Frank Key’s new paperback, Porpoises Rescue Dick Van Dyke (available here) includes a trio of tales featuring those resonant figures from the American Cold War, Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. The pieces can -nay, should! – be seen as exercises in biographical reconstruction, as many of the details are historically accurate, as near as dammit. Here, to whet your appetite, is the first of the three…
In Maryland, Whittaker Chambers pointed across the fields towards his pumpkin patch. Beside him, Alger Hiss peered uncertainly through the morning mist.
“There, Hiss,” said Chambers, “You can see my pumpkin patch?”
“Barely, Chambers, barely. It is a misty morning,” said Hiss.
“Let us go then, you and I,” said Chambers.
Unlike the shabby Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss was dressed elegantly, and he worried that his expensive shoes would become caked with the Maryland mud through which, perforce, he must squelch to reach the pumpkin patch.
“I am worried that my expensive shoes will become caked in mud, Chambers,” he said.
“Oh, don’t you worry your little Hiss head about that,” said Chambers, “It is wooden mud, that is, mud cleverly carved from wood, to give the appearance of mud. Your expensive shoes will remain clean and shiny, or my name is not Whittaker Chambers!”
“Or indeed George Crosley,” said Hiss.
“Dammit, Hiss!” hissed Chambers, rounding on his alleged pal, “Don’t speak the name I use when spying for the Soviets, even here in this rustic neck of Maryland! Remember that our capitalist government has agents fanned out across the land. Why, even that scarecrow over there may be made of more than straw! It may contain wires and a radio transmitter in its noggin.”
“Sorry, Chambers, you are right of course,” said Hiss.
The pair stalked across the wooden mud, which Whittaker Chambers had laid to surround his pumpkin patch for security reasons. As they walked, arm in arm, Chambers explained to Hiss how one of the pumpkins had been hollowed out so that top secret microfilm could be hidden inside it.
“Are you not worried,” asked Hiss, “That the microfilm might be rendered useless on account of chance gnawing by small scavenging animals such as squirrels or field mice or raccoons or indeed certain swooping birds of the air, Chambers?”
“Well, Hiss,” said Chambers, “I have quite enough to fret about with the lamentable state of my rotten teeth and my stained and shabby suit, not to mention my many illicit homosexual encounters up and down the eastern seaboard. I trust in Stalin to protect my top secret microfilm from the predations of squirrels etcetera.”
Alger Hiss wondered exactly how Stalin, far, far away in the Kremlin, could protect a Maryland pumpkin patch, but he said nothing. After all, who was he to question the omnipotent wisdom and ideological genius of the pockmarked Party leader? The two alleged chums arrived at the pumpkin patch.
“Now, see if you can spot the hollowed-out pumpkin, Hiss,” said Chambers.
“B-but they all look almost identical, Chambers,” said Hiss.
“That, Hiss, is the beauty of my scheme,” replied Chambers.
A few yards from where they stood, a Federal agency radio transmitter hidden in the head of a scarecrow sputtered and buzzed. Far away, in Langley, Virginia, an operative snapped to attention and clamped his headphones tighter against his ears. Pencil poised, he was ready to transcribe what he heard… but he heard only the sound of gnawing, as a squirrel, or possibly a field mouse or a raccoon or a certain swooping bird of the air dug its fangs or beak into the wiring.
In Maryland, Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss stood in the morning mist, in the pumpkin patch, pointing at pumpkins and plotting the overthrow of the government of the United States.