An interesting story, but too long to tell over a beer, so it gets told here, where a reader would have to be bored enough to read so much.
Once upon a time, in something of another life, I sold some pretty neat and pretty expensive software to run and be run on the big IBM mainframes. I was the "technical guy" that was attached to marketing, occasional sent along with some of the "pure sales" guys, to keep their mouths from getting them in trouble by their making stuff up when the real answer was that they did not know. I was a salesman, too, but specialized in the big accounts when even the managers would be nerds—I spoke their language. Likewise, sometimes they sent a flashy salesman type with me to keep the focus on our making money and I would get excited by the act of solving problems and forget I liked money as well.
One week, a sales guy in our West Coast office called corporate to ask if they could send me along with him to be the answer guy. The greeting we received at the client's office was vaguely odd. I couldn't put my finger on it, but there seemed to be back-ground stuff going on when we arrived, and I had the sense that some of the conversations going around us included code words and euphemisms so as not to be intelligible to us.
We were ushered in to a top dog's office and left alone, being told that Mr. Big would join us as soon as he freed up. Only moments after my associate and I sat down and the door was closed, he wrote on his notepad, "It's bugged. They're listening." He had been there before, and I admit that his assumption fit. I nodded agreement.
On an alcove wall I could see from my seat, was this picture:
Just as I noticed it, my associate wrote again on his pad, and gestured to a large water color over the man's desk. It was a painting of vines and small flowers in a clearing the woods. I read what he had put on his pad. "Looks like a dead body rolled up in the brush!" I got tickled because it looked exactly like that now that he made the observation, so I pointed at the duck picture and we started laughing, or trying not to. Of course, under stress, suspecting your being listened to, lots of money on the line, trying to laugh is only going to make it impossible. We had tears streaming down are eyes and were shaking.
I can't imagine what the person listing to us must have thought. The image still makes me laugh.
IN THAT SAME LIFE, I found myself in and out of quite a few government installations, with varying degrees of security. I still cannot give any details, but will say in one city, there is a tremendously funny neon sign—in fact a landmark in the city. It advertises a place that no longer exists, and has not for decades. It is funny because no one knows that what it advertises is no longer there. If you were to walk in, you find an innocent and friendly looking security guard in the entry hallway. If you are expected and allowed in, you go around the corner and find a big government seal announcing which agency actually has offices there. It is funny, also, in that the big neon sign left from the original building owner is a double-entendre if you know what agency operates inside.
Well, anyway, I had obviously had my name come up with some national security organization as having visited one too many secret installations and was being checked out. No one told me this, but this is how I found out:
My company moves me to Austin, and I have this really great office and the lease includes access to great and skilled clerical staff who serve all their tenants, equally. Only a week or so after starting there, another tenant leaves his blinds open and as I walk down the hall, see his briefcase open and a service revolver in a holster sitting on top. It looks like a badge / ID holder is next to it, but it could be a wallet. I hand the receptionist a fax I need sent and comment, "Our new tenant might want to keep either his blinds or his briefcase closed. She got up and looked and came back and said the strangest thing, "I'm not allowed to talk about that." He disappeared—never saw him again.
So a week or two later I am flying back to Fort Worth to see my girlfriend there. I flew all the time, but never got used to it. Being in the air is not my problem, having someone else in control is what I hate. If I can at least see out the windscreen, I'm okay; but since I cannot on a commercial jet, I made it my habit to "pre-flight" in the airport bar.
Sipping a scotch, another patron starts chatting with me. He tells me he is retired from IBM, and going back to Dallas for an associate's retirement party. We chat for a while and he offers me his name and I offer mine. A few minutes later I tell him my father worked at IBM and he says, "Is 'Dan' your father?"
Well "Dan" is my father, but the fun of this "small world" experience quickly gets weird. I catch him off guard by asking questions which I assumed he know the answer to—like which facility the man had worked in before retiring. I knew them all in Dallas and Fort Worth area and had been in them all. The man answers, obviously having to think about it and gives me answer I know, and he seems to suspect I know, is bogus. There were a couple of equally uncomfortable "gotcha's" and he was mad at himself for being caught although I did not let on that I knew this guy was not who was claiming to be. He stays friendly and soon grabs his briefcase and excuses himself to catch his flight. The bartender watches him leave and then looks at me, cocks his head in a wordless, "Who are you?" I said, in reply, "Do you know what that was about?" He shrugged and turned his back on me.
An hour or so after this, I am going through security and realize I am still wearing my silver cross under my shirt. I stop short of the metal detector and turn aside to let the man behind me pass. He says he will wait. I think, "Whatever," loosen my tied, unbutton my shirt and start fishing out my cross. A group arrives and the man behind me is told by security to pass through. He mouths something but makes no sound. I have excellent peripheral vision. I see him open his coat, and hold out a wallet—much like the one I had seen in the briefcase in my office. The security guard waves him through and as he goes through, the alarms go off The security guard, having no idea how to cover up the obvious, says, "It's alright, sir. Sorry."
So, I'm still a little slow on the uptake, but beginning to be suspicious that the man at the bar and they man with the gun and the badge are related events.
I board, land at Love Field, get a rental car which takes a very long time and for no apparent reason other than a phone call comes in and suddenly my car is ready, so off I go. Stemmons, 114 and 121 were then and probably still are a mess to navigate. But, I'm in a sporty little car with too much power, and I am looking forward to seeing my girl. I'm merging onto Stemmons, and in the heavy traffic, see an opportunity to get five lanes over, but it is going to require some performance driving. Fun! I floor it and rocket up past a line of cars, and shoot over three lanes, hit the brakes hard and scoot one more lane left, floor it and make my left lane exit with twenty feet to spare, and at about eight miles an hour. I was laughing, enjoying myself and the rental.
I hear honking and skidding over my right shoulder and look. The man I had seen pass through the metal detector back in Austin is in the driver's seat of the car creating all of the commotion. He is blocked off from reaching the lane I am in, and gestures with resignation to another driver, and as he continues up Stemmons, he looks over at me and lowers his head, as if, "You won."
I didn't know I was being followed. Poor guy. Then again, poor me, because that man, to this day, is certain, I bet, that I was just a little too alert to be "just a salesman." For months, I expected to be approached more directly (and with less intrigue) and questioned, but it never happened. Because that direct encounter never happened, I have suspected that somewhere is a file with my name on it that says, "Probable agent."
Final piece: I was administering a federal grant working as an accountant at a University a few years ago—nearly twenty years after the above events. A retired CIA agent was invited to do a series of lectures and some of the money to fund the tour was through my grant. Let's just say that I knew the CIA recruited at that University, and my position made it hard not to know not only that they recruited, but, at least sometimes, who they recruited.
In the intervening fifteen, plus, years, I (unknown to me at the time), become diagnosable as "hyper-vigilant." I needed that behavior to survive, and can't seem to loose it now that it is no longer a daily necessity, although I have found it unexpectedly benefiting me since. So, I do tend to notice things that others will not find unusual. I had a friend at the very beginning of that era in my life who disappeared, seemingly, off the face of the earth. I know he was recruited and by whom. At the very end of that era in my life, I had another close friend who also disappeared, seemingly, off the face of the earth. Just a short time before that CIA lecturer came to the campus. The last time I saw my friend, I knew something was wrong, and he wouldn't talk about it, but I already suspected what it was. He wanted to get drunk, so I stuck by his side, and watched out for him. I asked him, point-blank, and he gave me no answer. I'll be careful, for his sake to paraphrase his last words to me, "I want you to know, since I'll not see you again, that I know you really are who you say you are." I, of course, asked what the heck that meant, but he did not answer.
So, back to the CIA lecturer soon after my friend went away,...
After the lecture (which was really neat) ended, the good former CIA man came back to my department's office to collect some things he had left there. Several of us were chatting with him as we went across campus, and I figured, as long as he was there, I would get his signature on the paperwork which I would process to pay his fees and expenses. At my desk he closed the door, handed me a card and said, "If you have anything to share, please give me a call." I must have looked like a deer in the headlights. He grinned like he was about to laugh at my expression.