It never ceases to amaze me that some people are shocked and horrified when the headlines blare out the fact that (gasp) many countries engage in spying, surveillance, and other covert operations. We like to think the fate of the world depends on world leaders exercising their diplomatic skills to sort things out, but there are a lot of things bubbling under the surface in these political wranglings, both domestic and foreign. Did these political imbroglios have an effect on those of us living on the fringes of the country, far removed from the hotbeds of political discourse? Even as kids growing up in the Upper Peninsula during the era remembered as “The Cold War”, we were exposed to some of the “under the surface” things that went along bigger things happening on the world stage.
A colleague and I were recently talking about our shared frustrations with the current state of politics in our fair state. I said something along the lines of, “The next thing you know, we will have the Red Squad going through our trash,” which to my surprise was as a total mystery to my discussion partner. “What do you mean?” he asked. “What on Earth is a “Red Squad”?”
If one digs into the history of the Cold War a bit, the whole “McCarthyism” thing of hunting for communists under every rock and behind every bush is well documented. What many don’t remember is that some state governments chose to organize their own investigations via their own state departments. In Michigan, at least some of this work was carried out by the Michigan State Police. In the U.P., there were suspected hot spots of socialism that originated with some of the Finns who had immigrated from the Finnish/Russian border region. Having grown up in Finnish immigrant homes, both of my parents spoke the Finnish language. As a detective for the State Police with U.P. roots and the ability to speak Finn, my dad was tabbed to investigate any suspected reports of possible communist activity in the Upper Peninsula. It almost seems laughable to us now, but this was serious business in the late 1950s and early 1960s. How serious did they take the whole communist threat in Michigan? Serious enough that my father worked out of the Marquette State Police Post, but his paycheck and orders came directly from Lansing. He was expected to drop all other work when he was dispatched to some far flung place like Eben Junction or Felch to follow up on some tidbit that was reported to the statewide network that handled suspected ‘communist activity’.
I can’t say how serious the ‘Red Menace’ posed by these socialist Finns was, but most of the reports were generated by the national anti-communist frenzy that existed in parts of our nation at that time. For example, dad was sent to a small farming community in the western U.P. because someone found evidence that someone was holding anti-government rallies at the school there. After investigating the rumor and asking a few questions, he examined the evidence: sure enough, there were signs stashed under the stage at the local school advocating the impeachment of the president! He found the signs precisely where his informant had said they would be and they were clearly anti-government. They were aimed at stirring up the citizenry to impeach the president. President Roosevelt, that is. Teddy Roosevelt! This definitely pointed to issues that preceded the ‘Red Menace’ phase of our history by nearly fifty years and the investigation was filed under the ‘no imminent threat’ category.
As I observed my father perform his duties as a detective, I learned two valuable lessons that are still with me today. The first is to be observant and aware of what is going on around you. The second is equally simple, but sometimes hard to do: There are times when it is best to simply keep one’s mouth shut. The first skill set has served me well but I will admit to struggling with the second more than a little. The fact that I can keep a secret at all surely will come as a surprise to some who know me well. One indicator that I have had some success in this area is illustrated by a story that didn’t see the light of day for over fifty years. The recent Tom Hanks movie about the Cold War prisoner exchange on a bridge reminded me of the tale.
We used to always spend my dad’s two week summer vacation at our camp on Huron Bay. We returned home after one such vacation and my dad looked at his ‘file closet’ and said, “We have been visited.” When we moved into the Norway Ave. house, my mother realized we were in need of a closet near the kitchen door entrance for our boots, coats and so on. When my dad did the renovations, he built in a hidden rifle rack above the sliding doors and a set of shelves on the left side where he kept his important papers. We were simply told to leave the guns and dad’s papers alone. When I asked what he meant by, “We have been visited,” he showed me an empty file folder that he said used to have an award from the FBI. It upset me that someone had taken something from our house while we were away but dad said he was okay with it. Of course, early teenage me couldn’t see how this was okay so he sat down and told me the prequel to this incident.
During the height of the Red Squad days, dad had gotten a phone call from a hotel owner in Negaunee. He said, “Ed, you speak Finn, right? Well, I got a guy staying here that speaks ‘funny Finn’. Would you come and take a look?” Dad assured him he would stop by and check it out. He collected some information on the gentlemen in question and interviewed the owner to find out what made him suspicious of his guest: “I know a lot of people who speak Finn, some right off the boat from Finland, but this guy doesn’t sound like any of them.” Foregoing a face to face encounter with the suspected ‘funny Finn’, dad visited the Marquette FBI agent, passed along what he knew and left it at that. Months later, the FBI agent called dad up and said, “You remember the ‘funny Finn’ guy? Turns out he was from the area of eastern Finland near the Russian border. He had been recruited by the KGB and was on the first leg of his trip to infiltrate the U.S. by coming into the country from Canada. We pulled him in for questioning and he is still being interrogated.” The spy network he was attached to was deep enough that he was eventually traded for some high level U.S. detainees ala the Tom Hank’s movie.
To say I was a little stunned by this information would be a great understatement. I still didn’t understand how this was connected with our house being burgled while we were gone. “Oh that isn’t hard to understand,” dad said. “With these kinds of things, they sometimes agree to simply pretend that some of these things didn’t happen. More than likely, they purged all the files about this incident and it was on record that the Marquette FBI agent and I had gotten commendations from the FBI for uncovering this guy’s infiltration. If they purged the files, they got rid of everything. I wouldn’t ask him, but the Marquette agent was probably the one who came and collected my commendation while we were at camp.” My next logical question was, “Well, why didn’t he just ask for you to give it back?” “If he asked, then I would have knowledge that the file purge happened. I am just guessing that this is what happened. It also means you can’t tell anyone about anything I told you about this. You never know who might hear it and tell it to someone else.” I swore I would keep it to myself which I did until my dad passed away five years ago figuring if he made it to 93 years old, the other parties involved in all this must be similarly aged and/or deceased.
I had no reason to doubt dad’s theory about purged files. Well into his 80s, I was given another clue that these things did indeed happen. When dad retired from the State Police, he had a modest pension. As he got older, he noticed that some of his fellow State Police retirees were getting small cost of living adjustments on their retirement pay. Naturally, he contacted the Department of Retirement Services. They had a simple answer: Even though he had been getting a retirement check for his service in the State Police and Department of Licensing and Regulation for nearly forty years, there were no records of him ever working for the State Police! Apparently his direct connection to Lansing during the Red Squad years also lead to his employment files being purged as well. He eventually found a Lieutenant that he had worked with back in the day now living in a local nursing home. Based on the Lieutenant’s written testimony that dad had indeed been in the State Police for nearly thirty years, this information was proof enough to get him a little bumper on his retirement.
When I read all the kerfuffle in the paper about spying and covert operations, I always think back to how calm my father was about his small role in a spy ring bust being expunged from the history books. As long as those involved in these cloak and dagger incidents understand the need for what they do and can accept the level of secrecy that goes with the territory, I guess it gives me some level of confidence that world politics are not just left in the hands of the politicians. I am much more comfortable with someone who knows what they are doing pulling a few strings in the background than I am reading about the childish escalating war of the tweets (or twits if you will) that keep popping up as ‘news’. They can do all the saber rattling they want to as long as they stick with the old adage: “Trust . . . but verify.” To this I can only add a hearty “Amen!”
Top Piece Video – Johnny Rivers sums up the intrigue of the 1960s . . .