She was a flaxen haired, vivacious, and (looking back) precociously droll fourth grader, and her first name was conveniently the same as my third grade crush at my previous school, (making my transference of feelings for my crush all the more convenient and completely unconscious). She was exotic, if by exotic one means from the neighborhood pool in the next subdivision over, not the one a mile from your house (or a 1/2 mile if you cut through a heavily wooded backyard and found the path, convenient for 8am swim practices). She was easily the cutest in our combined 4th and 5th grade class of “gifted and talented” children. She looked good in and wore a lot of blue, my then favorite color.
I had transferred schools. The process began with several rounds of emotionally wrenching one-on-one testing in a claustrophobic converted storage room and a traumatic but ultimately triumphant episode in which I had been pulled out of the lowest reading group (reading the touchy-feely light-blue covered anthology known as “Windchimes”) and put in my own elite reading group of one. That meant several months of the humiliating, attention-drawing act of entering the fifth grader’s classroom to read along in the more sophisticated (as it implied an act of observation) purplish tome entitled “Serendipity.” I had tired of my fourth grade neighborhood chums, who seemed to be constantly feuding for no reason even as they walked to school together, called each other when they got home and then constructed elaborate battle scenes or threw the football with each other every single day.
I had taken the plunge of switching schools, joining the ranks of the tracked, tested and stamped brainy. I was, looking back, the most normal and probably least gifted of the gang of uber-geeks with whom I was suddenly surrounded. And my crush seemed about the same speed, fairly well adjusted but definitely sharp, speaking up in class and getting the answers right. She had a slight lisp, which was unbelievably cute (“gifted” kids i.e. kids who take tests well, for some reason, in my experience mostly had noticeable speech impediments.) I had also been to in-school speech therapy previously to tame a stutter. What’s more, she was cultured in a pop-cultural way that the other kids and I were not. An older sister had turned her on to channels I was completely unfamiliar with: General Hospital, Rick Springfield and the Go-Go’s. Gradually and purposefully, I learned to like these things too, in order to have something to talk to her about. I eventually added “Working Class Dog” to my miniscule LP and eight-track collection. But somehow I came up with another plan to “attract” my crush that, in retrospect and in light of the current state world, seems terrifically bizarre, but hopefully “strangely lovable” despite being ultimately an indication that I was always a bit odd.
I began sending, actually sneaking into her desk, anonymous notes, typed out back in my room. It might qualify as literary throwback hip to type on Royal today but imagine a twelve-year-old typing a 22 page report on the Samurai on one of those dusty clunkers and you can dig why the 64k computer was welcomed into my family a few years later. At this point, I still banged away and tangled with the Royal regularly but found it perfect aesthetically for the task at hand. These weren’t inspired love notes overflowing with emotion, anyway. They were secret messages, “for her eyes only,” inspired and “signed” by the Italian terrorist group, the Red Brigades. So I wasn’t exactly thinking Cyrano when I came up with the concept. I suppose I was thinking along the lines of James Bond and international intrigue, that type of romance, except that this was Northern Virginia.
If you don’t know anything about the DC area, at least know that it is (in reality) full of spies, real spies, mostly American spies, or people that work in intelligence and for all kinds of intelligence agencies that no one has ever even heard of. Spies are not uncommon there, really. They are your neighbors. Literally. The people across the street were a CIA family that claimed to be with the State Department. They had lived in Beirut, Columbia, South Korea, the hotspots and my parents were routinely questioned about them during government security checks. This was business as usual in the ‘80s DC ‘burbs. I played Star Wars with an Admiral’s kid, a Secret Serviceman for Lyndon Johnson’s kid, a CIA/NASA test pilot’s kid, and a World Bank accountant’s kid. Later, I played in rock bands with the sons of NSA officers (total spooks), Iranian exiles (probably the most harmless), JFK’s speechwriter… yadda yadda. So the idea of being sneaky and political and possibly nasty as a career was in the air in early ‘80s suburban DC (as it still is today) even if you had to sniff a bit closer to the Scotch-guarded furniture to detect it. Therefore, I needed to latch on to something from further a field to get some attention from this young lady. Or at least, this is what I thought.
The Red Brigades. They were in the news, they were rebels in a sense, and they were Italians. What’s not to love? Rebels for me meant the Green Mountain Boys, Luke, Leia, Chewy and Hahn, Jesus Christ, Fonzie… probably even John Lennon (whom I’d just become aware of the year before)… you know, leather jackets, bad attitude and the truth… so the Red Brigades seemed like a similarly adventurous and romantic group (that they were actually murdering people didn’t really cross my mind or bother me and if it did, I didn’t consider it unacceptable). I unconsciously surmised that, like Bond, the Red Brigades operatives were probably wooing smoldering Russian female agents for pleasure as much as duty during their off hours. And though I didn’t have any actual photos of my heroes, I assumed they dressed supremely suave and carried gleaming Berettas, the Gucci of automatic pistols really. My fertile imagination, (perhaps fueled by the regular evening of D&D – that unparalleled magical coming together of nerds, jocks, sometimes dads and dreamy kids in the name of a drawn-out gory slaughter of highly detailed and imaginary creatures-a rehearsal for the climax to the Cold War which would never be fought), latched onto the idea of fashionable Europeans reading Existentialism and toting automatic weapons and simply ran with it.
I typed the notes up at home, mentioning esoteric plots and plans in a thick jargon and propagandistic prose, sometimes using French (my mother was fluent and had taught high school) and intimating that my crush was going to be an instrumental in carrying out said plots. I drew strange crests and insignias on the notes, borrowing designs from history books and full-color illustrated out-of-date encyclopedias. I used paper and envelopes my parents had brought back from hotels in Paris, Tel Aviv, London, Seoul, Manila lending the production a thick air of mystery and authenticity. I would slip a clandestine communicado inside her desk just before lunch when the class was filing out and I could trail behind. The details of the content of the notes are vague to me now and lost to the unrecorded history of Canterbury Woods Elementary, but in general the romantic content was subliminal, even minimal if not totally invisible. The tone was designed not to embarrass the writer if someone got wind of the project and to protect my girl-hating rep with the other guys. The violence level of the plots wasn’t specified but I tried to hint that blood might regrettably be spilled for a greater cause. Surefire love connection written all over it, eh?
Then things started happening. The first note was discovered every few days and the crush would read them to her friend the statuesque Greek girl with lifetime straight As. Then one day, a buzz developed around her as she found a second note. A circle formed around my target’s desk one afternoon and the unthinkable out-loud reading of a note took place.
John Dugan of the Red Brigades
They were mystified, mesmerized, utterly confused. Luckily, I was probably the only one in the class with the vocabulary of propaganda, communist rhetoric and anti-imperial bombast to translate this stuff I was writing so the notes were even more mysterious and bizarre to everyone else including the Tolkein freaks and the fourth grader who studied high-school German. The notes included maps, things I cut out of magazines, references to places and people that were utterly impenetrable. My crush’s divorced parents were a doctor and lawyer who specialized on nerve injuries compensation, not State Department or Army Intelligence officers, and she therefore, even more confused. I can’t recall if anyone ever wondered if the notes were real, even if I’d love to believe they did. But as for getting my crush’s attention, intriguing her, my project had done their job.
But I was horrified by the fact that my crush had made my works of art public so quickly. Then I very quickly realized that I had set myself up for embarrassment or the class for massive disappointment or probably both. Where was this going? I was in a jam. Luckily for me, the class was unaware of the actual context my covert love operation was taking place in.
At the same time this was going on, the real Red Brigades were making headlines in my neighborhood. US Army Brigadier General James Dozier was kidnapped from his home in Verona, Italy, on December 17 by an Italian Red Brigades terrorist cell. An eleven-year-old who sometimes read the Washington Post I got the story wrong mishearing an adult conversation between my parents and confusing it with what was on the news. I somehow decided that Dozier’s family lived in my neighborhood, as there were two twin girls whose father was stationed in Germany at my previous school. On a daily basis, I tried to imagine the depth of their pain and suffering even as I continued to type my coded notes, not realizing that I was in effect siding with enemies of the state. Dozier was held for forty-five days until Italian special forces rescued him on January 26, 1982.
In contrast, my scheme ended so uneventfully that I can’t remember the details except that it all went down just after a final note was discovered in the desk. I revealed my identity to my potential significant other and a few others with the expectation of facing a kind of elementary school firing squad reserved for total nerds, like dodge ball or “smear-the-queer” targeted at me. She reacted instead with a kind of theatrical disgust that neither hurt my feelings nor made me regret my enterprise. In retrospect, I think she might have even been flattered. The kids in the class had forgotten about the whole thing by the next day. Either that, or they just chalked it up as a minor eccentricity in a class of hyper-intelligent and somewhat hyperactive grade schoolers. Life went on. I played soccer, got decent grades, studied the Samurai, bought books at the mall with illustrations of the world’s combat aircraft and learned how to draw naked women from borrowing my buddy’s Playboys.
The bittersweet epilogue to the story has nothing to with violent terrorist groups with great style but a little bit to do with the Violent Femmes. The scene is the break just after Gang of Four’s set at a free outdoor musical festival in a grassy field of Northern Virginia. Back from college and basically single (okay just plain 19 lonely and desperate), I was having little luck searching the crowd for familiar faces and whomever I had come to the gig with I had basically ditched for what reason I can’t remember, probably because they reminded me of high school. As my eyes searched the crowd, they suddenly stopped on a face that I had studied in the school yearbook under more than one nightlight. Memories of playground courtship came flooding back to me. We chatted, made plans for the weekend and paled around for the rest of that summer of ’91. Over the next couple years had one of those mythical platonic relationships that don’t come around too often. Of course that’s only because I completely lacked the will or the interest to go any further with the relationship. My grade school crush had grown into a bright, together, kinda foxy young woman and in turn had (in the fashion of unattainable ‘80s teen movie crushes) fallen hard for me over the summer, perhaps because I so clearly was not trying to get laid as we saw movies, ate ice cream and shed the baggage of our last dating train wrecks. I had taken a hostage and had not even typed a note or demanded ransom. But with many hours between our Midwestern liberal arts colleges (rather like the distance between Moscow and Rome) and no car I couldn’t see committing myself to her or even keeping things up to that level of giddy summer of the La’s intensity. The girl I had wanted to draw into serpentine international intrigue a decade before was ready for something real and I couldn’t get over the weirdness of it all even as that boyhood dream was now easily within my grasp. Gradually we fell out of touch but neither of us, to my knowledge has mailed a letter bomb or kidnapped a member of the military.