We arrived back at the Augsburg at a little past noon. Andrews had the farm boy GI’s take the Gasoline drum from the back of the truck and bring it to the conference room where the Crown’s trunk was held. Much to my surprise we were met there by Kubala and Granville who apparently had been tipped off by the guards at the gate of our arrival. Kubala was over moon. He gave Andrews a bear hug and me a two handed handshake. Granville was far less ebullient. He looked happy but was far more restrained and stood in the background giving me only a two-finger salute. They were accompanied by another Colonel who was not introduced and like Granville seemed to gravitate to the periphery of the room.
Kubala was like a kid on Christmas morning who was waiting for the go ahead from his parents to open his presents. He could not wait to get to his prize. As soon as the drum was in place, directly adjacent to the trunk, he got down on his knees and opened it. He lifted the tattered leather covered the Crown and seeing that it was covered in dirt and grime ordered a tub of water brought to him “on the bounce.” When it arrived, he carefully unwrapped the Crown and as if washing a newborn baby gently washed the grime off the Crown. He then handed the now glistening object to Pajtas who lovingly dried and placed it in its proper spot in the leather and velvet lined trunk. This process was repeated for the scepter and the orb and when all had been replaced in the trunk along side St.Stephens sword, Kubala called in a photographer. He proceeded to snap photos of the complete retinue by itself and then with Kubala alone, Kubala with Pajtas, and finally with Kubala and Andrews.
I have to admit I was a little put off by not being invited to be a part of this photo shoot. My ego was screaming wasn’t it my efforts that led to Anton Skoda? Wasn’t he the one that gave us the first solid lead on the locations of the keys. Hadn’t been my interrogation of Gombos that had gained us possession of the first key and the location of the next two. Wasn’t it my plan that allowed us to successfully retrieve the Crown from its “burial” site? I had certainly done far more than Andrews. My mind was fully marinating in these toxic thoughts when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Granville who must have been reading my mind because he said “It isn’t fair. Sometimes you do all the work and get none of the glory. Sadly, that is the way things are in life and they are especially that way in our business. We stay in the shadows and let others stand in the spotlight.”
“Let me offer you some advice. The only person’s whose praise that really matters is your own. If you can walk away from anything knowing that what you did was the very best you could do, then that should be praise enough. On the other hand, getting praise for a job that you did that wasn’t your best effort can be corrosive and destructive.”
“And, getting praise from someone who really doesn’t know what you have done. The sacrifices you made. The hoops you jumped through…is nothing but words and worthless.”
“That being said, Sam. You did a great job. You are a very different man than the shavetail I met in Vienna weeks ago. You hit the ground running. You rolled with the blows and got the job done. I am proud of you.”
He offered me his hand and I took it and tilting his head his towards Kubala’s photo shoot said “Don’t ever be like that. He is in this thing for all the wrong reasons. One day, probably sooner than later, he will get knocked down and if he ever gets up again he will be limping. Understand.”
“Take your own mental picture of this moment. Steal it away in your memories. And if you ever have a moment in which you doubt yourself, whip it out and remember that you were once given an impossible task and you hit it out of the park. Verstehen?”
“Good. Now why do not you go get cleaned up. Grab some chow and get some shuteye. We will hook back up at 0800 tomorrow. You can give me a full debrief then. Suits?”
It suited me fine. I was dead on my feet and I was not sure that I was capable of our conversation beyond a nod and shake. I left the conference room and walked to my billet. I was far too tired to eat and didn’t have the strength to shower. Stripping down to my underwear I pulled my army blanket over my head and tried to let the world drift away. My last thoughts before I welcomed sleep were of my friend Paul and the salute he gave me when we had parted ways. When I was in OCS one of our teachers had given a brief history of the salute. I am not sure why. But according to him it had started in the middle ages when knights met, they raised their visors with their right hands to show respect to a comrade. Perhaps Paul knew this. Perhaps he didn’t. But it fit and the thought of it allowed me fall into a deep sleep.
The next morning when I returned to the conference room the Trunk which contained the Crown of St. Stephen and it’s retinue was gone. It had been replaced by a long table with matching chairs which no doubt had inhabited the room before it been become the room the Trunk was placed for safe keeping. Sitting at one end of the table was Colonel Granville, and the Colonel whom I had not been introduced to the previous day. He was about 45 years old with wavy black hair with patches of grey at the temple who I now noticed wore the distinctive black and gold shoulder patch that indicated he was an officer with the Office of Strategic Services. Neither man seemed to notice my presence as I entered the room as they seemed to be engaged in a rather intense conversation. If it had only been George waiting for me, I probably would have just gone and sat down but the presence of another officer especially one I did not know and from the OSS suggested a more formal approach. I said, snapping to attention, and throwing a crisp salute “Lieutenant Floessel, reporting as requested.”
Neither man stood up, but George replied with a smile. “Hi Sam. Glad, you could join us. Take a seat.” When I had taken a seat adjacent to Granville and opposite to the OSS colonel he said “Would you like a cup of coffee? There is some sitting over there on the sideboard.
I said “Thank you Colonel. I am already way of quota this morning.”
“Sam, no need to be so formal here. I am still George and my colleague here, is Colonel Klay but feel to call him Andor.”
Did colleague mean that George was a part of OSS? But before I could spend anytime untangling that one Andor said in a deep baritone voice with a distinct Hungarian accent said “Pleasure to meet you Sam. George here has told me a lot about you.”
Granville no doubt could see the look of confusion on my face and said “Sam, my guess is your probably a little confused right now so before you ask any questions let me try to clear things up. Okay?”
I nodded and he continued.
“When we met, I told you that I was in Counterintelligence Corps. I was not lying. I am. But I am also a member of the OSS. I know normally, you are in just one organization or another but with the end of the war here in Europe things have changed a bit. During the war we knew who our enemies were. They were the guys pointing their guns at us. Simple. It made for some pretty clear lines between intelligence and counterintelligence. Make sense.”
I didn’t say anything, just nodded my head and continued. “But these days we are not sure who our friends are and who are our enemies. We are fairly sure that the Russians are looking to expand their influence on the continent. They have wanted that for generations and never achieved it but they now have millions of troops throughout the continent and so that ambition has never been so close to being realized. Combine that with their Communist zeal to take down capitalism and that problem just grows.”
He paused and took a sip of coffee. “Obviously, we have our own ambitions. We have sent our boys over here to fight and die twice in a single generation. That cannot happen again. An unstable Europe is not an option for us either. When World War ended, we created a peace that virtually assured that their would be another war. Between the retribution payments and the lack of assistance in rebuilding their government institutions it created a vacuum and nature abhors a vacuum. Which is how Hitler and his friends manage to take over the continent.”
What George was saying was pretty common knowledge and being who I am I resisted a very strong desire to tell him that I knew all this, but common sense prevailed and I kept my mouth shut.
He continued. “In other words, we aren’t going to be leaving Europe any time soon. We have won the war and unlike the last time around we are determined to win the peace as well. And if we are to do that, there is no way around it, we are going to have to beat the Soviets. That is going to require a combination of Intelligence work, figuring out what they are up to, and counterintelligence work or undoing what they have done and or countering what they are about to do. Understand Sam. It is why some of us, like me, have feet in both organizations.
I nodded and he continued “But your next question is what does this have to do with me, right?”
George looked at Andor who took over the narrative “Sam, as you can probably tell from my accent I immigrated to the United States from Hungary and for the time being as far as the OSS is concerned I am responsible for the part of the world that used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the end of the war, this region has become of supreme importance to us and our allies. It is where east will meet west. It is the tip of the sword in our next conflict and its absolute point we figure will be Vienna.”
He looked at me to see if I were following his logic and then continued “At Yalta, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that Vienna would be an open city. All the powers would occupy and control the city. However, as you know, the Soviets got there first and they have been damned reluctant to live up to their agreement. However, that is all going to change. An agreement that will separate the city into different zones: American, British, French and Soviet with the center of the city open to all. We take occupation of our zone week after next.”
As if rehearsed, George picked up the dialogue “Sam, we are going to need be on our absolute A game in Vienna. We are going to need people who are smart, can think on their feet, who speak the language and know the lay of the land.”
I remained silent. Not because I didn’t know where this was going. I certainly did. But, because I had not been asked anything yet. I didn’t want be presumptive and without details how could I answer?
“When I met you at the beginning of our mission with the Crown, I was not that impressed. No reason I should have been you were nothing more than a “hail Mary” play. A longshot chance to get a bead on the keys. You were so fresh that you practically had dew on you. I saw a nervous young man who didn’t seem to have a lot of confidence in himself or the mission.”
He paused for a second to let his first impressions of me soak in. Thinking back on it though, he was right. The person who met him at the Hotel Sacher all those weeks ago was not anyone who should have had any confidence in at all.”
“But what choice did I have but to use you. So I set you go. Nothing ventured nothing gained. But I teamed you with Cookie. I don’t know anyone better at sizing people up than that lazy son of bitch. It is probably why he is so successful at poker. After the first day, despite the fact that you two screwed up, he said he saw something in you. I didn’t see it but again what the hell. I had no other leads.”
Again, he paused. I knew what he was doing. The psychology courses at Syracuse and the command instruction at OCS were paying off. He was tearing me down, so he could build me up.
“It wasn’t until you got your ass captured by the Russians that I began to see what Cookie had seen. You didn’t loose your cool. You didn’t panic and managed to hold your own with a very experienced Russian interrogator. That impressed the hell out of me and I began to think that just maybe you might be worth something someday.”
“And I was right. You found your buddy Paul and realized what an asset he would be to us. That led us to Anton who proved to be the “key” to the keys. You handled Pichler in way not outlined in the Army manual but nonetheless effective. Despite your lack of experience your interrogation of Gombos was nearly perfect. Then, when we discovered that the SOB’s had pulled a fast one on us, it was you that devised a workable plan to retrieve the Crown.”
“Don’t let all this go to your head. I am not saying that we couldn’t have retrieved the Crown without you. We would have eventually I am sure. But you impressed me. Not only did you show me that you could grow into any situation I threw you into but you demonstrated courage and brains. That you could think on your feet.”
Again, he paused. This time to make sure that he was looking me in the eye. And said, “Which is why I want you to join our team in Vienna.”
Even though I knew where Granville was going with his speech I was surprised by my reaction to his offer. I blushed out of a combination of embarrassment for being complimented (I was not used to them) and pride and then flushed more for the shame I felt for having blushed to begin with. This odd response rendered me speechless. Meanwhile George prattled on with the monologue about what would be expected of me, what additional training I would receive and how the posting would help my career. Honestly, I was only half listening. Between my initial reaction to Granville’s offer and remembering Paul’s advice on living out your own dreams not others I could not focus on any thing he was saying until he said “Sam, I think you know about the new point system the Army has put in place to cycle people out of the Army. Those that have been in theater the longest will get out the fastest. It means that we are losing good capable people faster than replace them. It also means that if you were on a normal path that you would be out by the end of next year. So when you decide to join us we would need you to commit to a five year enlistment. We cannot keep replacing people and we need to plan for a long term. Okay?”
Ever since my last conversation with Paul I had been struggling with the decision that had just been placed in front of me. On the one hand, I knew that I was good at this type of work. I had proven that not just to George Granville but to myself. I also liked it. Part of that was the excitement of working in the shadows like all the hero’s in the “39 Steps” and “Kim” and part of that was it was the type of work that pushed me to be a little smarter, a little more clever than the other guy. It was a game I had been playing and winning at since my days on the streets of Vienna’s 16th district.”
“Vienna. That is where things started getting murky for me. Coming back to Vienna had reminded me, despite the destruction and despair, of my love for the city. It was the home of my boyhood memories, of my earliest adventures and triumphs. But it was also home to my greatest sorrows. It is the city that embraced Hitler and that love affair led to the murder of my grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. It is where I was beaten, bullied and eventually forced to flee from to save my life. I could never be in Vienna and not remember those things. What would feel like to live there again. I would be a part of the conquering Army and, remembering my former landlady, that would no doubt have moments of pleasure, but would those be worth living with the ghosts.
Then there was Paul. He had left little doubt that should I join the team he would be involved. The idea of the further adventures of Hugi and Tad reincarnated as Sam and Paul filled me with joy. The war had robbed me of so many I loved to be reunited with my brother in all but mother would be a perk.
But it was Paul who had challenged me to remember the dream I had for myself. The dreams that the Wolfpack, our gang of friends, Edie, Walter, Paul and myself would share with each other when we were terrorizing the neighborhood. Walter was gone. Edie was missing and Paul’s original dreams had died the moment they discovered the Tomahawk. Only I still had a chance to live out his dreams and that was a heavy burden but perhaps one I should carry to honor the memory of the others.
Five years. By the time I got out…if I got out…I would be twenty-four years old. Would I be too old to start up at school again or would I get wrapped up doing what I was doing. What had Granville called it. “Saving the world?” Would I get so wrapped up in that I would never leave. Never follow my original heart. My dream of being a Professor, of a life dedicated to scholarship and teaching?
Who knew? Who could ever know? But what had become clear to me the minute Granville had said that my joining his team would be a five year commitment is that taking him up on his offer might distract me from the dreams I had for myself. That I had gotten this far by always focusing on what the goal was and not allowing anything to stray me from that path.
I said “George, no one has ever paid me a better compliment than you just have by offering me the chance to be a part of your team permanently. I can’t think of a better way to repay my country for all that has given me than by helping it secure the peace. But I have to say no.”
George, remarkably, looked nonplussed as if my refusal of his offer came as no surprised at all. He said “Your buddy Paul predicted you would say that. But why not. It is a great opportunity for you. Literally the sky is the limit.”
Sighing I replied “I am not sure that I can fully explain it in a way that you will understand but I’ll try.”
“George, my being here at all is nothing but an attempt by me to try to delay my arm service by six months. If I hadn’t wanted to finish my sophomore year I wouldn’t have told my draft board about the Crown. I only here but because I am the best qualified. I got here by nothing more than a fluke.”
Granville replied “That may be true. But you proved yourself. Most of us get to where we are going by a combination of good luck and knowing what to do when it kicks us in the balls.”
I laughed. “Okay fair point but then there is s Pichler. I know why it was that we needed to recruit him, but I also know who he is. An unrepented Nazi who was responsible for the murders of hundreds of thousands of people. Yet we embraced him. We are going to give him a good life he doesn’t deserve because he can give us something that we need. It turned my stomach to be a part of it. I justified it, like you did, because it was for the greater good. But it ate at me. Still eats at me and I know if I accept your job there will be dozens of Pichlers to deal with. And each one of them will eat at me a little bit and I am frightened of the type of human being that will turn me into. It is like what happened before the war. Most Germans were not Nazi’s. Didn’t believe in all the bullshit they spouted. They cared about putting food on the table. They cared about was feeling good about themselves. They made compromises with what they believed in to accomplish those things. That did not work well for them. The compromises we are making don’t seem so big. But I worry what is going to happen when you heap one compromise on another what effect it will have on me and on the rest of us. I am not telling you anything you don’t know but I think you can appreciate that for me those little compromises have a far more personal meaning. I think you understand that.”
“I do. But you handled Pichler about as well as anyone could and I can tell you the first cut is the deepest.”
“That is exactly my point. I handled Pichler well because you asked me to do a job and I did it. It was tough but I did it. The next time it would be easier and the time after that easier still and pretty soon I would not be able to remember what I had found so objectionable in the past. I have seen how that works. I would have a hard time being a part of that.”
“What if I told you that you had my guarantee that I would put you in a situation where your dealing with people from the Reich. You would only work in helping to get a handle the Soviets. Would that allow to say yes.”
“It might. Although, I think it would be for you to keep your promise on that. But there is another reason I cannot say yes. Maybe the only real reason. When I was a little boy in Vienna, growing up in a one room flat with toilets down the hall I had an impossible dream. I loved school and learning. I thought that there would be nothing better that to be a college professor, a scholar, a teacher. But little Jewish boys who grow up in the 16th district did not become professors or teachers. They were lucky if they finished high school and became a clerk at a store. Then I got lucky. I got a chance to come to America where anything was possible. If you could dream it could come true. Five years ago, I didn’t speak English and was in the 4th grade. Now I am an officer in the army, a college junior just two years shy of my degree. I owe it to myself and to my friends who didn’t get a chance to live their dreams, to live mine.”
George said “I am not asking you to commit your life. Just five years. You have plenty of time to finish your education when you are done.”
Thinking of Paul I said “Dreams have a way getting detoured the longer you drift away from them. Eventually, if you wait to long, they are too far away to catch up with. I don’t want that to happen to me.”
George started to say something but was interrupted by Colonel Klay, who had been quietly listening to the dialogue between George and myself. “George, you mind if I jump in here?” George nodded. Klay continued. “I understand son. Before this nonsense started, I was a writer who thought one day I might have academic life. I understand the appeal. It seemed to me an ideal life. Someone paying me to think and speak. Being surrounded by people who could challenge you intellectually and engage you with their theories. Perhaps adding something to this world that makes it a better place.”
Klay took a deep breath and added “You talk about the lessons that this war taught us. One of the lessons we should have learned is while the cerebral approach has it merits sometimes it leads us down false paths. What if we had not tolerated Hitler from the beginning? Mustered an army and taken him down when he did not have the resources and the army needed to fight a war. Europe would not be destroyed. Millions would not be dead. The Soviet problem we have now doesn’t exist.”
He continued “I wanted to be an academic once. I understand that appeal of that kind of a life. I can see its appeal to you considering all you have been through. But we are giving you an opportunity to be at the tip of the spear. To help shape the world instead of think how nice it would be if things would be if they were just a little different.”
I said nothing. What could I say? There was a lot of truth to what he said and considering all that I had been through, all my family had endured, the chance to help prevent that from happening to someone else was seductive. But Paul had been right. This was their destiny. Not mine. There were others who could do the job I was being offered as well could. Probably even better. One of the lessons I had learned over time is that there is only one person in charge of my destiny and that and that was me.
Klay took my silence for what it was. The conversation had gone as far it could go. We would just be covering old territory. He said “I can see you have made up your mind. I understand. At nineteen I probably would have made the same decision. That being said, who knows what the future will bring for any of us. Maybe you will change your mind. Maybe at some point in the future we will need your help again. But for now, perhaps the best is we send you back to OCS.”
“But before I let you go let me add the Crown is going to be a hot potato for a long time. The Vatican has already reached out to us demanding we turn it over as a religious icon. The Hungarian government, the puppet one put in place by the Russians is claiming it is the property of the state. The anti-communists want us to give it to them so they can protect for the Magyar. Horthy, Pajtas, Gombos and others are frightened that if their role in our collection of the Crown were to come out it would destroy their reputation and put their family at risk. The point is, this whole operation is top secret. Need to know only and no one needs to know.
The next morning, bags packed and a sheath of newly cut orders in my pocket, I made my way to the motor pool from my billet. My hope was that I could hitch a ride to the Frankfurt Rhein Airbase where my orders said I was to be given the earliest available transportation back to the United States. It was a gift from Granville who while grumpy over my turning down his offer was still grateful enough to arrange first rate transportation home. But I was not in any hurry. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, or at least none that I could see. The temperatures mild for this time of year and for the first time in weeks, maybe months, I was worry free. At least for the moment. When I got back to Ft.Sill, no doubt some wise senior officer would make a decision about my fate. In a months’ time, I could be right back here in Europe or on some atoll in Pacific. Didn’t matter. The decision I had made had liberated me and I was free to daydream. At least for now. In fact I was deep into pondering how different Europe smelled than Oklahoma when a Jeep pulled up next to me and honked its horn.
It was Cookie. Still looking more like a Bill Mauldin drawing that a real GI but with the same cynical smart-ass grin. He said “Trying to sneak out of Dodge without saying good bye.”
“Hell, Cookie I didn’t want break up any poker game you happen to be in or whatever bit of debauchery that had you in your grips.”
“Debauchery one of those words you learned in college? If it means what I think it means, I like it. I may even use the next time I am out debauching.”
“That’s great Cookie.”
“Anyway the Colonel sent me after you.”
I stopped in my tracks. Had Granville changed his mind? Cookie laughed “Hells bells boy. He just wanted me to give you a ride to Frankfurt. Thought you deserved a proper send off for some reason. So jump in we need make tracks.”
I threw my bags into the back of the Jeep and hopped into the passenger seat next to Cookie. The same seat in which I had started this journey.
As we cleared the gate, Cookie said “Did I ever tell you about the time I put sandbags under my seat …” Before he could finish the sentence, I was laughing.
“What’s so god darn funny.”
“Nothing Cookie. That is just how most of your stories start. Go on. I am sure it will be a story I will tell my children someday.”