there. My apartment was on the top floor of an building in a different location. A few days later they brought up the telescope so they could photograph all the antennas that could be seen from my apartment windows.

  • A Fly Speck in History

It isn't always just them against us - or vice versa - in the spy game. Sometimes it is us against us. I once visited the top secret room on my floor that, even though it was inside a secure floor, you had to punch in a code before the door would open, and you could only enter on a need-to-know basis. You can tell how long ago this was in that there were no eyeball scanners like they have in the movies now. It is much more difficult nowadays trying to enter a court house or get on an airliner.


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