GOOD COMPANY FOR LIFE ON THE ROAD
By Martin B. Deutsch
October 11, 2007 -- A highlight of my summer reading was The Company, a fine novel about the inner workings of the Central Intelligence Agency. It focused particularly on major events such as the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, and the attempted coup in 1991 that eventually led to the removal of Russia's relatively progressive leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
You'll recognize many of the crucial players on the world's stage at that time, by name, although I'm not sure that everything is fully factual. Obviously, the conversations are imagined by author Robert Littell, whose 894-page narrative was published five years ago. Whatever the relation between fact and fiction in this novel, it's an absorbing read and was transposed into this past summer's TBS mini-series directed by Ridley Scott.
Aside from genuine entertainment, The Company nudged my memory in a way that brought back several of my direct experiences with events in The Company. Not that I was directly involved in any of these great global matters, you understand, but I occasionally stepped into their periphery.
In November of 1956, for example, a close friend called to tell me that one of his cousins and his cousin's wife had recently escaped from Budapest on foot into nearby Austria. It was a harrowing experience and the escapees were now waiting for him to pick them up at the U.S. Reception Center at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Would I like to come along, he wondered.
We drove down from Manhattan to the military base in Central New Jersey. Once at Fort Dix, there was some paperwork and other formalities. But what sticks in my mind was the wife. An attractive young woman in her mid-20s, her hair had turned white in a matter of weeks during the uprising and her passage to Vienna and New York.
As we left the base, stopping at an exit gate, a tall, imposing, state trooper, with a traditional, broad-brimmed hat, leaned down, looked into the car and said, "Welcome to the United States."
He could have come directly from central casting.
In mid-December, 1959, my then wife and I flew to Mexico on Cubana de Aviacion. On the way back, we planned a few days of layover in Havana, the Cubana capital and the hub of Cubana's operations.
We flew on propeller-driven Super Constellations, which were nearly empty because of the fighting underway in Cuba between the government of strongman Fulgencio Batista and the rebels led by Fidel Castro. The flights were also distinguished by the fact that men in military fatigues carrying machine guns were seated at the door to the cockpit, facing into the passenger cabin.
Once in Havana, we stayed at one of Havana's swanky resorts, I believe the Nacional. On New Year's Eve, we sat on our terrace and listened to gunfire as the rebels advanced on Havana. We left the next day and were glad to get out without any particular difficulties. A much more dramatic and fictionalized version of the fall of Battista was a centerpiece of The Godfather, Part II.
During the height of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, I was a guest on the 1968 Pan American World Airways inaugural flight from New York to Moscow. We landed in the Russian capital on August 19, just in time to be there the next day when Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia to end the so-called Prague Spring.
Many in the inaugural party wanted to fly home, but the American ambassador to the Soviet Union asked us to proceed with our tour in order not to further inflame feelings between the two countries. Although nearly 40 years have passed, there were certain incidents and anecdotes that I still recall quite vividly.
For example, we stayed at the huge, sterile Hotel Rossiya, a hulking example of Khrushchev-era architecture. "Security" was everywhere--and each floor of the hotel had a stone-faced woman seated at a table by the elevator to make sure you were who you were supposed to be. (There were also indications that the guestrooms were bugged by the KGB during our four days in Moscow.) I made a bet with one of my traveling companions that I could make one of these women smile. We bet a dinner in New York--which I paid off when we returned home.
I also recall that when one of our companions left the group to wander off, even for a few seconds,
he was immediately followed by one or two men in white shirts, baggy pants and scruffy shoes. The white-shirted watchers were tailing us for our own protection, our guides and escorts told us.
There was also a dinner, where, in the grand tradition of Peter Sellers, the entire dais emptied, one American followed by one Russian, at a time. It all began when our ambassador walked out to express America's disapproval of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.
We were, however, invited to visit the Bolshoi to see a performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake by the Riga Ballet Company. We sat in a central section in front of the stage, as conspicuous, honored guests. When the second act began, only three of us remained. The rest of our fellow travelers had fled back to the hotel to visit the bar or to seek other entertainment. It was embarrassing both to us and to our hosts.
When we reached Leningrad--it's now called St. Petersburg again--there was a scene at the front desk during our hotel check-in. A clerk chatted with some of us in English. One of our security escorts must have said something to the general manager and he came out and publicly and loudly dressed down this young man for such an obvious infraction against the Soviet nation and the Communist Party. We all hoped that the desk clerk would keep his job. Whether he did--and whatever happened to him--is anyone's guess.
When we got to the resort city of Sochi on the Black Sea, we met three young college students on vacation from East Germany. I remember that one of them was a pre-med student. We invited them to join us where we were sitting on the beach and then invited them to several of our meal functions. We discovered later that, on our second night in Sochi, the three young ladies were taken into a police station and questioned for hours. The police wanted to know what they had discussed with their new American friends; what we had asked them; why we had invited them to dinner; and what they had told us.
They were released and spent another day with us before we left the Crimean resort. Once back in the States, I corresponded for several years with these young ladies until the passage of time inevitably ended the interesting exchange of letters and ideas.
Although I could unearth a few other anecdotes related to the incidents described in The Company, I'll just leave you with this recommendation: It's a good read for a long airplane ride, a dull evening in a hotel room or a break on a sunny beach.
ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.
This column is Copyright © 2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.