The key number to remember when you parachute out of an airplane at an altitude of five hundred feet is two. You have two seconds to do two things. Get your feet down and your cord pulled. That’s it, that’s all you need to know.
I hadn’t jumped since ‘44 so the flyboys thought it would be a good idea for me to take a couple low-altitude warm-ups from a C-45 at Andrews AFB. Shake off the rust after a four year layoff.
Sure. Why not triple my chances of falling five hundred feet in six seconds and smacking the sod at ninety miles an hour? I told them to get stuffed. I’d risk my tender hide only when it mattered. And I’d pack my own damn chute.
I was more of a jerk than I needed to be to those earnest young men who were just about my age but seemed like kids. It wasn’t their fault I had fumbled and stumbled my way into another suicide mission.
The drop zone was located in rural central Romania. Transylvania, an area ringed by the thickly-wooded Carpathian Mountains. Which explained the tiny drop zone which explained the low altitude jump.
The mission wasn’t a complete disaster. I jumped out the joe hole and into the night sky with one big improvement over WW II. It wasn’t a blind drop, I had a group of resistance fighters waiting to greet me.
I executed a perfect two-point landing in a clearing between two mountains. My contact was Captain Sorin Dragomir, a large fortyish man with waves of thick brown hair. His well-upholstered gut and full set of teeth marked him as a man of stature.
That and his tasseled hessians and uniform jacket, buttons bursting, the gold braid above his breast pocket jiggling as he shook my hand. His dozen or so khaki-clad men were smaller and darker-skinned.
A dozen men. Christ. Joe Stalin must be quaking in his boots.
I got on my hotshot new Joan/Eleanor transceiver, rang the radio operator of the C-45 circling overhead and gave him the code for a safe landing. “Chaise lounge.”
“Godspeed.” With any luck the crew would reach their refueling strip in northern Turkey with a couple gallons left in the tank.
It was late, all I wanted was a quick snort and some shuteye. But the Captain made his men stand to attention around a guttering fire as he made a welcoming speech in English about the deep and abiding friendship between our two great nations. An elderly man stood beside him and translated his remarks into rapid-fire Romanian.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that it sounded a lot like Italian. One thing I’d learned in my mission briefing was that, despite the vast expanse of pale and dour Yugoslavs and Hungarians separating them from Italy, Romanians considered themselves charter members of the Roman Empire. Which they were many centuries ago. Funny what people choose to take pride in.
The troops dispersed after the welcoming ceremony. The Captain and I retired to his little fortress at the edge of the clearing. It was a very old building. I had to bend at the waist to clear the doorway. The main room was lit by candles in an iron ceiling wheel. No fire in the fireplace though the night was cold.
Before the front door was closed I caught a glimpse of two of Dragomir’s troops skittering by, headed home. It looked as though they had changed back into civilian clothes, which I took to mean that Captain Dragomir had not secured even this obscure slice of real estate.
The Captain and I seated ourselves at a table made from dark, foot-wide planks. The elderly man, apparently Drago-mir’s valet, went to a rough cupboard and fetched a bottle of twenty-year-old hooch and two crystal tumblers.
“I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, Captain, but I don’t drink Scotch.”
“It tastes like peat moss.”
The Captain laughed at me. I knew the local drink was plum brandy so I asked for some. Dragomir laughed some more and issued instructions to his man.
We were served a delicious cold supper by candlelight. Three kinds of cheese, smoked ham, crusty bread, cucumbers in sour cream and sliced tomatoes. I should’ve stuck with peat moss, however. The plum brandy tasted like gasoline.
Frank Wisner, my boss, had set Dragomir and his men a task, which I relayed to him. They were to conduct surveillance on a Romanian Army encampment about ten kilometers to the southwest. This was to serve two purposes. To determine if the Captain’s men could follow orders. And to assess the readiness and morale of the Romanian Army in a remote outpost.
The Soviet Army was spread thin throughout Eastern Europe. They had a base outside Bucharest, for instance, but they relied on the Romanian Army to keep order in the hinterlands. And the hinterlands weren’t happy. The puppet government in Bucharest did as Moscow instructed. It collectivized farms and closed churches, which did not go over well with the locals.
Frank Wisner thought the Romanian Army would prove an unreliable ally for the Soviets, doubted they would open fire on their own people if push came to shove. How I was supposed to determine that by examining a remote Romanian outpost through binoculars was left to me.
Once I explained it to him Captain Dragomir agreed to Frank Wisner’s assignment without hesitation. We would march tomorrow evening, zero hundred hours. And how was his old friend Frank coming along in his important new job?
The beeswax candles flickered in the drafty, heavy-timbered little fort. The old man cleared our plates and went away. The Captain poured himself another tumbler as the shadows danced.
“This building dates back to the 17th Century. It was a Swabian hunting lodge.” He pointed to the stag horns mounted over the door, and the blackened hooks in the attic.
“That is where they smoked the meat.”
Meat hooks, ugh. Hitler was fond of meat hooks.
Captain Dragomir was keen to tell me all about his elaborate plan to foment rebellion against Moscow’s puppet regime in Bucharest but I was not, at this late hour, keen to listen to his delusions of grandeur.
That would have been a mistake under normal circum-stances. If you are sent on a risky and expensive mission to gather intelligence you don’t insult your source by saying, “I’m all in, Captain, let’s discuss this tomorrow.” That’s because tomorrow has a way of scampering off down the road while you’re lacing up your shoes.
But, as luck would have it, my bad attitude paid off.
I returned home to Cleveland in July of ’46 after my covert stint working for General William Donovan in Berlin. Returned to reclaim my room at Mrs. Brennan’s rooming house and look for work. Being a hero doesn’t pay well. I found a job as a research assistant in the downtown Cleveland Public Library. Not much of a payday but it gave me a chance to learn stuff. I liked it so far as it went.
Then I got a call from Frank Wisner, head of CIA’s Office of Policy Co-ordination, inviting me to Washington for a weekend. I accepted. OPC was Wild Bill Donovan’s dream come true – a well-funded, semi-independent covert operations org within the new CIA.
I was met by a driver at National Airport on Friday night, October 8th, 1948 and installed in a suite at the Mayflower Hotel. Nice digs. Wisner had left instructions at the front desk. Pack an overnight bag and meet my driver, Haskell, at 1300 hours on Saturday.
I did that. Haskell was a good hire, answering my probing questions with vague generalities. We drove three hours north to the Maryland shore. Sparse, wind-swept country with a tang of salt you could taste on your tongue.
Haskell perked up when we arrived at Locust Hill. “It’s not a gentleman’s farm, not a bit. They grow corn and sorghum and run livestock too.”
We turned off the two-lane highway and jounced down a rutted dirt road between plowed-under fields. A man about forty and a boy about twelve were pitching silage into the back of a pickup, the boy straining to keep up. I asked Haskell if the man was Frank Wisner.
He had a high forehead, Wisner, a bulldozer jaw and dusty hair combed straight back. He looked like actor Van Johnson’s tough older brother.
I climbed out with my overnight bag. Wisner greeted me like we were old pals and introduced me to Frank Jr. My driver turned around and headed off.
Wisner walked me over to a two-story brick house with creaky peg wood floors and bay windows with inch-thick glass. I met Wisner’s wife and young daughter, Polly and Wendy, a pretty pair with matching cheekbones.
“Ellis and Graham are down at the crick giggin’ frogs,” said Wisner.
I smiled and nodded.
Frank grabbed me a beer from the fridge and led me out to the guest cottage in back. “Settle in, wash the dust off. You like gumbo?”
“If it’s food, sir, I like it.”
Frank Wisner was five yards gone before the screen door slammed behind him. I nipped at the beer and looked out the window, watched a stolid sugar maple shed red-orange leaves to the cutting wind. I flopped down on a saggy featherbed and wondered why I was here.
I would entertain any sort of stateside proposition Frank Wisner had to offer. But I wasn’t going out again. I took a cat nap, washed up and reported to the farm house.
Wisner was in the kitchen, stirring a big cast iron skillet furiously. It was late afternoon but no other guests had arrived. Was I it?
“Schroeder, good timing. Take over.”
“When it gets dark brown turn the heat off. And watch yourself. It’s roux, Cajun napalm.”
I stirred the stuff, which looked like something you’d use to lube axle bearings. It went from light to dark brown in about a minute. I turned the heat off.
“Watch this,” said Wisner and poured a cooler teeming with blue crabs into the sink. One scuttled up Frank’s hard-muscled forearm. He brushed it back into the sink with a laugh.
Wisner put me to work chopping onions, the louse, then tossed the crabs into a pot of boiling water, cackling fiendishly. The mud-spattered boys, Ellis and Graham, trooped in with speared frogs and set about chopping off their legs. Dad scooped boiled crabs from the pot and hacked them apart with a cleaver.
Daughter Wendy poked her head in for a moment, gagged and went away. I saw her point. The kitchen looked like a battlefield surgery tent.
“We’re draggin’ our wagon here gentlemen. The distaff crew needs to get about the biscuits and dirty rice,” said Wisner as he stirred the onions into the hot roux. He added okra and cayenne and garlic powder and dumped it all into a big pot of steaming soup stock.
Ellis and Graham floured and dusted a dozen frogs’ legs. We had enough food to feed the Russian Army.
Wisner set the oven timer and told the boys to add the crab to the pot when it dinged. Then he took me by the elbow for a walking tour of Locust Hill Farm.
We passed a marshy pond rimmed by brown cat o’ nine tails. Wisner pointed out the duck blind they used in season.“You a hunter?”
A mild chuckle from Wisner. “I envy you. I wasn’t privileged to see combat during the war.”
“I don’t know that it was much of a privilege. Sir.”
“That’s where you’re wrong Schroeder. I was Navy before I joined the OSS, stuck in the New York Censor’s Office, shuffling papers. I sprained my ankle playing touch football one weekend. So I was on crutches Monday morning when I climbed on a Manhattan subway car in my Navy blues.” Wisner winced. “And the good folks of New York City stood up and gave me a round of applause.”
“Couldn’t be helped, sir. And I hear you did great work in Bucharest.”
Wisner did not reply. We walked on in silence, crunching dead leaves underfoot.
“Here’s where we are,” he said after a time, his Southern drawl making the sentence sound like one long word. “FDR thought that the Four Policemen – the U.S., Britain, Russia and China – would keep the peace in their four corners of the globe after the war. But that hasn’t worked out so well.”
Wisner picked up the pace. “I believe we can do a little something about that, Schroeder. I believe we can recruit, train and arm indigenous anti-Communist insurgents in Eastern Europe. I know these people. They’re fierce fighters, sick to death of foreign occupation.”
I was inclined to agree with him until he added, “You had some success in Berlin with this kind of thing.”
“Mostly, sir, what we had was a lot of luck,” I said, recalling how easily the Soviets had duped the White Russian resistance fighters. I continued. Shot my mouth off in fact.
“Sir I’m guessing the Soviets have already culled the herd in Eastern Europe. Anyone with military training has cast their lot with the Reds, or been executed. The leftovers, the shopkeepers, farmers and clerks, they’re fine decent people who wouldn’t know an M-1 from a licorice stick.”
I hated hearing myself sound so candyass. Frank Wisner was a direct descendant of Wild Bill Donovan, whose wartime motto was ‘try anything.’ But, as I learned in Berlin, a cold war is a lot trickier than a hot one.
Wisner stopped and looked up at the purpled sky. A shadow of concern or disappointment flickered across his stony mug. We turned and started back toward the house, footfalls in synch on the leafy dirt.
“We have made rookie mistakes, no question. I can’t disclose details but we launched an operation in Eastern Europe earlier this year, with trusted foreign agents, ex-pats, from the OSS days. There were over a hundred of them all told. We inserted them into a controlled situation based on bad intelligence. And they were rolled up within a week. Prosecuted at show trials, executed at dawn,” said Wisner in a husky voice. “We have got to do better.”
Yeah, no shit.
I turned at the sweep of headlights to see a Cadillac limousine roll to a stop in front of the farmhouse.
A uniformed chauffeur opened the back door. A tall and slender young man with dark pomaded hair climbed out and leaned in to assist a tall and slender young woman. They stood in the dim light from the porch lamp and unrumpled their attire. His a belted tweed jacket and plus fours suitable for grouse hunting. Hers a brown cardigan over a white blouse and dark pleated slacks. They waited for Frank to greet them.
“Your Majesties, welcome to my humble abode.”
His Majesty surveyed the old farmhouse with a jaundiced eye. “Just as you say.”
Her Majesty smiled at Frank Wisner. “Ignore him. He’s been like that all day.”
The young man took this jibe good-naturedly. “A great pleasure to see you Frank. It’s been too long. As you can see I have married well.”
“So I’ve heard. Congratulations.”
The young man nodded his appreciation, then grinned mischievously. “We have brought you an uninvited guest.”
It was only then that I noticed the slight figure in the front seat. The chauffeur hurried to the passenger’s side and opened the door. The woman who stepped out was short in stature. Only her face was visible above the roof of the limo. Frank Wisner caught his breath.
“Your good friend, Princess Stela Varadja,” said the regal young man. As if Frank Wisner didn’t know.
“Hello Frank,” she said in a heavy Eastern European accent. “You seem surprise to see me.”
Wisner opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out.
Frank found his tongue once we were inside. He introduced me to his guests. Michael the First, King of Romania, and his wife, Princess Anne of Bourbon Parma.
“I prefer Prince of the Hohenzollern these days,” sniffed the young king as he shook my hand. His grip was very firm.
“And you may call me Nan,” said his wife.
The slight-figured Princess Stela hung back. She was one of those women you can’t take your eyes off of for fear you’ll miss something. Wisner stood to my left and vibrated with kinetic energy. A five-year-old could have told you they’d been lovers.
Frank ran down his exalted guests’ genealogical charts, just to be saying something.
“Michael is the great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria. Nan is the daughter of Princess Margrethe of Denmark.”
I smiled and nodded. Wisner cleared his throat. “And Princess Stela Varadja is a direct descendant of Prince Vlad Tepes.”
“Vlad the Impaler,” said King Michael, drolly. “Stoker’s inspiration for Count Dracula, though Stela would prefer you didn’t mention it.”
I saw it instantly. Chalk white skin, devilish brows, a slender nose that dipped like a beak ever so slightly. Shimmering black eyes, purple lips.
“Vlad Tepes Draculea made Romania a country,” said Princess Stela hotly. “And Bram Stoker was lying fool. Prince Vlad he lived in Wallachia, not Transylvania.”
I kept my Bela Lugosi impression to myself and marveled at the cast of characters Frank Wisner had assembled in his rustic cottage.
Polly and the kids presented a welcome dose of down home when they entered a moment later, though I barely recognized the boys. They’d been scrubbed and shampooed within an inch of their lives.
The children were well schooled. They bowed and curtseyed as introductions were made and conversed easily with their guests. I was impressed. The loftiest visitor to ever grace our home in Youngstown was the parish priest. And he scared me to death.
Polly showed no sign of resentment or suspicion when she greeted Princess Stela. Of course she didn’t. Frank Wisner hadn’t come this far while married to a woman who didn’t know how to play the game.
Princess Stela proved not so circumspect however.
Wisner pulled a jeroboam of champagne from the fridge and popped the cork off the kitchen ceiling to whoops of delight. Polly lined up six glasses on the kitchen counter. Frank filled them rapid fire, right to left, then added a blood red drop of Crème de Cassis to each glass.
“There,” he said, “a proper Kir Royale.”
The guests started forward to partake but Wisner waved them off. He placed the brimming champagne cocktails on a serving tray and handed the tray to Wendy, who was all of nine years old. We held our collective breath as she made her way from the kitchen to the parlor with short quick steps. She didn’t spill a drop. Entertaining dignitaries was, apparently, a team sport in the Wisner household.
King Michael and his wife clucked and cooed at young Wendy’s feat but Princess Stela looked cross. She hadn’t suffered a tedious three-hour car ride to find her dashing wartime swain nestled in domestic bliss. He was supposed to be alone. No self-respecting European aristocrat carried his wife and family to his sporting lodge.
Wendy presented the Princess with her drink. Stela thanked the girl and looked up.
“Is no caviar Frank? We always had caviar.”
The room got quiet. A gust of wind rattled the windowpanes. Polly Wisner’s face froze in mid-smile as Frank did a slow burn. Graham, the youngest boy, broke the tension.
“We got frogs’ legs. Right from the crick!”
After one of the most delicious, gut-busting dinners I ever set a tooth on Polly said good night and took the kids off to bed. Frank went outside to collect the chauffeur, depositing him on a stool in the kitchen with a cold beer and a bowl of gumbo.
Wisner ushered his regal guests to the parlor for coffee and cognac. As low scrotum on the totem I took the coffee orders – milk not cream for King Michael, one sugar for Princess Nan, black for Wisner, and cream, two sugars and a dash of Crème de Cassis for Stela Varadja.
I watched my footing carefully as I served them, aware that dumping a cup of scalding coffee on his or her majesty was just the kind of thing Hal Schroeder would do.
Frank sat next to the royal couple on a well-used chesterfield. Princess Stela and I sat opposite them in cane-back chairs. The fire in the rough stone fireplace burned bright.
Princess Stela, who looked more gypsy than vampire now that she’d had a few champagne cocktails, began to spin a spellbinding tale.
She told how King Michael staged a daring coup d’etat against pro-Nazi strongman Ion Antonescu in 1944, throwing him in prison and declaring war against the Axis. She recounted how the King fought Soviet control almost single-handedly after war’s end but was finally forced to abdicate in 1947
Princess Stela husked her voice as the fire grew low and smoky. She told how the Red Army had rounded up eighty thousand Volksdeutsche, mostly Saxons from Transylvania, in January of 1945. And packed them off in boxcars to Stalin’s work camps to slave and die.
Stela paused to brush back a damp strand of hair that was plastered to her forehead. She grabbed it between thumb and forefinger and returned the errant tress to its proper place before she concluded her story. How Frank Wisner had racketed around Bucharest like a madman trying to stop the roundup, trying to save anyone he could.
This was all for my benefit, had to be. Everyone else knew the story. I asked Wisner if he’d had any luck.
“Well, I saved Hugo.”
The chauffeur hoisted a beer from the kitchen.
Causes John Knoerle Supports
Paralyzed Veterans of America
St. Labre Indian School