In 1982, when I was thirty-four years old, I quit my job, cashed in my retirement, and took off around the world. I gave myself a year to accomplish four goals: see Greece, see Nepal, see the Southern Cross, and get a suntan. I left behind friends, family, job, community; all of which was inexplicable to most people who aspire to everything I was leaving. I took my passport and a backpack to the Anchorage airport and bought a standby ticket to London.
I found the international travelers at Heathrow exotic and the airport food great. I stayed and watched and ate at the airport all afternoon. It could have looked, to someone who was trained to look, like I was waiting to be met by someone who didn’t show up.
When I got bored with the airport I took the Tube to a youth hostel, checked in, and started to wander around London on foot.
When I stopped in a pub for a pint of ale a young guy in a suit asked if he could join me. He struck up a conversation about my travels, but he wouldn’t respond to any of my questions. Guessing he needed a formal introduction I stuck out my hand and gave him my name. He wouldn’t shake my hand or tell me his name. He said he was from some government agency and that they knew I was in England. It was all slightly menacing, but he was young and not very good at it.
After that night in London I decided to visit family friends in Bristol. Sir Charles and Lady Frank spent every other summer in Schenectady, New York, where I grew up, often staying on the third floor of my home. Maita Frank became one of my mother’s best friends. Sir Charles was a visiting physicist at the General Electric Research Laboratory where my father worked.
The Frank’s are the first of several family connections that make me somewhat unique. Sir Charles worked for British Intelligence during the Second World War. My father’s best friend, Thomas Paine, was a vice-president at General Electric, NASA’s administrator, and president of Northrup Aviation and must have had knowledge, if not direct participation, in secret projects for the government. Jack Lubahn, the husband in the family my parents shared child-rearing with, to facilitate adult-only vacations and create seven children multi-family outings, worked at the Knowles, the US Navy’s nuclear research facility.
Down the shore from our summer cottage on Drummond Island were the Beldons. Tom was an analyst for the CIA. There was at least one future Noble Laureate around, Ivar Giaever, and my father’s other best friend, Ed Schmidt, seemed like a James Bond without the “00” certification.
I knew some, but not all, of this at the time I went walkabout. I can understand how if someone was already concerned about my behavior, challenged me about it, and I ran to see an ex-intelligence person, that I could peek their interest.
After three days in Bristol I went back to London, decided that I didn’t want to spend another night in the youth hostel, and took a 1 AM night bus to Lion, France. I arrived at 6 AM in the morning and caught an 8 AM train to San Sebastian, Spain. I had no agenda, remember, except my four goals, and moved as the spirit directed me.
I spent the day in San Sebastian and took the overnight train to Barcelona where I got a cheap room ($2.35/night – very nice!) and began to explore the city. I am a fan of Gaudi’s architecture and I walked all over the city to look at his buildings, his parks, and his Sagrada Família.
I also walked in neighborhoods looking in people’s trashcans and vestibules. The climbing boots I was taking to hike with in Nepal were too big and heavy and I needed a box to mail them home in. Boxes, apparently, were rare and it took me several days of rooting to find one.
While I walked form one neighborhood to another, from ritzy to slum, from commercial to residential, looking at Gaudi architecture and in trashcans, I noticed I was being followed. I had recently read a spy novel where I learned that the weak link in multi-costume, close surveillance was a person’s shoes. Other items of clothing were easier to change on the fly, but shoes too often stayed the same.
I didn’t need to know this, however, to spot my tail. I was working this poor woman to death. She didn’t have time to change her clothing, let alone her shoes, and I was moving her into such diverse neighborhoods that she was often wildly, inappropriately dressed. Her “cover” had no reason to be in many of the places she had to follow me.
After three days in Barcelona I took the train to Nice, spent one night and then went on to Rome. I arrived at 6 AM in Rome and had two “cardboard girls” try to pickpocket me under the approving gaze of a policeman. Pissed off, I left Rome at 1 PM the same day for Greece.
In Athens I followed my usual wandering habits. After a week of exploring and random contacts with interesting people in cheap hotels I took the night ferry to Crete. I met a New Zealander, Mark Crosley on the ferry and we hiked together on Crete for a week. He had been traveling and working around the world for three years and had given himself eight months to get home.
Mark was only one of a number of people I hooked up with on this trip. I was a shy person then and yet the guy I sat next to on the bus to Lion chatted me up about my travels. A German backpacker hooked up with me on the train to San Sebastian and we spent the day sight-seeing together. Mark spent a whole week with me. There were too many other meetings before and after Mark to be normal for me.
I had become quite a popular guy––people wanted to meet me, travel with me, keep track of me! I began to wonder why. Why would people be interested enough in me to commit sizable resources to keep track of me; a middle-aged drunk (at the time) living out a mid-life crisis?
The only thing that makes sense to me is that I was a “Straw Man”; and a particularly effective one at that. Every government has spies that it works hard to protect. One way to protect a spy is to hide him or her within a much larger group of fake spies––Straw Men. Straw Men are ordinary, unsuspecting people that spies and their handlers have regular contact with to throw off the opposition who can’t tell whether the contacts are important or not until they invest the resources to check them out. Until they do so they have to assume any contact could also be a spy. This misdirection stretches the opposition’s resources and takes focus off of the real spies.
This is a clever, efficient, and inexpensive way to confuse an enemy. There must be thousands of Straw Men; unaware of the role they play. I am sure I was one.
My theory about Straw Men is obviously conjecture, I don’t have any inside knowledge; but I would be embarrassed if the United States weren’t using this ploy. By luck of birth I was a particularly effective Straw Man. I could easily have been up to something––why else would I abandon family and career? I had many contacts with people of interest to other countries and . . . who knows?
 I was warned about cardboard girls on the train to Rome. In my case, two eight or nine year old barefoot street urchins ran up to me holding unfolded cardboard boxes covered with writing in different languages. Each poked me in the stomach and side with their box, pointed at the words on the boxes, and jabbered at me as fast as they could. While I scanned the writing looking to understand, the girls pointing hands disapeared under the boxes, that block my view from my waist down, and into my pocket. The poking masked the feeling of their hands rummaging in my clothing while the jabbering and writing confused me. I suppose the observing policeman delayed my sense of peril. It all happened in seconds. I had to reach around and under a box to pull a hand off of my wallet.
When I travel I carry my wallet in my front pocket. After my encounter with the cardboard girls I carry a diaper safety-pin to pin my pocket shut when I am in dicy areas. I had one I really liked with a blue ducky clasp that I lost. I now have one with a yellow heart.