Angels and Pears

katies booksAs a team we were still spending most of our time on logistic support missions, we knew there would eventually be a change, and we were all ready to finally know what our new function would be. I was ready to move on to another operation.

Helmut’s death was still hanging over us. Manfred told me to clean up any loose ends in Poland and CSSR and prepare for a hand-off to one of the teams in Bayern. I was ready; I was already on the NOC list and taking the same risks by participating in logistic missions as I would if I were on a more intense operation.

Joachim, who had been in Brno a week earlier received an odd request. The contact there asked if there was any possible way we could get a few thousand Czech and Russian Bibles. “Bibles?” – I asked; “Ya Boss, they want Bibles”…”what are we gonna do?”  I told him to call a team meeting, my quarters at 1900-hours, “there will be Pizza” Heiney overheard and chimed in “and beer.” The best way I knew to get everyone to a meeting on time was Pizza and Beer.

I met with Manfred earlier that afternoon, and we planned to meet with the team later and explain the new parameters of our mission and make hand-off plans for the old operations to another team. When Heiney and I entered Manfred’s office, he motioned for me to close both doors, an unusual request for a meeting with us.

Manfred’s office was sound secure; the room was lined with sound suppressing materials including a second interior door that could be shut from inside and foam window covers, to prevent Laser vibration sound extraction,  making the place virtually sound tight. The only time I ever saw him batton down the hatches like that was when he had meetings with Waldemar.

“There is a breach. We don’t know where or at what level. We compartmentalize immediately. Team operations stay within the team and mission particulars won’t go beyond the Team Commander.” I had to ask several questions to make sure I understood what he was saying, but the main thrust was there was a security breach somewhere above him so we would be doing everything on our own without reporting anything but results to Manfred, until the breach was found and eliminated. Manfred was afraid whoever it was had access to his communications and other crypto. This was one of those “OH SHIT” moments.

Our new “Operational Order” gave us a much more intense support roll. We were to provide our contacts with anything they wanted as long as it wasn’t detrimental to our basic purpose – eradicating Communism in Eastern Europe. Heiney asked who our “backboard” was; meaning who we go to for higher authority or funds.  Werner was as high as we could go. This wasn’t a problem. Werner was a much higher authority than anyone would admit. I was comfortable working under his leadership.

Bulgaria was to be our new focus of operation. We needed to pass the CSSR operations off over the next month then dive in head first with Bulgaria. We could start in the winter because tourists visited the Black Sea for winter vacations. I had seen pictures of the beaches at Varna, and I was looking forward to spending a few days enjoying the sand.

I checked in with Werner and told him I was having a team meeting and asked if he wanted to attend. He just shook his head. As I left, he said “Gideon, Just do what you know how to do, Just remember your tradecraft…  And keep me informed if you need funds. Until we find this hole and plug it, we don’t want the right hand to have a clue which nut the left hand is scratching”.

I was now in full command of a team and could do whatever I wanted. My first thought was, “If I can’t fuck this up… no one can.”  It was a lot easier to operate under someone else’s authority than to have no authority behind you and no acknowledgment of your existence if you ended up in custody. I was more afraid I would make a decision that got one of the girls in a jam than anything else. Bulgaria was a hard place where few people had been operating effectively.

Fritz Gödikemyer was the only one I knew, who knew Bulgaria. Our ace in the hole was my relationship to the Roma, which I had because of Fritz. My first task would be to go into Romania and meet with the Old Man in Cluj.

Get his blessing and seal of approval for me opening contact with his counterparts in Bulgaria. My hope was that he would send a message ahead of us telling his people to expect and welcome us. I also needed to ask what the most appropriate cargo would be.

This was all running through my head at 100 MPH as Heiney, and I drove home to get ready for our meeting. We stopped and picked up 5 Pizzas and a flat of liter bottles of “Hannen Alt,” a dark rich beer that went great with Pizza. The first order of business was the change in mission and command structure. The thought of a breach was unsettling at the least. Any one of us could end up on the wrong end of an interrogation. After that, we had to make plans for the handoff.

I couldn’t pass a request for Bibles off to the next team so we had to decide if we would deliver or not. I threw the idea up against the wall just to see what would bounce. Andrea made her opinion known, “Why not! You’re the HMFIC[1]… Right?”

“So test it against the last directive we received. Does it violate any part of that directive?”  The short answer was “NO.” I asked if anyone had a problem with complying with the request and making the last load into CSSR Bibles. We agreed, unanimously.

Equipment wasn’t going to be a problem we had at least four, very high tech, travel campers with compartments designed for reams of paper and boxes of Ink. Bibles would fit with no problem. The problem was going to be getting my hands on enough Russian and Czech Bibles even to make the trip happen. I had an inkling that one of the civilian volunteers would know where to start. They were hardcore church folk and had to know someone who could sell us a couple of thousand Bibles.

Georg knew exactly where to go, and he set up a meeting for me with a woman who, according to Georg, had access to any language I wanted. Pfarrer Gensichen, the Head Pastor at Georg’s church, would go along for the meeting because the woman knew his face and wanted someone she knew there to verify who I was. This simple meeting was turning into a sitcom like cloak and dagger affair.

They picked me up in a Volkswagen van with no windows and made me sit in the back where I was frisked. Not very well, however, as they never noticed the pistol shaped lump tucked up next to “Mr. Wiggly.”

I had a chance to put my hands on the guy who frisked me when I had to steady myself because we were driving and I was relatively sure he was unarmed. We rode in silence for a little more than an hour then we took a series of turns and went down a steep grade. Once we stopped and the cargo door opened and I was met by a lunatic woman.  She was yelling at me in several alternating languages while shaking and pointing a heavy oak walking stick at me.

Katie Los

I had finally met “Katie Los.” Not that I was expecting it or even knew who she was an hour before I met her, but spending a little time with her was like getting refueled and even inspired a little. She had a powerful presence even without the Oak stick. Dressed in all black the way old European widows dress, Katherine Los was a short, stout woman in her late sixties.

I thought “perhaps her husband died recently,” that would account for her attitude, but I could only understand the English and German rants. I could Identify Czech, Russian, Romanian, and a couple of others she was using but had no idea why she hated me. Pfarrer Gensichen just sat there with his hair blown back. Based on his expression I knew it wouldn’t do any good to ask him what was going on.

I tried to talk to the old woman in German which set her off again. Suddenly she said “AMI?  You’re American!  That’s the accent, isn’t it?  You ARE American; Right?  How did I miss that?”  I confirmed the fact I was American by showing my Passport, and she settled down a little. My German had taken on a strong accent that could easily be confused for Czech or possibly Romanian; I considered it a compliment that I wasn’t immediately pegged as an “Ami.”

I climbed out of the van to discover myself to be in a large underground parking garage with pallets of books stacked from one end to the other. I caught the look of satisfaction on her face when she saw how impressed I was. We made eye contact, and both broke into spontaneous smiles. “Where in the…  No, I don’t care… This is incredible!”  Katie just smiled bigger.

“What is it you need?  They are to be distributed free of charge, Yes!”  I assured her they weren’t going to be sold but rather just delivered. What our contact did with the books wasn’t under our control. Katie understood and asked where I was taking her precious books. I had to think about my answer, how much I could tell her? I just said “Brno area.”

She pondered it a second then spoke; “Pavel?”  How in the hell could she know my contact’s name?  I responded with “I don’t know any Pavel, Not in Brno anyway.” “Well I know a Pavel, and he knows everybody in Brno, so I will know if these Bibles get there or not.”   She pointed the sharp end of her walking stick at my face again, “you better hope I hear that they did or I will unscrew your head from your body and fill your neck with used cat litter!”

Used Cat Litter? I like to think I’m not easily intimidated, I was armed, and I have been trained in Krav Maga, but Katie Los had a presence about her that said she could back up any threat she made. Katie ended with a big smile and “Komme, wir sollen etwas essen” (“C’mon let’s get something to eat”).

We went upstairs from the garage to an apartment on the 8th floor overlooking Stuttgart. Katie already had “Spatzle and Jaeger schnitzel” ready. That crazy old woman could cook. Halfway through my second serving, she asked how many Bibles I needed. I just made a guess, “five thousand.” She nodded, and that was that last we spoke of the Bibles.

The rest of the meal was just friendly conversation. I found it hard not to like her. She told me that her entire family had died during the war. Katie was a mere teen when the war started, and she believed it was good for the NAZIs to get beat; but to carve her homeland up in little pieces for each conqueror to do with as they pleased was unthinkable. She said she started wearing mourning garments on Aug 13, 1961, the day the Berlin Wall went up. Katie Los mourned her country; I understood her and respected her even more. It was hard to not feel her pain.

Pfarrer Gensichen and I made jokes all the way home about the way she threatened me with that stick. We joked, but I knew down deep she meant everything she said. She must have trusted me though because four days later a truck showed up at our door with 10,000 Bibles including 2000 illustrated children’s Bibles. From the dimensions of the Bibles, Heiney and I decided we could probably get the entire load in if we used two vehicles.

That was the plan: We would take a large Mercedes 608 and a smaller Fiat 242 for the delivery. Both vehicles had just returned from trips and were available. I decided we should go with: Heiney, Jürgen, Andrea, myself and Karin, a woman from the team we were handing off CSSR operations to.

vans a&PWe would also use this mission to inform the other side there would be someone new visiting and make sure everyone was comfortable with the handoff. People who live under the pressure of communism aren’t very trusting of strangers and without a face to face hand off the new team would have had a hard time.

We parked the Fiat and Mercedes side by side in one of the packing areas at the Scheuner and started the tedious process of stuffing the walls and floor. I wasn’t willing to step out on the water on this one. I told Andrea to draw weapons from the Arms room. Although we were all authorized to bear arms, we didn’t on most missions. Unless there was a known threat or we were working a new area the risk of transporting a weapon across the border outweighed the risk of needing one.

Heiney was angry about my decision. Raised as a devout Christian, Heiney was completely against us carrying weapons and Bibles at the same time. After several hours of discussion, I finally made a command decision. Heiney and I would travel armed, but the girls and Jürgen would go slick. That would limit the risk to one vehicle. I planned to leave on the following Saturday, hoping the border would be crowded and the guards would be too busy to pay a whole lot of attention to us. That gave us just five days to put it together and get on the road. Packing would take at least three days. The Girls climbed into the Fiat and Heiney, and I got in the Mercedes where we would spend the next three days wrapping, tying, taping and stuffing Bibles into the walls and floor.

The Mercedes 608 was without question our best vehicle. It could sleep four comfortably and had compartments running the length of the camper walls, floor and each shelf in the kitchen and Bathroom areas was also hollow and could hold fifteen-plus Off-Set printing plates. We found that if we opened a Children’s Bible and laid it flat with half the pages on each side, it would fit inside a shelf board.

The rest of the compartments were accessed through small panels that made it possible to take the first Bible and tie a string to it, slide it through the opening then slide another Bible in after it pushing the first one farther down the compartment. We repeated the process with each Bible until the compartment was full. Once in country, all we had to do was open the compartment and pull the string and out they would come like so many square sausages. Packing could take days, but unpacking was quick usually less than three hours.

Werner came by the Scheuner as we were packing. He saw the pallets and picked up one of the boxes and retrieved a Czech Children’s Bible. Heiney and I were busy in the Mercedes packing. I looked up to see Werner standing there with the Bible in his hand looking at us with a distinct expression of distress. “Gideon? What! Are you doing?”  I started to answer, but he cut me off waving both of his hands. “No NO!”…“I’m almost positive this is something I don’t want to know about.”  Andrea came in with the scales as Werner left. “What did you say to him? He looked disturbed.”  I knew at some point I needed to have an explanation for this – but not today.

We were in the habit of weighing vehicles going into CSSR because the border guards would occasionally weigh vehicles then check the weight against the registration. If it were more than about two hundred kilos heavy, they would dismantle it piece by piece until they could account for the weight. The camper conversions gave us a little bit of wiggle room, but another group had also recently lost a Vehicle and two operators in Russia because their camper weighed too much.

Heiney and I would occasionally indulge in a beer or five while packing. It was fairly mindless work that we could both do in our sleep. We started a little early on the last day of packing, and by noon we were both rather “Happy.” The longer we packed, the happier we got and the funnier it got.

We were smuggling Bibles into CSSR, how absurd. Heiney would hold up a stack of three or four Bibles wrapped in paper and secured with masking tape then slide them into one of the compartments while announcing in his best English, “fife-towsand-toooooo-hundert-und-siks,” indicating just how many Bibles we had already packed. How was I ever gonna explain this one when the time came?

We closed the compartments, and we inspected the girl’s vehicle while they did the same to ours. The idea was that trading vehicles for the inspection would lessen the chance of overlooking a problem. By Thursday both campers packed and ready to go, we had just shy of 10,000 Bibles on board along with a small amount of cash, about 20,000 Deutsche Marks in Fifties, and the standard load of food and clothing.

Final mission briefing was on Friday afternoon, and we went over the full mission template in detail. The curse of the 4 Ps; Piss-Poor-Prior-Planning, could be a death sentence. If anything, we over planned, every scenario had to have an alternate plan. We would use two separate crossings then meet on Saturday night at “Hotel Stop,” a large tourist hotel outside Prague that had a camper park. We also had a “sleeper” on staff that could render assistance in a pinch.

A last minute request was relayed to us; we needed to pack a cassette duplicator and at least a Gross of Cassette tapes. The Mercedes was easier to repack, so we took some of the Bibles out of it and added the tapes and Dupe Machine. The final count was 9200 Bibles, New Testaments, and Children’s Bibles, 20,000DM, 130 cassette tapes, I cassette duplicator, eleven pairs of shoes and 26 sets of clothing, mostly warm sweaters, socks and the such and about 70 cans of meat similar to “Spam.” Spam was very popular in the east.

I had a close friend in Moscow who, when I asked her what I could bring for her,  asked for a can of real Spam. She remembered it from the relief supplies dropped in during the “Lend-Lease” program, and it was a good memory, she rarely if ever lacked a can of spam while I was in the game.

With Saturday morning came a beautiful fall day, a soft lumbering wind weaved its way up from the Mediterranean. I could almost taste the salt on the wind. Heiney came in right after I did. We could see the rolling hills of Vogelsberg[2] from the office window. Splashes of color completed the canvas of Germany’s countryside with such momentum that you could almost pinpoint the time when a particular leaf or bush decided to go brown or a vivid red.

There was an unusual calm for a Mission day. It felt good and I felt good about the mission. We stood for a moment taking in the splendor until Heiney spoke: “It’s a good day to die, Yes?” I knew he got the line from some “B” movie, but it still ticked me off. I can’t ever remember thinking any specific day was a good one to die.

Prague, CSSR

Prague, where we would stay the first night, was less than an eight-hour drive from the Scheuner but the border crossing could double the time required. If it weren’t for the Border, we would be there for lunch.

We traveled together as far as Selb, a village near the Czech border. Heiney, Jürgen and I would make a hard left and go on into CSSR via Pomzei, while the Girls would travel another hour south and enter via Rozvadov. Czech border crossings were never routine, and both crossings were a risk, but we used the easier of the crossings, so I expected to make it to Prague before they did. A hard border control could take 18  hours or more, but this time they did little more than a glance into the cabinets and drawers then sent us in to do visa control.

“Hotel Stop” was the first hotel you came across as you entered the city limits, easy to find and fair to almost acceptable facilities made this hotel ideal for us. We arrived at the hotel at about 1630-hours, but the girls were nowhere. I suspected they were still at the border. It always unnerved me to wait for someone in country.

Three hours later I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the Fiat roll into the camper park. The café in the Lobby of the hotel served the worst food in the world, and the rooms were nasty, but we could use the camper park as a pivot point without turning any heads. We let the girls know we saw them and settled in for the night.

Heinrich and Karin were tasked to reconnoiter the area, make contact and set up the delivery. They both brought a second passport showing the Prague Airport as port of entry. Heiney would rent a car, making their movements much less conspicuous.

Czech propaganda displayWe didn’t have a good place picked out to unload and do the transfer so they would have to drive around and look for one. I chose Heiney for the job because his Czech was perfect and he knew the area well, but most of all because I trusted him with my life.

Heiney spent time in Brno when he was in the Russian Army so he would be able to move around without much trouble. We couldn’t risk driving all over CSSR with our cargo out in the open, so we needed a place to unpack that wasn’t far from delivery.

Things were getting complicated quickly. I hated this part of a trip. The risk was always much higher during any form of contact. If you got nailed in country, this was when it would happen. We would try to make the delivery late Sunday.

Early Sunday morning Heiney and Karin took a Taxi to a rental agency at the airport and picked up a car then headed out the Autobahn toward Brno. They returned just before lunch with news that they found a perfect place to unpack and the delivery was less than 10km away, delivery was set for 1700-hours. We were short on time if we were going to deliver that day, so we returned his car and set out to the unpacking point. I had to agree with Heiney about the unpacking point. It was within our travel itinerary making it less likely that we would be stopped at one of the many checkpoints outside the area where tourist were usually allowed to travel.

It was a remote rest area off the Autobahn and included a line of trees that blocked view of the parking lot from the Autobahn. It even had a bathroom. A bathroom would make Andrea happy. The boy did well. If Andrea was unhappy so was everyone else. We parked side by side and Jürgen and Andrea set up a folding table outside the Fiat; one of us would stay there and act as lookout. Hopefully, we would see anyone entering the rest area before they saw us.

We Unpacked the Fiat first. The Fiat was stacked to the roof with gray garbage bags full of Bibles in less than an hour. This trip was going better than any we had made up to that point. Heiney and I moved to the Mercedes while the girls re-stacked the Fiat to make room for the cargo from the Mercedes. I had one wall open while Heiney was unpacking the shelves.

fiat 2 blogHeiney automatically checked our flank through the window every few minutes then he whispered “Millitz,” the Russian word for Police or Militia. Heiney had a habit of reverting into Russian if he was startled or scared. Nowadays I do the same with German, startle or scare me, and all you’re gonna hear out of me is German until I settle down.

The word “Millitz” slammed against my eardrums like a hammer. I didn’t want to believe it, so I looked for myself, and sure enough, there was a Czech Police car stopped directly behind the fiat blocking both vehicles from leaving. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and noticed Heiney had collected our weapons from their hiding place and was holding mine out to me.

“It’s your call Boss” wasn’t what I wanted to hear at that moment but things were what they were, and I couldn’t allow my team to be compromised even if it meant I had to kill two men. It wouldn’t be the first time I had killed, but this was different, these were Policemen… not soldiers and we weren’t in uniform. I realized I was soaked with sweat and the inside of my mouth felt like the Sahara had relocated to my tongue. I mumbled an obscenity or two then I resigned myself to the inevitable. This wasn’t going to be easy to explain.

We discussed our next move for a moment, and I exited the camper through one of the front doors opposite and out of view of the Police. If it got to that point, I would charge the Police car from the side and “double tap” both of them. As soon as Heiney saw me move he would go out the rear door and make sure I didn’t miss.

The Policeman on the passenger’s side was acting like he was going to get out of the car and had put his hat on and had a clipboard in his hands. This was turning into a really bad day. I glanced toward the sky and whispered under my breath “C’mon, Boss… Could – You – Cut – Me – A – Fucking – Break?” I wasn’t sure if anyone was listening, but if they were, I figured I didn’t have to go into any detail. He would know what I was asking.

If you must engage an armed opponent, who is in the sitting position you always strike while the opponent is still sitting. Getting to a holstered weapon from the sitting position is clumsy and difficult. My only advantage was surprise, and they were still sitting in the car. I took a few deep breaths and was about to move when an eighteen-wheeler bearing a distinctive “SU” oval,  identifying it as a Russian truck,  pulled into the rest area. What else could go bad?  What was I gonna do about the civilian?

I only had one choice, to follow through. I stepped to the side of the camper and rozvadovprepared to do what I had to do when the Truck Driver got out of his truck and almost jogged over to the police car. He was a round man of no more than 5 feet and some change. I struck me odd that he was alone, Russians never let their drivers travel alone, then he smiled, and I saw a full set of good teeth. I had never seen a Russian with good teeth. How was I ever gonna explain killing two cops and a civilian?  If had been me alone I would have taken my chances with the police but not with my team; they were my responsibility, and it was my fault we were in the situation we were in.

The driver leaned his entire head into the window of the police car and began to talk in a loud, boisterous tone, periodically banging on the roof of the squad car and laughing. My teeth were floating so I walked toward the restroom getting a good look at what was going on with the driver and police on the way.

Jürgen had gone down to the restroom just before the police showed up and was still standing behind it out of their view. There had to be a better way out of this. Maybe we could just “wing’ em” then tie them up and get out of Dodge before they had a chance to report us. I knew that wasn’t an option, but I was frantically grasping at anything that would prevent a firefight. I didn’t even know if Andrea and Karin knew what was going on. What if one of them decided to dismount and the police decided to look in the camper?

I don’t think the truck driver even took a breath. He just kept on talking and laughing. I noticed that both cops had taken their hats off and the clipboard the passenger was holding was back on the dashboard. I heard the car start up. The truck driver never missed a step he just kept on talking even as the police pulled away. He walked next to their car talking until they got up to a speed that he could no longer match on foot.

I was sure the driver would just shift his focus to us and probably bend our ears for the rest of the afternoon, I needed to get him out of the way, but he was no threat so shooting him wasn’t an option. Jürgen walked back to the Fiat and got in to let the girls know what was happening. They had already seen the police and decided to stay put until they saw what we did.

I was a little stunned when the driver just walked right by me without saying a word and climbed back in his truck. He pulled slowly forward until he was even with where Heiney and I were standing. He stopped the truck and pointed at me then motioned for me to come to him. I complied but rather than speak; he gave me three ripe pears all still connected to a branch. I thanked him in German then, somewhat bewildered, stepped down and walked back to where Heiney was standing. The driver motioned for Heiney to approach, which he did. This time the driver gave Heiney two pears and spoke to him in Russian; “For the Girls! We can’t forget the girls; can we?”  I heard the driver laugh loud and hard.

I had no way of knowing what the driver said at the time.  Heiney took off in a dead run following him as he drove off until he entered the Autobahn and sped off. I instinctively ran after Heiney and asked what he thought he was doing to which he responded, “If that truck turned into a fiery chariot! I wanted to see it.”  He told me what the driver said and showed me the pears.

It sounds like he was just a nice old lonely truck driver except, he never saw the women, and he heard me speak German, our campers had German plates yet he spoke to Heiney in Russian. He not only knew there were five of us (he only saw three) and that Heiney spoke Russian; he knew the two he didn’t see were women.

Heiney gave Andrea and Karin their pears. We stopped what we were doing long enough to savor the best pears any of us had ever tasted. I quietly thanked Katie’s God for the help and apologized for my vulgarity. I figured He knew me well enough to know I was just an asshole and meant no offense.

trabbyThe rest of the delivery went perfectly. The girls took the Fiat to the delivery point where they met a gaggle of Trabants, tiny two cylinder East German cars made of plastic. Each took part of the cargo and disappeared. The trip out was by far the easiest control I have ever experienced, we didn’t even have to wait at the 10-Km checkpoint.

As soon as we got home, I set out to find out who this driver belonged to. He had to be one of ours, or he wouldn’t have been there. No one could identify anyone who looked like him or operated in CSSR, and everyone thought I was wrong about nationality because of the fact he was alone, and he had good teeth.

About a week later Katie Los came by with another load of Bibles. She heard from her friends that we delivered as promised and thought she should replace the ones we took just in case we wanted to do it again. I asked Katie if she could think of anyone who would be in a position to have support in place for a situation like ours.

I told Katie the story in great detail. She replied with exaggerated nonchalance:”Ahhh…… so you did meet one of Michael’s guys.”  “I never let my books leave without asking God to put a guard on them.” She smiled, and I realized what Michael she was referring to. I tried not to show the goose bumps that covered my entire body at that moment, and I wondered if we had met Michael himself. I think Katie had enough stroke with her God that Michael himself may have been in charge of Katie’s security detail.

We never talked about the “Truck Driver Incident” outside the team. It was like a secret we shared and didn’t want anyone else to know. Weeks passed before Heiney, and I would even talk about it to each other. I don’t think any of us wanted to admit who we believed the driver was. It was just as well, we had a mission to conduct, and none of us needed anything to distract us. Bulgaria was an unhealthy place for people like us.

 

[1] HMFIC: A military acronym for “Head Mother-Fucker In Charge”; the boss.

[2] Vogelsberg: a region of West Germany with rolling hills and farmland.

 

GDA 4-4-2017

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