We are who we are… changed occasionally by our experiences and our health.
I went to Vietnam the first time as a 22 year old 2nd Lieutenant platoon leader and came back a much, much older 23 year combat vet. The ways I changed -my mother told me before I knew myself – was that I was more direct in my thinking, sadder, more mature.
My two year experiences in Laos working with the out-numbered Hmong hills-tribesmen against invading North Vietnamese regulars also changed me. Again almost without my knowing, I became a little different, certainly more disdainful of pretension and incompetent real echelon politicians. And I found I truly liked and was good at the combat zone risk taking with other CIA people assigned Long Tieng, the Hmong, and the Thai, and God almighty Ravens and Air America pilots.
Back in Vietnam at the very end, I developed deeply felt sympathies for the Vietnamese we left on the battlefield and I developed disgust over the miss-management and wrong-headedness in our efforts to maintain the freedom of that wonderful country. It all made me different.
After the war I stayed on in the clandestine corps of the CIA, unlike many of my para-military CIA cohorts who had changed in such a way that they wanted to do something else.
And then for the next 18 years, working undercover around the world changed me still more. Not so much in the ideological and philosophical way some of my early SEA experiences had, but in my way of doing life. Overseas, working as a spy, you keep a lot of secrets in your head. Your agents, people you would like to be your agents, safe combinations, secrets you might know about the way the host foreign government works, E & E plans… every Top Secret cable you read coming into the station.
And there are receptions and meetings at bars and informal gatherings at people’s houses in which there is an endless supply of liquor… always causing concern about unintentionally letting secrets slip… plus you’re afraid of talking on the phone about anything that might relate to your business because overseas especially if you are working out of a US Embassy you assume the phone is bugged. The phone ringing overseas to a spy on assignment sends different signals to the brain than it does to an everyday person in the States.
Acts of kindness extended by strangers overseas sounds warning to working spies, much, much more so than everyday kindness to others not in the business of espionage and counter-espionage.
And the business of collecting intelligence overseas, living under cover, certainly over time changes a person’s perspective. They become more calculating, more suspicious. US spy handlers are not as traumatized and changed as someone who has extensive combat experiences, but they change. They can put their overseas intelligence work skills in mental baskets and put those baskets in the back of their mind when they come back to the states… but they remember.
And the coming back to the states is also something of note. Walking back into Headquarters after a year or two years overseas – coming in the front entrance to access the badge office off the lobby – walking across the tile CIA emblem on the floor of the lobby, always noticing the stars of honor carved on the right wall, of those CIA officers who have died in the line of duty, some of them old friends.
That’s part of coming back from assignment; passing that wall of honor. Then getting your old familiar badge and walking down the marble halls of the first floor – often towards the cafeteria as a first stop – hearing your footfalls in the wide corridors… there is a catharsis singular only to clandestine corps people, that they are home, safe. They don’t have to be on-guard as much. They can relax; unlike they could at any moment overseas. Home, safe. In from the cold.
Changed, but not that you’d notice. Maybe a mother could. But listen to me here, the journey-man case officer- after a few tours – under the surface is different from anyone else you’ll ever meet.
I say all that to set up this story.
Conrad “Connie” Schwartz worked at the CIA base in the US Consulate in Can Tho, Vietnam in 1974 and early 1975.
Not sure his background. Someone suggested he started out in the Operations Directive as a communication officer. Don’t think he was ever married. He may have made a name for himself once he got to Vietnam as a CIA case officer by uncovering intelligence on the North Vietnamese use of the port of Sihanoukville to bring in war supplies for the fight in South Vietnam – maybe information that higher ups didn’t believe.
Whatever, he was a relaxed, friendly guy, dedicated to the CIA, with a wealth of stories. I was assigned initially out in one of the provinces and when I did occasionally come in to Can Tho and would at night visit the State Department club (it had another name I’ve forgotten now, Coconut Grove?) I was always happy to see Connie sitting at the bar… because he was just a fantastic conversationalist… well he was sneaky that way. He didn’t always do most of the talking but he’d steer conversation of others in directions that were just curious and different and entertaining.
Maybe he smoked a pipe, but I’m not sure. Maybe he would just gesture with his drink, or something, but he was animated and busy with his hands. He was not gross or scatological or whorish in his comments, he didn’t employ locker-room talk to make sessions fun and entertaining.
He was clever and liked to spin yarns that had unusual endings. He wasn’t the type to walk a straight line in that he didn’t just go directly from here to there… he was all over the place with interesting observations about life. I cannot remember a single one now, but he liked paradoxes, and enigmas. He had some complicated theories about extra-sensual perception and extra-terrestrials.
He was into gamesmanship; liked the idea of spy vs. spy. Liked figuring out things based on human nature and man’s fallibility.
Just all in all a very interesting guy to hang with. We spent many hours in Can Tho, Vietnam just jawing. Not always trying to tell one-up-manship funny stories as much as telling interesting, puzzling, soulful stories.
We lost touch back in the states after Vietnam – although I’d see him occasionally in the halls of CIA Hqs.
He retired from the Agency, maybe in the 90s when I was assigned out from Headquarters.
In the early 2000s he died and word circulated among his friends that a memorial service would be held in his condo near the Washington, DC Naval Yards. All his old buddies were invited. I was back working after 9/11 so I went. I knew maybe half the people – all of them agency. I imagined the others were CIA staffers and alumni also.
It turned out to be a very richly catered event during which this lawyer, who no one knew, appeared on the patio and conducted a formal reading of the will. The man spoke in a distinctively cultured voice and had a sense of importance about himself. There wasn’t a hair out of place, his suit looked tailored, his tie silk, his shoes expensive… well who knows if they were expensive, the cuffs to his pants had a perfect break right above the shoes that angled down so that the shoes were mostly hidden – so probably the shores were expensive. The dude was dressed.
He was a big time, down-town Washington lawyer. I didn’t get particularly close, but I bet he smelled like old money.
He said Connie had stipulated that this party was to be held for his friends and he encouraged everyone to eat, drink and be merry. And, the lawyer said, reading from the will, all of his friends were invited into his study and were to take any books there of their choosing. The rest would be given to charity. And there was some statement about which particular charity he had in mind.
He closed his leather backed notebook and stepped to the side.
Not a particularly long or surprising statement from this hot-shot lawyer. Connie probably didn’t have expensive hobbies. Like I said, never married that I knew. No one ever mention that he had kids. But nothing was said about his estate really… Only the books. In the study.
Igor, another case officer I had known for a long time, – maybe Merle, another case officer friend -and I walked into the study together and stood side by side looking at the floor to ceiling book shelves and the hundreds, maybe thousands of books there.
Had Connie, I wondered, set up something here that was more than just giving away “books of our choosing.” Connie was a gamesman. Wonder if… what were the chances of… would he have… was there something in one of the books before us, like a check, or book with the insides carved out and filled with hundred dollar bills. Maybe a chit to be turned over to the hoity totty lawyer giving the bearer rights to thousands of dollars? Tens of thousands, maybe? Was this possible? And the answer came back quickly, sure, that’s possible. Connie would have done something like that.
The lawyer with the probably very expensive shoes walked from the patio, looked in the study at us and then walked back outside. He stood alone, as if he was waiting for something to happen.
What book would Connie have chosen to hide the booty? I walked over to the closest stack of books and began to look them over, when I noticed that the room had filling up with others just looking at the books, as if they were asking themselves, which book? Which one?
In front of me there was a leather bound book on religion, so I picked it up and acted like I was thumbing through it. Nothing. So I put it back. Then another. And another. Nothing.
What was left to do – if I continued this hunt – was taking each book and shaking it upside down to see if anything fell out, but if I did others would see… and turning books upside down and shaking them would look very crass, very un-Connie, so that was really out of the question.
Finally, after checking two or three dozen books all around the room – some at random, some with provocative titles – with no success, I said to myself, you win, you bastard. You knew you were dealing with old spies here – not regular, normal people – and you knew with the reading of your will how we would think… and that we would hoist ourselves on our own greedy, unique calculating petards.
‘Cause in fact you left nothing but books. Right?
But then as I left the study – being one of the last out – I turned and looked back and realized… I’ll never know.
Damn, Connie, you sumbitch.
You’re good. I’ll wonder forever.
Post Script: Since the above was published, Don K reported to me that he knew Connie Schwartz in Can Tho. Don said he had two ex-wives and that he had a propensity for boorish behavior; one time in Don K’s presence viciously admonished a waitress for a minor serving error.
So think of Connie as a car wreck… and you got Don’s report and mine. Probably Diogenes would go with Don’s because Don knew Connie better than me… but if you like good stories, remember mine.