Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Special Agent Space-Freak

Neal Armstrong's passing reminded me of this.  It's is a true story, with only the names changed to protect the guilty.  Besides, it's been long enough since then that the participants are long scattered, long changed, and probably wouldn't remember their earlier selves anyway.  So...

Of course I've been a radical nearly all my life, but there really was one time when I did a job for the FBI.  No kidding.  No, I don't think my old radical buddies would hold it against me, either.  In fact, I gave everybody involved what they really wanted.

Understand, this was back when I was in college, just a few months after the last manned space-mission.  Apparently someone at NASA got the bright idea of raising public enthusiasm (and tax money) for the space program by sending the returned astronauts on goodwill tours all over the country.  One of the big stops was my dear old alma mater.

I often wondered, afterward, who made that decision and why.  After all, my jolly old midwestern big state university was a real hotbed of radical, reform and anti-war activity.  I mean, several thousand close friends of mine had shut down the whole campus for a day, and then held a week-long student-run seminar on the war and its antecedents, only eight months earlier.  There were protests popping up every other week, and I worked on most of them.  In short, the campus was chock-full of young radicals.

Now the university president had the good sense to keep the local police away from the university grounds, but outside that any kid with long hair and political buttons was fair game for a quick beating and a fake-charge arrest.  I had avoided that fate myself -- mostly because of my38-D bra-size and ID showing that I was well under 21 -- but several of my friends had been through it.  There were not only a lot of us, but we had serious grudges against the cops, the government, and anyone connected thereto.  Surely the federals must have known that.

What they didn't know was that, not being fools, we had planted spies of our own in the police department.  Those priceless moles gave us warning of when the local cops planned to raid particular addresses -- officially looking for drugs: unofficially, to break up "radical revolutionary cells".  Our buddies also gave us descriptions of police infiltrators trying to burrow into anti-war groups, of what particular roads the cops planned to blockade on any given night, and even where the local speed-traps were.  Occasionally they gave us bits of odd information that they simply thought we'd find interesting.

That was how I learned that the local FBI office was desperately looking for informants to tell them about any "radical activity" planned for the astronauts' visit.  Specifically, was anyone planning to harm the astronauts?

Actually, it was The Radical Redneck Escapee From Arkansas who first got the news.  He came running into our commune (actually, a rental house with half a dozen co-tenants chipping in on expenses) at about dinnertime, blatting the news all over.  Then he struck a pose and started an impromptu speech about how important this opportunity was, and how everybody had to get organized, and we'd need radical discipline, etc., etc. -- and on into his standard spiel for Marshalling the Troops.

I knew how long that would take, so I slipped out the side door and trotted over to the campus anti-war HQ in the Student Activities Building.

The first man I ran into was Eric the Red, current prez of the campus peacenik group.  Of course he knew about the astronauts' visit;  in fact, he was feverishly organizing a picket-line to stand along the parade route holding signs that complained about "Millions for Space, Nothing for the Poor", "Peace on Earth and in Space: Stop the War Now", and "No Militarization of Space".  The main hallway was littered with laths, poster-boards, felt-tip markers and busily-scribbling peaceniks.

When I managed to get close and get a word in edgewise, I asked Our Fearless Leader if he knew of any other, hmmm, "activity" planned around the astronauts' visit.

"Hell, no!" he gloated, practicing a photogenic pose.  "I heard about, and rallied the troops, first.  We're gonna do this demonstration my way.  Grab a marker and help make signs."

Having been through that experience a few times, I hastily excused myself to the bathroom and slipped quietly out of the building.

My next stop was the Black Students' Caucus in a nearby storefront that doubled as a Baptist church on weekends.  Though visibly not Black, I had no trouble getting in;  I knew Charlie 23X pretty well, since we'd once lived in the same ratty apartment building and had sued the landlord together.  Besides, Charlie never missed a chance to ogle my 38D chest.

I was lucky enough to catch Charlie between speeches, and I put the same question to him.

"No way," he insisted, striking his usual dramatic pose.  "We're putting out word to boycott the astronauts' visit altogether.  We're workin' up a press statement to all the media in town, sayin' that the space program's racist.  Did you ever see a Black astronaut?"

I confessed that I hadn't.  Before he could expand from that to an hour-long expose' of racism in the federal government, I asked if he knew of anybody else who was planning "activity" around the visit. 

"Well," Charlie glowered, "That *sshole Eric the Red's gonna have sign-waggers out.  In fact, he's got the whole damn parade-route sewn up.  But, hey, if you wanta see some real action, girl, help me type up my press statements."

Again, I pleaded the Little Girls' Room and made my escape.

Next stop was the Women's Lib office -- another storefront on another block.  Inside, I found more frantic activity: a discussion group, headed by the self-renamed president Diana Mothersdaughter (Ph.D. in Social Psychology, thank you), busily holding forth about the blatant phallicism of space-launch rockets.

I didn't want to wait until the discussion broke up under its own power -- I'd seen these yattering sessions go on for hours -- so I did a quick sabotage.  I stepped outside, went next door to the grocery and came back with three boxes of chocolate-covered jelly donuts.  As soon as I waked into the discussion circle with the open boxes of donuts, the discussion stopped dead and the chowing down began.  While everyone else was munching, I sidled up to Diana M. and put my question to her.

"Certainly," she beamed.  "You know, we've just won a major victory -- we got ourselves a two-hour discussion-slot on WUMC this week -- and we're going to discuss the sexism of the space program.  Have you ever seen a female astronaut?"

This being a few years before the ascension of Sally Ride, I had to admit that I hadn't.  Again, I stopped the incipient speech by asking if Diana knew of anyone else who might be planning "activity" at the visit.

"I've heard," she sniffed, "That Eric the Red and his -- hmpf! -- men will be out there along the route, waving their little signs, as if anyone but a few hundred gawkers will see them.  Typical male narcissism.  Electronic media are so much more efficient, really.  Would you like to help type up some reference cards, dear?"

I knew that the Little Girls' Room ploy wouldn't help here, so I claimed that I had to get to the library before it closed, and made my escape.

Back I went to the Student Activities Building, and up I went to the mercifully empty belltower.  There I sat down to do some thinking.

Obviously the major radical groups on campus weren't planning anything that might endanger the astronauts.  All they wanted was to springboard the event into publicity for themselves, and they absolutely didn't want to look bad on the news.

In fact, now that I thought about it, publicity was nearly all they cared about.  They seriously wanted to believe that The Word is equal to -- or even better than -- The Deed: that all they ever need do was get The Word out, preferably into the ears of the powerful, and the world would transform itself right there.

And why not believe it?  They all prided themselves on being real, cutting-edge, ahead-of-the-pack, best-minds-of-my-generation Intellectuals.  They were used to having people listen seriously to them, and even act on whatever they said.  I couldn't recall seeing calluses on any of their hands.  I couldn't imagine any of them building, or even using, any weapon but words.

No wonder, thought I, that the First Amendment is such a great insurance policy for public peace!  Given a chance to Speak, 99 out of 100 would never bother to Do.

Ergo, there was no danger to the astronauts from any of the campus radical groups.

That left only oddball individuals.

Those I could never ferret out.  The FBI in all its fabled might and sneakiness never could, either.

So I'd have to work the problem backwards, as my Math prof always suggested.  If I were a Lone Nut who wanted to harm the astronauts, for any reason, how would I do it?

I pulled the student newspaper out of my ever-present bookbag and read the article about the visit, particularly noting the parade-route.  Most of it, I saw, wound through streets full of two-storey buildings.  The guests of honor would be riding in a government-provided (therefore government-inspected and probably bulletproof) limo.  Since the FBI was interested in their welfare, the astronauts would have some plainclothes Federal bodyguards as well as the local police.  The astronauts would be preceded by several marching bands and the ROTC drill team.  Now, how could someone do harm to the astronauts under those conditions?

All I could think of was the JFK Classic: a rifle-shot from a tall building.

The only tall-enough-for-a-clear-shot building on the entire parade-route was right where I was sitting: the Student Activities Building, where the student government offices -- and all the assorted student group headquarters -- were.  Start there.

I pulled out a spiral notebook full of graph paper and began with a floor-plan of the belltower.  Then I spent the next few hours ducking the security guards, trotting from floor to floor, making complete maps of the interior of the building.  I added red-pencil markings and commentaries on likely lines-of-sight for every window that overlooked the street.

Just for the hell of it, I added a projected map of where Erik the Red and his sign-waving contingent were likely to stand along the route, and added comments about the nature of the slogans and the general theme of the protest.  Just to be fair, I added notes about the Black Students' Caucus' press statements and boycott, and the Women's Lib radio program.  That guaranteed that somebody, at least, would listen to them.

It was after midnight when I got back to the commune, and damned if the Arkansas Radical wasn't still Rallying the Troops.  I grabbed some leftovers out of the fridge, went to my typewriter (no PCs then) and started typing up a clean copy of my notes and observations.

What the hell, I added brief biographical sketches of the local radical honchos, making them seem more important than they really were, while being careful to make them look physically harmless -- which was easy.  If they wanted publicity and attention that much, I'd get it for them.  With any luck, the FBI would denounce them in public, and that would win them just oodles of fame and political clout.

I was in the middle of retyping the notes when Arkansas walked in and asked what I was wasting my time on while everybody else was getting organized.

Experienced at this game too, I gave him an innocent look, batted my eyes, swung my 38D chest a bit, and replied: "I've finished mapping the likeliest attack-points along the astronauts' route, and I'm writing up a comprehensive report.  Gee, Arky, do you have any idea how we can get this to the FBI in time?"

To his credit, he didn't stand there gawping for more than ten seconds before coming up with an answer.  "I'll call them myself," he said, and hurried out.

Through the window I watched him run to the pay-phone down the street, and I considered that it was just as well that our commune couldn't afford its own phone.  The FBI couldn't find us by tracing the call, and I trusted that even Arkansas would have better sense than to give them our address.  Of course he'd take the credit, and try to parley that into help the next time any of us got busted, but let him.  In case of trouble, he'd also be the one they'd come after;  that would be the price of his fame.

I finished typing up the thumbnail biographies and, just for fun, added a subtly unflattering description of Arkansas to the roster.  Let him look important and dangerous to the FBI;  it might draw their attention away from harmless people elsewhere.

By the time I was shoving the whole mess into a paper folder, Arkansas finished his call and came back.  Ignoring the rest of the troops, he came straight for me.

"Good news is, the meeting's set up for the corner of Campus Ave. and First Street," he announced.  "Bad news is, they can't send a man to get it until 5 o'clock this morning."

I guessed what that meant.  It was already past Arky's bedtime;  he'd never be awake that early.  I, however, was used to pulling graveyard shift.

"That's okay," I cooed, batting my eyes and swinging my chest again.  "We can stay up all night and make the meeting all right."

"Hmmm, well, I'm just gonna take a nap," he decided.  "Be sure to wake me up in time."

"If I can't, I'll have Lavern do it," I promised to his retreating back, wondering if he remembered that his girlfriend was as hard to rouse in the morning as he was.  Yes, I did tell her that he wanted to get up at 4:30 AM, but I didn't mention why.  'Need to know', after all.

Needless to add, neither of them got out of bed much before noon the next day.

However, dawn found me on the corner of Campus and First, holding a zippered bookbag, waiting to catch my first sight of a real, live, FBI man.  I was wearing a wig and sunglasses, and my running-shoes, just in case.  Yeah, I was ready to take on James Bond or somebody like him.  Now, where the hell was he?

It was at least half an hour after the appointed time when the staid-looking overaged sedan pulled up to the corner.

I'd wondered how I would recognize the contact, but he was woefully easy to spot.  Who else would be driving a working-class car while wearing and upper-middle-class business suit?  Who else would top all that off with a crew-cut, long after even the local cops had started letting their hair grow?  Who else would be peering so carefully at all four corners of the intersection.

He didn't look fiendishly clever or sneaky at all.

In fact, he looked like a cross between a cop and a pudgy government bureaucrat, like so many I'd run into all over campus and town.  How could anyone mistake him for anything but what he was?  And this was supposed to be the Scourge of Foreign Agents, the Inescapable Pursuer of Federal Criminals, the Dogged and Ferocious Enemy of the anti-war movement?

Well, so much for James Bond.

I stopped worrying about being identified and followed by FBI agents, and began worrying instead that some early-rising student might pass by and see my talking to an obvious undercover cop.  I mean, that would really ruin my reputation!

As he spotted me, I hurried up to the car and pulled the folder out of the bookbag.  "Here you are," I said, shoving it quickly through the partly-opened window.  "Sorry you couldn't come for it earlier;  we had it ready by three this morning."

"Uhh, thanks," was all he said as he grabbed for it.

I didn't wait to see him go, but skittered off in an irrelevant direction.  I spent another quarter hour ducking and dodging down back-alley routes just in case he wasn't the only one around, just in case there really was someone fiendishly clever and sneaky trying to follow me, but of course nobody was.  I went back to the house and piled into bed for a few hours of well-earned rest.

I was asleep when Arky finally woke up, realized he'd missed his big chance to be Important, and yelled at Lavern for not getting him up in time.  I did wake up when he went slamming out of the house and down the street to the phone.  I was eating breakfast when he plodded in through the back door, looking a bit sheepish and more than a little thoughtful.  His look turned surprised when he spotted me.  I usually didn't do breakfast at all, and he hadn't expected to find me there.

"Hi, Arky," I chirped innocently.  "Were the Feds happy with the report?"

"Uh, yeah," he said, eyeing me strangely.  "In fact, they said it was, uh, more thorough, detailed and organized than most of the field reports they get from their agents."

"Oh."  I thought about that as I crunched my Raisin Bran.  Right.  Me, an underaged peacenik, working on the spur of the moment, handing in a better report than regular FBI agents.  Ye gods!  "...I guess nothing's as good as it looks in the movies, is it?"

"Huh?  ...uh, no, I guess not."  He didn't get it.

"You know," I added, eyes fixed on an invisible point somewhere beyond the peeling kitchen wall, "For all their faults, the radicals really are going to win in the end."

"Of course!"  Arky struck a pose, on familiar ground now.  "We'll win because truth and justice are on our side."

"No," I murmured, "The other guy's failings are."

But Arky wasn't listening;  he'd pulled open the refrigerator door and was already yelling at Lavern to find him something decent for breakfast.

I finished my cereal, dunked the dish and spoon into the sink, and went out -- unnoticed, again.

This time I strolled up to University Avenue near the Sciences Building, two blocks up the parade-route from the Student Union.  The campus Science Fiction club was already there, spreading out a big banner that read: "Next Stop Mars!"  The club prez was handing out picket signs with slogans pushing for the space program, and I took a big one that simply read "More $$$ For NASA!"

We could hear the bands playing in the distance, and I started waving my sign enthusiastically, hoping to get a glimpse of the astronauts when they came by.  Out of good old radical habit, I started chanting, "Mars next!  Mars next!"

A pimply-faced techie in the classic nerd shirt gave a startled look at my tie-dyed shirt and peace-sign pendant, and asked: "Why on Earth are you pushing for the space program?"

"Easy," I said.  "The war will end soon, but space is our future forever.  Besides, imagine that half the war budget were spent on space exploration..."

He stopped and thought about that for a moment, then started chanting: "Space, not war!  Space, not war!"

I made a convert, as easy as that.

I didn't bother mentioning that I'd been a Science Fiction fan long before I ever became a radical.  



Ori Pomerantz said...

Nice. I'm pretty sure the FBI is like any other organization - a few really competent people, and a lot of people who are good enough to do the job. Securing Astronauts from mostly non-violent protesters sounds like a job for the later group.

Prof. Godel Fishbreath, Otter said...

Wonderful Story. Thanks.

BTW, are you still doing that psychic job? They no longer seem to have a way to find anyone, even if I have that number of yours.

Paradoctor said...

What you are, Leslie, is a _non-violent_ lone nut. You had an outsider's perspective on how to kill an astronaut; you did footwork and took notes; but you didn't want it to happen, so you gave those notes to the cops. This makes you a lone nut's lone nut; a lone nut squared! I mean this in the nicest possible way.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Nat. *Snerk* That would make me the Lone-Nut Predator. Wow, what an image!

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Otter. No, I quit the phone-psychic business. Online manuscript editing for publishing companies is more reliable, and pays better.

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