In the last years of the Second World War, we lived in a rented shingle house in the commuting village of Belle Harbor. Four days a week my father took the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan's Penn Station. On Thursday afternoon he crossed town to Grand Central and boarded a train for Washington D. C. There, he told us, he worked on a team solving cryptograms, like the ones he inked in daily in the Herald Tribune. He returned Sunday evening, we picked him up at the station, and the cycle began again.
My father was a chronic puzzler. He regularly brought home a Times and Trib wrinkled from their numbing inter-borough journeys. If their crosswords and the single cryptogram were not finished, he would enlist our aid. That is where I discovered the ibex that leaps the African plain, learned that the most common bones in the human body were ilium and ulna. Ogee moldings decorated, not our modest frame house, but the northeast or southwest corners of the daily puzzle. At seven and nine, my brother and I weren't up to helping. I for one was less interested in the adult world than in the curious names it chose for its stuffing.
And so it didn't strike us as odd that Dad went off to Washington to work on word games. He was good at them, and if the government had had an interest in Hangman or the Double Crostic, I guessed he would be doing that. I later heard how he, at thirty-eight too old for military service, responded to a boxed ad run alongside the cryptogram box,
GOOD AT PUZZLES? HELP YOUR COUNTRY.
listing a WHitehall 3 number. That famously posh exchange should have been a tell that something big was up.
This part of the story, the bed and board and details, my mother told me long after his death. Following the appropriate vetting, he was admitted to a band of civilian cryptographers. Every weekend they were billeted at a shabby hotel. Seated at long tables in its ballroom they were issued dittoed sheets, columns of five digit numbers in aniline purple ink. They were to search for correlations and frequencies in this, the enemy's code, or perhaps our own. Code work, both the creation and the breaking, is no longer manned. Machines keep track of probability and usage with superior efficiency. Then it was done by lay solvers—high school teachers and house painters, linotypers and lawyers, all of them word junkies who had answered an ad.
He never learned what he was working on, or whether his team of volunteers accomplished anything. Traveling to war in a fedora and herring-bone topcoat, fighting it in gray flannel, these were not the makings of adventure films. But they gave rise to the faimly's single tale of wartime heroism. Though not what you might think.
Every Thursday afternoon before his trip, he bought a picture postcard at Penn Station. On the 3:10 to Washington, after he finished the day's puzzles, he wrote an encrypted message to my brother and me. He mailed the card on arrival. It was usually delivered the next day, an astonishing feat for a post office at war. We had until Sunday night to break the code.
At first it was tough going. A cryptogram is a simple transposition—each letter has a letter substitute. In Dad's code there were no nulls, reversals, or keys, the sophistications that complicate ciphers, that indeed he faced on the spirit-scented sheets. Robbie and I had merely to deduce the substitutions, letter by letter.
Transposition codes fall to basic rules. The first one is frequency: E is the most common letter in the English language, followed by T, A, O, I, N, and S. He had taught us that, taught us to look for repeating conjunctions and articles. Doubles offer another way in—if vowels, they were either E or O. We kept a frequency chart that went ten spaces down to U.
But Robbie hit on an easier clue. The early postcards started out with four words, of four letters, six, three and three. Intriguing: the last two had the same letters, but in different order. The third word was not capitalized. "Dear Robbie and Dan," announced Robbie, in a triumph of ratiocination. The delight I found in the fact that the letters of my name could be made into a different word matched the discovery of butterscotch. With those letters broken, the blanks filled themselves in. The message magically appeared, like the flakes in a crystal snowball. Next we solved the signature: each postcard was signed, in code, Love Dad. More than affection: V, another consonant.
Once these keys were uncovered, the first month's cards were deciphered. But next month the salutation changed to a mere two words, of two and four letters, without duplicates. And the sign-off had also changed, still four and three letters but our trusty solution no longer worked. It turned out he was ahead of us—it was called counter-espionage, we knew from the afternoon radio shows—and, having realized that his salutation and sign-off were burned, in the radio lingo of spies, had without warning gone to "Hi Boys" and "Best, Pop".
No sooner had we solved for the new salutations, they changed. At first, only two initials—for which we correctly guessed D and R. But two consonants do not an encryption resolve. Deduction, ever elusive, was needed. The messages were always of some homely matter: Don't forget to take out the trash. Look after your mother and sister. Listen to what Mom says and help her out. But the charm of solving never dimmed, the excitement that we too could be trained to combat the Axis forces never waned.
And so it went. On the front pages of the newspapers, maps showed the advances of US, British and Free French troops. Flagged arrows slowly pinched in our enemies in Europe. We had cousins in the forward ranks: Jerome was a cook with the Third Army and Harold a motorcycle courier with Patton. Years later Harold was to disappoint me by telling me that being "with" Patton did not mean sharing a room, meals, a bicycle. We cheered their advances, though I privately wondered how a cook could possibly kill Nazis. The Pacific was less defined. It was hard to tell how we were doing, but we seemed to be gobbling up island chains step by step. Robbie and I felt confident that we would prevail.
Franklin Roosevelt died, unimaginable to us who had known no other president. Equally shocking, and lifting our hopes as high as his death had sent them low, weeks later victory was announced in Europe. That very Sunday my father came home with the news that his team had identified two combinations that could be "Hirohito" and "Tokyo". We'd never heard anything about his results, but these discoveries, I now realize for their novelty rather than for the possibility that he might win a Silver Star, gratified him. He let us know that we weren't to discuss his find, which of course impelled me to do just that next morning at Second Grade Show and Tell.
Friday, he gone again, we received the callers. Two dapper young men, plain ties and dark suits, both sporting those flat straw hats called boaters, though we were miles from any boat. We three children—my sister was just beginning to walk—stood behind my mother in her apron and watched. They produced breast-pocket wallets, showed badges. The lead man announced that they were special agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Robbie and I were schooled in the doings of the Bureau. There was, after all, the weekly radio broadcast, The FBI in Peace and War, brought to us by Lava Soap. At the end of each show, a Lava executive took the microphone and gravely warned us to be vigilant. Picture cards came in Fleers bubble gun—we bought them not for the gum, a pink asphalt tile that could line a roof. Occasionally instead of baseball players would be current events, the worst, or his favorite, "CRIME DOES NOT PAY!!," showing cops shooting white holes in hoodlems, or the infiltration of the Nazis right here at home. A radio show of the same name closed with descriptions of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted. Down the street Mrs. Hannigan had turned in a man who was the image of Number Six, only to find, as did we all, that he was Swiss, not German, and was newly apprenticed to the neighborhood plumber.
Still, we were keen on protecting our country. There wasn't one of our friends who couldn't identify the silhouette of a Stukka or who didn't know the difference between a Grumman Hellcat and a P-38, and no airplane ever passed overhead without our eyes scanning the skies and our yelling out make and type. Now we stood rapt as my mother first listened, then tried to shoo us to the back of the house. Yes, that was her husband's name. Yes, he went to Washington D.C. every weekend. Yes, he did indeed write postcards in code.
Pale and frowning, she told us to stay right there and went to the bedroom I shared with Robbie. She returned with the complete set of picture postcards, usually of some New York landmark, all their coded messages solved. She ignored our advice that she insist on a warrant and handed them over.
They thanked her for her cooperation. They said that Mr. Hoover thanked her. They took the postcards, tipped their boaters, and left.
And that was it. We never heard from them again.
That Sunday, as we did every Sunday of his return, we four piled into the pre-war Plymouth and drove two miles to retrieve him. I watched the small pitching ship on the hood lead us through the neighborhood streets. The stick shift that rose from the floor was topped with a pearlescent knob on which the same ship was glazed. My mother would grip that knob as if steering the ship through roily waters.
We were early to meet the train. The local depot was one drab room, its trim painted apple green. On the walls, yellow and black signs pointed urgently to air raid shelters and warned about gas attacks. The oak pews held two kinds of travelers. The commuters, even the ones we knew, didn't interest my brother and me. But the servicemen: all branches of our Armed Forces, invariably dozing on khaki duffles and dirty white sea bags. Robbie and I walked around debating their campaign patches, and every so often one of them would peek out from under his sailor's bucket or overseas cap to correct us.
Impatient to consult her husband about this extraordinary visit from the G-men, my mother parked Robbie and me by the All Star Baseball machine, with four nickels and orders not to leave the great room. Then she went out to the tracks to greet the returning cryptographer.
In fact the room was not great at all. None of the mote-speckled gloom of European gares, none of the Beaux-Arts splendor of Grand Central. Inside the brick, monotonous building—four benches, a window for ticketing, a newspaper rack on the honor system—stood a single arcade game. That is where all four nickels went.
All-Star Baseball was a glass box on a cast-iron stand. I was a kid who could spend an hour watching an anthill. This game was its own complete, mechanical world: combat, spectators, finality—that's Weltanschauung for a seven-year old. A bright white and green baseball diamond stretched down infinitely diverging foul lines. Like gods, the patrons stood beyond the glass with the perspective of the ump. At the edge of the outfield stood bunting-draped walls, beyond which sat a murky, pressed-tin crowd sitting under the 70-watt bulb in vests, shirtsleeves and, yes, boaters.
Each fielder was painted in behind a metal half cup that rose from the floor to snare a batted ball. The defensive player had a lever that moved the cups a half-inch left or right. His second instrument was a plunger, like a pinball. Depress it and the ball, a giant steel marble, plopped up to the pitcher's cup. Draw it and let it go and the ball sped towards the plate.
The gray-clad Nationals stood at their positions while the white-suited Americans ran the bases. One runner, speeding out from under his cap, was sliding into second, while his teammate dove for third. From this scene alone, the Nationals appeared to be doomed.
The offensive player triggered the bat with his single lever. He hoped to slap the ball through the cups and into one of the gaps that formed a moat in front of the fences. Each gap was lettered for single, double, triple or homer. The moats put you on base, the cups swallowed the ball for one of the four outs. Four outs? We didn't stop to wonder, Robbie and I, why this game otherwise so keen on verisimilitude—the spikes on the base runners, the worried look of the pitcher—allowed for an extra out. At a nickel an inning, why ask? One set of lights kept track of who was on base. A second highlighted who was at bat: it ran down the National and the American line-up for the actual all-star game of 1939, the year of the machine's manufacture.
Most visits we played a single inning, eight outs. I never won. Robbie would cover his plunger hand and feint a release, getting me to swing and miss. Occasionally the announcer, Robbie's Mel Allen voice, would admire how the batter had been fooled by a screwball or a curve, though I now realize, given the physics of the plunger, that was probably dramaturgy. At bat, Robbie could hit behind the runner or, even more toxic, punch the ball down either foul line, a sure triple.
Naturally I played the National League. As younger brother, I was habituated: Indians to his cowboy, robbers to his cops, Rommell and Tojo to his Nimitz, Audie Murphy and John Wayne. The Nationals had no players I had heard of. Worse, they had no Yankees. Without Yankees, you couldn't win. If I had ham, went one of my father's maxims, I'd make a ham and Swiss, if I had Swiss.
By the time my parents came into the station I was down 6-1 and on the last nickel. And she had told him of the family's brush with the law.
He was furious. His voice stopped neighbors, hurrying home from the train, to eavesdrop. His mail was being read, he announced, and his children had been subject to a taking of property without due process of law. Both of these events, he told the passing crowd, and us later at the dinner table, impinged our rights under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. He went to the bookshelf, pulled the World Book for C, and read us the words.
Before we left the station, he broke a dollar at the ticket window and sent Robbie and me off with a stone's load of nickels. My mother and sister sat on one of the benches, while my father made a telephone call. Although he closed the folding door of the phone booth, I could hear the anger in his voice as the Nationals took on the Americans, this time for six innings, a series record.
In those innings I got Stan Hack, Ernie Lombardi and Arky Vaughan to first base, but never consecutively. In the third inning, Johnny Mize hit a double, but I wasn't able to bring him home. Robbie, on the other hand, scored at will. To be fair, Robbie had four Yankees in his line-up, Red Ruffing on the mound, Dickey, Selkirk, and a center fielder, new in '39, named Dimaggio. Joe Cronin went three-for-three and Hank Greenberg, a rare non-Yankee favorite in our household, hit a grand slam home run. The final margin was well into double digits.
My father never went back to Washington. I don't know which side balked, whether he quit in protest or was suspended until Mr. Hoover was satisfied that the messages—Robbie's turn to take out the trash, Phil remember the goldfish—posed no threat. Bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Macarthur collected signatures on the Missouri, and the war was over.
Stories are incomplete, they are fragments like the pieces of pottery archeologists collect with toothbrush, orange stick, and trowel. We blow off the dust, we carefully wash crumbs of earth until we see the size and shape of the chip we hold. Then we try to guess—was it part of an amphora that held the remains of a prince, or the shard of a jar for leftovers? A brick from the cupboard of a high priest or just another latrine? Games rarely go a full nine innings and the meaning of what we diligently labor over, save for a random consonant and a guessed-at noun, remains encrypted.
Still I can't help thinking about those postcards. I see my father crossing a Washington street to a mail box. It is winter: a wool scarf wraps around his neck, and the collar of his herring-bone coat is turned up against the wind. Only a few cars are on the road, the fortunate drivers with gasoline ration cards. It's a wide street, it might even be the Mall, uncluttered, the buildings whose design caused forgotten controversies, the statues commemorating ambiguous wars.
I wonder if somewhere, in some FBI warehouse in Maryland or a vast underground storage tomb in Nevada, those postcards lie, protected from the light, their pictures of the Rockettes, the Camel sign puffing out wobbly O's over the heads of inattentive people in Times Square, the World's Fair perisphere and trylon, all as vivid and fresh as ever.
We now have the Freedom of Information Act. I'd like to have them back. Perhaps then I would have no need of stories.
Bruce Ducker's poetry and short fiction have appeared in The New Republic, Poetry, the PEN America Journal, and the Hudson, Yale, Sewanee, and Southern Reviews. He lives in Colorado, where he is presently working on his ninth novel.