Accidental discoveries. You’re searching for one thing and discover something else of even more value. I’m rummaging in the junk drawer, searching amid the usual dresser jetsam for that thingamabob that goes to the whatchamacallit and then coming across my old Hopalong Cassidy penknife. And it is the perfect tool for opening those damned CD security tapes.
Or, doing research on Medal of Honor recipients for a documentary and stumbling across the story of Mary Walker, the only woman to receive that award, which leads to ruminations about women in combat and subsequently to a very successful screenplay and movie.
Luck, I guess, curiosity and the ability to tell the difference between gold and iron pyrite, literarily speaking.
If you’ve ever had to search for any government document, you cannot help but be reminded of the last shot of the first Indiana Jones movie as the boxed Ark is hauled into what appears to be an endless warehouse filled with stacked crates extending into infinity. I’ve been inside those warehouses. They exist, scattered around Washington, D.C. and other parts of the U.S. This is one place where movie fantasy and reality merge. In fact, the reality makes the movie image seem feeble.
There are warehouses that are miles in length. Endless corridors and shelves filled with government detritus. Mostly paper. Documents from the inception of our government and before. Logs and letters and inventories and forms. Paperwork from every branch of government: Presidential papers, the document-spewing House and Senate, agencies that spit out paper like babies fill diapers. The military wallows in documentation, in triplicate, the Navy floats on it, the Army hurls it at the Pentagon, and the Air Force drops it by the ton. And the IRS? Enough said.
And they keep it all. Every single page. In warehouses like those surrounding D.C. Stored underground in old salt and gypsum mines scattered across the country. Miles of files. Mountains of memos. So much paper. Untold reams of reports. Centuries of forms, letters and ephemeral data.
And, as you would expect, things get lost.
I, myself, was certainly lost. In a labyrinth of bare metallic shelves three stories high, each shelf stuffed with boxes. They smelled of mildew and my allergies were acting up. I was researching an HBO project about female spies in Europe during World War II. I was on the hunt for a batch of old wartime OSS records, the precursor to the CIA, concerning the use of women in 'ungentlemanly warfare', concentrating on the adventures of those female agents who spied for us in Nazi-occupied France: Yvonne Rudellat, a receptionist turned spy, Chilean actress Giliana Balmaceda and Virginia Hall, an American journalist with a wooden leg she called Cuthbert.
As usual the document I wanted, needed, was missing. Well, more accurately, it was not where it was supposed to be. But according to the government troll who sat in the tiny office a few miles behind me, it was indeed "in here somewheres".
I searched the boxes stacked around the designated area, on shelves above and below and adjacent. Still nothing. Then I saw something stuck behind a sagging brown file box.
Out of nothing but curiosity, I slid the interior box out into the open. My hand left a mark on the dusty lid. The top was bound with yellowed string that, as it unwound, came apart in my hand.
Inside the box a single sheet of paper with the bright red declaration "TOP SECRET" lay upon a briefcase. I set the sheet aside, its edges crumbled at my touch, raining yellow confetti onto the concrete floor. I examined the briefcase. Brown leather, faded gilt lettering stamped on the flap bore the legend "J.M.H." The brass clasp and trimmings were tarnished with green verdigris. When I flicked open the clasp and lifted the flap the dried, desiccated leather cracked like cheap plastic. I couldn't help but glance around to see if there were any witnesses to my destruction of what could be some historic heirloom. There was no one around. So I continued my examination.
Why did I continue? I am a writer by trade. Curiosity is in the job description.
Inside the ancient briefcase, still smelling of old pipe smoke, were a variety of documents:
A leather-bound diary, the cover rubbed to rawhide in places, the same initials, 'J.M.H.' embossed on the lower right corner, any hint of gold long worn away. The tattered remnant of a marking ribbon hung like a rat tail from the binding. Thumbing through the wrinkled and stained pages, the odor of mold was enough to make me sneeze. The writing was some sort of shorthand in a variety of pen inks, black, blue, a faded purple and even red, plus pencil notations.
Putting this volume aside I pulled out a crumbling envelope, emblazoned with Russian characters that were later translated as "MOST TOP SECRET." Inside was another diary, in thick binding, written by hand in German, using a variety of inks, but obviously in the same hand. The edges of the pages were blackened as if they had been in a fire. Some fell loose as I opened it.
After this I found a red-brown accordion file that contained a thicker document, this one stapled, the metal fasteners rusted and staining the paper they held. It was three, four inches thick and typed on thin paper, carbon copies, some of the letters so vague as to make the text near indecipherable. Rubbing my fingers on the back of the paper I could feel the indentations the typewriter keys had made on the almost transparent vellum. An original document. The first page had a title, "The Dragon Prince and I" a Modern Novel by Lenore Van Muller.
Next was a manila folder, once held together by a rubber band that was now rotted and snapped, but still stuck to the cardboard. Inside was a stack of old copy paper, the thermal facsimile type from the pre-Xerox era. The print was a vague brownish blur on stiff, fragile, and very thin fragile paper. I have seen it before in past research endeavors. The document was cracking, browned at the edges as if toasted, falling apart. They were copies of German documents, many topped with the Nazi symbol, that eagle holding a swastika. My eyes kept fixing on two words I did recognize: "Hitler." This mythic name was mentioned repeatedly, and another word, another name just as famous if not even more so - "Dracula."
The combination of those two names was enough to send my curiosity into overdrive.
The very last item at the bottom of the case was a file folder of dark brown pasteboard, cracked in two at the fold. Between the halves were thirteen loose sheets of manuscript, hand written in a small tight hand. The paper was cracked and flaking, crumbling at the edges. The ink had faded so much as to be indecipherable to the naked eye. It took some scientific wizardry to being out the text, infra-red and a few other colors of spectrographic scans. At first examination, considering the content and the diary, I took the language to be German but it proved to be Dutch. I did recognize the one name at the top of the first and the bottom of the last page – Abraham Van Helsing.
My HBO project was now completely forgotten. I quickly but carefully returned the items to the briefcase, put them back into the box and, I have to confess I slid the "Top Secret" cover sheet under the shelf. Checking out the box was easy, too easy if you ask me, as the box was listed in the vast computer catalogue as only another number, no details. Just the notation, "Misc." As you may expect, a good part of these vast government holdings have yet to be catalogued.
It took months to have the diary transcribed. The shorthand was not Gregg, but a version of the Pitman system. Through the Internet I found an old, retired legal secretary from Wales who was familiar with the style. Her legal background and innate suspicious nature proved to be an initial stumbling block as it took a month just to get her to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Finding a translator for the German documents was easier (as was that non-disclosure negotiation).
The thermal paper was more problematic as it was in a very delicate state, some of the pages disintegrating at the slightest touch. I had an archivist mount each page between plastic sleeves - an expensive undertaking.
The Dutch translation was easy, a former teacher of mine in Michigan was sworn to silence and did the work. I will always remember his phone call asking me if this was some kind of prank I was playing on him. Thanks Milt.
As for authentication, I sent paper samples and certain mundane passages to various experts and laboratories. Due to the extraordinary contents of these documents, it was imperative that the authenticity of the various papers be proved.
The papers were put through more than one testing facility and all passed. Chemical analysis and fiber identification were conclusive as to the period. Forensic document experts agreed with the source of each manuscript as indicated in the text. Dates and references within the texts have been checked and re-checked. Most turned out to be concurrent with the events of that time. The few conflicts are easily attributed to the imperfection of memory.
Sadly, all attempts to locate and interview any of the participants mentioned in these documents has been futile. They are either long dead or untraceable, at least by my meager efforts.
How these documents found their way to Maryland I have no clue. As to why they were never published or released before is obvious: what they reveal would cause more controversy than any government would want. By releasing them now, I hope that other individuals or agencies with more resources than my own will pursue this investigation.
After careful and repeated readings, I have edited the documents to provide one linear narrative, quoting from the particular document that provided the clearest or most complete version of the events. As with any eyewitness testimony, there are inherent contradictions in the documents, and in those cases I took the majority opinion or left the contradictions in place.
I am convinced that there is little doubt, though scant physical evidence, that the events described actually took place, however unbelievable and incomprehensible this may appear on a first reading.
I’m sure that there will be a whole slew of people who will think this all fell out of a horse's ass. That’s okay. Let the reader decide on the verity of the original authors and the story they tell.
- Patrick Sheane Duncan