After about a year and a half at DIA, I'm promoted to Second Class Petty officer. I'm the guy in the Cracker Jack outfit. The others are, from the left: Coronal Brown, Bill Gann, forgot his name, and Major Newsom.
Years later I wrote the story pasted below. I put it here simply for storage and reference. Currently out for consideration, the story is unpublished.
Che’s Hands By William Elmore Gann
Imagine an alternative ending for the disrupted lives of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. At their age, I too stumbled onto valuable classified information. I, however, chose to skip the whole life in prison, Russian exile route. Having instead gone for the pursuit happiness, I wish those young fools had done the same. In fact, I have a secret message for those who would follow them in divulging secrets.
While working for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 1968, I saw some ghastly photographs of a dead man with his hands sawed off. These horrid images and accompanying documentation were classified. The confidential file gave evidence of close American involvement in the killing of Che Guevara. There in one finds the message for other young people who might offend power. Still, one needs not wonder, with similar intelligence today, what would Wikileaks do?
Rebel leader Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, commonly known as Che, had been hunted down, killed, and dismembered in Bolivia. Young rebels need to remember this part. Some political observers pointed to the U. S. military, claiming the tee-shirt icon’s blood was on American hands. Ironic that evidence of this fell into my wistful young hands. Hands, with typing skills that had taken me into a top-secret world.
Just out of boot camp, in the giant dirigible hanger at Moffett Field, CA, over 100 men were asked to divide themselves into cooks and room cleaners. With cooks on one side of the enormous building, and janitors on the other, seven of us stayed in the center of the football field-size floor. A crusty old chief looked us over like horses, and said, “You must be the smart ones. If you can type, come with me.”
He took us to a high security area where I started an incredible journey. “You young sailors are what we call security virgins.” The chief explained that as young men who had never been in trouble, we could quickly be cleared to work with classified information.
In and astoundingly rapid series of events, I was given a Secret clearance, and trained to send global messages on a classified web of Teletype machines. I didn’t get a tee shirt for helping develop the Internet, but was then sent to the Naval School of Photography, where, on graduation, I was recruited by DIA to work in Washington D. C.
When I saw Che’s file, I was newly cleared for Top Secret, just married, and had communications and photographic training. I was a California surfer, a community college dropout, and unschooled in the ways of in the world. Still, I knew about “Papa,” as Che was known by code. My new wife Diane and I had become friends with Ray and Elinor Burkett. This association meant I heard about the romantic doctor non-stop for the entire two years we were stationed in the District.
The Burketts were an up-and-coming DC power couple. Ray, a gourmet chef and an American history scholar, was also a fellow Navy photographer at DIA’s photo lab. Elinor was reading for her masters in Latin American studies at Georgetown. She was feisty, opinionated, and the first liberated woman I ever knew. It amused her that I used
California Speak expressions like “groovy.” She often said Diane was the, “victim of a good Catholic upbringing.” Then, the nimble-minded lady was on fire over Cuba, and the motorcycle-rebel in a beret.
As a desk-bound sailor with too much classified information, it was my nature to play by security rules--mostly. Born in La Crosse, I was imprinted with Mississippi River farm values that kept me blindly obedient and trusting of authority. Fear of dishonor, disgrace, and prison time stay my tongue, but I was still burning to talk about the Che file with Elinor. Thinking back, if I had been the leaky sort, Elie would have known well how to cash in on Guevara.
I just discovered Ms. Burkett did quite well in life without my classified information. She went on to become famous, wrote numerous books, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and won an Academy Award. Always an accomplished woman, it seems she’s now unfairly remembered for interrupting Roger Ross Williams' 2010 Oscar speech in what was called a “Kanye Moment.” I didn’t know any of this until a few minutes ago. I did get the Miami Herald and read her writing there when I lived in Brazil. I was just never sure she was the same person.
Back in the Sixties, I told Elinor nothing. Joyfully, I missed the fame-train ride to household name status like Manning and Snowden. Ironic that I now see Che-style Snowden tee shirts and Manning coffee mugs selling briskly on the very Web I evidently helped pioneer in secret. So I suppose this is also a story of how I cleverly avoided fame and fortune. It happened like this:
I had joined the Navy to see the world. Instead I was imprisoned in the redbrick Cafritz Building just south of the Pentagon. In an olive-drab cubicle, lost in a windowless labyrinth, I sat surrounded by a mountain range of file folders. There, in a sad cell, I had been assigned to sort files by negative size for printing in DIA’s high-security darkroom.
Technically, I wasn’t supposed to look at the photographs, or read the personality profiles contained in the records. I think it was bureaucratic laziness and oversight that put these documents in front of my young eyes in the first place. Then, maybe I was being tested.
The agency did do sting investigations and agents were trained using low-level military workers like me for practice. I had two or three little encounters with in-training spies who followed us about. Security test or not, monotony drove me to violate the “need-to-know” rule, early and often. The job was tiresome, and the files made great reading.
So, archived for my reading pleasure were dossiers on foreign operatives gathered by DIA agents all over the world. The subjects were mostly men, though reports on women were among the hundreds of secret records that passed my desk. These records were on foreign military officers, and were really mini spy novels.
The clandestinely taken pictures indicated that most subjects were oblivious of being watched, followed, photographed and studied for possible weaknesses. “Seems to like young boys,” one record noted. Their bad habits and secrets were all documented, and right there in the file for my viewing pleasure. One wonders if there are National Security Agency clerks who love this aspect of their work today.
In fact, I became hopelessly hooked on the forbidden fruit of secretly obtained secrets. “Lives on tonic and gin, loves redheads,” I read out loud one day when Burkett was close enough to overhear. I hadn’t seen him come by to take my full cart of print orders to the darkroom.
Caught red handed, I was lucky Ray was a good friend. So it was, in reading files to pass the time, Ray and I became coconspirators. We began to share particularly interesting records as if sharing good books. We could have lost our clearances I suppose, but we felt safe in the giant high security complex. We thought we were smarter than those who needed to know near nothing to do their job.
The day I opened the Che Guevara file, I had heard much of him, but didn’t actually know what he looked like. I saw a young bearded man spread out on a cement table with his hands sawed off. The hands were by his side, and opened as if two huge spiders were praying.
The idea people would do something like this was shocking to my young soul. Similar gruesome pictures are on the Internet today, but those I saw were of much better quality. When Ray came by my desk to see what I had found, he turned white. “My God that’s Che Guevara. Whatever you do, don’t tell Elie, she’s go nuts and get us both in trouble.”
As Ray and I devoured the file, we became convinced that the U. S. military was involved in the execution. We weren’t trained analysts, but weapons, clothing clues, data, and outright statements clearly established that U.S. observers were present before, during, and after the young rebel’s demise. We only had the file for a few minutes, and then dutifully sent it on to the darkroom.
Not knowing then that America carried out executions, I was dumbfounded. I started to hear and understand what Elie was saying. Ray and I now knew she was completely correct when she called out the CIA on the matter of Che. Unlike Snowden and Manning, however, we kept sealed lips about what would have been a political bombshell. Instead, our outcome was to enjoy our youth and freedom in a wonderful and picturesque city.
For two vibrant years we lived at the very center of everything. I photographed the Poor People’s March, the Nixon inauguration, and the DC streets. We enjoyed the restaurants, clubs, and cycles of cherry blossoms, humidity, fall colors, and snow. Ray cooked, and a small group of friends devoured conversation over gourmet food. I enrolled in college classes. Our guitars tuned together, we played folk songs, dealt hands for Bridge, and documented history as it passed outside our door. Our time there spent sweetly, was fast, and never came back again.
The Navy eventually sent Ray, who by the way had an eerie resemblance to Edward Snowden, off to Iceland where he scored a major intelligence achievement by photographing the interior of a Russian Bear Bomber. I went to Vietnam as a patrol squadron photographer, and Che was forgotten.
Seven years later, a divorced and re-married Ray and I reconnected in California. He and his second wife Sandra visited Diane and me in Fullerton where I was then working as a reporter. We raised a glass to Che, and gave a nod to our joyous Washington days. Suddenly, Ray reached for a pain in his side, had to go see a doctor, and soon died of Leukemia.
A glass of wine or two as I wrote these remembrances brought Barbra Streisand singing “The Way We Were” into my misty watercolor mind. It was then, Internet research uncovered Elinor’s astounding success. Famous or not, I decided to call and catch up with her for the first time in 45 years. So absorbed, I didn’t realize it was 9:30 at night in California. Her angry husband reminded me it was past midnight in New York, and hung up.
I waited until it was early evening in New York the next day before I called again. I established that she was the right person, and told her I was Bill Gann. There was a pause. I asked if she remembered me. “No,” she said.
I apologized again for the earlier late-night call, and coached her with triggers I thought would help her remember. “You taught me to play, ‘Rambling Boy,’ on the guitar,” I rambled, lamely.
“Were you the one?” she finally said, followed by another long pause…. I evidently became a cloudy recollection, if not an old friend. I asked a few questions about Che when she suddenly interrupted with, “Is this about those pictures you guys saw?”
She hadn’t actually seen the images, she said, but now remembered the event well. She wasn’t sure how she knew what was in the file, but she knew the truth before most of us anyway. We chatted a bit about writing this piece, and discussed Snowden, Manning, and classified documents.
I became Chris Farley’s Saturday Night Live character in an elevator with a movie star. “So you had that Kanye moment…I saw it on YouTube…and it was funny,” I babbled as if I were Farley interviewing Paul McCartney. She didn’t laugh. She was polite and we exchanged email addresses. The call was over. She lives with her husband between homes in both Zimbabwe and New York.
Now, as a retired teacher with time on my hands, I’ve taken to telling stories out of school. I keep chickens, and tend a country garden with mud under my nails. The very same digits that took me to see the world, now type silent thoughts. Dead Che, eyes open as if looking at the camera, speaks now with his frightful run-away hands. In sign language, Che’s message is for leaky idealistic sorts like Manning and Snowden. “Don’t mess with these people,” the severed claws say. “Threatening those with power can bring your young life to a sudden and horrid end.” All that, and you may not even get a tee shirt in the end.
William Elmore Gann was a photography and journalism teacher for 36 years. He taught at the international school in Sao Paulo, and lived in Brazil for six years. He’s published numerous stories of his travels as a free-lance journalist.
Folk Legend: Steve Noonan, Fullerton Observer
Heartburn of Darkness, Amazon adventures in Sierra Magazine: http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/199511/heart.asp
Archived stories and Photos:
Stories of Last Chance Canyon prospectors of Bickel Camp: http://www.zyworld.com/billgann/BickelCamphome.htm
Flicker photos are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/22897847@N00
He’s on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/bill.gann.16