I Never Knew My Grandfather, Only What He Pretended to Be

Toby Barlow’s Babayaga is out this week from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and follows the travels of a CIA agent posing as an ad executive CIA agent in Europe in the 1950s. What begins as a relatively straightforward operation quickly becomes something bigger, and weirder. Read an excerpt from the novel and see for yourself.

What you might not know are the life events that inspired Barlow’s story. Read on as the author tells us a tale about his grandfather, waiting on a German train in 1937….

My grandfather sits on a train, waiting. It is early spring, 1937. His name is Philip Strong and he has boarded here in the Hamburg station, preparing to head to Berlin. Although I possess a volume of his letters from this trip, letters I have read many times, I am still not exactly sure why he is here.

He is 36 years old, a U.S. Marine Reserve Captain. But as a reserve officer, he is not travelling in uniform, instead he’s wearing an old tweed jacket. He has a bulky backpack stashed on the overhead rack. In his pocket is tucked his smoking pipe along with a small pouch of his treasured Dunhill tobacco.

Beside him sits a much younger man named Leko. They are on this sightseeing trip together. By all appearances, it is nothing more than that. They stay in youth hostels and ride on many trains such as this one, sitting back in the third class smokers.

It doesn’t make actually make sense that my grandfather would be here in any official capacity. He does not speak German or Russian, only a little French and only the most rudimentary Spanish. If the army had wanted someone to observe the European situation, they probably would have sent an agent who understood at least one of the various languages.

But it also seems too odd for him to be embarking on a journey with an itinerary that will take him through such a large number of the looming conflicts’ many theaters. He will travel from Germany on to Poland, the Balkans, Russia, then down to Kabul and Tehran, driving from there over to Baghdad and Beruit before shipping off to the already jittery East.

Also, there’s the fact that he doesn’t know this young man sitting beside him very well at all. “Leko and I are getting on well together – we have likes in common with are being mutually discovered and so far have developed none which grate on each other,” he writes to his sister. It seems they are only socially connected, but not relatives and, until this trip, not friends. They do not agree politically, Leko, my grandfather reports, is pro-fascist, though my grandfather himself is not.

What is Philip Strong doing here? Maybe it is a bit of self-motivated opportunism. Perhaps he senses history coming and is cleverly placing himself squarely in its path.

Once they arrive in Berlin, Leko will strike up an acquaintance with a fellow name Otto Fuerbringer. This Otto fellow knows Berlin well so they all start travelling around town together. Otto is a Kansas City reporter, tall and handsome, my grandfather reports, a Harvard man. One day he will become the managing editor of Time Magazine. These are the sorts of people idly wandering around Hitler’s Germany in 1937, visiting all the various art museums, gardens and zoos (“the keeper who did the animal feeding was a born comedian.”)

Five years later, my grandfather will no longer be in the reserve, he will be very active. In January of 1942, he will report to the British BOE sabotage school in Canada. Not long after that, he will develop a complete training program for his new boss, the legendary “Wild Bill” Donovan at the O.S.S. In the O.S.S. training manual, my grandfather provides this handy tip for searching a captured prisoner:

Kill him first.

Later still, he will become a part of the original core team in the Central Intelligence Agency. But right now he is sitting on a train next to Leko, this funny young man he does not know well but with whom, for some reason, has decided to circumnavigate the world.

In the details of the trip, I sense elements of fiction. There are small clues, like the way a letter from a shopkeeper in the States refers to him as “Capt. Strong” whereas the Black Diamond Steamship line only refers to him as “Mr. Strong.” Was he hiding his military credentials? Or there’s the way he writes to his sister to let him know if his letters show any signs of having been opened. “I am curious about it.”

There are also all those third-class births and crowded cold water hostels. These turn out to have been fine places for meeting new people (“we gossip with bargemen, brownshirts, Hitler-jugend, and all sorts of other people.”) but I suspect the slumming was not entirely necessary. My grandfather’s own father, Benjamin Strong, had once been J.P. Morgan’s banker and was the first chairman of the New York Federal Reserve, my grandfather’s family is one of prominence and means. Departing from America at the start of this journey, he left instructions to have his fees paid at, “Princeton Alumni, The Army and Navy Club, and The New York Social Register.” Now he’s in hostel crammed full of smelly, sweaty and loud Hitler Youth.

There is also the fact that he is very curious and observant. In Moscow he will even stand in the double line to see Lenin in his tomb, (“He has a striking ascetic face and beautiful hands.”) Arriving in Tehran, he will write home to his brother Ben and share the opinion that war between Germany and Russia seems probable, though he refuses to predict who would win (“Each one guards too closely the details of his military establishment.”) But I do have to give him credit for looking beyond the obvious, (“Just on the appearance of the men one would say that Germany has the stronger army but from things I’ve seen in Russia I have my doubts.”)

The war he predicts will come and then it will be over. Shortly after, he will meet my grandmother, who is married at the time. He is married by then too. These mutual entanglements are not much a challenge for a man of intelligence, trained as he is in espionage. He loves my grandmother and so, after a short period of furtive hotel liaisons, they are living together in Georgetown.

She has secrets too, but that is another story.

So, Philip Strong is not actually my grandfather. The original, authentic one, a man even more unknown to me, disappears from the family stories right about here. But Philip Strong steps in, all square jawed and solid, and provides his step-daughters with a secure home in a respectable neighborhood.

Ultimately, he will rise in rank to become General Philip Strong running a large department in the C.I.A., the Office of Scientific Intelligence. Amid his many other responsibilities, he and a colleague named Fred Durant will one day brief a committee panel on whether U.F.O’s actually pose a national security threat (in their opinion, they do not.)

A character named General Strong debriefing Washington on the threat of U.F.O’s seems like something out of a very two dimensional comic book. But that actually is the one item here that I absolutely believe contains no fiction or deception. Everything else is suspect.

Growing up, my mother will spend her teenage summers working in the library at the C.I.A, diligently organizing their files. She is bright and hard working. When she comes home from her first year at Bryn Mawr, she is also politicized. She spends that summer at her old job, only now she studiously disorganizes the library files.

By the time I come along, for reasons both personal and political, my grandparents and my mother are not close. After I am born, I believe you can count on one hand the number of times my grandfather and I will find ourselves in the same room together. But I wish I had known him, for we all want to know our family history and we all want to know our family’s secrets. I suspect he had a wealth of both.

He is there, sitting in Hamburg, waiting for the train to start moving. Once the train begins, history will start moving with it. If he is only here in Europe out of his own ambition, then it is very good instinct and that ambition will be rewarded. When he returns to the states he will be one of the few officers who has visited both Germany and Russia.

If he has been put on this train by greater forces to play some larger role, then that role remains a mystery. He remains unknowable. When that train starts its travels, it will not bring him to me. He will spend less time with me in his life than he does with the baby across the way from him, the one being held by its fussing mother there in that third class car. I will never know him either. I will only know what he pretended to be.

One day, decades after this, while I am writing a novel about espionage in Europe, I will tuck him into its pages, there near the end, in a small cameo role. It isn’t there as homage, or for any historical accuracy (he was not even in Paris in 1959, he was back in D.C., helping with “Project Dragon Lady,” better known as the U2 project.) and he’s certainly not placed there out of loyalty or love. It’s simply feels right to have him wandering around through the pages, another ghost in the machine, a man who possessed an almost unreal name, General Strong, that belongs more to my fiction than it ever belonged to my life.

The train is moving now.

Toby Barlow is the author of Sharp Teeth and Babayaga. He lives in Detroit and writes about the city for the Huffington Post.


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