Sunday, April 24, 2011

Two Sixties Stories

By Libby Hellmann

As some of you know, my most recent novel, SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, is a thriller that goes back, in part, to the late Sixties in Chicago. Fortunately or unfortunately, I remember those years and would like to share with you two stories from that time. An abbreviated version of one – a love story -- is in the book, but the other has an ending I just discovered a few months ago.

I lived in Georgetown during what I now call “The Summer of My Discontent.” I shared an apartment with four other people above a movie theater at 28th and M. (Both are gone now). I was working at an underground newspaper, selling them on the streets, and generally trying to make sense of the world. Next door to the movie theater was a head shop run by a weird – but sweet -- guy named Bobby. He wore black all the time, before there were Goths. The scent of Patchouli oil hung in the air.

I used to drop in every once in a while. Often two of his friends, Donna and Linda, would be there. They were a couple: Linda had long brown hair and appeared to be kind of spacey. Donna had short blond hair and wore a leather jacket, even during July. They were cool, though, in the way that everyone was cool back then, and we’d smoke a joint, laugh a lot, and discuss what a shitty place the world was becoming. Then, around August, they disappeared. After not seeing them for a week or so, I asked Bobby where they went. He hemmed and hawed and wouldn’t tell me. Finally, he did.

Donna used to be Don, he said. And was going through the process of becoming a woman, but hadn’t completed it when she met Linda. They fell in love, and because of that, they jointly (no pun intended) agreed that Donna should turn back into Don. So they hustled some money from someone and were off to California to reverse Donna’s transformation.

That’s what I call a love story. Btw, I never saw them again, but I still think about them.

The other story is more political. As I said, I worked at an underground newspaper in DC for a summer. I was just a flunkie, not even considered staff. But there was a photographer, Sal, who was in and out all the time. He took photos at every demonstration, interview, and event that could be considered “alternative.” I actually had a crush on him at one point. (Yes, I know. Very bourgeois).

At any rate, the editor of the newspaper was very cautious about trusting people, almost to the point of paranoia. He always thought the paper was being infiltrated by CIA or FBI types (these were the days before COINTELPRO proved the FBI was indeed infiltrating radical groups) At the time, I thought his paranoia was exaggerated. Triggered perhaps by an inflated sense of self-importance.

I left at the end of the summer to hitchhike across country (That’s a different story), but I heard a few months later that Sal had left too, and was off to Paris. He stayed there for a while, then disappeared. I never knew what happened to him.

Then, about a month ago, well after I finished SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, I Googled some of the people from the newspaper. Suddenly a photo of Sal popped up. It turns out he had been featured in Secrets: The CIA's War at Home by Angus MacKenzie.

You guessed it. Sal had been a CIA agent, recruited when he was in college in Chicago. The entire time he was taking photos for the paper, he was reporting to his CIA handler. Eventually, I think the editor suspected him. Maybe he even confronted him, which precipitated his abrupt departure.

It doesn’t end there. According to MacKenzie’s book, Sal went to Paris, befriended Philip Agee, himself a former CIA agent turned whistleblower, and fiddled around with the typewriter on which Agee was writing his story. Agee discovered it, and Sal fled. From what I understand he changed his name and now lives in Southern California.

True stories. Really. I mean, who could make this stuff up?

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