A Novel

Fat Scottish Peas
      "It furthers one to undertake something.
      It furthers one to cross the great water."
      —I Ching
            As the minutes to departure closed in, Henry Zilbert turned to me and asked, “Are you scared?”
            “I’m angry that I got caught.”
            “Are they still shooting at us in Korea?”
            “I don’t think so.”
            “You’ll be okay. You’re a good shot when you try. Problem is, you don’t try very often.”
            This was the day in May that I was called up by the Middleton draft board. The West Texas summer had come in early and we were waiting in front of the bus station in Henry’s convertible, top up and windows open. He looked straight ahead, his way of not showing much emotion or vulnerability. I always admired Henry’s lanky posture, good looks, black hair with umber-brown eyes, and wished away my light hair, blue eyes and long-waisted sturdiness.
            We had planned to share the Zilbert house on Water Street, Henry’s now that his grandfather had died. I would fix up the attic for a studio, starting the first paintings of an art career and Henry could manage the Martin County ranch from the offices on the ground floor. A Dallas architect designed the house in the palmy spring of 1929, but it was not completed until well into the Depression. A shingle-sided, three story mansion with a full basement, it had the only built-in vacuum machine in Middleton, now barely able to suck up the dead flies that piled up beside the painted shut windows.
            This would be after we both graduated from university next year. We would open up the windows and give beer parties for all of young Middleton. Before now, there had been plenty of girl friends because Henry was handsome and I was too, I guess, but nothing ever took. The girls went on to the men who really wanted them. Life was good when I was with Henry but now it was ending, or at least being put on hold. Because I had willfully allowed myself to be taken up in the draft, we left my mother in tears an hour earlier. My father could not even mention my name without choking. I had mocked their many years of college support, mother said, and danced away my future with drink and song. Mother had a way with invective.
            I said, “The bus is here and there’s Mrs. Flack with my papers.”
            “Who’s Mrs. Flack?”
            “She is the draft board. You haven’t had to deal with her, thanks to your asthma. She told me, Well, Mr. Coward College Deferral…when the mighty fall.”
            “She looks harmless.”
            “Not so. I’ll miss you, bud.” I put my hand on his shoulder and shook his hand. He did not get out of the convertible, but just sat to watch me go. I waved back at him and he tilted his chin upwards, ever so little. Mrs. Flack stood at attention in her flowered house-dress and gave me a pink-gummed smile, like a happy horse, as she handed over my papers and the bus ticket to Arkansas. Have a good two years, Bradford, she said and snorted out another smile.
            Basic training in Camp Chaffee was a summer-long blur of chiggers, thunderstorms, disgrace, aches and pain. If I was average in push-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups, squats and running uphill with a forty-pound pack, I earned the top Sharpshooter’s Badge, as Henry predicted.
            The army had failed that summer to meet its quota with volunteers for the Counterintelligence School in Baltimore, so I, along with two others, was assigned there. We were very lucky young men, they said. Ordinary draftees were rarely accepted. No one thought to check back with Mrs. Flack about my cowardice, however, and how the fallen mighty might be rising once again .
            At Baltimore we learned the tricks to becoming a spy, sixteen weeks of them. Ju-jitsu, bridge explosives, sub-machine guns, deadly force, listening devices, poison gas in a fountain pen and surveillance by the book. We drove into the Maryland countryside to shoot a sub-machine gun at cut-out images of the enemy that popped up as we walked along, Russian agents in trench-coats and Chinese fanatics in high collars. I scored a hundred on that, all the painted villains flat in the weeds, the spy-to-be Bradford the envy of his classmates.
            However, the instructor told us that we were mere analysts, draftees never able to become full-blown field agents. He made it clear that we were the lowest echelon, the untouchables of espionage, cleaning the safe-house toilets and shining the bullet-proof windows.
            That summer, the spoiled boy Bradford, like many before him, lost some of his callowness and became a cog in the machine of war. If not the bravest or the strongest, I was a trained soldier, dagger at the ready. At the graduation ceremony, I felt I was becoming the man, muscles rippling, the superficial student morphed into a trained killer. I practiced my sharp look and angled my khaki cloth cap just so.
            After that late November commencement day, two of us waited for a military flight to Labrador, connecting with a six-propellered flight across the ocean to Greenland, and thence to a Scotland refueling, where there was time for a meal at the transient’s mess. It was a spread of rump roast, crisp browned potatoes, and fat Scottish peas, served by a red-cheeked, red-haired woman with a soiled apron. She spoke a foreign language that sounded somewhat like English.
            A few hours later, we landed at the misty airport at Frankfurt-am-Main and boarded a German train down to Stuttgart, where it was even mistier. It was mid-afternoon and completely dark.
            Eric Follum was my traveling companion, a tall Wisconsin farm lad with an elegant nose, pale-blue eyes. So deep was his depression about leaving the States that he had not said more than thirty words the entire trip. I was in no mood to pull him out, engage conversation, the way I was taught. Nice people look after each other, Grandmother Bradford often said, but I had the feeling that family rules for a good life were not operational in the West Germany of 1956.
            After I mentioned the early darkness to our driver from the train station to Intelligence Headquarters, he said wait until you see how nasty a German winter can be. As we drove up the hill, Schloss Issel loomed in the fog with dormant rows of grape vines on either side; the yellow-lighted windows shone like curious, unfriendly eyes. Where were the Bronte sisters when I needed them?
            Sergeant Major Tetley of the Quarters Detachment waited for us. He said, gruffly but not without sympathy, “Mess is closed up for the night. Bradford, there’s an empty bed in room three eighteen. Follum, three twenty-two. Morning formation is o-eight-hundred, so have breakfast early. Corporal Murgon will catch you up to speed tomorrow.”
            Glancing down further on his clipboard, he said. “We have both of you assigned to Historical Section. Sorry, men.” I should have slept fitfully, but the narrow bed was welcoming and soft, despite the twanging of the bed springs. I fell deep asleep.