Read Fail Safe Online

Authors: Eugene Burdick,Harvey Wheeler

Tags: #General, #Fiction

Fail Safe

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By Eugene Burdisk, and Harvey Wheeler


Peter Buck walked up to the Pennsylvania entrance of the White House. It was one of the hard, deceptive, crystal days of early spring. The obelisk of the Washington Monument was white and glittering. Tourists hurried rather than shuffled past the White House. Official limousines went by with their windows rolled up and their back-seat occupants thumbing through papers, their chesterfield collars up. The air was marvelously clear and full of sun, but it was cold.

Of ten Buck had the desire to mingle with the crowds, to wander down the Mall, to loiter in the Smithsonian, actually to visit the capitol and sit in the Senate gallery, to visit the Supreme Court on Monday when decisions were rendered, to regain the innocence he had felt years ago when he first came to Washington. With a soft poignancy Buck realized he had become a new victim of an old malady: he saw less of his city than the tourist. But today he was glad to reach the White House sentry box and looked forward to his warm steam-heated office.

The Pot was on duty in the small wooden guardhouse. The Pot was a thin wiry man, but sixteen years of White House guard duty had given him a hard round belly. He never exercised, but by some odd law of physiology his arms and face remained skinny. Looking out the window of the sentry box he seemed

a frail and almost undernourished figure. The moment he stepped outside the impression vanished. He looked precisely as if he had swallowed an ancient cannonball.

Buck did not know his real name. This was part of the White House drill: the guards had to know everyone's name, but the other employees seldom knew the names of the guards. The Thin Man, the Pot, the Indian, Scar Face, Chief, the Grunt, the Sphinx, were some of the names which the civilian staff had given to the guards. Buck had never heard one of the guards called by a proper name.

The Pot stepped out of the guardhouse and nodded at Buck. His eyes flicked over Buck's leather attaché case and he grunted.

"Ham and cheese?" the Pot asked.

"Wrong," Buck said and grinned. He opened the attaché case. It contained two apples, a carton of yogurt, and a chicken leg wrapped in wax paper.

"Pay up."

The Pot reached in his pocket and took out a nickel. He dropped it in Buck's hand.

"O.K., I lose today," the Pot said. "You know where we stand now, Mr. Buck? After 932 bets I have won 501 and you have won 431. What do you think it means?"

"Who knows?" Buck said. He smiled at the Pot and walked on, but the Pot's question irritated him. For over three years he and the Pot had had this small running bet. It was uncanny how the Pot could estimate when Buck was picking up weight and would start to bring a reducing lunch to the White House. Long ago they had jokingly established categories of food and the Pot would guess what Buck had in his lunchbox. Gradually it had hardened into a bet, had become somewhat serious and, finally, a major part of the day

for each of them. Today was the first time that the Pot had lost a bet in almost a week. In his efforts to deceive the Pot, Buck had become very ingenious in his preparation of lunches. He had instructed his wife, Sarah, to seek out exotic sausages, salad-stuffed eggs, sometimes caviar sandwiches. Once as a joke he had even gone to one of the more expensive delicatessen stores in Washington and purchased a small can of kangaroo meat, but when he produced the kangaroo sandwich, and saw the look on the Pot's face, he realized he had gone a bit outside the rules. The Pot paid the nickel but his eyes were icy.

Buck went into the East Wing, nodded at the Indian, and then turned left. He entered his small office.

He opened his attaché case, quickly deposited his lunch in the left-hand bottom drawer of his desk, took a copy of the Washington Post from the case and put it on the desk, He closed the case and put it in the corner behind the coat rack. He sat down to the desk. Squarely in the middle of his desk, put there a half hour before by a messenger, were the usual copies of Pravda and izvestia, plus a monthly Russian literary magazine.

Buck began to read the Russian newspapers. He read with an incredible speed. As he read, repeating a task he had done hundreds of times, he was aware of a slight thrill of pride. He knew, quietly and competently, that he was among the three best Russian translators in the United States. Ryskind at Berkeley might be a hair better on accent, but that was all. Buck was sure that he was better than Watkins over at the Pentagon. After the three of them there was a big gap before one came to the fourth best Americanborn Russian-language expert. Probably Haven at Columbia.

Buck remembered with a stab of malice that at the

last meeting of the Slavic Language Association Haven had misused the Russian word for "popery" twice in the same paper. Only Ryskind and Watkins and Buck had been aware of the error. They had smiled across the room at one another and shaken their heads slightly. No one else had noticed it.

Buck had become a Russian expert quite by accident. In the 1950s when he was twenty-two years old he had been called up for military duty just as the Korean War started. He was a junior in college at the time, but had no special interest in languages. He intended to be an engineer. When the Army tested him, however, he placed very high on language aptitude and found himself at the Army Language School at Monterey.

What followed bewildered Buck. By the end of the first week of instruction he was at least two months in advance of the others in the class. The instructor, a Russian immigrant from Kazakstan, was astounded. Not only did Buck learn the Russian alphabet and syntax and peculiarities of grammar quickly, but he could instantly speak back in whatever dialect was being spoken. In two weeks he was something of a celebrity. The Russians on the staff of the Language School would bring him into a room and start to speak Russian to him. Promptly he would respond with the same accent in which he was addressed. If the Russian was Georgian, Buck came back with a Georgian accent, if from Leningrad, the peculiar light inflection of the Leningrad area. The instructors watched him intently, occasionally smiling as he reproduced an obscure accent. At the end of three weeks they took Buck from his class and explained that his presence there was demoralizing to the other students.

From then on he lived a dual existence at the school. Half of his day was spent in an accelerated course in

Russian, in which he was exposed to everything from ancient forms of Russian literature to contemporary Russian scientific writing. The other half of the day he was the subject for a group of psychologists who tried to discover why he learned Russian so easily. They put him through an endless series of aptitude, intelligence, personality, and physical tests. The results were a strange nullity. Buck had the I.Q. of an average college student, around 122. He was somewhat high on the tests that measured verbal facility, but his memory was not especially good nor was his eye-hand reflex better than the average student's. His hearing was actually subnormal. His tone, frequency, and pitch discrimination were phenomenal, but correlated with nothing else. The psychologists were both puzzled and suspicious. They harbored the lingering doubt that Buck was holding back something. One psychologist had the theory that Buck had been exposed at an early age to someone who spoke Russian; to expound it he even wrote a paper called "A Case Study in Infantile Language Imprinting." He was quite unmoved when no one could discover a Russian-speaking person in Buck's background.

After a time, the psychologists, sensing Buck's indifference, began to talk in front of him about their test results. He knew precisely how his Rorschach inkblots were interpreted, the results of the MMPI, his I.Q. on eight different tests, the results of his Strong Vocational Guidance Inventory, his index of neuroticism, how tolerant he was of ambiguity. In everything he came out dose to dead center.

Buck smiled indulgently at the psychologists. He was fully aware that his capabilities were quite average. For his exceptional language skill he had no explanation. It worried him very little.

At the end of a year Buck could speak Russian, in

most of its dialects, as well as any of the instructors at the school.

His first assignment was to a division in the Pentagon which translated the more important Russian military documents. Sometimes the articles were said to have been stolen by American espionage agents or purchased from the spy hives of Hong Kong and Berlin and Tangiers. Sometimes they were merely long articles from Russian military journals.

Buck did his work in the Pentagon quickly and efficiently. Even the old hands were startled at the rapidity with which he could translate obscure phrases.

"Sergeant Buck is something of a phenomenon in this division," his superior wrote in evaluating his work. "Not only does he know the Russian language flawlessly, but when it comes to interpreting a new colloquial phrase, in which Russian abounds, Buck's interpretation is invariably correct." After several paragraphs of praise the letter closed by recommending him for training as an officer in rather negative terms. "This person should be sent to OCS because his virtuosity in the language makes it somewhat embarrassing for his superiors to treat him as an enlisted man."

Buck was aware that others in the division had reservations about him, and he knew why. Everyone else in the division was deeply interested not only in the Russian language, but in Russian politics, personalities, weaponry, economic conditions, and even Russian gossip. Buck did not conceal the fact that he was enormously bored with Russia. He was much more interested in a small red MG which he had brought to a high pitch of mechanical perfection, a soft-spoken girl from Georgia with the name of Sarah, and cool jazz.

There would be days when everyone in the division was in a paroxysm of excitement because some member of the Soviet Presidium had been demoted. They

spent hours trying to tease out the significance of this. When they asked Buck his views, he shook his head and said, "No comment." He was not rude, he was simply not interested. The division traced the rise and fall of obscure Russian bureaucrats, they speculated on Russian agricultural production, they argued bitterly about whether Stalin had been a Marxist or an opportunist. Buck's very sense of noninvolvement was at first puzzling and then finally unbearable, His sheer flawless ease in translation, the fact that he was the only person in the division who never needed a dictionary, did not make him popular.

At the end of a year of Pentagon duty Buck was ordered to OCS. He emerged a second lieutenant with orders to report to an infantry division in Germany. He sold the red MG with regret, but left the Pentagon with pleasure. He was relieved to escape the tyranny of his strange and unwanted Russian skill. He liked the long war games in which he and his platoon crept through the dark German forests, their rifles tipped with eight inches of bayonet, the rumble of tanks just ahead of them, the occasional crashing sound of a simulated land mine giving the maneuver an element of excitement.

Occasionally he went with other members of the platoon into a nearby town and got drunk on the excellent German beer and ate huge quantities of various German sausages. His spare time was devoted to the care and maintenance of a Porsche coupé which he bought because it was incredibly cheap for an American soldier and he loved its lines. He also wrote a letter a day to Sarah. The Porsche was a miracle of mechanical perfection. Buck tuned it to an exquisite level of adjustment. Occasionally he would take it for a workout on the beautifully intricate forest roads of the nearby mountains. He thrilled to the dangers of the

abysses which underlay each hairpin turn, but never pushed the car to its ultimate capacity. After such trips he carefully washed the car, wiped the leather with saddle soap, retuned the motor, and covered the coupé with a red parachute.

After two years of duty, Buck was discharged from the Army. He and the Porsche were returned to America on the same ship. Two weeks after he arrived in New York he married Sarah and took a job as translator at the United Nations. Two years later only two things had changed in Buck's life: they had a four-months-old son, and Buck had discovered the law.

He had started to read a casebook on the law of torts that someone had left in the translators' room at the UN building and did not stop until he had finished the whole book. It was a stunning discovery. There was something so symmetrical and neat and perfect about the organization of the law, it seemed so logical and majestic, and so awesome in its certitude. It was like a new complex foreign language with its own special vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Buck found it irresistible.

Sarah, a girl who combined a low metabolic rate with a rare sweet face and a gentle nature, encouraged Buck in his enthusiasm for the law. The only problem was how to support his family and go to school at the same time. Through the network of translators, he heard of an opening on the White House staff for a Russian translator. The job was reputed to make very little demand upon the translator's time. He merely had to be there in the unlikely case that the President needed to speak directly to a non-English-speaking Russian. The last man who had the job had held it for five years, had not seen the old President and quit out of boredom when the new President took office. Buck had applied for the job and in the competitive examinations had been 14 points ahead of his nearest competitor.

He and Sarah and the child and the Porsche made their way to Washington. Sarah set up housekeeping in Arlington. Buck began to go to Georgetown Law School at night. During the day he spent his time reading law books in his office and occasionally glancing through the heap of Russian documents which were automatically circulated through his office.

A hard-driven student could have gotten through Georgetown Law School in four years while occupying an outside job, but Buck was in no hurry. He loved his law courses and worked at them carefully and patiently, much like a jeweler determined to give a lapidary finish to a rare stone. His law-school professors regarded him as intelligent, hard-working, a perfectionist for detail, and completely lacking in what they called "legal imagination." Once Buck had asked a professor why he was given only a C on a paper in which he had answered a very long and involved question in the most specific detail.

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