I told this story to a fighter pilot friend of mine, and he insisted I share it with my newsletter list.
[Just to be clear, my friend hasn’t landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier in years, however “once a fighter pilot, always a fighter pilot”. Similarly, I haven’t jumped out of a plane in many years, but I still consider myself a skydiving instructor. It’s a “guy thing”.]
When I was in grade school, my mother allowed me to join a monthly book club. I selected two or three books from a list, and they would be delivered to the school a week or two later. In fifth grade, implying that I was eleven years old, I ordered a book called Codes and Secret Writing. This book was published in 1958 by Herbert H. Zim, and is still available on Amazon for only $3.99. That’s eleven and a half times more than the thirty-five cents I paid for the book. Naturally, I read the book and learned how to “encrypt” my messages. Now, the only problem was, who can I send my secret messages to?
My mother only had one brother, my Uncle John. My brothers and I thought the world of him, especially when he returned from basic training wearing an Air Force uniform. Wowww! He looked very important to us. He was a mechanic working on F-4 fighter jets in England, so I guess he was tangentially related to national security. One of the questions we asked him is, “What kind of pajamas do you wear in the Air Force?” He laughed and told us that soldiers don’t wear pajamas. They sleep in their underwear. That was the very last day my brothers and I wore pajamas in our lives. If Uncle John can sleep in his underwear, that was good enough for us! (I wonder how my mother reacted to this sudden “maturity” on our part.)
My mother would write letters to her brother in order to keep up “military moral”. That was a big thing after WWII and the Korean War. And since my brothers and I were learning to write, she encouraged us to write to Uncle John to practice our communication skills, as well as give Uncle John mail that would make him smile. At least… that was the plan.
Mom had written Uncle John’s APO (Army and Air Force Post Office) address on a piece of paper, and I was old enough to copy it to the envelope on my own. Mom didn’t feel the need to proofread my letters before they were sent. In hindsight, that was a big mistake. In one letter, I mailed my uncle a copy of the code. Naturally, he was going to need that if he was going to be able to unscramble my next letter. My next letter was hand-written, and probably triple spaced. Not only did I use the “position code” from page 23, I also used invisible ink (aka lemon juice) to write my encrypted message in the large spaces between the lines. When you hold the paper close to a hot light bulb, the lemon juice burns and turns brown so you can read it. I realize that this doesn’t compare with 128-bit digital encryption, but it was the best double secret that an eleven year old could think of.
But WAIT! That’s not all. My grandmother had given me a box with two rubber stamps. There were hundreds of rubber letters that would slide into the wooden stamp, allowing to you print any message you wanted. So… probably after my mother put a stamp on the envelope for me… I decided to stamp the outside of the envelope with bright red letters that said, CONFIDENTIAL and TOP SECRET. You’ve gotta give me points for vocabulary, right?
Here’s where my plan went a little bit sideways. It seems that the US military gets a little bit nervous when one of their servicemen gets a letter stamped TOP SECRET. Personally, I think the military police should be smart enough to realize that if the message was really top secret, the sender wouldn’t be announcing it on the outside of the envelope. None the less, my uncle was dragged from his barracks and taken to an investigation room. I’m not sure if they really used a bright light and a rubber hose, but suffice it to say, my uncle was headed to a very long vacation in Leavenworth, Kansas if he didn’t come up with an explanation for his contraband letter. I don’t think he had even seen my letter at that point, so he was really confused – and scared – by references to “treason” and “life in prison”. Fortunately for both of us, the military was sophisticated enough to develop the lemon juice and translate my message, which was probably just, “Hi, Uncle John! I miss you. I hope you are happy.”
Well… Uncle John was not very happy at that particular moment. In the 1960s, trans-Atlantic phone calls were prohibitively expensive, but he called our home in Indiana to demand that I CEASE AND DESIST! Luckily my uncle was overseas at the time, otherwise I might have suffered a little more severely for my limited understanding of national security.
Believe it or not, I still have the actual book I purchased in fifth grade. Notice my name on the inside cover. The phone number had letters in the prefix, a practice that was discontinued in the late 1960s. WE stood for WEstmore, which you would easily dial on a rotary phone. Anyway, there was never a dull moment in the Badnarik family. Imagine the level of patience my mother must have had trying to raise three boys like me.