A year ago, on October 10, 2019, I had a stroke. And I saw a vision of my future.
It started in the living room, about 7AM. I was in my battered recliner, reading newspapers on an Ipad. Across from me, on our long couch, grandson Calvin was stirring. His mom worked nights at Waffle House, so he often stayed over. It would soon be time for him to head out for the school bus.
I glanced up at him, and then something else stirred to my left: A bright metallic blue curtain had appeared, and seemed as if it was being drawn to the right, across my field of vision.
There was no pain, in fact no unusual sensation at all. But clearly something was wrong. I called out to Wendy, asleep in our bedroom. “I think I’m having a stroke!”
Calvin had to get himself up and out that morning. Shortly I was walking into the Duke ER, which is barely a mile away. And immediately I discovered one of the upsides of my condition. Having spent many bleak and painful hours in that ER waiting room, when I calmly answered the reception nurse’s “May I help you?” with, “I think I’m having a stroke,” it was like waving Harry Potter’s most potent magic wand. Continue reading A Whole Year In One Stroke→
Michael Cohen accompanied Trump on a number of trips to Las Vegas. A snippet from one such journey, from Disloyal:
Checking into the Vegas Trump Tower, I was summoned up to his suite to discuss the day’s events. Trump was in his underwear, white Hanes briefs, and a white short-sleeve undershirt, watching cable news on television. He barely seemed to register that it was unusual for a grown man to be in a state of undress in front of an employee, but there it was.
On this occasion, Trump was fresh from the shower and he hadn’t done his hair yet, as it was still air-drying. When his hair wasn’t done, his strands of dyed-golden hair reached below his shoulders along the right side of his head and on his back, like a balding Allman Brother or strung out old ’60s hippie.
I called his plane Hair Force One, for good reason. Trump doesn’t have a simple combover.
Michael Cohen describes the kickoff of the mutually self-serving “courtship” Between Trump & prominent evangelicals, who became a central pillar of Trump’s political base. From Disloyal, with rough language:
“So how did the amoral Trump come to be beloved by evangelical voters, a question that remains one of the abiding mysteries to this day?
Begin with the premise that Donald Trump hadn’t darkened the door of a church or chapel since the age of seven, as he would openly admit in his past incarnation. Places of religious worship held absolutely no interest to him, and he possessed precisely zero personal piety in his life—but he knew the power of religion, and that was a language he could speak.
Almost by accident, in 1997 I became a crime reporter, specializing in church-related financial frauds. My first major investigative report, called “Fleecing the Faithful,” is still online.
Michael Cohen’s book “Disloyal” brings back those years.
The crime schemes I covered were obscure, and often complicated to explain. Although they ruined many lives, they did so quietly. Cases typically lacked physical violence, dead bodies or sex. Hence few except the biggest ever got much media attention.
Yet religious based frauds were (& are) plentiful & destructive. And they didn’t have to directly involve “church” to be religious, at least for me. That’s because these crimes, like others, involve one of the central religious issues, namely the reality of evil. In fact, these cases’ lack of lurid melodrama made it easier for me to focus, at least In reflecting on them, on the underlying question:
Plunging into Michael Cohen’s book, “Disloyal,” I’m more intrigued by the account of his self-seduction than any of his politically-charged disclosures, at least so far. Besides, the really smarmy stuff will be scrapped over & gnawed on by all the big media dogs.
Instead, I was more struck by passages like this:
To an outsider, my attraction to Trump—or as I described it, my “obsession”—seemed to have its roots in money and power and my lust to possess these attributes, if even only by proxy. What other explanation was there for my starstruck, moth-to-the-flame compulsion to insinuate myself with a man so transparently problematic in myriad ways?Continue reading Michael Cohen’s “Disloyal”: A Theological Review→
Chekhov: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”
Sometime around the late 1980s, I started having two recurring nightmares:
One, I’m maybe at home, or out somewhere, when the sky darkens and a dull roar starts up. It’s a tornado, bearing down on right where I am. I look for shelter, and either there isn’t any, or it’s not enough, and the tornado gets bigger and louder and then its roaring over me; I wake up trembling a with night sweats. Or
Two, I wake up, or at least I think I do, but when I try to move, I can’t. I’m paralyzed, and can’t speak either. Much later I read somewhere that this is a twilight, in-between state, no big deal, which goes away quickly. But I didn’t know that then; I would lie there in growing panic until, miraculously, a hand or a foot responds with a wiggle and then I was okay. But I still worried about if, next time, it could be permanent.
Post Office work is more than drudgery. It’s honest, productive work, an integral part of what keeps our society going.
I kept reminding myself of that. But I often wondered: do many children in the United States daydream about growing up and getting a job as a mail handler?
I doubt it. Maybe a few want to be letter carriers. Or even postal clerks, like an admired parent or role model.
Mailhandlers are semiskilled laborers. Google was unable to find me any history of the job, or craft in postal lingo.
But it looks like it was an example of “occupational segregation,” which was long rampant in the post office, like everywhere else in the U.S. Mail handlers filled a space between carriers on the outside, and clerks on the inside, lower in status than either.
On Google, the mailhandler’s “Functional Purpose” reads “Responsible for loading, unloading, and moving mail by the bulk. Duties may include long periods of standing, walking, pushing, and reaching. Candidates may also handle mail containers weighing up to 70 pounds.”
Was such a space filled originally by Black workers, who were excluded from other crafts? The fact that I can’t find an answer to that query suggests it was.
The time I spent in the civil rights struggle for Black voting rights in 1965 was a very important part of my life.
And the time I spent working for the Postal Service (USPS), beginning twenty years later in 1985, was important too.
But the two experiences were very different, so different I couldn’t imagine they would ever intersect.
Why should they? One was a social movement, shaking things up, demanding change for justice and facing violent, even murderous opposition. The other was the nation’s oldest public utility, which when working well was a nearly invisible pillar of American normality, stability and placid routine.
But now, in late summer 2020, they’ve abruptly come together; collided, really. Saving our voting rights today, this year, means saving the USPS. Who would have thought?
This is a confluence that’s not easy to sort out. I invite you to come along as I try to process it. I hope doing so can be a small diversion in these Dog Days, but will also encourage you to join the rising movement to defend the postal service, and our voting rights, by whatever sort of ”good trouble” you are able to make.
On Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2020, the Washington Post ran an engaging story of two independent-minded women who faced down the CIA and won. That’s our first story:
The two women were Florence Thorne and Margaret Scattergood.
The Post: Five thousand square feet, wide windows, a grand staircase, a front porch with a panoramic view of nature. The year was 1933, and Northern Virginia was still the countryside, even with Washington just across the Potomac. So it was the ideal retreat for Florence Thorne and Margaret Scattergood, two pioneers of the American labor movement who defied the gender expectations of their time.
“Florence said, ‘Of all the houses we looked at, this is the only one I would care to live in,’“ Scattergood recalled years later. “That was pretty final.”
Were they a couple? No one knows. But they lived there the rest of their lives, Thorne til 1974, and Scattergood until her last illness in 1986. They worked for the American Federation of Labor in Washington, in the days when unions had clout in the capital.
So when the feds came looking to take their property in the 1940s, to fold into the site for some expanding federal agency, they mobilized their friends in high places and drove a bargain: the government could take the land, but they got to stay in the house for life.
Scattergood was a Quaker, who joined the new Langley Hill Meeting when it took over a former Methodist chapel nearby. I knew her there in her latter years, as a diligent meeting archivist, and a quietly persistent advocate for many social causes.
By then one of her targets was the agency which had won the scramble for the surrounding property, and built a sprawling but tree-concealed headquarters: the CIA
To [Scattergood], the agency was an affront to her values. After retiring from the AFL, Scattergood dedicated herself to civil rights. She’d written to Martin Luther King Jr., funded affordable housing efforts in the District and fought swimming pool segregation in Virginia. She was also a staunch pacifist, and as the CIA grew, she lobbied Congress to reduce the budget of the U.S. military and intelligence operations.
“I remember her saying the one thing she’d like to do is stop World War III. She had small aspirations, you know,” said Sylvia Blanchet [a] great-great grandniece. . . .
With their aunt, they attended the Langley Hill Quakers meeting just down the street. When the group got involved in the sanctuary movement, which helped Central American refugees flee into the United States in the 1980s, their family did, too.
Soon, Scattergood was having the refugees over for dinner. Some stayed in her guest room.
Blanchet remembers them as students, families and “just ordinary people who had really suffered because of the war,” mostly from El Salvador and Guatemala.
The CIA believed the visitors were Sandinistas, a leftist resistance group the CIA was working against in Nicaragua. Sometimes, they ended up at the gate of the CIA when they were looking for Scattergood’s house. Officials now say they are not sure whether the visitors were indeed rebels.
After her death at 92, after a long decline, the CIA took the house, and used it successively to train K-9 units, a bicycle repair shop, and then left it to fall down. But it was saved and renovated into its current use as a CIA conference center. The CIA now even has a feature about Scattergood, Thorne, and the house on their public website.
The CIA article, however, does not point out that almost on the day of her passing in November of 1986, after a time in a coma, what is called the “Iran-Contra Scandal” was made public. That affair, referred to by high officials by a code name, “The Enterprise,” centered on secret, illegal sales of weapons to armed opponents of the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. The unlawful operation was handled by the CIA. Public accounts of the scandal say its cover was blown by a report in a Lebanese news magazine.
As one of many members of Langley Hill Meeting who benefited much from Margaret’s presence and ministry, particularly in her final year, I often thought of her, and wrote a tribute published in Friends Journal in April 1987.
And as time passed, I became aware, via sources which I am not at liberty to disclose, of what may have been another part of this closing chapter. That account is below, and some think it is fiction; but I am not so sure. . . .
Margaret and “The Enterprise”
McLean (aka Langley), Virginia – Fall 1986
I – Unauthorized Entry
The walkie talkie in Phillips’s right hand crackled. “I’ve got something on my scanner, Fred,” Hammerman’s voice buzzed through the tiny speaker. “You picking up anything?”
He looked. The thin blue lines were still making their wavelike pattern on the small handheld screen, up an inch and then down, up and down, just as they were supposed to.
“Nothing,” Phillips muttered into the mike. “You sure you’re not just imagining things, Mike?”
“Yeah, right,” Hammerman bantered. “I’m making it up, to pass the time as we hide in the bushes on this chilly Friday night in October. To keep from losing my marbles.”
Fred Phillips chuckled quietly. It did feel a bit loony, crouching in the shrubbery outside a stately, empty old house in the woods of northern Virginia. At least, the house was supposed to be empty, since the Special Operations staff had left at 5:00. Funny how you could run the world for the CIA on a nine to five schedule.
But they said the house wasn’t staying empty at night. Someone had to be getting in, as impossible as that sounded. Three after hours intrusions in two weeks, they said. What are you security guys doing out there, playing games? Sleeping?
Not a chance. The CIA never lets down its guard on security. So here they sat, in the bushes in the dark, feeling ridiculous, but with their reputation on the line.
Something caught his eye, and Phillips glanced down. Holy mackerel–The scanner’s red alert light was blinking a rapid warning.
Next to it, the blue lines were racing wildly across the screen. Their regular pattern was replaced by frantic, narrow swings.
“Mike!” he hissed at the walkie talkie. “I’m showing it now too. Someone’s in there for sure.”
“What sector?” came Hammerman’s tense reply.
Phillips checked the readout. “A-13,” he whispered. “The front office, just like the Special Ops guys said.”
“OK, mine says it too,” Hammerman’s voice was grim. He was backup. “That’s your side, boss. Gimme a minute to get in position so I can cover you. And keep your head down.”
Phillips unsnapped his holster. “I’m on my way,” he said, rising up from the bushes. “For Pete’s sake don’t shoot unless you have to, I’m too easy a target in the dark.” He took a deep breath. “Cowabunga, dude, here goes!”
Head down, he sprinted around a tree and hit the wide sidewalk running, his sneakers making almost no sound. Halfway up the broad front steps of the house he could hear swishing thuds behind him as Hammerman moved into position.
The big oak door was solid, but it had been jimmied for them, with scotch tape on the latch and paper stuck in the jamb so it only looked closed. A real high-tech setup, Phillips thought as he leaned to his left to hit the door, full tilt, shoulder first.
The big door crashed open, and Phillips had to veer to miss the tall, solid post of the banister by the staircase. The front office was to the right, behind a partition wall that had been set up in the front half of the elegant old dining room.
He banged the office door open with one expert karate kick, and hunched down, minimizing his target profile, pistol at the ready, and shouted. “Hold it! Security! Put your hands up and don’t move!”
The first thing he heard was a thump from the hallway followed by a moan and a muffled curse.
Hammerman had not missed the banister post. But he recovered quickly and was in backup position in less than a second, his weapon likewise trained on the dark space where the office door had opened.
The office was silent. Phillips’s hearing was keen, and he didn’t pick up any rustling, or even the faint wheeze of tense breathing, other than his own. He held his breath, waited another few seconds, then muttered, “Hit the lights, Mike,” without turning his head.
Hammerman edged over to the door, keeping his pistol trained, swept his free arm up the wall, and the room lit up. Phillips blinked in the brightness, keeping the office covered, and then warily stepped through the door.
No one was there. Filing cabinets, a multiline secure phone hookup, and a couple of desks strewn with papers, that was all.
It was enough, though. No desk in the Langley complex was supposed to have classified papers left on it after hours; that was basic security. And for sure the Special Ops boys hadn’t been that stupid, not with the stakeout planned.
“Somebody’s been here and no mistake,” Hammerman whispered, coming in behind him. He pointed: “There.”
Phillips followed his finger. Against the wall stood a filing cabinet, the kind with a steel bar running down the front and a big combination lock at the top to hold everything shut. But the lock was open, and so was the top drawer. A file folder poked up over the edge.
“Christ,” Phillips muttered, “how did we miss him?” Every door and window in the place was covered by electronic monitors, with backup security cars on all the perimeter roads keeping careful watch. What the heck was going on?
Hammerman broke into his thoughts. “Look at this, Fred.” On the bigger of the two desks, the top sheet of an open file folder was headed “Update–The Enterprise, 10/1985.”
But that was not what had caught Hammerman’s attention. Under it, in thick, red magic marker, someone had scribbled, in a large, bold hand: “THIS IS AN OUTRAGE. STOP IT AT ONCE!”
“What the–” Phillips started, but then his security reflexes clicked into gear. “All right,” he ordered, “impound these documents, and send that top sheet to handwriting for analysis and ID. This has to be an inside game, and whoever’s being cute just went a bit too far. Call in the backup team to search the area, just in case, but I doubt they’ll find anything.”
Hammerman left, returning with a camera and a big plastic evidence bag. He snapped photos, then began putting the violated files into it. When it was closed up and the seal crimped, he gave it to Phillips with a flourish. “This one’s got me stumped, Fred. I think it’s one that’ll have to go to the Chief. But I don’t know what you’re gonna tell him.
Phillips shook his head. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell him either,” he said
II -Some Kind of Inside Job
“Now let’s go over this one more time,” the Chief said gruffly. He was standing, gazing intently out the big window of his large office, and sipping coffee from the big mug that was always kept full and within his reach.
Must we? Phillips thought, looking at the trophies on the wall behind the Chief’s big, neat desk, on which the unsealed plastic evidence bag seemed totally incongruous. There was a picture of the Chief with president Reagan, both grinning. A framed medal from some operation in Vietnam. Two small maps, one of the Middle East, the other of Central America, with pink and blue pins stuck into them at various points.
Phillips realized his mind had wandered when the Chief growled, “Is that right?”
“Excuse me?” Phillips stumbled, looking away from the wall maps at the Chief.
“I said, you executed the entry into the house without a hitch, after getting positive signs of entry on your surveillance equipment, but found no one?”
“Uh, yes sir,” he agreed. “But we’re still searching the area for footprints and other evidence of unauthorized entry and egress.”
Not that he expected to find anything. This was, he was more and more sure, an inside job. Probably one of the Special Ops guys had jumped the track. Or maybe even gone over to the other side. No one liked to mention it, but it had happened before. The Eighties had turned out to be a big decade for spies, and they were barely half over.
“And handwriting drew a blank with that defaced file cover sheet,” the Chief continued.
“Yes sir,” Phillips said again. Nobody in the Agency’s current files wrote that indignant rebuke on the file. Or so it seemed, at any rate. Phillips wasn’t sure that handwriting analysis was such an exact science.
“So, what are we going to do about these intrusions, Phillips?” the Chief barked. “This is very sensitive material. We can’t afford to have it compromised.”
He paused, sipped his coffee, and chewed his bulging lower lip. “Have you searched the house?”
“Twice, sir. Nothing.”
“I can’t accept that,” the Chief said, shaking his big head, his thin white hair quivering. “There has got to be something.”
He paused again, thinking and chewing his lip. “What do we know about that house?” he asked finally. “How did it get there on Company land?”
“It was here first, sir,” Phillips answered. “An old lady built it with a partner, and lived there til she died, just this year. Now it’s reverted to us.”
“Who was she?” the Chief asked. “Maybe she has some disgruntled relatives, playing tricks.”
It seemed to Phillips like a very unlikely line of inquiry. “Sir,” he protested tentatively, “I’m not sure there’s really any point–”
“Maybe not,” the Chief cut off him. “You got anything better? Check it out. And keep me posted.”
He turned away from the window to the desk, picked up the plastic evidence bag and thrust it toward the security officer.
“Yes sir,” said Phillips, standing up. It was time to go. He didn’t like this. His own inclination would be to have Counterintelligence going over the records of all the Special Ops Unit’s personnel files, maybe even tailing them. It had to be an inside job.
“Oh, and Phillips,” called the Chief as he was passing out the doorway.
“Yes sir.” He stopped and turned back. The Chief was behind the desk, sticking a pink pin into the map of Central America.
“Keep the house under your personal surveillance tonight, and every night, until we get this cleared up.” He picked up the coffee mug.
“Yes sir,” Phillips said wearily. His wife wouldn’t like this, and neither did he. But you didn’t argue with the Chief. Not unless you wanted a transfer to the Antarctica field station. And he didn’t, even if there was no trouble with inside security breaches in Antarctica.
III – Final Contingencies
“So, what did you find out?” Hammerman asked over the walkie talkie. The house was again dark, and they were back in the bushes, passing time.
“Just what I told the Chief,” Phillips answered, a trace of irritation in his tone. “The house was bought in the 1930s by a lady named Scattergood. She called it Calvert, after a place in Maryland where she used to go as a kid. From Philadelphia originally.”
He checked his scanner. The lines on the screen were oscillating normally. “She worked for the labor unions in D.C.,” he said. “Never married, but had a housemate, who died in the ‘70s. When the Agency took the land, it agreed to let them stay here as long as she wanted to.”
“That was big of them,” Hammerman commented.
“She got the laugh on ‘em too,” Phillips went on. “That was in ‘51, and she was about that old. Nobody figured she’d last another thirty-some years, but she did, til ‘86. That’s it; end of story.”
“You sure?” Hammerman wondered. “Maybe she had some private vices. Or was a secret commie, infiltrating the labor unions.”
“Naaah,” Phillips demurred. “She was with the old AF of L, and they didn’t come any more patriotic than that. And after she retired she spent most of her time gardening and going to church.
“What church?” Hammerman asked, only half-interested
“Quaker meeting, down the road,” Phillips said.
“Maybe we should check it out,” Hammerman said teasingly. “Tomorrow morning.”
“Get outta here,” Phillips snapped. “Tomorrow morning I’m sleeping in. This late night surveillance wears me out.”
“Come on,” Hammerman coaxed. “You could use a little church.”
“Speak for yourself,” Phillips bantered, and was about to say something sarcastic about Hammerman’s single lifestyle, when his scanner’s red alert light started blinking.
“Mike! I got a signal.”
“Right. Me too.” Hammerman was all business again. “You check the window. I’ll slide around back.”
Following their revised tactical plan, Phillips slipped away from his base behind a large oak tree and padded quietly across the lawn, up to the window at the end of the dining room, where the Special Ops office was. The sill was just above his head, but under one arm he carried a small folded aluminum step stool. The legs straightened and clicked silently into place. He set it firmly in the dirt, and stepped silently onto it.
Peering over the sill, he could see a faint blue light in the room. He couldn’t make out any details, but saw it move, in the direction of the desk.
Phillips let himself down silently from the stool, took a few silent paces away from the window, then crouched down and brought the walkie talkie to his lips. “Mike. He’s in there. Are you in position?”
“Ten-four, boss” came the reply. “We’re ready for the punk this time.”
Rather than a wild rush, tonight they would sneak up on their intruder, get him coming out. Hammerman was at the back door; Phillips covering the front. This was no time for heroics. Just wait; he had to come out of there.
But he didn’t. After ten minutes, Phillips checked his scanner. The blue lines were normal again; the alert light was off. He began moving back toward the stool, then eased up on it. The blue light was gone.
“Fred,” the walkie talkie spoke. “You still picking him up? My scanner’s gone blank.”
Phillips cursed under his breath. “Mine too,” he answered. “We better go in.”
They didn’t rush; they could sense there was no need for SWAT team heroics. And inside the scene in the office was almost identical to the night before. The files unlocked, a drawer open, papers on the desk.
“Now I’m sure this is an inside thing,” Phillips said, surveying the room. “Special Ops changed all the locks this morning. Only they knew the combinations. It has to be one of them.”
“Maybe,” Hammerman said, “but then how’d they get in and out of here. This is like chasing a ghost.” He stooped to pick up some papers that had fallen to the floor. “Uh-Oh!” he exclaimed. “Here’s our wiseguy again.” He handed a sheet to Fred.
“Oh no,” Phillips said.
The paper was stamped TOP SECRET, and headed “The Enterprise: Final contingencies.” Across it was written, “THIS MUST NOT GO ON ANY LONGER! IF YOU WON’T TELL THE AUTHORITIES ABOUT IT, I SHALL!”The words were in the same red magic marker, in the same strong, large hand.
“The Chief won’t like it,” Phillips said. “Another breach of a secure office, and I look more and more stupid reporting them to him without any explanations or perpetrators. You got any ideas?” he asked Hammerman.
“Just one,” Hammerman said. “And you already don’t like it. But it’s all we got. Let’s check out the old lady’s Quaker meeting tomorrow.”
He saw Phillips rolling his eyes, and put up his hands. “Look. I’ll pick you up about 9:45. If you’ve got a better idea by then, we’ll skip it. OK?”
“OK,” Phillips answered with a sigh. “I better come up with something.”
IV – A Better Idea?
But he didn’t. At ten AM, Hammerman’s Toyota turned off Georgetown Pike, a half mile beyond the huge, tree-hidden CIA headquarters, into the driveway of a white clapboard church. The peeling wooden sign in its postage stamp front yard read “Langley Hill Friends Meeting.”
“That’s weird,” Hammerman said, looking up at the building. “A steeple. Quakers aren’t supposed to go for steeples.”
“Oh yeah?” Phillips wasn’t really interested. He yawned. “What do they believe?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” Hammerman said. But I seem to recall it doesn’t include steeples. They’re plain, you know; like the guy on the oatmeal box.”
Now Phillips was getting uncomfortable. “You mean funny clothes? You taking me to some cult group, Hammerman?”
The driver grinned. “We’ll see. But hey, you’re a combat veteran, black belt in karate, an expert pistol shot; you can handle them.”
“Maybe,” Phillips said. “But I forgot my gun.”
As it turned out, the people in the meetinghouse weren’t dressed oddly, except that some of them weren’t dressed in what Phillips thought of as Sunday clothes. And the biggest challenge he faced was staying awake on the wooden bench waiting for the service to start.
When nothing had happened after about fifteen minutes, he plucked a small white leaflet from a rack on the next bench where it leaned against a battered-looking hymnbook. It explained that the waiting was the service. This made it even harder for Phillips to keep his eyes open.
Just as he started to snore, Hammerman nudged him awake. A white-haired woman was standing and saying something about peace, and how awful the Contra war in Nicaragua was, and how they had to get the White House to stop the CIA supporting the contra rebels
Great, Phillips thought. Peaceniks. Just what he needed to hear on too little sleep from a bunch of people who didn’t know what they were talking about.
The woman sat down, and Phillips started to drift again.
But then someone was pulling at his sleeve and shaking his hand. He pulled away nervously, then turned to see Hammerman with his hand out.
Hammerman gripped his hand and leaned toward this ear. “It’s their custom,” he murmured. “It means it’s over.”
Well, not quite. They were then subjected to about fifteen minutes of announcements, half of which, Phillips noticed, seemed to be about protests of one sort or another against American policy in Central America. This made him even more uneasy. Was this really a church, or some political front group? What did they believe, anyway?
They were also asked to stand and give their names and where they were from, which Phillips wasn’t about to do. But Hammerman covered for him, speaking for them both and saying vaguely that they lived in the neighborhood.
Then everyone got up and started milling around. Phillips noticed a large coffee urn on a back table, and headed for it; he’d feel more at ease with a cup of coffee in his hand.
But the urn, he found, held some kind of sweet-smelling but watery-tasting herb tea. When he asked, a young woman standing by the urn explained sweetly that they never served coffee, because of the caffeine. That was also why there was no sugar, and no styrofoam cups.
Maybe that’s what these people believed, Phillips thought: caffeine, sugar and styrofoam are the work of the devil, or at least behind the trouble in Nicaragua. One sip of the tea was enough for him to know this wasn’t his kind of church.
Phillips sidled out the door of the meeting room into the vestibule, figuring he’d wander back to the car. Then he saw Hammerman, down a hallway in another room, talking to the white-haired woman.
Hammerman gestured for him to come over.
The room was a small, cramped library. The white-haired woman was smiling and saying something about a book of faith statements by members. She was sure it was right here somewhere–now she was scanning the bookshelves–and it would answer all his questions about Quaker beliefs. She was about to give up when the notebook suddenly turned up, wedged between a dictionary and an old Bible.
“Aha, here we are,” The white-haired woman said, and handed the notebook, not to Hammerman but to Phillips. “He says you wanted to know why we have a steeple if we don’t believe in steeples,” she said, grinning broadly. “It’s quite simple, really. The steeple came with the building when we bought it, and we didn’t have the money to take it down. Then they made the whole corner into a historic area, and it would probably take an act of Congress to remove it. But we did take out all the stained glass windows, except the one with the mandala pattern up front.”
She smiled up at the window, which had an abstract, four-cornered pattern. “It’s wonderfully archetypal, don’t you think? Joseph Campbell would have loved it.”
“Er, I’m sure,” Phillips mumbled, wondering what sort of pinko this Campbell person was. He was relieved when she turned to Hammerman.
“Now you said you might be distantly related to Margaret Scattergood, didn’t you? I think she has a faith statement in the book there, and I believe there’s a picture of her in here somewhere….”
She trailed off and began searching through the crowded bookshelves again. Hammerman took the notebook, and Phillips followed her movement along the shelves, noting uneasily how many of the books had the word Peace in their titles.
No war, no steeples, no sugar, styrofoam or caffeine; that seemed to about sum up Quakerism, at least as it had been explained so far.
“Uh, Mike,” he said after a long moment, “don’t we have to be getting back for lunch?”
Hammerman looked up from the notebook distractedly. “In a minute,” he said. “This is interesting.”
Just then the white-haired woman was back before him, smiling that toothy smile again. “Here she is,” she said triumphantly. “That’s her at her house, down the road.”
Hammerman looked at the black and white snapshot. A thin, plain woman in tweed, wearing sensible shoes and gardener’s gloves and holding a pair of long hedge clippers. Though slight, there was a sturdy look about her.
“Yes,” Hammerman agreed, “she certainly has the face of one of my old cousins. They could fool you, though: look as meek as church mice, but fighters when they were riled.”
“Oh I don’t think Margaret was like that,” the white-haired woman demurred. “She was always quiet here. But of course we mostly agreed on things. Hmmmm – but now that you mention it, there was that one time back in the forties, when they tried to take her land.”
“Who?” Hammerman asked innocently.
“Why, the CIA,” said the white-haired woman vehemently. “Came along back in ‘47 and decided they wanted her land and her house, just like that. Wham, bam, thank thee ma’am.”
She sniffed with indignation that was genteel but not diluted by the passage of nearly forty years.
“And Margaret did get riled about that. Gave ‘em quite a fight, too. Took it to Congress and everything.” She ran a finger down a page in the notebook, then showed it to him.
“She worked for the unions then, and Harry Truman had to pay attention. Made them leave her be, too. In the end a special act of Congress said she could stay there as long as she lived. I don’t think many people could have fought the CIA to a draw like that, do you?”
Phillips shook his head solemnly; no he didn’t think so either.
“But mostly she was a quiet person, worked on committees for desegregating schools and things like that. And she was corresponding secretary for our meeting for the longest time, til her health gave out. She kept very good track of all our records. In fact they’ve been something of a jumble ever since.”
Hammerman closed the notebook and gave it back to her. “This has been very informative, ma’am,” he said. “I appreciate all this information. You’ve filled in a lot of blanks for me. I’ll have to come back sometime and hear more.”
“Well, if you come next Sunday, we’re having a potluck lunch and a used book sale,” said the white-haired woman. “And you’re certainly welcome.”
Back in the car, Phillips said, “You can come back if you want to, Mike, but once is enough for me. Can you imagine what their potlucks must be like, with no caffeine, sugar or styrofoam? Did you ever figure out what they believe here, or is that it?”
“What’s the matter,” Hammerman grinned, “you got something against macaroni? Hey, I had fun. Besides, I found something better than whatever they believe.”
“Yeah?” Phillips asked expectantly.
“This,” Hammerman said with a smirk, reaching into his jacket and producing a folded sheet of paper. “Take a look.”
Phillips unfolded the typed sheet. “My Personal Faith,” read the heading, “By Margaret Scattergood.”
“Okay so you’re a good spy,” Phillips said sarcastically, “but pinching an old piece of paper from a church is hardly high-quality tradecraft. Why do I want to know about this old lady’s personal faith?”
“Maybe you don’t,” Hammerman retorted. “But it might not hurt to check out her handwriting.”
Phillips glanced at the paper again. At the bottom it was inscribed with her signature the date, and “Calvert, Langley, Virginia.”
“You’re kidding,” he said.
Hammerman shrugged. “It can’t hurt,” he said. “Besides which, we got nothing else, and not least, I think the writing looks familiar.”
“All right,” Phillips shrugged in turn. “But do me a favor: I’ll sign the request, but you take it to handwriting.”
“No problem,” Hammerman grinned. “Consider it done.”
“And one more thing,” Phillips said
“If you’re right, what am I supposed to tell the Chief?”
V – Need to Know
Nothing unusual happened at the Scattergood house for several days thereafter. But Phillips saw a stream of Special Ops people coming and going from there with unusual haste, many carrying striped plastic trash bags, the kind he knew were full of documents meant for the Agency’s own special shredders and incinerators.
While he was not supposed to notice this, since he had no need to know, it was still obvious what was happening: The Special Ops project known as the Enterprise, whatever that was, had been compromised, and everybody was busily covering the Agency’s tracks. He had seen it before; Watergate had kept the incinerators smoking for weeks.
Hammerman had also noticed the procession, and drawn his own conclusions. But when Phillips asked him about the handwriting check of the Scattergood letter, he just shrugged.
The next Monday, Phillips was summoned to the Chief’s office. As soon as he came in, he noticed that the maps had been replaced on the wall behind the desk. In their place was a large, full color photo of president Reagan, the official one where he wasn’t smiling.
“Phillips,” the Chief began, as soon as he had shut the door, “those intrusions over at Calvert seem to have stopped. Good work.”
“Thank you sir,” Phillips said cautiously. He wondered why the Chief thought they had stopped, and what he had to do with it. Or did he, old spymaster that he was, know more than he let on.
Of course he did. There was a file folder on the Chief’s desk. He opened it, and gazed at it thoughtfully as he sipped from his coffee mug. “That was very shrewd,” the Chief said, “your idea of checking the handwriting on the intruder’s notes with the Scattergood woman’s letter. Very shrewd.”
“Uh, thank you, sir,” Phillips began, “but actually it was–”
The Chief interrupted him. “I know, I know, it was only a wild guess. But Handwriting says they matched perfectly. I have their report right here.”
He lifted a sheet from the file; all Phillips could read was the TOP SECRET stamped across the heading.
“Very shrewd,” the Chief said again, but more thoughtfully. Then he added slowly, “there’s only one slight problem with it. He paused and looked out the big window, and chewed the large lower lip.
Finally he glanced back at his visitor and said, more loudly, “What do you think, Phillips? How do I explain to the president that one of the most sensitive intelligence operations of my term has just been blown?”
He was suddenly vehement. “And above all, how do I tell him it was compromised by the ghost of an old Quaker lady?”
The fierceness of his tone took Phillips aback.
“Sir,” he stumbled, “Sir, I never said–”
“Of course not,” roared the Chief. “I wouldn’t have said it either, anywhere else but in this room. But that’s the fact.”
He looked out the window again. “Phillips,” he said more quietly but grimly, “can you imagine what would happen if this gets out? I can see the headline in the National Enquirer now: ‘Spooks spooked by old lady spook.’ We’d be the laughingstocks of the intelligence world. The Soviets would lose all respect for us. The Chinese. Not to mention the president.”
The Chief swiveled his chair around and faced him.
“So, Phillips, I am not going to explain this to the president. We’ve made arrangements for this operation to be exposed in a different, more understandable way; an obscure magazine in the Middle East will publish something, which will be picked up and broadcast more widely. I think we can keep the lid on after that, but it won’t be easy.”
“Sir,” Phillips put in, “I’m not sure I really have a need to know all this, do I?”
“Good point, son,” the Chief said approvingly, “but it can’t be helped. The cover story will be all over the place in a few days anyway. In the meantime, you know what really happened, whether you need to or not. But you also need to know that if the real facts are ever disclosed outside this room, there are only two of us who could be the source, and one of us will be getting an immediate transfer to the Antarctica field station. And it won’t be me.”
Another sip from the big cup “Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes sir,” Phillips said with emphasis. He felt like he should salute. “You can count on me, sir.”
“I thought so,” said the Chief. “But there’s one more thing. Maybe you don’t really need to know this either, but you deserve to know it just the same.”
He lifted another sheet of paper from the file. “This is the only copy of my order canceling Agency support for the Enterprise, and telling our agents to get clear of it. It never left this room; the Special Ops people read it here, and it’s going into the burn bag before this day is over.”
Phillips started to say “Very good, sir.” But the Chief cut him off with another near-shout:
“–Then this morning when I came in, I found this on it–” He handed the sheet to Phillips.
There, across the paper, was the familiar red magic marker. “IT’S ABOUT TIME THIS WAS STOPPED,” the script declared. “NOW I CAN BE MORE AT EASE IN MY OWN HOUSE, AND IN MY OWN COUNTRY.”
Phillips’s eyebrows rose, and he handed it back. “What do you make of it, sir?”
“I hope it means she’ll leave us alone for awhile,” the Chief answered. “God knows there are enough spooks in this place already. She must not like intelligence agencies. Maybe they were against her religion.”
Phillips shrugged. “I wouldn’t let it bother you, sir,” he said. “I don’t think she liked coffee either.”
If you enjoyed this story, please share it with others. This story is
part of a collection of nineteen Quaker short stories, Posies for Peg, which is available here, and on and for Kindle. It makes a fine gift.
Ken Bradstock had something valuable to say. A lot, actually. Enough to fill a book.
I hope he got it down, on paper or on disk, whatever, before he died on January 22.
If I remember right, I first noticed Ken during the bad days of turmoil among North Carolina pastoral Quakers. Ken had been a pastor among them for awhile, and seemed to fit the profile: no city slicker, a former marine, deputy sheriff turned PhD’d therapist and hospice worker, from the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania.
Hardly a radical. But somewhere along the line he read some Buddhism and also climbed off the “Christian” homophobia train, and the combination put him and the small group he then clerked in the crosshairs when the troubles came to North Carolina Yearly Meeting.
But that’s not what I want to recall about him here. After that whirlwind passed, he and I corresponded many times, via emails and Facebook. Struck by his vivid writing, I soon recruited him to write an essay for what was a called the “Narrative Theology” rubric in the journal Quaker Theology. Called “The Land” (online in full here) I urged him to regard it as the first chapter of a book: memoir, autobiography, whatever. That became a standard, drill sergeant-style closing to my emails: “Write the damn book!”
He often replied: “I’m writing the damn book!” I hope he got enough of it finished to be a testament.
Here’s an example of why my hopes have been so high. An email exchange from 2017, which began when I sent him a photo of one of the “Peaceable Kingdom” paintings by Edward Hicks, along with a special message from Hicks.
A print of the painting had sat for some weeks on a chair at the rear of Spring Friends Meeting, where I attend. Usually my phone (and its built-in camera) come to meeting with me, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the happenstance display.
The “special message” from Hicks was from a few years after his death in 1849. It came through a Progressive Quaker who was also a spiritualist medium, Isaac Post of Rochester, New York. It too is online, here.
Ken enjoyed the peculiar “spirit post.” But there was more to say:
From: Ken Bradstock
To: Chuck Fager
Sent: Mon, Nov 20, 2017
Subject: Re: Hicks’ Paper
I got interested in Hicks and the paintings after seeing one in Reynolda Manor in Winston-Salem. It’s not my favorite but I was awed.
One short story about the power of the paintings: I was leading a therapy group in the Child and Adolescent Psych unit at Baptist. We had a 13 year old kid who had severely sexually abused his sister and he was a hard case. They’d had him for months with no break-through. One of the kid’s defenses was to use his considerable intelligence to evade and attack with sarcasm. He was cold and they thought he might be a sociopath.
I was doing a session with color copies of the Peaceable Kingdoms where in they picked the animal that they thought described them the best and then explained why to the group. Then they were asked to draw their own Peaceable Kingdom.
He suddenly got up and left the group with his drawing in hand and sought out a resident. Two hours later, I saw him in what looked like an intense conversation with the resident. The next day, the resident approached me quietly and asked what I did to the kid.
Of course I didn’t do a thing, the painting reached his soul. The team asked me to describe the technique using the paintings. They said that he’s had a complete break-through, realizing what he’d done to his sister and had opened up to the resident for almost three hours. They finally could work out a discharge and follow-up plan with his treatment.
This was the most dramatic result I had with the paintings but there are many more in more subtle ways and more incremental steps toward healing. The tone of the groups working with the paintings were fairly identical. On one extreme, there would be a stunned quiet and on the other a sort of focused curiosity. . . .
No wonder I kept shouting at him, “Write the damn book!”
A bonus: Here’s a snippet from “The Land,” about the family farm where he spent much of his childhood:
As far back as age 5, I loved that farm. Aunt Myrtle taught flannel graph Bible stories for kids in her front room around the large coal stove and our knees lined up on the sofa that smelled of farm animals and my unwashed Uncle Joe. She led me to Christ in that living room the year I was 5 and it is an event firmly ensconced in my mind to this day. It always amazes me as to how those salvation events are so entrenched in the minds of people who experience them.
They call it “Salvation” but in my life-long study of religion and its psychology, it is very similar to almost every significant religious awakening. I have a very clear picture of her, the living room, the kids on the sofa and the act of raising my hand. She asked if anybody wanted the “New Man” to run their lives instead of the “Old Man.” It was a teaching from St Paul and is a piece of good solid Evangelical Orthodoxy.
I loved Aunt Myrtle, but over the years, I realized that this was more than the family tie of being my paternal grandmother’s sister. It was her close bond to something that I loved far more but took years of excavating to identify. No relative in my family livery aside from my father held my esteem more strongly. It has also come to me that I associate my love for her with my love for the land.
I hesitate to begin a description of her here because of my temptation to become romantically entangled with my love for both. Snapshots will do for now: her at the churn, or with the bell that brought the hands in from the field for dinner, or the burdened table piled with her produce cooked all morning, and her stained apron and long white hair tied in a bun. These shots capture her sweet demeanor, but they also peek at the shadow of a woman who spent a life-time with a drunken, abusive husband. The chickens were hers; the kitchen garden was hers along with the rhubarb and the apples. The tomatoes Uncle Joe grew in perfect red and green rows out of black soil also ended up somewhere in the symphony of her table.
Aunt Myrtle knew the history of the farm and would tell stories about the part it played as she cared for the flowers she always planted around the huge grindstone in the front yard. It was there I learned about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, not in a classroom. She could show a kid the gun ports in the logs used to fight the French and Indians, and tell the story of the stone safe room under the house she used for a root cellar.
That damp room encased in stone would be filled with family and livestock when an Indian attack was anticipated. The house could be burned to the ground and those in the stony vault would be protected. Her work and her life were tied to the land, and my love for the land and the farm were teamed with a child’s awe for her.
Her eyes would light up when I and my cousin Don helped collect eggs or pick up apples over near the barn for a pie or two or three. She had a look of pleasure when she made us take over the churning while she checked on something. It was fun for her to tease us when a few minutes of pumping would have both of us panting and sweating compared to her ease and rhythm.
I wasn’t aware that the land was sick where we lived. I was less than a year old in late October of 1948 when the Donora Steel mills, American Steel and Wire Works and Carnegie Steel poured sulfuric acid, soluble sulphants, and fluorides into the air. . . .