by Karl “Tony” Ginyard
John had just got off the phone and was visibly unnerved. I had known him for years but he barely spoke of his past. During the summer he’d hired me to help him around his café. After closing, when we were cleaning and restocking the shelves, he and I would talk about almost anything—girls, sex, school, books and music—but his past seemed off-limits. I desperately wanted to pry open the dusty journal of his life to find who he just spoke with. Was it a love that was lost but still kept his heart?
To see if he would share more about that phone call I decided to play some of his favorite tunes.
“Ah, I like your choices,” he said. “You know, a person’s playlist reflects their personality.”
That wasn’t the response I was hoping for, but it was a start. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Putting together a jazz playlist reflects your mood. It also allows the world to sneak a peek into your soul. A warm, gentle spirit will yearn for Coltrane, Bobby Hutcherson, Ahmand Jamal, or Joe Sample. A jubilant soul will seek Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Monk, or McCoy Tyner. A melancholy mood will crave Miles Davis, Chet Baker, or Dexter Gordon.”
“I see,” I said. “You appear to be in a reflective frame of mind today. So, I put together some of your favorites. You know, stuff to take you back to the love worth ‘risking your life for.’”
John smiled slightly then gazed out the window for a second. “Yeah. I guess I just can’t leave something like that hanging out there.”
He was a short, stocky guy, only about five foot six inches tall, and had a face that, some said, made him a dead ringer for Nobel Laureate and writer Ellie Wiesel. He also seemed to possess the wisdom, graciousness, and intelligence of Wiesel.
He turned to face me. “I had to kill a man once. I did it with my bare hands.” Those words hit me the same way cold water leaves you numb when you jump into a pool.
He stared at his hands then said, “Yes me, John Freidman, took a man’s life with these hands. These same hands I use to cook and feed people. Bet you thought you’d never hear those words come out of my mouth. But you heard me. I killed a man a long time ago.”
I stood somewhere between shock and disbelief. In all the years I’d known him, I’d never heard him raise his voice, let alone threaten anyone.
He walked toward the bar,then poured himself a drink. I should’ve known I was in for a surprise; John never drank during business hours. However, earlier I’d seen him dipping into the bottle of Scotch he kept for himself. Sarah Vaughan’s version of “Lush Life” had begun playing in the background, and he turned on the “Closed” sign, presumably so no one would bother us while we talked.
His statement hung uneasily in the air, like a kite that has just caught a breeze but still struggles to fly. What he said didn’t change my feelings about him. It just made me curious. Why had my oracle, my second dad, done such a thing?
I said, “Will you tell me what happened or just leave me to wonder what the hell made you kill someone?”
He looked at me with sad eyes, as though he was having second thoughts about sharing more. He dropped his head and just stared at the floor, clasping his hands as though praying.
“John. What the hell happened? I heard what you said, but I still don’t believe it. You hardly ever go after customers who can’t pay their tabs. Were you drunk, stoned, what was it?”
Lifting his head he said, “What I’m about to tell you stays between us, understand?” His eyes were fixed on the setting sun outside the café window.
“Okay. You know you can trust me. What drove you to do it?”
“It was during a time in my life I’m not very proud of. I’d just returned from serving in Vietnam. My head was swimming with all kinds of emotions—anger, relief, depression.”
“Did you kill any Vietcong while over there?”
“Of course, I did. I was in the 1st Marine Regiment. I was over there for two tours. But that was different. Over there, it was war. You killed them before they killed you. I believed in the Vietnam War. I really thought we had to be there.”
“But what about all the stuff about us killing babies, supporting South Vietnamese soldiers who didn’t want to fight and all that stuff?” I asked.
“That was bull shit,” he said. “We didn’t kill any babies. Not the unit I was in. The only thing that stopped us from finishing the job was the corrupt South Vietnamese government and spineless politicians back here.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Seems to me we were on the wrong side of history on that one. I mean that’s one of the reasons some folks around the world hate us now. We have a bad habit of supporting corrupt dictatorships as long as they do what we tell them to do.”
“Kid, what the hell do you know?” John shouted. “Hell, I still believed in my country. It was this country that rescued both my parents from the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. As a matter of fact, the all-black 183rd Combat Engineers Battalion liberated Buchenwald. So, I wasn’t one of those guys who came home after the war and bad mouthed the US, I still wanted to help the country that saved my parents. Nor would I have done anything to hinder the civil rights movement. Understand?”
“Easy, easy John. I was just making a point. I wasn’t bad mouthing our country. Just try and look at it through my eyes. This is the first time you’ve told me this stuff. I had no idea your parents were liberated from Buchenwald, and you just told me you killed someone. I’m just trying to find out what the hell happened, and what you meant when you said you weren’t proud of that time in your life.”
He nodded his head in agreement. “Right, right kid. It’s just hard to relive it. The country was in turmoil and jobs were hard to come by. Most guys who served went straight to college after the war, but I already had a degree so I figured I needed to start working. After I had no luck searching newspapers, a friend gave me a lead about a government job. Had I known what the job entailed I would’ve never taken it. But when the government recruiter spoke with me he made it sound as though I would be helping my country hunt down Soviet spies on US soil. As it turned out, that was far from the truth. I had to do things I didn’t like. Bad things.”
“What kind of job was it? If they were that bad why didn’t you just walk away?” I regretted saying those words the moment they left my lips. John wasn’t stupid. Quite the contrary, he was brilliant in certain ways. It was clear by the way he conducted his business affairs that he was a genius at making money and investing it. He owned the building that housed the café, and the six apartments above it. He had invested the rental income and proceeds from the café in several computer companies in the early eighties—Apple, Microsoft, Intel just to name a few. John was no dummy.
Sounding a bit annoyed he said, “Give me a second, I’m getting to that part.”
“Once hired, I was told that some guy named Mike Helms would contact me and fill me in regarding my assignment. The whole thing was handled in a hush-hush manner. I didn’t know which government agency I was working for, just that this guy Helms would explain things to me. A few days passed, then Helms called and told me to meet him at a bar in Manhattan. During the meeting, he told me that I would be an ‘observer’. I’d be sent places throughout the country to gather information that was ‘counter to American interests’. I told him that I could do that.”
I asked, “What did he mean by ‘counter to American interests?’ That could be anything depending on who’s listening.” It wasn’t so much a question as a statement. I was trying to get to where John’s mind was at the time and the nature of the job.
“I know what you’re getting at.” John said. “You have to remember, I was a kid at the time. You know, not as savvy as I am today. And,like I said, I wanted to help the country that had saved my parents. So, they sent me all around the States. One time, Helms sent me to collect information about a guy named Jim Jones.”
“You mean the Jim Jones of Jonestown? Wasn’t that the guy who went nuts and poisoned all his followers?”
“Yep, one and the same. He was in California at the time. Ukiah, I think. I didn’t know it then, but he was already on the CIA payroll. Jones worked for the CIA in Brazil for about a year before he landed in California. But Helms and the CIA were concernedthat Jones was leaning toward Soviet and socialist influences. Or, more to the point, they were losing control of him.”
“What do you think?” I asked. “Was the CIA losing control.” Did he think Jim Jones was starting to go mad before he moved all his followers to Jonestown? Did the CIA play a part in Jones going crazy?
“Some think the CIA was behind the Jonestown massacre.” John said. “That may be, I’m not sure. But I do know the folks at Langley were talking to him on a monthly basis. I saw it myself. I never knew the nature of the conversations, but the more the CIA worked on him the stranger he began to act. Things got so weird I asked Helms about it. He said it was better that I didn’t know what was going on. But sometimes I would overhear Helms talking about some project called MK-ULTRA and using it to control Jones. Later I found outthat that term was the code word for the CIA’s mind control experiments. Some think Jones used MK-ULTRA on his followers.”
The more I listened the more I realized that John had not only lived an incredible life he’d also witnessed the making of a monster. How many people have parents who survived a Nazi death camp,who lived through two tours of fighting in Vietnam, worked for the CIA, and got rich all in one lifetime. I wasn’t sure whether I should push for more information about Jim Jones and how the tragedy had affected my friend him, or just let it go? Did he feel any sense of guilt or regret for not trying to stop Jones?
“I guess I started asking too many questions,” John said. “Helms switched jobs on me. I was reassigned to New York to listen for socialist and communist activities. I started hanging around jazz clubs in Manhattan, West Village, Time Square, all around the city. That’s where all the intellectuals gathered to talk about counter-culture stuff. One night I was at this club called Minton’s Playhouse; it was a hoppin’ place back then. Any night of the week you could hear great jazz, dance, flirt with gorgeous women: it was paradise. But the main reason I enjoyed the place was this waitress named Claire. She was Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, and Lena Horne wrapped up in one woman. After a few visits Helms noticed I was interested and, as luck would have it, Helms knew her. Hell, I shouldn’t have been surprised, he knew everybody.”
While speaking John began to smile again, his mood soften. The bitter edge from earlier gave way to more sanguine memories.
“She must have been a goddess,” I said.John had never talked about his love interests. We discussed girls, but he’d never mentioned a woman he had actual feelings for.
“Yes, I fell in love the moment I saw her.” Laughing he added, “She wasn’t immediately attracted to me though. She could have had any guy she wanted. But I was persistent. Every time I went to the club I always sat in her serving area so she would have to speak to me. After several weeks, she agreed to go out with me.”
Chuckling I said, “Today she would have you arrested for stalking.”
He gave me a half-smile. “That’s true. On our first date, we made sure we only wentto a place we knew would serve us. It was the 1960s and mixed-race dating, even in New York, was stilltaboo. So, we went to a restaurant in Harlem and just talked. We were there for hours, just talking. As I listened to her voice, I fell in love over and over again. I fell in love with her one word at a time. But do you want to know the real reason I fell in love with her?”
“Well, her looks?” I said.
“Yeah, her beauty was the reason for my immediate attraction, but I fell in love with her mind. During those quiet moments together, she would say the strangest things, but after thinking about it I could see the logic. She was a complex thinker. I couldn’t be with someone shallow. Kid, never forget that we fall in love with our minds first, then with our hearts.”
“What did she say to make you think she was so intelligent?” I asked John that question because he had a superior intellect. For him to fall in love with someone’s mind meant she was exceptionally smart.
“She could wax at length on how Shakespeare influenced modern thought, and quote the Persian poet Rumi in Farsi. She was an English PhD candidate at NYU. I’d never met a girl like her in all my life. But there was one thing that saddened me.”
“What was that? Sounds like she had no flaws.”
“She said she never wanted to have children. And there I was, starting to picture her as the mother of my children.”
“Most women want children. What was her reason?”
“She asked me, why bring another black person into this world considering all the hell they will catch during their lifetime. She said it was a cruel act. I didn’t see it right away. I argued, ‘Times are changing, things are getting better.’ But she just shook her head and said, ‘If things are getting better why must we treat each date as if it were some secret operation?’ She was good at drilling down to the base of every topic.”
He paused and thought for a moment. “One time she said, ‘How can I look into my child’s eyes and say I love them when I brought them into a world where they are going to be hated, stalked by police, economically castrated, and, above all, categorized with a label whose sole purpose is to control their mind, limit their thinking? To me, it’s abusive to bring a child into this world just because of some selfish desire I may have to be a mother. I say true motherhood would tell black and brown women not to have children.’ That logic blew my mind. But, after I thought about it for a while, I could see her point.”
I could tell that John was still in love with her. Somehow this woman had found a place in John’s heart and, after all of these years, she was still there. The way he told the story it was as if I were being introduced to her, with all her complications and beauty. She was sitting there with us, holding John’s hand as he gained the strength to continue.
“She also had a very tender side.” John continued. “Times when she would allow deeper access into her soul. I remember the first time we made love. She was playful, warm, passionate, made me feel like I was the best lover in the world. The image of her lying there next to me is still fresh in my mind. The moonlight played with the curves of her body. I didn’t want that night to end. As we laythere, she asked, ‘Why did you make me fall in love with you? Out of all the girls in New York, why me, John?’ Before I could answer she put her finger to my lips then whispered one of Rumi’s poems, ‘I once had a thousand desires, but in my one desire to know you, all else melted away.’”
“Wow! Man. So what happened?” I asked. “You’ve never been married, so what got between you two?”
He took a deep breath and said, “The job, that’s what happened. As it turned out I was working for a secret program run by the FBI and CIA called Cointelpro, the official name was “Counterintelligence Program.” The FBI ran the domestic side of the operation and CIA was responsible for the foreign intelligence side. The CIA called its version Operation Chaos.”
“Operation Chaos? What the hell! That sounds like something out of a B-rated spy movie.”
“It was no movie.” John said. “Later I found out that the guy who gave me my assignments became the director of all spies at the CIA, Mike Helms. They used me to try and infiltrate domestic organizations who sympathized with Cuba and the Soviet Union.”
“So how did this connect with Claire? How did all this drive you two apart?”
“Actually, the program had very little to do with foreign counterintelligence. The government wanted to discredit civil rights leaders and organizations like Martin Luther King, the NAACP, the Black Panther Party, and others. Claire’s brother was a key member of the NAACP in New York. He was responsible for organizing talks with Malcolm X, trying to get the two forces to unite. He believed that if Malcolm X could be persuaded to work with the NAACP that black Americans could make greater strides socially and economically.”
As John spoke it hit me. He was caught in the middle. Between the woman he loved, and working for an organization that was working against someone in her family. “Oh, shit. Man. You had to spy on Claire’s brother.”
“Exactly,” he said. “At first I didn’t know what to do. All the stories my mother had told me, about the black soldiers who saved her life, were running through my mind. Now, I was being asked to spy against the group of people who saved my family. I was expected to collect information that would get Claire’s brother in trouble—and I couldn’t do. I just couldn’t do it.”
“Was there any way to work around it? I mean, switch jobs. Take another assignment. Quit?”
“It wasn’t that easy. I was in deep. Helms had me by the short hairs, and he knew it. You see the folks at the NAACP and Malcolm X were very different. What Claire’s brother and Malcolm X were working on was taking the US to the United Nations and the World Court regarding its treatment of black Americans. That’s what got the attention of the FBI and the CIA. Neither agency saw that move coming, it freaked them out. When J Edgar Hoover heard Malcolm X and the NAACP were working together he doubled his efforts against them. That’s the real reason Malcolm X was killed, he dared to fight the giant on the world stage. So, Helms wasn’t about to let me walk away. I was his connection to the inner workings of that operation. Like it or not, I was going to be forced to make me help him.”
“I see,” I said. John’s demeanor seemed to revert to his earlier, sullen state. I was there, but wasn’t there, kinda distant. “What did Claire think about all this? Did she know? You said you guys were in love but I’m sure your work for the CIA must have caused her to freak out.”
“You think, Einstein?” John said sarcastically. “She knew who I worked for. Hell, like I said, Helms introduced us. But she didn’t know how it all tied together. I mean. She knew Helms was some sort of government guy, just not exactly who and for which organization. We never discussed my work when we were together, and I made a point about never asking her about her brother. I fell hard for her. I wanted nothing to get in the way of our love. But, as time went on, it became harder to keep my love for her and my work apart.”
John was starting to choke up. I could see a tear falling down his face. I had never seen John cry before. I wasn’t sure what to do. Throughout the years I’ve known him, I’d never seen such raw emotion. He wasn’t a man who would walk up and hug even a friend. At best, you might get a smile and a firm handshake. But, after you got to know him, you could tell by his facial expressions what he was feeling.”
John went on. “We had been dating for about six months when Helms started to push me. He wanted more information about Claire’s brother and his meetings with Malcolm X. He’d show up to my apartment unannounced and start to question me, badgering. Finally, I told him I wanted to quit. I couldn’t do what he was asking me to do.”
John’s tone become angry as he continued. His face grew more stern, it was as if Helms was in the room with us and John was confronting him all over again.
“Yeah. Helms. When I said I wanted to quit he just laughed and said, ‘Oh hell no. Things don’t work like that, my friend. You think you can just walk away from this? No, no, no.’ He said it in a way to let me know that I really had no say in the matter. You know, like a father telling his kid what the kid is going to do next and the kid had better do it.”
“Did he threaten you, say he’d have you killed or something?” I asked.
John gave me a look that, for a second, seemed to indicate he was about to explode.
“He didn’t threaten me but he threatened to go after Claire and her family. He said, ‘Look. You’re gonna do what I’m telling you to do. You’re going to tell me what those bastards are up to. You got that? You wanna know why you’re gonna help me? Because I’m sure you don’t want your girlfriend and her family to vanish? Do you? I’ll make it so you’ll never see any of them again. You got that.’”
At that moment I suddenly realized what had shaped John’s life, at least his life after Claire. The man I knew, the one I worked for, had lost his true self years ago. He’d somehow managed to find a way to survive emotionally. But his heart and soul had been left behind.
“But here’s the worst of it,” John whispered. “I underestimated Helm’s capacity for ruthlessness. Even after he said he would do harm to Claire and her family I still refused to help. I called his bluff. I thought there was no way he would do anything to ruin his operation. But, he wasn’t bluffing, except he came after me. Through another one of his sources he blew my cover, told the folks in the NAACP and the folks working with Malcolm X that I was an working for him, that I was an informant. I was as good as dead.”
“That is ruthless.” Although I didn’t know Helms, I was shocked by the cold-blooded nature of the act. Turning John over to the sharks. “I can’t believe someone could be that treacherous.”
“The way Helms thought he was sacrificing me for the greater good. I was just a foot soldier in the greater war.”
“What did you do next?”
“It’s not what I did, it’s what Claire did. Once it all came out her family threatened to send her away if she ever saw me again. They also told her that I was one of the walking dead, meaning I didn’t have long to live. Malcolm’s boys were going to take care of me.”
“Well, you’re obviously still alive. How did you escape?”
“Claire and I had made plans to marry weeks before. We took great pains to make sure no one found out. But one night Claire’s mother discovered a receipt for a wedding dress and confronted her about it. She tried to lie, but her mother was too smart for that. While they were arguing Claire ran out of the house. She called me from a pay phone and asked me to meet her at her job. When I got there she was crying, begging me to take her away right then and there. But her father followed her.”
John was starting to tear-up at this point. I’d never seen him this emotional. At that moment, I wished I had the power to turn back the clock, give him another chance at love. It was clear he’d never moved on, he was stuck in some sort of emotional time zone. His real existence stopped at that point in his life, his emotions were in a zombie state. “What did you do when you saw her dad?” I asked.
Tears ran down John’s cheek. Wiping his eyes, he said, “At first nothing. Helms was also there. Well, at first, I didn’t see him but within a few seconds he appeared out of the shadows, slowly walking toward Claire and me. I was surprised to see Helms and Claire’s dad together. I couldn’t make the connection. I guess Helms could see the bemused look on my face. As he got closer Helms said, “‘Well, well, well. I bet you’re wondering how I found out about you two lovebirds trying to leave the nest?’”
“Looking dead at him I said, “‘The thought crossed my mind.’” Helms had this look of smug pleasure, you know the look teachers have when they catch a student cheating.
“‘Did you really think I was going to rely solely on you for information about Claire’s brother? You think I would put all my eggs in one pathetic basket? That pathetic basket being you. Surely you couldn’t be that stupid.’”
‘“What the hell are you talking about?’ I said.”
‘“Come on, John, look at what’s in front of you. Claire’s dad is right here. He works for me. Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?’”
“‘You son of bitch. You had me running around here all this time like some jerk on a string.’”
“‘Yep. I sure did. Claire’s dad kept me up-to-date about you two, and about his son. Yes, his son. You see, John, that’s the first rule about intel gathering, you never just have one source. But you were so in love you couldn’t see that.”
“Claire’s dad worked for the CIA too?” I said. I looked at John as he forced his way through the story.
“Yeah. Can you believe it? There I was trying to reconcile working for the CIA, staying true to Claire and her family, and fight the feeling of betraying black people while her father was stabbing both of us in the back. Claire started crying, shaking her head and saying, ‘I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it…’ You could see the hurt in her eyes. Claire’s father was motionless, like a granite statue, a hollow, lifeless shell.”
“You must have been pissed. I mean he totally played you.”
“I wanted to kill both of them. I was so filled with rage I lunged at Helms. But Claire’s dad jumped in front of his boss to protect him. He was older but still strong as a bull. The next thing I remember we were fighting. He was pounding on me. He had me down on the ground, choking me. I couldn’t believe this old guy got the jump on me like that. I struggled to breathe. While fighting him off I saw a broken glass bottle within reach. I knew if I didn’t get him off me he would kill me.”
“What were Claire and Helms doing while you guys were fighting?”
“Helms held her tight, she couldn’t move. He had his hand over her mouth so she couldn’t speak. We fought for a few more seconds, but Iwas able to reach the broken glass bottle. I grabbed it then went straight for his throat. Blood gushed everywhere. When I looked up, Claire and Helms were staring at me. I tried to speak to Claire, tell her I was sorry but the words wouldn’t come out. It was as if I had forgotten how to speak.”
“It was in self-defense,” I said. “You did what you had to do. Her father was about to kill you.”
“It’s not that easy when you’re in love. Yeah, she saw the whole thing, but the man she loved had just killed her dad. You can’t change that, and you’ll never get over it.”
I didn’t know what to say. I searched John’s face, looking for a sign of, well, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. Maybe I was looking to see if John had accepted what happened so he could move on. I wasn’t sure, so I just asked, “What happened next? You didn’t go to jail.”
“Helms took care of everything,” John said. “The next morning, he gave me a pile of money and told me to get out of town. He said, ‘If I ever see you again, or I you try to contact anyone associated with any of the operations you were part of, I will personally see that you go to jail for the rest of your life.’ That part I had no problem with. It was what he said next that killed me. ‘You can never see, call, write or have any contact with Claire again. As far as you’re concerned Claire is dead.’”
“Couldn’t you covertly reach out to her?”
“No way. Helms would have found out. He knew that and I knew that. More importantly he knew that I knew he would find out. Then he said, ‘If you contact her I won’t come after you I will come after her and her family. I will have her brother arrested and her mother arrested for aiding and abetting. So, I suggest you leave and never look back.’ So that’s what I did, got out of town and kept running all the way to California.”
“Wow,” I said. I didn’t know how else to respond. I felt so inadequate at that moment. The man had shared what defined his existence and all I could muster was wow. I wanted to dig a hole and crawl inside and never come out.
But John was gracious. He looked at me with kind eyes and said, “I got a phone call today. It was Claire. She told me I have a son.”