Excerpt from 'Little America'

little_america.jpgLittle America

By Henry Bromell


Copyright © 2001 Henry Bromell. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-375-40684-0

Chapter One


One summer Saturday morning in 1957, almost five months before the events in question, the front door of a modest, two-story stucco house on P Street, in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., opened wide and out I stepped with my mother and my father. I was ten at the time, nursing a pompadour. We had been back from Syria for three years, and in five months we were to be stationed in Kurash, the subject of this story. My father was a spy, or, as he prefers to be remembered, an intelligence officer, with the C.I.A., from 1950 to 1978. He was recruited out of a Wall Street investment firm. He hated Wall Street, but, being a Wasp in good standing, he could only express his hatred indirectly and involuntarily. His neck used to lock in a rigid sideways staring position when riding the commuter train back and forth between Grand Central Station and Hastings- on-Hudson. We lived there—my father, my mother, myself, and a cocker spaniel named Winston—in a rented house on Clinton Street. I wouldn't say my father, once in the C.I.A., became a happy man; melancholia being, I now realize, endemic, deep in my family's genes. Rather, I'd say he swapped one kind of anxiety for another. His neck no longer seized on him, yet the acid drip of intelligence-gathering did eventually eat a sizable hole through his stomach and cause him to almost bleed to death.

On that hot summer morning, in 1957, my father and I headed off for Wisconsin Avenue at a leisurely pace. My mother waited for us to turn the corner, then gave chase. Up Wisconsin Avenue I walked. My father disappeared into People's Drug Store. My mother hesitated, made a decision—she went after my father. A mistake. When she entered the chill relief of People's air-conditioning and looked around, she couldn't find him. He had vanished.

We were playing a game.

The game was called Spy.

My father and I were an agent and his control. He had to pass a message to me. My mother was counterintelligence. If she could catch us passing the note, she would win. If she couldn't, we'd win. We always won. My father always won. Even in the pretend version of his life, he had to win. Looking back, I now see that my mother had to assume on a regular basis the role of a kind of spy's whipping boy, losing over and over again to my father. But maybe this game, played on weekends since I was seven, helped prepare her for December 1958, when my father flew back to Washington for consultations and left her, to the consternation of all involved, in charge of the Hamra station.

I have several questions regarding what happened, exactly, in that year, 1958, in that place, Kurash.

Kurash was a small country wedged between the eastern border of Jordan, the rump of Syria, and the southwestern corner of Iraq. It no longer exists.

What happened, in history, inexactly, is this: in December of 1958, in Kurash, the young King, only twenty-three at the time, was killed as he stood in the garden behind Hamzah Palace smoking a cigarette. His reign, which lasted a mere five years, ended in the darkness of the garden, his body prone on the gravel, a shadow leaking from him, his own blood or his soul departing his body, shadow of himself, essence of himself, the Fallen King. The blood spread from his wounds, the shadow soon surrounded him, obscured him in the night of December 31, 1958. Three-thirty in the morning. Tuesday. He died instantaneously.

His kingdom collapsed. His branch of the Hashemite family flamed out and burned.

He had no children to suffer exile.

His little country, Kurash, vanished, consumed, like a snack, by Iraq and Syria, in 1965. Our State Department protested, sort of. President Johnson sent the Sixth Fleet to anchor in Beirut Harbor, just to remind people that the United States was still around, that we hadn't been totally distracted, that Vietnam was not our only concern, which of course it was, and gave the lie to our big gray boats bobbing uselessly in Beirut Harbor, the big gray boats I saw myself from the front lawn of the American Community School, where I was then a high school senior. When I say Kurash vanished, I mean vanished, gone, evaporated. On any map of the Middle East published after 1965, where there had once been a tidy triangle of earth labeled Kurash, there where the borders of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq once had to stop and circumnavigate that brave anachronistic kingdom, they now meet, unimpeded, grossly cheek by jowl.

Gone like a dedicated Politburo leader airbrushed out of a black-and-white photograph of Stalin and his henchmen. Gone like the great tribes of the Sioux and the Shawnee, the peaceful Pocumtucks, the animistic Mohawks.

Eliminated from history.

I know from accounts recently published in the New York Times of secret Congressional hearings in the seventies that a C.I.A. case officer in Hamra, Kurash, in 1958, carried to Hamzah Palace and delivered to the King once a month a briefcase full of cash. In his book Pax Americana, George Seal of the University of Iowa posits that the King was killed by agents of the United States, agents hired and handled by the C.I.A. My father was chief of the C.I.A. station in Hamra at the time of the assassination.

I'm interested in history, which I presently teach (Modern European) at Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, California—Robert Redford's alma mater. I'm interested in what happens inside history, what history hides, what gets left out and what is forgotten.

I'm fifty years old. My own son, Eli, like me an only child, is now twenty-three and a wizard at special effects in the movies, more specifically, in horror movies. If you've seen The Third Spider or Crown of Blood, if you've seen the robocyd's computer head explode in Demon Grin, if you've seen the mutation of the caryatids in Time/Slash, then you've seen my son's work. My wife and I live in a two-bedroom bungalow in Ocean Park, about five blocks from the Pacific. I want to state for the record that my wife is terrifically intelligent and looks twenty years younger than her age, frequently causing unemployed young actors to swivel and stare when she sashays by to get her morning latte at Coffee & Bean on Main Street. I wake up eager to bask in her kindness and brilliance; the last thing I see each night before slipping off to the world of dreams is her patient and forgiving smile.

I have before me a fairly comprehensive chronology of events, drawn from witnesses; some participants; memoirs, including Ambassador Tyler Burdick's Cold War in a Hot Place (Random House, 1961); newspaper reports; files released to me, under the Freedom of Information Act, by a reluctant C.I.A.; and, whenever possible, scholarly works. I say whenever possible because there aren't many scholarly works dedicated to the question of Kurash in 1958. Very few. In fact, only three: Thomas Polmar's massive Heartbreak Arabia (Praeger, 1963), the aforementioned Pax Americana by George Seal (Harcourt, Brace, 1962), and Reluctant Imperialists: CIA and Postwar World Politics by James O. Merrill and Eugene S. Fontana (Simon and Schuster, 1966). I do not, however, know what happened inside history, I do not know if Hamlet killed Polonius, I only know that Polonius died. I lack, so far, to date, regrettably, the evidence of an observer. I have no Mercutio to explain Romeo, I have no Enobarbus to teach me the sad secrets of Anthony, I have no one who has seen too much and can do too little except confess.

Truthfully, I think I've always been kind of scared to find out exactly what went on in Kurash in 1958. My father is, after all, my father—secretive, withheld, diffidence personified, but still, my father. I love him deeply, though we aren't close, and never have been close. I don't know if I trust him. I don't even know if I like him, as a person separate from my father, I mean, some man out there named Mack Hooper going about his business, the retired C.I.A. officer who was raised by Quakers, voted for Adlai Stevenson, and wrote poetry, for a period, which he later had the good sense to burn in shame. Imagine simple and innocent words—"Good morning, old chum" or "Have you seen my glasses?"—gathering about them mysterious significance, as if they were perhaps coded and in need of deciphering. Imagine a Waspish distrust of sentiment and self-exposure legitimized by an oath of silence, a holy promise never to reveal who he really is and what he really does. I don't know him is what I'm saying, and, to bring the espionage metaphor to its logical conclusion, it has occurred to me that the only way I can learn anything about my father is to spy on him, which is why I flew to Boston and am presently camped out in the guest room of my father's condo overlooking Boston Harbor.

At night, when he's asleep, I consult my books and the several hundred index cards I have collected, each one covered with scribbled tidbits of information gleaned from the hundreds of books and documents that I have read and left behind in the UCLA library. I also unroll, scroll-like, a long piece of heavy white paper on which I am constructing my chronology of the events of 1958, in Kurash, my chart of the various comings and goings of the principal players, a diagram of What Really Happened, I Think, on which I fully intend to connect all the dots and then fearlessly stand back and see what I've got. The last determining clue found, cipher deciphered, the mystery solved. The truth. Even though I keep reminding myself there is no such thing.

I told my father I was here because I wanted to ask him some questions for a book I'm researching about American foreign policy in the Middle East during the cold war as well as the cold war's culture of espionage. "What the hell is that?" he asked. "Us," I said. He gave me a funny look, reminded me of his secrecy oath. "All I want from you," I said, "is a feel for the time, the places, the people. You were there; you know what it was like."

I know better than to be direct. Instead, I feign this almost personal curiosity, a general interest in my childhood, just to get him talking. I ask him to describe something physical. My father loves the material world. The Hamra airport, for example.

"Oh, in those days it was just a one-story white limestone building straddled by two runways on the edge of the desert."

He says this as if offhandedly describing a beautiful woman he once seduced, then leans forward to blow into his cup of steaming Earl Grey. We're sitting in his living room, a big rectangle of a room facing the harbor, old Navy buildings of granite and brick, silent circling seagulls. He likes to sit here and drink tea and watch the boats in a kind of nautical trance. Spots of autumn sunlight fill the room, along with a vague and pleasant scent of old furniture and books.

He straightens, sips. "I wish I still smoked. I miss my cigarettes."

Yesterday, while he was wheeling his cart through Bread and Circus in search of our dinner, I found, in his study, prowling, digging, snooping, spying, a note scribbled in a woman's hand across a piece of yellow, lined paper: "O love, you could not know or do know the way I feel thinking of you as I stare out this window at the gravel driveway, the high garden wall, the palm trees and flat-roofed houses of the city. . . ." The note was folded inside a Penguin paperback edition of Travels in Arabia Deserta, orange cover now faded to a dim pink, a smear of suntan lotion on the back page. Inside the cover, in my father's microscopic, spidery scrawl, I read: "February 1958, Kurash." What does this love note mean? From whom did it come? Not my mother, it isn't her handwriting. A girlfriend?

I almost ask, but instead stick with circumspection.

"When did you first go to Hamra?"

"I arrived, alone, on January the third, 1958," my father replies. "You and your mother were still in Rome."