The Day I Learned the Meaning of Freedom
To truly understand what freedom means, one must be deprived of it. This is how I lost my freedom on a day in late 1961:
I was ordered to fly from New York to Frankfurt Rhein/Main Airport, change into civilian clothes, purchase a train ticket to Bremerhaven (but get off the train early in the town of Iserlohn) and await pick-up by a fellow intelligence agent for a ride to my new duty station in Luedenscheid. Fluent in German and with some ability in French and Spanish, I thought: Europe, here I come. Ian Fleming, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
As I waited outside the Iserlohn Bahnhof, a VW beetle skidded to a halt in front of me. A biggie-size American said only: “Throw your bag into the trunk and get in!” Forty kilometers later, he skidded to a halt at a German Army barracks (Kaserne), guarded by Belgians.
Suddenly, two burly Belgian policemen carried me down a set of stone steps into a dungeon and threw me into a cell where I was searched and stripped of my wallet, cover ID, cover civilian passport and money.
By then, I had been traveling for over 24-hours with almost no sleep. I had an eight-hour case of jet lag, was in a foreign country, unaccustomed to civilian clothes, speaking a foreign language, had ridden two hours on a German train, had survived a terrifying ride down mountainous German roads to be thrown into a dank dungeon, searched, stripped of my ID and money and left there alone to ponder my fate. Things were not going well. While in “solitary,” I thought a lot about home and family and America and the meaning of our Bill of Rights.
Finally, a Belgian, who looked like the actor David Niven, took me to an interrogation room. He said he was M. Van den Plaas, of the Belgian Counterintelligence Corps. He said I was a KGB agent. If I did not confess, I would be tortured. And, if that did not produce the truth, I would be taken out into the courtyard and shot. M. Van den Plaas was amused when I protested that my 1st, 4th, 5th, and possibly, my 8th Amendment rights were being violated.
Fortunately, I had had Military Code of Conduct training and been subjected to mock POW torture at Ft. Benning, Georgia. So, all M. Van den Plaas got from me was my name and my cover story. Period.
Finally, in desperation, M. Van den Plaas called the guards and they threw me back into my cell. In French, I heard him order a firing squad to be ready at dawn. I was left alone and, I might add, scared.
Then, from the top of the stairs leading down into the dungeon, a procession of six Americans came down the stone steps singing: “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.” Only the lead American was in uniform. He introduced himself as Major Reed, my new boss, and then introduced me to the other members of the hush-hush team with whom I would serve for the next two years.
I had just been the victim of an elaborate practical joke and security test conceived by Major Reed and his Belgian counterpart, M. Van den Plaas. I would like to tell you what we Americans, Belgians and Germans were working on in that remote area of northern Germany. But then, I would have to …. Well, you know the rest.
That day, back in 1961, was when I came to know what American Freedom means and how wonderful it is. I wouldn’t wish that dismal day on anyone. But I do wish more Americans would take about five minutes, read our Bill of Rights and then, on September 11th, thank God for them and offer a prayer of grateful thanks for all those who have been killed or wounded in the defense of American Freedom.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy by William Penn – a novel about a terrorist attack on key water projects in the Colorado high country.
© 2002. William Hamilton.