A True Army Story: Whistle While You (Try to) Work

Photo of Eiffel Tower

We are living in Europe, the epicenter of all those fabulous historical sites and sights, courtesy of the U.S. Army. And even a second lieutenant gets 30 days of leave each year. We can travel!

Only one thing is missing. Money.

In the fall of 1970 and even with the ubiquitous Arthur Frommer’s “Europe on $5 and $10 a Day,” it costs money to travel. This is especially true if you want to sleep in some kind of hotel or lodging place as well as eat.

I need to get a job.

First, the good news. The headquarters of the entire European American army PX (technically the EES — European Exchange System) is in Munich, located on McGraw Kaserne, the army post to which my husband’s battalion belongs.

The bad news. The pay for clerical positions is, if memory serves me, approximately $1 an hour. Forget that. I will not work for peon’s wages.

Since I have a college degree in journalism, my next step is to apply for a professional position at the EES. There I am promptly told by some civilian man that, if he gave me a job, I would be blocking the career path of a man who, for professional advancement, changes positions every three years.

The problem is not that I cannot promise to be in Munich for three years, but that I might be blocking the career path of some man!

This is 1970, so what to do? Work for the army itself.

Planning ahead, I had already taken the civil service exam while Mitch was at Ft. Holabird, Maryland, for his military intelligence training. And with my college degree I am now qualified as a GS-7.

I take the trolley to the civil service office in downtown Munich and apply for a civil service job.

First hurdle. The only GS (Government Service) positions available in Munich are secretarial ones. No sweat. I have been a secretary before. I will be one again in order to see Europe.

Stop! says the civil service gatekeeper. In the States a GS-7 can automatically take a lower GS position (secretaries are GS-3s). Not so in Europe. I must take a typing and shorthand test to qualify for a secretarial position.

Sign me up. I am a great typist and I took shorthand in college to help with newspaper interviews. Surely I can fudge my way through the shorthand test.

Second hurdle: The tests are officially given only sporadically (read once every hundred years). I wait …and wait …and wait.

Finally we get smart. Mitch writes a formal letter to the civil service gatekeeper asking him to give me the test privately, and Mitch signs the letter “Lieutenant Mitchell R. Miller.”

Mitch’s rank gets the civil service gatekeeper’s attention. He promises to send to the States for the test.

Again I wait … and wait … and wait.

Then Mitch again contacts the civil service gatekeeper, who writes a letter to us explaining that the test got lost in the mail and must be sent for once more.

I wait … and wait … and wait.

Finally I am summoned to appear before the august presence of the civil service gatekeeper.

I take the trolley downtown again – this time to be tested. And I prove to the civil service gatekeeper that I am indeed qualified to type and take shorthand.

Hip hip hooray! Mitch and I are going to get to see Europe.

Hold on!

I cannot get a job with the army because the units that need secretarial help are military intelligence. And secretaries must have security clearances to work for military intelligence.

Knowing how long the FBI took to do Mitch’s security clearance, I realize my hope of actually standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower — regardless of my fear of heights — is moot.

Not to worry says the civil service gatekeeper. The Army-Air Force Motion Picture Service, also located at McGraw Kaserne, needs a GS-2 clerk. The pay is a few cents higher than a clerk’s job at the PX.

Plus the gatekeeper promises Mitch that a security clearance will be done so I can eventually get a secretarial job. It is now April 1971.

Off I go to the interview. And, lucky me, I get the job.

And the job turns out to be? From 7:30 to 4:30 using a clunky manual typewriter I type the lists of movies that will be sent to the five American servicemen stationed on various mountaintops in Italy.

Do not ask what they are doing up there. Probably picking their noses out of boredom. Except for the movies.

And in the office I have to listen to the stories of the fraulein German national with whom I work. How she didn’t have enough to eat in Munich during World War II. How her mother insisted on traveling during the war. And how her mother was killed by an American bomb at a train station in Budapest, or some such place!

Mind you, we are sitting in a building across from the World War II headquarters of the Luftwaffe. This building, in fact, now houses the 66th Military Intelligence Group, the Holy Grail of my job quest.

And also keep in mind that the fraulein has worked for the Americans since the war, even though “my neighbors cannot understand how I work for the Americans after they killed my mother.”

The fraulein complains of not having soap during the war while I obsess on what I have heard about the murdered Jews whose bodies were melted down to make soap.

I also sit in the same room with an American woman my age and born of German immigrants. She has returned to visit her German grandparents, married a German national, and become more German than the Germans.

In the far corner is a chubby American woman from New England of Portuguese heritage, whose enlisted husband has served a Vietnam tour. She regales us with horrifying stories of how American soldiers in Vietnam cannot trust anyone — a boy of 10 may throw a bomb if the soldiers do not shoot the boy first.

And I type lists of movies and lists and lists.

The Germanized American woman — “Germans drive so much better than Americans” is she crazy? — replaced an American woman whose husband is an officer with mine. The officer’s wife had landed a job in the Holy Grail — the civil service office of the 66th. And somehow I am summoned to an interview.

Double hip hip hooray! My security clearance has come through. I have qualified for a GS-3 secretarial position at the 66th.

I will now make almost enough peanuts to stay in a third-rate hotel in Paris with the toilet halfway down the dark staircase.

Little do I know that my secretarial bliss is only to last one month. Just until the new colonel arrives and sweeps the place clean.

First, let’s consider my one month of bliss.

It begins with a spy story. Sounds good, right?

I resign from typing the movie lists. And I enlist with the 66th. This includes signing my life away concerning the military intelligence secrets I will be typing.

It is the Cold War — and suspicions run high. I am under the same restrictions that Mitch is:

• cannot enter East Berlin or take the U.S. Army duty train through East Germany to Berlin

• cannot visit any Eastern European countries

• always be on the alert for any attempt to get me to work for The Other Side

Between my two jobs Mitch and I go off for a week in Copenhagen to make up for our disastrous attempt to get to Copenhagen a year earlier.

(The occasion when we were dumped off the train late at night between Germany and Denmark because we had the wrong papers and Mitch might be trying to go AWOL. No, it did not do any good to explain that officers do not go AWOL from Germany.)

And since I made peanuts at the Army-Air Force Motion Picture Service we can only afford to eat at Arthur Frommer’s suggested cheap places.

Picture this. It’s September 1971. Most of the American summer tourists have already gone home. Mitch’s hair is cut so short he broadcasts ARMY. And we are eating fish sandwiches in some second floor Frommer special where only Americans advised by Frommer would eat.

An older man with grey hair sits down next to us. In English he says, “I’ve just returned from visiting Russia. The people there are so nice. Serious. Not like the fun-loving Danes.”

Now the normal American tourist would shrug this guy off. A nut case. Mitch and I know better.

We touch knees under the table. A classic pick-up attempt. Right out of the pages of the military intelligence manual I had to read before signing my life away.

We gulp down our sandwiches and flee out of there. Where to? What if he follows? Quick. To Tivoli Gardens. We can get lost there among the amusement park rides and food offerings. Just like in the spy movies.

We run the three or four blocks and thrust our admittance money at the ticket taker.

For good measure, once inside Tivoli we dash hither and thither among the fun-loving Danes to ensure escape.

By the time we get back to Munich we do not report the incident as required. A week with the fun-loving Danes has clouded our judgment. Was it really a pick-up attempt? Maybe the guy was just a nut case.

I do report to my new duty station. An American serviceman has gone missing, presumed recruited to The Other Side.

My new boss — a GS-12 — jiggles the coins in his pocket and waits for news from the Austrian border with the East. This is not a case where no news is good news. There is no news.

I sit in a room with six men, two warrant officers and four civilians. Or perhaps it is the other way around, I cannot remember. My men are monitoring important activities, reports of which I type. Six copies — requiring five pieces of carbon paper — are disseminated, including one to the Munich branch of the CIA.

When I am not typing this important information that keeps Europe safe from communism, I am allowed to read.

Then the new colonel arrives. He reorganizes.

Two of the men and I are swept into a large room with an assortment of other men. The other four men in our unit are swept, for all I know, into a dustbin.

The fun begins. The highest-ranking man in the room is a GS-13. He spends his entire time discussing whether it was Taiwan in ’64 or Honduras in ’58 where civilians were required to wear uniforms.

Otherwise he allocates the Christmas gifts to friendly German nationals — liquor and perfume. These decisions take him an entire year.

One day he fires me. Just like that. No warning. Nothing. He is not even my boss. But my boss cannot save me because he is only a GS-12.

I need the money. I still have not gotten to the Eiffel Tower. I throw myself on the mercy of the artillery major who has just joined the group of merry men who sit in the large room with me.

(He is horrified that we paperclip our secret and confidential documents rather than stapling these as is done in artillery. He points out that a secret document could accidentally get attached by paperclip under a non-classified document.)

With prodding from the major, the GS-l3 condescends to tell me why he has fired me.

“You do not answer my telephone.” The one that rings only on his desk, certainly not on mine.

“Heidelberg might be calling” — he means the GS-l4 who outranks him — “and I should have a secretary to talk to his secretary.” Mind you, he hasn’t asked me to answer his bloody telephone.

“And besides, when you have nothing to do, you read. How does that look for me if you are not busy?”

Ah, now we come down to the nitty gritty. We must keep up the appearance that allotting Christmas gifts takes all year. (Remember, taxpayers are paying his salary.)

The major negotiates a truce. I will answer the GS-l2′s phone and look busy. I am to read the army manuals when I have nothing else to do. (I can just manage to slip The New Yorker under the manuals.)

And I am to type the weekly report to the colonel perfectly. I cannot correct an error. Every time I make a mistake I must start the page over. Now I am a good typist, but not perfect. Typing the weekly report fills a great deal of time.

Also I smile at the GS-12. I say “good morning, sir” and other such “polite” nonsense.

And two months before Mitch is due to get out of the army, I resign so we can use up our remaining leave.

On a tight budget we finally tour Western Europe, including the Eiffel Tower, and stay in a Paris hotel that turns out to be a brothel.

—Phyllis Zimbler Miller

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