Monday, June 29, 2020

…BUT I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU – My Secret Life As a Morse Code Spy

What’s in a dot the size of that under the question mark at the end of this sentence? How about a tiny horizontal line as wide as this:  – ?

It’s lucky I’m such a detail person. That might not fit most people’s image of an artist, but I can be quite disciplined when I want to. And it never fails to amaze me what the human mind is capable of when one applies such discipline to the most trifling of details—like those little dots and dashes.

Morse code’s arrangements of those specks have shaped the way wars were started, fought and won,
connected nations, quickened the pulse of economies and even reportedly influenced the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln.*

                                                  ~  //  ~  //  ~  //  ~

In 1968, following graduation from college, I interviewed with the 523rd Army Security Agency (ASA), an Army Reserve unit out at Fort Snelling. The first thing the recruiting sergeant did surprised me: he handed me a copy of the German magazine Der Stern.

He’d noticed on my application that I’d taken German in both high school and college. So he asked me to read out loud the cover story—something about the escalating Tet offensive in Vietnam.

In the middle of my second halting sentence, he interrupted me. “Okay, you’re going to language school, Jeff.” Well, I couldn’t believe my luck; here I was enlisting in the reserves to take my service obligation into my own hands and not get drafted, and now they’re sending me to a really good school to learn something that might actually prove useful in peacetime.

And it didn’t hurt that my post-basic-training destination, the Army’s Defense Language Institute, is at the Presidio in Monterey, California, less than a mile from Monterey Bay.

Believing that sergeant was my first mistake. As it turned out, by the time I showed up for basic, the Army, in its infinite wisdom, had decided to quash my California dreamin’ and changed me from a Linguist to an 05G-20, a Communications Monitor.

In other words, a “ditty-bopper,” an expert in transcribing Morse code—alas, all in English. Our unit’s main job was to eavesdrop on our own forces’ communications and document any breaches of security protocols—for example, divulging individuals’ or operations’ code names, or positions. In other words, I was going to be a spy.

No surprise, the ASA was not popular with other branches of the Army. We made them look bad, got them in trouble. So their nickname for us was “buddy-
f- - -ers.”

For this sensitive work I needed what’s called a “top-secret crypto” security clearance. Yeah, right, just like James Bond, I thought. But over the next month, sure enough, Defense Department guys descended on my various haunts and interviewed nearly everyone I’d ever known: teachers, employers, clergy, friends’ parents, neighbors…

        The method was raw rote learning, driven
        by fear of punishment.

I must have passed the test, because I was soon off to basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, then to the ASA’s training center at Fort Devons, Massachusetts for my advanced training. There I embarked on a course of study almost as rigorous as that I would have seen at language school.

I learned all about radio communication, from the physics of wave propagation, to security protocols, to report writing. Security was so strict that we weren’t even allowed a scrap of paper or a pen in our classrooms.

After absorbing all those arcane rudiments of our specialty, it was on to the diddy bops: learning Morse code. From the start, the method was raw rote learning, driven by repetition and motivated by fear of punishment. The instructor would shout the vocalized character—for example, Lima! (for “L”), and the class had to scream di-DAH-did-dit (. _ . .), Lima! And then again…and again…and again…

If the instructor spotted anyone hesitating, or whose lips betrayed a mistake, it was down on the floor for 25 push-ups or outside to run around the building ten times.

For some reason I still don’t fathom, I responded well to this type of learning. In no time I was minding my Ps and Qs like a veteran.

        The poor soldier allegedly picked up his
        mill and threw it through the window…
        and then jumped after it.

After memorizing the dits and dahs, the next stage of our training was to learn transcription. We sat at long tables, each of us facing a huge, black, World-War-II-era manual typewriter. We wore headphones through which were played messages in machine-generated code.

We were to transcribe the code on our typewriters—the inside name for them was “mills.” Once any of us proved our accuracy at one speed, subsequent messages came at that man at a higher speed.

The few of us who’d learned typing in school had an advantage, but it was more about sound recognition and reaction time. Once again, this code stuff proved easy for me. Before long, I was leading my class, eventually transcribing 24 words per minute. (A competent operator is supposed to be comfortable transcribing 15 to 25.)

It was great! Nearly every day, leaving the other guys in my dust, I was declared “AOG”—ahead of the game—which meant I got out of class early to go drink beer and play pinball at the PX.

Legend had it that over the years quite a few ditty-boppers had flipped out from the pressure and the constant chatter of that code being driven into their heads. In the worst cases the poor soldier allegedly picked up his mill and threw it through the window…and then jumped after it.

Thank God for humor. It was a time when most of our cohorts were bound for active duty, likely in Vietnam, so understandably they were quite serious about their training. But for many of us reservists, the whole Army experience, especially during a controversial war, felt like an imposition turned lark. I'm not proud of that assumption of privilege; I guess it was our form of resistance, turning our energies toward skirting—or at least making light of—our duties.

Best of all was inventing ways to addle and mock the few non-coms who’d proven themselves to be mean, presumptuous or incompetent.

Though I never found the slightest practical application for my Morse code expertise, that rote learning did indeed stick; it would be years before I forgot my dits and dahs, even without the slightest bit of practice.
 . _ _ .    .    . _    _ . _ .    .      

* – “What the Digital Age Owes to the Inventor of Morse Code”


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