Was My Daddy a Secret Agent?

Falling through the universe at the speed of life

BY David Glenn Cox

It’s Thanksgiving week and the headlines are chaotic. What say we take a break and give the political turkeys the day off. I’ll write something scathing tomorrow, I promise. We all have mysteries in life, the things that we will never know for sure are true. It’s the reason genealogy companies thrive.

But sometimes, the answers are best left sleeping. My Grandfather on my mother’s side, left Ireland and changed his name. Not a good start maybe we best just leave it there. It sort of takes the fun out of researching the family tree if you must also make allowances for the statute of limitations.

I told you about my being in Dallas, November 22,1963, but what is really interesting is why I was in Dallas. My father had entered the Navy, not long after Pearl Harbor. Like a lot of boys of his time, he wanted to fly. He wanted to shoot down Messerschmidt’s or bomb Berlin. But what he got was a Navy Blimp. No Messerschmidt’s, no Berlin. They flew their “K” ship  blimp from South Florida and patrolled the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, looking for German U-boats.

The two most tippity top, top, secrets of the Atlantic war were radar and the knowledge that the US had broken the German Naval Code. And knew exactly where all the U-Boats were supposed to be. Radar sets at the time were large and cumbersome, and if put on an airplane could only stay aloft for six hours.

But, if you installed it on a blimp, it could stay aloft for 24 hours. Now, my father was the flight engineer, responsible for the proper operation of all the blimp’s mechanical systems, including the radar set. And of course, to be able to do that he needed a top security clearance.

It never occurred to me growing up. My father didn’t fly combat missions during WWII. He flew intelligence missions; his job in the war was gathering intelligence. The History channel has an episode all about the Japanese plan to bomb the Panama Canal with aircraft launched from a submarine. Dad was flying the blimp, three hundred miles off the coast of Colombia, as we had also broken the Japanese Naval Code, by this time.

After the war, Dad took his GI Bill to Ohio State and graduated as a mechanical engineer in 1950. He went on to Loyola at night, getting a degree in electrical engineering, before getting his Master’s degree in 1955. He took a job in Chicago, working for a company based in Zurich. The company manufactured railroad right of way equipment, and sold it all over the world. Sometimes, dad would have to take clients out at night and entertain them, with the famous Chicago nightlife.

But for some reason, they always passed up, the Bulls, the Blackhawks, or the White Sox games and always attended some dry, dull old political meeting. As a child I’d ask, “Where did you go last night daddy?” And he would reply, it was a dinner with Adili Stevenson or Hubert Humphrey. My dad was active in Democratic politics and was a district committeeman for a while. He’d met Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Dean Rusk. It’s 1960, and Kennedy was coming to Chicago, my oldest sister was just crazy about JFK.

Dad picks up the phone and low and behold, two tickets to a private fundraiser to hear Kennedy speak…from the front row. My sister was so impressed, that she wrote JFK a letter and got a personal reply, signed by the President in ink.

For some reason, dad made a career move in 1962. He took a job with a paper company in Dallas. Well gee, that’s quite a stretch from designing railroad equipment. So that’s why I was in elementary school on November 22, and why Dad was at the Trade Mart in Fort Worth, waiting to hear Kennedy speak…again.

After Oswald’s murder, dad told us all about Jack Ruby working for the mob and running a strip club and how the cops were all on the take. Even as a child I was fascinated, that dad knew so much about the city and the man, when we were still so new in town.

From there, dad took a contract job in Montgomery, Alabama. We arrived in the Spring of 1965, just in time for Bloody Sunday, but after the Freedom Riders had been beaten at the Montgomery bus station. Just in time for the march from Selma to Montgomery. I saw the spot where Viola Liuzzo was murdered, dad showed us, and took us across the Edmund Pettis Bridge.  He even showed us where Martin Luther King lived. Dad always seemed to know stuff.

Then dad was offered his old job back in Chicago, with a promotion and a raise. He was now a Vice-President and after a few years, the company offered him a job in Zurich. They threw in a three- week all-expense paid trip to Europe for my parents to bait the hook. The two things that my mother hated most in life, were drinking and flying. She only drank when flying. For a trip to Europe, she would get hammered at O’Hare, pass out and wake up in Dublin.

Just your average American tourists from Chicago, snapping photos of all the European high spots. Then the story got weird, when after visiting London, Paris, and Zurich. The next stop on the itinerary was Berlin. Now to get to Berlin during the Cold War, one must board a small airplane like a DC-3. My mother never trusted aircraft with propellers, and would think twice about flying over communist, East Germany. But for some reason, felt compelled to go along. So, they landed in West Berlin, ready to see all the tourist sights that West Berlin had to offer in 1967.

Then the strangest thing happened again. Just as my parents were touring West Berlin, the East German border guards put down their automatic weapons and put up a sign which read. “Border now open! American tourists Welcome! Visit beautiful East Berlin Today!”

Okay, I’ll believe that. Lots of people visited East Berlin as tourists, during the Cold War. In another of those strange and beguiling mysteries. My father the shutter bug, forgot his camera that day. No photos of East Berlin, but plenty of photos of Check Point Charlie, from the Western side of the wall. He must have gone back later to take those photos.

My mother told us kids a story about her adventures, while in an East German coffee shop. She tried to tip a waitress when there was no tipping allowed in the Soviet Block. But then, in broken English the waitress whispered, “two American cigarettes please?” My mother ever the Capitalist, gave her a whole pack.

But as my mother told us this story, she had inadvertently told us something else. Her conversation with the waitress was one on one. As obviously, my father wasn’t there. Why was my mother cooling her heels eating strudel all alone in a Coffee shop in East Berlin, during the height of the Cold War? Was my Daddy a Secret Agent?

The tip of the proverbial iceberg.

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