e-t-a-o-n-r-i Spy and the F.B.I.
by Les Earnest
Reading a book got me into early trouble with the F.B.I., giving me a
record by age twelve. This bizarre incident caused a problem much later
when I needed a security clearance. I learned that I could obtain one
only by concealing my sordid past.
Bob Bond was my best friend through much of grammar school and junior high.
In our first year of junior high, he bought a book on codes and ciphers
called "Secret and Urgent" by Fletcher Pratt [Blue Ribbon Books; Garden City,
NY; 1942] and we both read it. The book showed how to use letter
frequencies to break ciphers and reported that the most frequently
occurring letters in typical English text are e-t-a-o-n-r-i, in that order.
(The letter frequency order of the story you are now reading is
e-t-a-i-o-n-r. The higher frequency of "i" probably reflects the fact that
I use the first person singular a lot.) Pratt's book also treated more
advanced cryptographic schemes.
Bob and I decided that we needed to have a secure way to communicate with
each other, so we put together a rather elaborate jargon code based on the
principles described in the book. I don't remember exactly why we thought
we needed it, we spent much of our time outside of school together, so
there was ample time to talk privately. Still, you never could tell when
you might need to send a secret message!
We typed up the code key (a description of how to encrypt and
decrypt our messages) on single sheet of paper with a carbon copy and each
took one. We carried it on our persons at all times when we wore clothes.
I actually didn't wear clothes much. I spent nearly all my time outside
school wearing just a baggy pair of maroon swimming trunks. That wasn't
considered too abnormal in San Diego.
I had recently been given eyeglasses but didn't like to wear them, so I
kept them in a hard case in the pocket of the trousers that I wore to
school. I figured that this was a good place to hide my copy of the code
key, so I carefully folded it to one-eighth of its original size and stuck
it at the bottom of the case, under my glasses.
Every chance I got, I went body surfing at Old Mission Beach. I usually
went by streetcar and, since I had to transfer Downtown, I wore clothes.
Unfortunately, while I was riding the trolley home from the beach one
Saturday the case carrying my glasses slipped out of my pocket unnoticed.
I reported the loss to my mother that night. he called the streetcar company to see if they had been turned in, unfortunately, they hadn't.
After a few weeks of waiting in vain for the glasses to turn up, we began
to lose hope. My mother didn't rush replacing them in view of the fact
that I hadn't worn them much and they cost about $8, a large sum at that
time. (To me, $8 represented 40 round trips to the beach by streetcar, or
80 admission fees to the movies.)
Unknown to us, the case had been found by a patriotic citizen who opened
it, discovered the code key, recognized that it must belong to a
Japanese spy and turned it over to the F.B.I. This was in 1943, just
after citizens of Japanese descent had been forced off their property and
taken away to concentration camps. I remember hearing that a local grocer
was secretly a Colonel in the Japanese Army and had hidden his uniform in
the back of his store. A lot of people actually believed these things.
About ten weeks later, my mother got got a mysterious telephone call
at work; she was Vice Principal at Rosevelt Junior High.
The caller said, "I want an appointment with you at once."
She said, "Come right over to my office."
"No, we must see you in your home," was the reply.
She went home and waited for a substantial period.
I happened to be off on another escapade, so wasn't aware of all this.
Eventually a black limosine rolled up in front of the house.
Two men sat in it reading notes, then eventually came up the steps.
As my mother let them in the living room, each rolled back his coat lapel
to flash identification and said something like, "I'm XYZ of the F.B.I."
One of them then threw my glasses on the coffee table and said, "Have you
seen these before?"
My mother quickly replied, "Those are my son's glasses, which he lost
a little while ago."
"They are your son's alright," said one of them.
They wanted to know why there was a code key in the case with the glasses.
My mother explained that we had been studying cryptography and that this
was no doubt something that we had put together for fun.
At first they refused to believe her, arguing that the code sheet
could not have been compiled by kids, but after awhile, one of the two
began to be a bit friendlier.
My mother told the investigators how glad she was to get the glasses back,
considering that they cost $8. The sourpuss did a slow burn, then said
"Lady, this case has cost the government thousands of dollars. It has
been the top priority in our office for the last eight weeks. We traced the
glasses to your son from the prescription by examining the files of nearly
every optometrist in San Diego." He went on to say that they had been
interviewing our friends and neighbors for about six weeks.
The friendlier one eventually described how much it had cost to
investigate another recent case where a person was reported to have pulled
down an American flag and stepped on it. Only after the investigation was
well under way did they learn that the perpetrator of this nefarious act
was four years old.
The colder one of the two apparently remained convinced to the end that
I really was a Japanese spy. He insisted on keeping the code key "for
our records." He apparently wanted to be in a position to decode any
of our secret communications if they should find any.
Since our communication scheme had been compromised, Bob and I devised a
new key. I started carrying it in my wallet, which I thought was more
secure. I don't remember ever exchanging any cryptographic messages.
I was always ready, though.
A few years later when I was in college, I got a summer job at the Naval
Electronics Lab, which required a security clearance. One of the
questions on the application form was "Have you ever been investigated by
the F.B.I." Naturally, I checked "Yes." The next question was, "If so,
describe the circumstances." There was very little space on the form, so
I answered simply and honestly, "I was suspected of being a Japanese spy."
When I handed the form in to the security officer, he scanned it quickly,
looked me over slowly, then said, "Explain this" pointing at the F.B.I.
question. I described what had happened. He got very agitated, picked up
my form, tore it in pieces, and threw it in the waste basket.
He then got out a blank form and handed it to me, saying "Here, fill it
out again and don't mention that. If you do, I'll make sure that you never
get a security clearance."
I did as he directed and was shortly granted the clearance. I never again
disclosed that incident on security clearance forms.