The Name's Smith, John SmithKGB wet work with exotic poisons isn't your typical secret agent operation. Spies mostly spend their time doing mundane, inconspicuous things. That's how they stay, well...secret. Your typical covert operation would unravel quickly if Sean Connery showed up with exploding fountain pens and driving a sleek Aston Martin with oil spewing taillights and an ejection seat. And the beautiful girls...forget about it. Waaaay too conspicuous.
My Air Force time brought me into a few secret operations. In fact, for a time, I worked in a special squadron that exclusively flew secret missions. My duties in the black squadron were exactly the same as my duties in white squadrons except I knew even less about things than the average, ill-informed airman. However, there was one secret mission I can tell you about without having to kill you.
In early 1981, I drew a boondoggle mission after winning a contest. As a reward for bringing home the trophy, the four-star General in charge of worldwide airlift operations directed our winning crew to shuttle a 13-person team of Army doctors and dentists around South America to do routine medical checkups at the various embassies and consulates.
It was quite a "tough" run. We picked up the doctors in Panama and flew them to Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Asuncion with three day breaks between each stop for the doctors to do their medical thing. The crew used those days to see the sights, eat some nice meals, and relax in nice hotels. I can say with good authority that a Brahma beer tastes awfully good when you're laying on Copacabana beach and watching the scantily-clad girls from Ipanema stroll by.
Really, it does.
The day we left Panama, 12 of the 13 doctors showed up in plenty of time. We helped them stow their gear and introduced ourselves. As departure time approached and the 13th doctor still hadn't arrived, we got a little nervous. We didn't want to leave him behind, but we had a schedule to keep and a bar tab to start in Brasilia.
We asked the Army Colonel in charge of the doctors where his wayward medico was and he said, "What doctor? It's only the 12 of us. We aren't expecting anyone else."
We called Base Operations to ask after a Major John Smith, podiatrist USA. They ordered us to wait for him. Twenty minutes later, a sweating and quite winded, Major Smith sprinted across the tarmac to the airplane.
"Major, where's your equipment? Can I stow it for you," I asked.
"I don't have any."
"Well, how about your baggage then. Can I stow that?"
"I don't have any."
"Major, we'll be gone for a long time, are you sure you don't want to bring a change of underwear or something?"
"Nope, I'm fine. I travel light," he said as he settled into a seat.
So, we started engines and flew south over the endless green of the Amazon and into Brasilia.
As often happens in remote outposts, the embassy staff wanted to show us the town. They invited the entire crew and all 13 doctors to a traditional Brazilian churrascaria. Everyone agreed to meet for the ride in, but when the time came, Major Smith was MIA again. The peeved colonel from the medical team ordered everyone into the van and we left the missing major behind for a dinner of brahma bull hump, wild fowl, and alligator tail with many mojito chasers.
None of the doctors or crew saw Dr. Smith again in Brasilia. When it came time to go on to Rio, he didn't show up. The top doc was incensed at such unprofessional behavior and told us to leave "the bastard" behind.
Three days in Rio came and went with no word from the missing Dr. Smith and no answer about where he was from our calls back to Panama. No one back home seemed to be worried about him, so we left for Montevideo.
Our three days in Montevideo wrapped up and we traveled on to Buenos Aires where we spent three more days, sans the good doctor, before flying on to Paraguay. Calls back to Panama still revealed nothing about his whereabouts. In fact, Panama now claimed he wasn't even on our passenger list to begin with.
As we started engines to depart Paraguay and return home, we got a shortwave radio transmission from Panama - wait for Dr. Smith who would arrive momentarily.
Five minutes later, a small turboprop business airplane in State Department colors rolled up beside us with their engines running. The door opened, Dr. Smith deplaned, and sprinted over to our airplane carrying a large briefcase. As soon as he was safely aboard, the State Department airplane made an abrupt and unusually speedy departure.
After our takeoff, I asked the good Doctor where he'd been.
"I was visiting friends in Mendoza."
"How'd you get to there?"
"Another friend," was the short reply.
"I see you finally decided to get some clothes," I said pointing to his briefcase.
"Clothes? Oh, the briefcase! That's just my equipment."
"I thought you didn't have any equipment."
"Sergeant, can I have a cup of coffee?" was his only reply.
Was Major Smith a spy? Who knows?
How did he travel around South America without any visible means of support? Good question.
And the State Department airplane he seems to have commandeered? Your guess is as good as mine.
But if I'd been casting a spy for a movie, I certainly wouldn't have picked him. He was skinny, wore thick glasses, and appeared to be quite out of shape if the small amount of jogging I witnessed was any indication. Yet, he had a certain dangerous mystery about him. It was exactly the sort of dangerous mystery that my accountant has.
Which is to say, he was the perfect spy.
Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Tuesday, December 05, 2006