Authors: Lara Prescott
During the day, Teddy treated me as he treated all the typists when passing through SR: a nod in the morning, maybe a wave goodbye at night. But after hours, he’d give me his full attention in training me to pick up and deliver internal messages for the Agency.
He’d have me practice putting an envelope under a table, bench, chair, barstool, bus seat, toilet. He started me out with the standard white letter envelope. Then I graduated to pamphlets and manila folders, then books, then packages. He compared what we were doing to a magic trick, telling me the Agency had studied the sleight-of-hand greats like Walter Irving Scott and Dai Vernon, adapting their techniques. He showed me how to let a package slide down my leg and hit the ground without a sound. “It’s all a trick,” he said.
He taught me how to tell if someone was following me—to look out for anyone suspicious, anyone watching, and especially to be careful of LOPs. “Little Old People have a lot of time on their hands,” he explained. “They sit in parks for hours and will call the cops at the drop of a hat if they see something out of the ordinary.”
When I’d make a mistake, he’d tell me that all it takes is practice. And practice I did. Every night, when Mama was asleep, I locked my bedroom door and practiced sliding envelopes of various sizes into books, my purse, Mama’s purse, a suitcase, and every pocket in my wardrobe. When I demonstrated for Teddy how I could slip a tiny scroll of paper from a hollow lipstick tube into his jacket pocket, he told me I was ready for a real test.
“Only one way to find out.”
That was the Mayflower drop: not a real mission, but a test to see if I was ready. Teddy told me he’d be watching, although I wouldn’t see him. And he was right; there’d been no sign of Teddy that night at the Mayflower. But the next day, I came into the office to find a white rose propped against my typewriter with a tiny red plastic sword sticking through its stem like a thorn.
“Secret admirer?” Norma asked.
“Just a friend,” I said.
huh? Not a secret Valentine?”
“It’s today, you know.”
“Oh,” I said. I’d forgotten. Thankfully, Norma got called into a meeting before she could ask another question. But the mystery of the rose was revisited again that afternoon. “I hear you’re dating Teddy Helms,” Linda said, peeking over the partition that separated our desks. When I looked up, the entire typing pool was standing there, waiting for an answer.
“What? No. We’re not.” I was taken aback, worried I’d blown my cover.
“Gail said Lonnie Reynolds said she saw Teddy leave the white rose this morning.”
“I mean, he wasn’t exactly keeping it hush-hush,” Gail said.
“When did you two start dating?”
Overwhelmed, I excused myself to the ladies’, hopeful they’d forget all about the rose by the time I got back. They hadn’t, and they continued peppering me with questions I had no answers to until it was time to clock out.
“Wanna come to Martin’s with us?” Norma asked. “Two-for-one oysters and a bartender who pours us doubles ’cause he has a thing for Judy. And seeing how you say you’re still single, you probably won’t have Valentine’s Day plans, right?”
“I can’t,” I said. “I do have plans, but not a date. Not anything like that.”
“Uh-huh,” Norma said.
I was furious at Teddy for putting me in the typing pool’s crosshairs. Why had he done it? What was he getting at? I made up my mind to ask as soon as I saw him, but lost my nerve when he greeted me with a glass of whiskey and a toast to a job well done at the Mayflower.
“You did good, kid,” he said, clinking my glass. “There are a few things we need to work on, but you did a damn fine job. Anderson’s pleased. We think you’ll be ready for the field soon, for a real mission coming down the pipeline.”
“Got it,” I said, knowing not to ask for details but not knowing what else to say. “And thank you.” I could tell Teddy wasn’t sure if I was thanking him for his compliment or for the white rose. An awkward pause opened between us.
“By the way, you didn’t say anything,” Teddy said, breaking the silence.
“About?” I asked dumbly.
“The typing pool was quite enthralled.”
“But you weren’t?”
“I don’t…I don’t really like being the center of attention.”
Teddy laughed. “The talent you were hired for,” he said. “But really. Sorry about that. People here latch on to a rumor like a dog to a mailman.”
“I mean, I’m sorry. I thought it would be nice.”
“It was nice…it’s just that…do we want people knowing we know each other?”
He scratched his chin and leaned forward. “Maybe it could work as a cover. If people think we’re dating, they won’t suspect anything out of the ordinary if they see us together. Nothing serious—no harm done, right? Unless you have a real boyfriend who might get upset?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend, but—”
“Perfect,” he said. “Wanna start now? We could get a drink at Martin’s. Don’t they all congregate there?”
“I don’t know.”
Teddy held up the now empty glass. “Let’s just stop by for a minute.”
“Isn’t that the kind of thing that’s frowned upon in the workplace?”
“Pardon my French, but half the Agency wouldn’t get laid if we didn’t date each other. Besides, we’re not really dating, are we?”
Teddy took my hand as we crossed the threshold into Martin’s. The bar was crowded with K Street lobbyists—Teddy said you could pick them out by their finer suits and shoes so new they still squeaked on the waxed floor. They took up real estate at the bar while their poorly dressed government counterparts occupied the tables. Law interns mingled at the buffet, loading up on oysters. And the typing pool was still there, sitting at a booth to the left of the bar.
“How ’bout we sit there?” I asked, pointing at a two-top across the room.
“Let’s grab a drink at the bar first.”
“They have waitresses, I think.”
“This’ll be quicker.” We squeezed ourselves in and Teddy signaled for the bartender to bring us two whiskeys. He paid and held up his glass. “To new friends,” he said. And just as we clinked, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Irina,” Norma said. “You finally made it to Martin’s. Come on over and join us.” She looked at Teddy. “You, too, Teddy.”
“It was a last-minute sorta thing,” Teddy said. “We have dinner reservations at Rive Gauche. Just stopped in for a drink.”
“Rive Gauche? How’d you land that on Valentine’s?”
“Friend owed me a favor.”
“Why don’t you join us for your drink? There’s plenty of room at our table.”
We looked over at the table and the girls looked away. “Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
“Look who the cat dragged in,” Norma said, escorting us to the booth. The girls scooted around to make room. I took a seat, but Teddy remained standing. “Excuse me for a moment, ladies.” We watched as he went to the jukebox and started feeding it change.
Judy elbowed me. “Nothing going on with you two, huh?”
Norma gave Judy a told-you-so look. “White rose on the desk in the morning? Rive Gauche at night?”
“Rive Gauche?” Kathy said. “Fancy.”
Teddy returned just as the jukebox clicked on a record. He took his jacket off and handed it to Judy, who forced a smile. Was she jealous? Of me? “Wanna dance?” he asked.
“But no one’s dancing,” I said.
“They will be,” Teddy replied, extending a hand. “Come on! This is Little Richard!”
“Little who?” Without waiting for my answer, he took my hand and led me to the dance floor: a square of parquet with no tables on it. I was never a very good dancer—all arms and legs that never seemed to cooperate with each other—but I still loved to try. And boy, could Teddy dance. Not only was every pair of eyes in the typing pool on us, it seemed everyone in the place was watching. Teddy spun me around as if he were Fred Astaire and I felt I was playing a role—and playing it well. I ate up the feeling just as I had at the Mayflower drop. Teddy pulled me closer. “They’ve bought it,” he whispered.
After another dance and another drink, we left the bar. Out on the sidewalk, I said goodbye. Teddy interrupted. “You don’t want to grab some dinner?”
“I thought that was just something you said.”
“What if I said I really do have reservations at Rive Gauche?”
I thought of the leftover borscht Mama would be reheating, then looked down at the pea-soup-colored dress I’d worn that day. “I’m not really dressed for that kind of place.”
“You look beautiful,” he said, and held out his hand. “Let’s go.”
Another Friday morning at Ralph’s. Another doughnut, another mug of coffee. By the time we left the diner, the chilly fall morning had turned mild. We molted our hats and scarves and opened our jackets as we made our way down E Street.
First thing in the morning, SR was usually bustling with people settling in at their desks or grabbing coffee in the break room or rushing into one of the many morning briefings that started promptly at nine fifteen. The phone at reception would already be ringing, the chairs in the waiting area already filled. But not that day in early October. That day, reception was empty, as was the break room, as was every desk surrounding the typing pool.
“What’s going on?” Gail asked Teddy Helms, who was half-walking, half-running toward the elevator. He stopped short and stumbled over a bump in the ancient beige carpet.
“Meeting upstairs,” Teddy said, which was code for Dulles’s office, which was really downstairs. Teddy hurried off and we went to our desks, where Irina was sitting behind her typewriter.
“Teddy say anything?” Gail asked.
“We lost,” Irina said.
“Lost what?” Norma asked.
“What are you talking about?” Kathy asked.
“I can’t explain the science of it.”
“Science? Of what?”
“Something they shot into space,” Irina said.
they,” she whispered. “Just think of it…” She trailed off and pointed to the asbestos-tiled ceiling. “It’s up there. Right now.”
It was the size of a beach ball and weighed as much as the average American man but had the impact of a nuclear warhead. The news of Sputnik’s launch spread across SR hours before the Russian state news agency, TASS, announced that the first satellite to reach space was now nine hundred kilometers above Earth, circling the planet every ninety-eight minutes.
Even with all the men gone, it was impossible to get any work done. We cracked our knuckles and looked around the empty office. Kathy peeked over the partition. “What kind of name is Sputnik, anyway?”
“Sounds like a potato,” Judy said.
” said Irina. “I think it’s quite poetic.”
“No,” Norma said. “It’s terrifying.”
Gail stood up, closed her eyes, and drew invisible calculations in the air with her finger. She opened her eyes. “Fourteen.”
“Huh?” we asked.
“If it’s circling at that speed, it’s passing over us fourteen times a day.”
We all looked up.
After lunch, we gathered around the radio in Anderson’s empty office. No one had any real information, and the announcer said frantic reports were coming in from all over the country about possible sightings—from Phoenix, Tampa, Pittsburgh, both Portlands. It seemed everyone but us had seen the satellite.
“But it wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye,” Gail said. “Especially not during the day.”
Just as the Alka-Seltzer jingle came on, Anderson walked in. “I could use one of those myself,” he said. “Looks like we’re hard at work here.”
“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz,” Norma said under her breath.
Kathy turned the volume down. “We wanted to know what’s going on,” she said.
“Don’t we all,” Anderson said.
“Do you know?” Norma asked.
“Does anyone know?” said Gail.
Anderson clapped his hands like an exuberant high school basketball coach. “All right, time to get back to work.”
“How can we work with that thing flying over our heads?”
Anderson turned off the radio and shooed us away like pigeons. As we headed out, he asked Irina if she could stay behind for a minute. His request was not unusual, as Irina wasn’t just another member of the typing pool. Since she’d started, we’d suspected she had special duties at the Agency,
activities. But what they were, we didn’t know. Whether Anderson wanted to chat with her about those after-hours activities, and if they had anything to do with Sputnik, we had no idea. But that didn’t keep us from speculating.
News reports throughout the weekend ranged from the exaggerated (
) to the absurd (
) to the practical (
When Will Sputnik Fall?
) to the political (
What Will Ike Do?
). By Monday morning, the inspection line into headquarters was just a trickle, as large contingents of men were off to meetings at the White House and on the Hill, assuaging fears that all was lost. The men who remained looked as though they hadn’t been home since Friday—their white shirts yellowed at the armpits, their eyes bleary, their shadows far past five o’clock.
On Tuesday, Gail came in to work with one of the Mohawk Midgetapes we used to record phone calls. She took off her hat and gloves and set the recorder in front of her typewriter. She motioned for us to come over to her desk. We gathered around as she flipped the switch to
We leaned in. Static.
“What are we listening for?” Kathy asked.
“I don’t hear anything,” Irina said.
“Shhh,” Gail snapped.
We leaned in closer.
Then we heard it: a weak, continuous beeping, like the heartbeat of a frightened mouse. “Got it,” she said, and clicked the recorder off.
“They said you could hear it if you dial in to twenty megahertz,” she said. “But when I tried, all I got was static. So I figured I needed more power. Wanna guess what I did?”
“I have no idea, because I have no idea what you are even talking about,” Judy said.
“I went to my kitchen window and removed the wire screen. My roommate must’ve thought I’d lost my marbles.”
“She may have been right,” Norma said.
“Then I ran a wire from the screen to the radio, dialed back to twenty megahertz, positioned the microphone just right, and that was it.” She lowered her voice. “Contact.”
We all looked at one another.
“You may want to keep this conversation for after hours,” Linda said, looking around.
Gail snorted. “It’s practically child’s play.”
“What does it mean?” Judy whispered.
Gail shook her head. “Don’t know.” She motioned to the row of offices behind her. “That’s for them to find out.”
“Maybe a code?” Norma said.
“What happens when the beeping stops?” Judy asked.
“It means you have to get back to work,” Anderson said from behind. We scattered, except for Gail, who remained standing. “And, Gail,” we heard Anderson say, “I’ll see you in my office.”
We watched her trail Anderson into his office; then we watched as she left it twenty minutes later, holding her white hankie to her nose. Norma stood up, but Gail waved her away.
October passed. The leaves turned orange, then red, then brown, then fell. We hauled out our heavier coats from the backs of our closets. The mosquitoes died off, bars began advertising hot toddies, and everywhere, even downtown, the city smelled of burning leaves. Someone brought in a jack-o’-lantern with a hammer and sickle carved into it to display at reception, and the men had their annual trick-or-treat around SR, going desk to desk taking shots of vodka.
November came in with a bang—or rather, a blast. The Soviets shot Sputnik II into space—this time carrying a dog named Laika. Kathy hung a Lost Dog poster in the break room with a picture captioned
MUTTNIK: LAST SEEN ORBITING THE EARTH
, but it was promptly removed.
Tension at the Agency increased, and we were asked to stay late for the men’s after-hours meetings. Sometimes they’d pick up a pizza or sandwiches if we had to stay past nine. But often there were no breaks and no food, and we made sure to pack extra lunches, just in case.
The Gaither Report soon followed, informing Eisenhower of what he already knew: that in the space race, nuclear race, and almost every other race we were further behind the Soviets than we had thought.
But as it turned out, the Agency already had another weapon in its pipeline.
They had their satellites, but we had their books. Back then, we believed books could be weapons—that literature could change the course of history. The Agency knew it would take time to change the hearts and minds of men, but they were in it for the long game. Since its OSS roots, the Agency had doubled down on soft-propaganda warfare—using art, music, and literature to advance its objectives. The goal: to emphasize how the Soviet system did not allow free thought—how the Red State hindered, censored, and persecuted even its finest artists. The tactic: to get cultural materials into the hands of Soviet citizens by any means.
We started out stuffing pamphlets into weather balloons and sent them over borders to burst, their contents raining down behind the Iron Curtain. Then we mailed Soviet-banned books back behind enemy lines. At first, the men had the bright idea to just mail the books in nondescript envelopes, cross their fingers, and hope at least a few would make it across undetected. But during one of their book meetings, Linda piped up, suggesting the idea of affixing false covers to the books for better protection. A few of us gathered every copy we could find of less controversial titles like
Pride and Prejudice,
removed their dust jackets, and glued them to the contraband before dropping them into the mail. Naturally, the men took the credit.
And it was around that time that the Agency decided we ought to dive even deeper into the war of the words, graduating several men within the ranks to create their own publishing companies and found literary magazines to front our efforts. The Agency became a bit of a book club with a black budget. It was more appealing to poets and writers than book readings with free wine. We had our hands so deep in publishing you’d have thought we got a cut of the royalties.
We’d sit in on the men’s meetings and take notes while they talked about the novels they wanted to exploit next. They’d debate the merits of making Orwell’s
the subject of their next mission versus Joyce’s
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
They’d talk books as if their critiques would be printed in the
So serious, and yet we’d joke that their conversations felt like ones we’d had back in our undergrad lit classes. Someone would make a point, then someone else would disagree, then they’d go off on some tangent. These discussions went on for hours, and we’d be lying if we said we hadn’t caught ourselves nodding off once or twice. Once, Norma interrupted the men by saying she firmly believed the themes Bellows explores far outweigh the sheer beauty of Nabokov’s sentences, and that was the last book meeting she ever took notes at.
So there were the balloons, the false covers, the publishing companies, the lit mags, all the other books we’d smuggled into the USSR.
Then there was
Classified under code name AEDINOSAUR, it was the mission that would change everything.
—a name more than one of us had trouble spelling at first—was written by the Soviet’s most famous living writer, Boris Pasternak, and banned in the Eastern Bloc due to its critiques of the October Revolution and its so-called
On first glance, it wasn’t evident how a sweeping epic about the doomed love between Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova could be used as a weapon, but the Agency was always creative.
The initial internal memo described
as “the most heretical literary work by a Soviet author since Stalin’s death,” saying it had “great propaganda value” for its “passive but piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system on the life of a sensitive, intelligent citizen.” In other words, it was perfect.
The memo passed through SR faster than word of a break room tryst during one of our martini-soaked Christmas parties and spawned at least half a dozen additional memos, each seconding the first: that this was not just a book, but a weapon—and one the Agency wanted to obtain and smuggle back behind the Iron Curtain for its own citizens to detonate.