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ON A BLEAK WINTRY MORNING SOME YEARS AGO I WAS SUMMONED to the office of our naval attaché at the American embassy in Kabul. Captain Verbruggen looked at me with an air of frustration and growled, “Damn it all, Miller, two weeks ago the ambassador ordered you to settle this mess about the saddle shoes. Last night the Afghanistan government made another protest … this time official. I want you, by three o’clock this afternoon, to hand me …”
I interrupted to report: “Sir, a much more serious matter has come up. Last night a dispatch arrived. I’ve assembled the data for you.”
I shoved before him a leather portfolio jammed with papers. Across the face of the portfolio was stamped the gold inscription, “For the Ambassador,” and since our embassy owned only two such folders, what went into them was apt to be important.
“Can’t it wait till the ambassador gets back from Hong Kong?” Captain Verbruggen asked hopefully, for even though he was our acting ambassador he preferred to temporize.
I disappointed him. “It’s got to be handled now.”
“What’s it deal with?” he asked, for he was a self-made man who disliked reading.
Carefully folding back the leather cover, I pointed to a cable from Washington. “Senior senator from Pennsylvania. Demands an answer. Immediately.”
Verbruggen, a rugged, bald-headed man in his sixties, snapped to attention, as if the senator from Pennsylvania had entered the room. “What’s he want?” He still refused to do any unnecessary reading.
“The Jaspar girl,” I said.
With a disgusted reflex Verbruggen slammed shut the portfolio. “For seventeen months,” he complained, “this embassy has been plagued by the Jaspar girl. I’m here to help a nation climb out of the Dark Ages, and that’s the job I’m trying to do. But I’m pestered with saddle shoes and Jaspar idiots. There’s nothing more I can think of to do on this case,” he concluded firmly, shoving the papers to me.
But I forced the papers back to his side of the desk. “You’ve got to read the dispatch,” I warned.
Gingerly he lifted the leather cover and peeked at the peremptory message from Washington. When he saw that even the Secretary of State had involved himself in the matter, he snapped to attention and pulled the paper before him. Slowly he read aloud:
“It is imperative that I be able to supply the senior senator from Pennsylvania with full details regarding the whereabouts and condition of Ellen Jaspar. All previous reports from your embassy are judged inadequate and unacceptable. If necessary, detail your best men to this problem as it involves many collateral considerations. Am I correct in remembering that Mark Miller speaks the native language? If so, consider assigning him to this project at once and have him report promptly, sparing no effort.”
Captain Verbruggen leaned back, blew air from puffed-up cheeks and once again shoved the folder to me. “Looks like it’s been taken out of my hands,” he said with relief. “Better get to work, son.”
I lifted the portfolio from his desk and said, “I have been working, sir. Ever since I arrived.”
“In a very desultory way,” he suggested pleasantly. My boss could never forgo the obvious, which was why he was stuck off in Afghanistan, one of the most inconspicuous nations on earth. In 1946 it was just emerging from the bronze age, a land incredibly old, incredibly tied to an ancient past. At the embassy we used to say, “Kabul today shows what Palestine was like at the time of Jesus.” In many ways, our attaché was an ideal man for Afghanistan, for he too was only just emerging from his own bronze age.
Yet I liked him. He was a rough, wily businessman who had made a minor fortune in the used-car racket, and a place for himself in the Democratic party in Minnesota. Four times he had helped elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, and although I was a strong Republican, I respected Verbruggen’s tested loyalty. He had given the Democrats some sixty thousand dollars and they had given him Afghanistan.
He was almost entitled to it. While still a civilian he had made himself into a rough-and-ready yachtsman, for boating was his principal hobby, and when World War II struck, he volunteered to help the navy manage its shore installations. By merit and drive he had risen from lieutenant to navy captain and had made significant contributions to the building of our great bases at Manus and Samar. He was a tough bullet-head and men respected him; he had courage, and I could prove it.
My name is not really Mark Miller. By rights it’s Marcus Muehler, but in the 1840’s when my ancestors fled Germany they decided with that foresight which distinguishes my family that a Jewish name would not be helpful in America, so they translated muehler into its English equivalent, and henceforth we were Millers.
As usual, my family was right. The fact that my name was Miller and my face wholly un-Jewish enabled me to succeed at Groton and Yale, so that when in 1942 the United States navy was looking for a few acceptable Jewish officers to avoid having many unacceptable ones forced upon them, they grabbed me with relief and were happy when most of my shipmates never realized that I was Jewish. In how many wardrooms was I assured by amateur anthropologists, “I can spot a kike every time.”
Captain Verbruggen, under whom I served at Manus, watched me for three weeks, then said, “Miller, you’re the kind of kid who ought to be in Intelligence. You’ve got brains.” And he personally fought with the brass on the island until he found me a good berth. In 1945, when our State Department also became eager to pick up a few Jewish career men with table manners, my former boss remembered me, and in one exciting week he switched me from lieutenant, junior grade, to State Department officer, very junior grade.
Then came the problem of where State should put me, for the typical embassy doubted that I would fit in. For example, I wouldn’t be welcome in Cairo or Baghdad, where the citizens hated Jews, or, as it happened, in Paris, where many of our staff felt the same way. At this point Captain Verbruggen, now serving as naval attaché in Afghanistan, reported that he knew Mark Miller, and that I was a well-behaved Jew who would be a credit to the country. “In fact,” he said in a cable that was passed widely throughout the department, “some of my best friends are Jews,” and he got me. His courage gained the gratitude of President Truman and a nod from the Secretary of State. To everyone’s relief I was working out reasonably well, so that Captain Verbruggen looked on me with a certain pride. I was one of his ideas that hadn’t turned sour, which could not be said for all of them.
“I haven’t been a ball of fire on the Jaspar girl,” I confessed, “but when the cable arrived I got everything together. I’ve reviewed the files and I think I know what’s got to be done next.”
“At four this afternoon I’m seeing Shah Khan. At his home. He talks better there, and if anyone knows where the Jaspar girl is, he does.”
“Will he tell you?” Captain Verbruggen countered suspiciously.
“In Afghanistan I expect no one to tell me anything, and what they do tell me, I distrust.”
“You’re learning.” The captain laughed. He looked at his watch and said, “If you’ve already studied the file, and if you’re going to meet Shah Khan at four …”
“I’d better get to work on the saddle shoes,” I anticipated.
“You’d better. Those damned mullahs are off again on a big religious kick.” I was always surprised at Captain Verbruggen’s use of the vernacular. He read widely—magazines, not books—and acquired strange phrases. “The mullahs from the mountain districts stormed into town yesterday,” he continued, “and they got wind, somehow, of the saddle shoes and they’re demanding that our Marine guards be sent home.”
“You aren’t going to let a few mad priests dictate our policy, sir?”
“The one thing I refuse to get mixed up in is a bunch of fanatic Muslim priests. You don’t know them the way I do. Already they’re putting a lot of pressure on the Afghan government. I may have to lose my Marines.”
“What am I to do?”
“You speak the language. Go down to the bazaar. See what’s actually happening.”
“Very good, sir.”
“And, Miller, if there’s any good reason for getting rid of the Marines, let me know right away. Their time’s almost up and it might be a friendly gesture on our part to get them out of here. Placate the mullahs at no real expense to ourselves.”
“I was equally surprised at the precise vocabulary my boss could use when he wished to. “I don’t like the idea of placating a bunch of mullahs,” I objected stubbornly.
“You won’t be,” he replied. “I’ll accept responsibility, and we’ll all be further ahead if I do.”