The Romanian secret police were a running joke in East European intelligence circles. Not because they were any less ruthless than their peers in other Soviet-bloc nations, but because they were hopelessly obvious, given to following people around in knee-length Boris Badinov coats. They were objects of scorn to the Russians. Or at least that’s what a KGB trainee I later met told me. But then who was he to talk? In Russia in the summer of 1986 you could pick out the spooks in tourist hotels by their tell-tale powder blue Nike jumpsuits. But that’s another story.
Most probably blending in wasn’t the goal of the Romanian police who followed me about in the spring of ’86. Intimidation was more what they had in mind. And it worked. Everywhere I went I saw one of them. If I got lost in a train station, suddenly a guy in a long coat was standing next to me, helpfully pointing the way. They’d stand behind me in ticket lines, sit down next to me at bus stops and sip tea in the lobbies of my hotels. Or was I just being paranoid?
Usually they’d just watch, but sometimes they’d give me specific instructions. Like the time I sat down in an empty booth in an empty car on a train I was taking to Bucharest. There wasn’t anyone there, so what did assigned seats matter? But then a guy (of course wearing a long leather coat) burst into my cabin, demanded my ticket, then instructed me to follow him. We walked through several empty coaches, finally arriving at a car whose compartments were stuffed with soldiers. All but the very middle compartment, that is. That one contained two guys in suits, several empty seats and one extremely pretty girl. The guy in the coat opened the door and let me in. I sat down.
The girl, let’s call her “M”, was quiet at first but turned chatty about half way through the trip. We talked about skiing, clothes, shoes and magazines most of the way. As we approached our destination she invited me for dinner at her parents’ house. What was I going to say? I followed along like a puppy to the station parking lot where her father was waiting in a car.
They were a friendly family. We had a nice dinner, after which they invited me to stay for a few days in an empty bedroom. That sounded good to me after the week I’d had. But in those days it was illegal for Westerners to stay in peoples’ homes without specific government permission. I was due to have my passport stamped at the hotel in an hour. M’s parents assured me that everything was fine, that they had a friend who was a hotel manager who would stamp my passport for me later. They said they were important people — literally rocket scientists (?) — who could pull favors from time to time. Again, what was I going to do? I unpacked and got comfortable.
The next couple of days passed pleasantly. M’s parents seemed to want to enjoin me in conversations about science and politics all the time, but all I wanted to do was walk around the city with M, stop occasionally for a cup of tea or a glass of beer, and stare into her brown doe eyes. After a while the whole family seemed to get tired of me, and even though I hadn’t seen any men or women in long coats for days, I decided it was probably time to move on. They took me back to the station, we said our goodbyes, I gave M a smooch on the cheek and I was off.
Despite all the nonsense I’d just experienced, I was following my tomfool itinerary and heading south to an even less hospitable country, Bulgaria. As it happened I was denied entry at the border, a snafu with my visa apparently, and so had to head back to Bucharest. There, lo and behold, was a woman in a long coat who helped me get onto a train bound for Yugoslavia. I was nervous when the train hit the border the next morning. Would I get out of there? It seemed not for a moment, when a small squad of armed soldiers appeared at my compartment door. I all but offered my hands up for the cuffs, but they took away the guys I was sitting with instead. What a relief. For me.
Later I wondered about my time with M and her family. Was it all some sort of set-up? A weird attempt at a frame? The elements of a cheesy spy novel were all there: the shadowing, the “accidental” meeting with the femme fatale, the rocket scientist parents, the political conversations, the strange absence of my overcoated minders. So the evidence would seem to be there. The obvious flaw in the story line: what would the Romanian government want with a moron? I can’t answer the question. Like the death of Lionel Crabb, it’s of those Cold War mysteries that will never be solved. But it’s occasionally fun to think about.