Conversations with a Masked Man: My Father, the CIA, and Me284
Conversations with a Masked Man: My Father, the CIA, and Me284
Father and son talk about John senior’s early life as a kid in Manhattan, his training at West Point, the stench of bodies in Dresden after the war, Berlin and Vienna in the late forties and fifties at the height of the Cold War, the follies of the Cuban missile crisis, how he disobeyed orders to bomb Cairo while he was station chief in Israel during the Six-Day War, and treacherous office politics in Washington. The story unfolds in dialogue alternating with the writer’s own memories and reflections. What emerges is hilarious, unexpectedly candid, and deeply personal.
Combining the candid descriptions of the world of the CIA with intimate conversations between a father and son, this book is written for the political junkie, the psychologist, the art lover, or anybody who wonders who the hell their father really is.
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About the Author
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"Never trust anybody."
"Bongo, bongo, bongo."
— John Lloyd Hadden, Sr.
I was born an American overseas, the first of four children. As we grew up, everything around us changed regularly: climates, cultures, houses, schools, landmarks, and circles of friends. Only the furniture was constant. We didn't know what our father did except that he wore a suit, went to work during the day, and attended cocktail parties at night. Now I know: his job was to get people to tell him things they shouldn't have — to gain their trust while keeping his own loyalties deeply hidden: the craft of espionage. His big presence, his love of making things, his scary intelligence and a syncopated rhythm of curses, mottoes, and nonsense noises framed our understanding of who we were and what this transient life of ours was all about. We accepted the universe according to Poppa or rebelled against it — but we never questioned the basic framework until much later.
When people ask me where I'm from I still don't know quite what to say. Living outside "the States," I was equally proud and confused about who we were. Americans abroad stand out from other people. Our limbs are rangy, we have bigger mouths than other people, and the way we talk has a flat, grating sound, like the machinery we make. We have a manifest destiny in our gait and a blank expression in our eyes. People think of us as friendly but false. I thought we were better than they were. I roved the countryside with other American kids on our superior American bikes.
In 1963, after ten years of living mostly in German-speaking cities (nearly twenty years for my father), with brief periods in the States for home leave, we moved to Israel. Not long after our arrival in Tel Aviv, one Saturday night, I went with a small crowd of young Americans to see a movie about Marco Polo that was playing at the embassy. Ten years old, I was thrilled to hang out with the American kids. The Saturday night movie was the social event of the week. It was the beginning of a brand-new life in a brand-new world. The embassy itself seemed like a very important, brand-new place. Access to it made us important. After the movie we waited outside the embassy's front entrance for our rides with our embassy mothers.
We didn't know it, but President Kennedy had just been killed. A crowd of Israelis had gathered on the sidewalk in front of the embassy, peering in through the virile architecture of the entrance, straight planes of concrete and glass. "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" the building said to them. We were on the cusp of our Ozymandian moment. We had pushed the Soviets and they'd backed off; we were winning the space race and Kennedy had promised we'd be on the moon by the end of the decade. We'd made rock 'n' roll and the Ford Mustang.
The Israelis on the street recognized us as the children of the wounded nation and left a discreet semicircle around us, watching us as though we embodied the riddle of power and violence that had been posed by Kennedy's assassination. We paid no attention to them — they were foreigners. But they knew something we didn't: JFK was dead.
Marco Polo (Gary Cooper), heroic discoverer of the East, had filled us with swashbuckling urges. Young boys will always test a newcomer with small violence, to determine the new boy's place in the pecking order. One of them, the son of the Air Force attaché, came dive-bombing toward me two or three times, punching me in the stomach with his imaginary rapier. On the third pass I hit him back, and then we were on the ground, flailing about not far from the feet of the Israeli onlookers.
Later my father reprimanded me. He was a new boy himself and didn't want to attract undue attention. He was the new CIA station chief here, but his cover was as a mid-level diplomat, a second secretary. He said I should have taken the other boy around the corner and "beaten the crap out of him," but since we'd fought in public, I was forbidden to go to the movies at the embassy for the next two years. My social prospects at the American embassy suddenly declined.
We joined the club at the Sharon Hotel and things began to look up. The Sharon was a gorgeous stucco building right on the Mediterranean shore that had tennis courts and a big saltwater pool with a high dive. All kinds of privileged people, mostly non-Americans, mingled there. It was a good place for my father to meet people unobtrusively. He arranged a family membership. It suited him to have his kids spend time there — lavish living and having one's kids at the pool were part of the cover. This was a departure from Pop's Spartan mode of child-rearing. His house was TV-free till he was in his eighties, comics were not allowed, and mindless pleasure of any kind was frowned upon. Even so, over the next four years I practically lived at the Sharon Hotel. We lived only a few blocks away, in Herzliya Pituach, ten miles north of Tel Aviv, and I could walk to the hotel or ride my bike.
There was a trail that led to the beach through a fissure in the cliff that rises on that part of the shoreline. I spent many evenings wandering along the beach at dusk or up to the mosque on top of a neighboring bluff. Sometimes I rode on old roads I'd never seen before. I remember once riding slowly through an ancient Arab neighborhood, mysterious, old, and crumbling, and then a mile or two later, coming upon a cluster of white South African houses, sparkling with new money and optimism. The Arab kids my age must have thought I had been superimposed on their ancient landscape, like a strange, modern ghost. I didn't think about it much. I lived in the modern world and hung out with my modern friends. In the daytime I learned to play tennis and Ping-Pong and I tried not to stare at women from France or Greece who wore bikinis and were married to wealthy Israelis or to diplomats. I drank Orange Tempo and went bodysurfing.
Lying on the beach, I watched the Mirage jets do their daily aerobatics, streaking in from the horizon faster than sound and splaying straight up at the last minute into the stratosphere to avoid crossing the border into Jordan. Before the Six-Day War in 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank, the country was shaped like a wasp. We lived at its waist, eight miles wide. The jets were nearly out of sight directly overhead when the sonic booms hit the cliff. I loved it. I nursed fantasies of becoming a fighter pilot. I played in the dunes. I turned brown and wore flip-flops. I tried not to look too American.
Dancing in the warm waves and getting pickled in the saltwater of the Mediterranean is my idea of heaven, even now. Maybe that's where I'm from. The Sharon Hotel.
* * *
My father was a well-built man of average height. His features were stern but beautiful, almost feminine, except for his twice-broken nose. When we were young and he was still with "the Company," his hair was black and neatly slicked back. He smelled of Vitalis. He projected intelligence, urbanity, and wit. He was a wonder to some, invisible to others. He showed a generous interest in those who were most unlike himself. He made friends easily; it was a part of his job he genuinely enjoyed.
At home he was typical and weird, like any father — a living paradox. But he could be intense. His mood dictated the atmosphere in the house, and he was often irritable or explosive. In the early days he taught us to play chess and took us camping and sailing, and we had fun. But he was a tough disciplinarian who required absolute quiet, shouting "RUHE!" ("Quiet!") and banging the table when he read the paper or listened to radio broadcasts. He loved us in a deep, rough way, but he was so absorbed by his work that he sometimes seemed annoyed by our presence in the house. He always brought a newspaper, a reference, or a history book to add to the stack of reading material at his end of the table, left over from dinner the night before. My mother backed him up in any decision he made or any quarrel that broke out, as though life was nerve-racking enough, and the less she had to do with questions and outcomes the better. She worked in the CIA before he joined up and I think she missed the independent life she'd led in her twenties. She'd worked in Tokyo and Rome before she got to Berlin. She enjoyed social scenes and had a serious career as an international horse show jumper.
Kathryn Falck, or Betty, was thirty-something when they married. She provided for all her husband's personal needs and protected him for over sixty years. Pop often upset her with his hard manner and his foul language — she was a good Catholic girl — but she kept it to herself. She admired him and wanted to thwack him, by turns. But she stayed in the background, did all the chores, and kept everything neat and clean. She loved him, and was tenacious in her love. She was the only person in the world who could do it. My father utterly depended on her. I imagine she bore the worst of his many frustrations when just the two of them were in the house. He flirted with her sometimes; he was unpredictable. A few years ago she complained that he never said good morning to her. Every day from then until he went into the hospital, he came down the stairs for breakfast and shouted a large, singsong "Good Morning!" to the whole house. She rolled her eyes, partly in grudging humor, partly in exasperation.
Now she lives in a small retirement community not far from the house. She misses him more than she thought she would, she says almost every time we speak. She regrets that she didn't realize "what a wonderful man, what a catch" he was. Without the constant hard work of keeping him fed and fielding his outrageous whims and irritations, she has lost much of her sense of purpose. Her short-term memory is ebbing too. But she talks a lot more than she did, and she's comfortable showing sides of her personality I'd never known. She invites me for dinner, forgetting that I am on a job in California and have been for over a month, and mentions that she is beginning to confuse my father and me. It was a mistake to call me by the same name as his, she says. I agree completely.
When we were little kids we lived in our own worlds, interrupted only slightly to make brief appearances as "such good children" when cocktail parties occurred at our house. My sister Barbara, two years younger than me, watched everything with a wary eye. She became a wonderful painter/photographer with a fine, cynical sense of humor. Alex, who arrived three years later, was the darling, the butt of all jokes and teasing. Barbara and I treated him as if he were a pet, or our adopted child. We adored him, as did everyone. He listened wide-eyed to everything and said very little. He became a deep-thinking wooden-boat builder and a perfectionist. The youngest was Jamie. He was a baby when we got to Israel. He did most of his schooling later, in Maine, and spent more time on his own with our parents than any of the rest of us did. He took on some of our father's mannerisms and became a bronze sculptor, painter, and metalworker. All four of us work with our hands; all of us are more than a little wary to be out in the open; we work hard and we make relatively little money. We get along with one another better than most siblings I know. We each have different tastes and temperaments but we all share a relatively dark worldview. As the current recession was getting under way, Pop said, "You know, I'm beginning to think I did pretty well by you four. None of you have a sixteenth floor to jump out of."
When I was about twelve, he and I started shouting at each other, mostly about politics, across the dinner table. The others endured years of this contention in silence. Toward the end of our stay in Israel, he proposed that I go to a boarding school — Groton School, the same tiny upper-crust institution for boys in the middle of Massachusetts that he and many of his male relatives and forebears had endured. I had a bad four years there before I got out and discovered Vermont, where I worked in a factory, on a farm, and with carpentry crews, wandered about the East Coast in a '66 Chevy, and finally embarked on a career in the theater. I carved out a shaky existence as an actor/director, on the edge of poverty and on the move most of the time. The rhythm of change accelerated and I rarely stayed in one place more than a few months. I fell in love with Shakespeare and made my living working with his plays. I had a small family of my own, full of love and wonder, which fell apart, unlike my father's, which was made of tougher, more traditional stuff. Eventually I found my way back to the Vermont woods, where I'd built an octagon house, and somehow kept doing my theater work. I made a life for myself that was far removed from the one I'd begun, but many unanswered questions, along with a good deal of restlessness and confusion, remained. I felt I would never know my place in the world until I knew more about who my father was and what he had seen and done in his travels.
* * **
As I was driving up to Maine for the first interview, having stopped off at a Radio Shack for a twenty-dollar tape recorder, batteries, and tapes, my head began to ache. I noticed, as I pulled into the driveway, that I was on time, which was unusual, and that I was more than usually anxious.
We sat at the dinner table, where we'd often sat to read or talk, only now we were in Brunswick, Maine, and the table had stayed in one place for decades. It would never again be packed up carefully and flown to other hemispheres along with the rest of the furniture. He was in his usual position where he could see everything. I sat alongside, facing him. I remembered angry things we'd said to each other at this same table, at this same angle, about Vietnam, Communists, free love — or just about anything.
My mother puttered around in the kitchen, where she could keep an eye on us, over the counter he'd made for her. Soon after they moved into the house he knocked out the wall between the dining room and the kitchen, supported the load with a timber frame beam, and installed a broad counter with cabinets between the two rooms so they could be always in touch and yet remain in their separate realms.
At eighty years old his hair was white and disheveled, and he wore clothes that were comfortable, frayed, and stained with woodworking materials. He raised an eyebrow at the tape recorder and started to talk:
Father: Well, I never took the work that seriously. For a lot of people it was their whole life. In 1972, when I left, a retired officer received an average of eighteen monthly installments of his pension. The average retiree was dead in a year and a half. But for me, other things were much more interesting. Playing squash, for instance, or making things out of wood. Which is another reason I wasn't very good at spying, because I didn't think it was a serious line of work. It really wasn't. ... It's a game. A puerile occupation. People die, and your career is on the line and people get mad, and ... there's a lot of uproar. There's a lot of uproar. But that doesn't mean it's serious, does it?
Son: You said sometimes you weren't sure it was worth it.
Father: You watch and you see what happens. For example, the so-called missile gap during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was between posts, stuck in Washington, in the war room, keeping track of things. I had pins all over the walls on maps that showed where everything was, the warheads, the ships, the blockade. All of our reporting showed that there was no crisis, and certainly no missile gap, but they needed a crisis for political reasons. There was an election on. As there always is; it's an ongoing circus. And this just went on and on and on and on. The whole Bay of Pigs operation, which never should have happened. And Vietnam, which never should have happened — and now, Iraq and Afghanistan — it never stops.
There's the case of a Chief of Station we had out in Indochina in the sixties who was an unrepentant blowhard. The day he arrived he said, "From now on I want all reports cut in half, so type up two reports for every one turned in by our case officers." At the end of thirty days, he could announce that he had doubled the output of his station. Just to take up more air. And he got away with it, you know, and got to be one of the very top people in the Agency. Totally amoral. But then he got mixed up with a double agent who had been dealing with the Libyans under the table. And that did him in. Also, he got involved in the Ollie North conspiracy. And that ... that stupid admiral, who's still ...
FATHER: Poindexter. Who's still in the government.
SON: He just got kicked out.
FATHER: I don't think he did.
SON: For running a gambling pool for assassinations on the Internet?
FATHER: That's the kind of thing that I found discouraging. Everything got more and more corrupt, as I watched. There was a progression of corruption in every aspect of American life, and of course it was as much within the Agency as it was within the Pentagon, as it was within the Congress, as it was within the presidency — it was everywhere. Pervasive. Bush isn't the cause of any of this; he's just a symptom of a country that's very sick. I saw it more clearly afterward, of course, but that was part of what was going on, and part of why I didn't take it very seriously, because the intelligence wasn't achieving anything. People weren't paying attention to it. That reached its height under Casey and Reagan, when all intelligence became politicized — as it has remained ever since.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Conversations with a Masked Man"
Copyright © 2016 John Hadden.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Travels 1
Chapter 2 A Soldier in Training 15
Chapter 3 Changing Partners 47
Chapter 4 Hop Scotch 79
Chapter 5 The Highest Bidder 95
Chapter 6 Dog Days 123
Chapter 7 Escher's Puddle 159
Chapter 8 The God That Failed 191
Chapter 9 Alice in Wonderland 209
Illustration Credits 261