Chapter 15: Things get complicated

After lunch with Angela, he collected his knapsack and rode down to the USIS Library to work on the Arland papers. He had been excited to deliver his first book translation, but now he felt a different excitement – and a great anxiousness to jump back into the complex mess of papers that had challenged him so hard.

Where do I start? Joe said to himself. He looked at the folder of clippings and magazines in front of him. He had chosen a very quiet day at the USIS library to dig into Jack’s documents, which was good. He needed one of the long, massive oak tables all for himself.

He began to sort the contents of the folder into piles. After putting it down for so long, it was like seeing it for the first time. There were weekly news magazines like Espresso and Panorama, letters from various Smithson offices in Germany, France, England and Northern Italy, a couple of post cards from islands in the Indian Ocean, and what looked like articles reprinted from an encyclopedia or scientific journal.

Joe’s heart sank as he looked at the material. This was going to be tough, and Jack was already acting like it was late. He stood back for a minute. Then he noticed the librarian staring at him. She was a stern-looking woman of about forty. Joe walked over to her station in the middle of the reading room.

Scusi,” excuse me, he said. “It is very quiet today. Will it be OK for me to spread out on the table? Just for a while. I promise to pull it all together if anyone comes, or as soon as I figure out where to start.”

The woman’s face softened. “You let your summer assignment catch up with you, didn’t you?” Joe shrugged, letting the misunderstanding go. “That’s OK,” she continued. “You should see this place in late September before school starts – packed with procrastinators. You are ahead of your classmates. Go ahead. I’ll let you know if it becomes a problem.”

Grazie, signora.” Thank you, ma’am. Joe went back to the table. The librarian had given him something he could use if his mother asked him what he was doing at the USIS Library.

“Libraries and bookstores are your natural habitat,” Nancy had told him once.

Spread out, the piles looked less intimidating. He decided to review all the printed material in chronological order first, then go through the correspondence. He was sure that the common subjects would come out, and that the letters probably should be translated first.

Like the magazine clippings in the first folder, the material in this one did not seem to be related. There were news reports on events between 1960 and 1964, everything from the Olympics in Rome to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, even one about paramilitary groups training outside a Soviet naval base in Syria. The articles about new drugs from Smithson and its competitors came as no surprise. The travel articles about the Seychelles did not seem to connect at all. It took Joe about an hour and a half to go through them all quickly. He got up to stretch.

He was not going to be able to interrupt all this to go home for lunch. Angela should not have started cooking yet – it was only ten-thirty. He remembered the pay phone just outside the door. Catching the librarian’s eye, he pointed to the phone. She nodded. Joe walked over to the phone, checking his pockets for a telephone token. His lucky day: he had one left. He called home and let Angela know that he would get some lunch downtown.

“Thank you, signorino,” she said. “Everything can keep until tomorrow and I can use the fresh greens for supper.”

Back at the table, Joe scanned the letters. They covered the same period as the clippings, but only two of them referred to any of the clippings: the letters enclosed articles about Smithson products. In fact, there seemed to be no connection at all. The letters were almost all about introducing a couple of new products in markets throughout Western Europe, but mostly in cities in Italy.

The encyclopedia-looking articles were from Farmacologia, a scholarly journal on pharmaceuticals. Each one reported the results of clinical trials of new products, mostly drugs he recognized from the magazine articles as Smithson products. The journals were not new: Joe recognized two of the products as over-the-counter remedies sold in stores.

What he found curious was that certain words were circled in different colors on the photocopies of the articles. They did not seem to relate to anything in particular or even to each other. He decided to translate the letters in chronological order, picking up any printed material that was mentioned directly in the letters as we went along. The letters were carbon copies typed on onion-skin paper. He counted forty-five of them in the folder.

By now his stomach started growling, but he could safely re-stack the piles in the folder in some order to be translated. He did that and packed everything in his rucksack. He already knew where he wanted to eat. He made his way downstairs to the grill in the basement.


Back at the big table in the library with his stomach feeling happy, Joe slipped a piece of carbon paper under the top page of his writing pad and started to translate.

The first few letters dated back to 1960 and concerned the introduction of a new drug without a name. The disease was curiously never mentioned except by reference to meetings held earlier. This did not surprise Joe. Growing up with a pharmaceutical company executive, he knew that the company shrouded any new initiatives with more secrecy than a military weapons project. It wasn’t until after development was far enough along to file patents that the company’s tight security would relax enough to admit they were working on something.

By 1962, progress was far enough along, Joe guessed, for the product to get a name: Securinon. After translating about six letters, Joe decided that he would have to hold on to the whole lot until he finished them. They kept referring to each other, and he needed to change word choices in earlier letters as he discovered new insights in the later ones. Jack won’t be thrilled by this, he thought. If I can’t finish a draft on the letters by the weekend, I’d better give him a call.

He quit at four p.m., with first drafts on the bodies of half of the letters written. He put a square with a number at the top and the bottom of each to tell Jack or any potential typist what letterhead, salutation and closing to use. That would save a lot of writing, he thought, as he packed his bag and headed for the Vespa parked on the sidewalk outside. The librarian smiled and returned his arrivederci as he left.

When he got home, he let Angela know that he would work through lunch every day at the library. It took too long to come home for lunch. She assumed he was doing school work, too.

“You be careful you don’t become a stressed-out executive like your mother, signorino. She already skips too many lunches. Il pranzo, the noon meal – it’s the main meal for a reason. And it’s supposed to break up the hard day to make it bearable. You remember that.”

“Yes, Angela. Just this week. And you know I’m enjoying my lunches: they make hamburgers at the American grill. It’s fun for a change, though I wouldn’t eat them all the time.”

Angela snorted something about barbarian cuisine from German cities like Hamburg and gathered up her shopping. Joe laughed gently and went to his room to put away his rucksack.

Joe was reading Hornblower and the Hotspur in the living room, listening to Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri on the RAI, the State Radio. He wished that he had read the Hornblower series before taking Modern European History. It would have helped the whole Napoleonic era stick together better. The Hatchard’s catalogue had a list of all the novels both in publishing order and in the internal order of the series. He had resolved to follow the fictitious naval hero’s life in order and was enjoying it immensely.

The opera finished on the hour. Then Giornaleradio, the news, came on. There were two more bombings that day, one outside the Ferrari plant in Modena and another outside Camp Ederle in Vicenza, where the US Army had its Southern European Command (SETAF, Joe now knew). The pundits came on to guess which right- or left-wing group was responsible. Most agreed that a Communist group would want to target the American Army base, but opinion was split on who would want to target the iconic racing car factory. It generally took days and weeks for the police to figure it out unless a group claimed responsibility, but that did not stop the commentators from filling the program slot with speculation.

This will surely start another discussion about going back to the States, Joe thought. He reached up and turned off the radio, just as the door opened.

“Hi, Mom. How was your day?”


On Tuesday, he came across two letters that referred to some of the printed news articles about new drugs. He wondered about the circles on the printed articles as he worked. Then he realized that there were only six different colors and they appeared only on some of the articles. He pulled out the piles of letters and articles and looked for circles. Only six letters had circles. They were recent letters and had only one circle each, in a different color.

“Securinon,” the new drug under development, was circled in purple. The purple circles in the clippings surrounded phrases like “D-day, launch-time, coordinated operations,” and only occurred in articles about paramilitary operations or news about military movements. Except for one group of words: the names of four major Italian cities, Rome, Turin, Milan and Naples were all circled in purple on different pieces of paper.

Joe’s mouth got dry as he moved quickly through the file. Blue occurred around the word “Robbins” in an early letter, then around the head of General Ettore Arcibaldo, Commander of the Carabinieri Corps, Italy’s military police, in a photo in a Panorama magazine article. The General had retired since the article was written and was now running for Parliament from a district in Rome. Green circled the words “Production Department” in a letter and parts of separated words in magazine clippings that made no sense to Joe: Hofbräu (a German beer), Frankfurt-am-Main (the German city) and “Carlsbad” in a story about the American caverns. Yellow, brown and red did not make any more sense than blue.

I need to call Jack, he thought. This time, he packed up his work and went to the Stars & Stripes newsstand to buy a couple of telephone tokens.

Jack’s line was busy. When Joe tried again, he got Jack’s secretary.

“Signor Arland is out,” said Giacomo. “I expect him in about an hour. Can I take a message?”

“Yes, tell him –“ Joe felt confused. “No, Giacomo. Thanks, don’t tell him anything. I think I’ll see him tonight anyway. Don’t bother him.” They rang off.

Joe realized that he had not eaten. It was now almost one. He went to the grill and sat down to think and eat. As long as I don’t know who’s doing what, he thought, I should probably continue to ignore the material and just translate. But I’ll have to get this stuff back to Jack as soon as possible, and once Jack has the translation of the letters, I won’t really need the articles, unless Jack doesn’t know what the file is about and asks for the clippings to be translated, too.

Joe felt better. He finished lunch and went back to the library. He found it hard to concentrate. The later letters were much longer, some over six pages. He still had three to draft by four o’clock when he quit. Still, he thought he could finish them in two days, so that night, he left a note for Angela that he would come home for lunch.

About eleven the next day, Joe picked up the last letter in the file. Although in Italian, it was on the letterhead of the Munich office of Smithson’s German subsidiary. As he read, his pulse quickened. He grabbed his pencil and wrote as fast as he could.

Dear Mr. Robbins:

            As agreed in our meeting last March, all arrangements will be completed for the delivery by 15 June of this year. We will make final deliveries to all sales teams in Milan, Naples, Palermo, Florence, Venice and Genoa no later than 30 July. We will meet your team in Rome on 7 August for the formal launch of the new Securinon product….

By now Joe knew that Securinon was a code-word for a military operation of some kind, not a new drug. He threw down his pencil as he finished the letter and pulled out the copies of the earlier word-lists he had made. His heart was pounding.

There’s going to be a coup d’état on the seventh of August! Rumors had been running in the press about a coup for almost as long as Joe could remember reading newspapers, but he sensed that no one really took the pundits very seriously. Here was proof that it was really happening!


(to be continued)


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