When a store detective tried to arrest my pal Sam Goldfarb for shoplifting, the guy had no idea that within an hour the FBI, the CIA, the White House, and the national news media would get involved in the case.
Sam is a member of the our Maridos Club, a social organization for people whose spouses drag them to the mall all the time.
As he plods through the department stores behind his wife Molly, Sam keeps his eyes open for interesting displays that the department store decorators prepare. Decorators at our mall create displays with stuff they find in flea markets, second hand stores and yard sales.
There are 1930-era gadgets, home appliances from the 1950s, and stacks of books with titles like, “The Economic Impact of Disk Plow Technology on Rural Platt County Kansas 1874-1876.” The decorators arrange these treasures with swatches of fabric or set them beside sheaves of wheat and vases of pussy willow.
While your spouse is trying on clothes, you can contemplate a gadget or pick up a book from one of the displays and improve your mind.
On the day of the incident, Sam and Molly Goldfarb were in Blevins Department store in the mall. Molly was trying on clothes. While he waited, Sam wandered over to a pile of junk that the store decorator had artfully intertwined with some plastic bougainvillea.
There was a beat-up electric iron, a telephone circa. 1937, and a gadget that looked like an old fashioned adding machine. The device was about half the size of a shoe box and was sitting in a black metal case. On the top of the machine were rows of typewriter keys with strange symbols on them.
“Sweet Matilda,” cried Sam when he examined the apparatus. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Lying there in plain sight was the top secret World War II Moncleef Cryptographic Codemaster.
Sam recognized the device immediately. In 1943, Sam, then a bright young Air Force first lieutenant with a Ph.D. in physics, was assigned to work with Weird Wendell Montcleef, the inventor of the Moncleef Cryptographic Codemaster.
Moncleef, who was Sam’s age, was a hotshot young professor at the University of Chicago before World War II. He left academe for the corporate world, an during his stay with corporate America, Weird Wendell developed a prototype of the Moncleef Cryptographic Codemaster. Then, before he got the thing working, Weird Wendell abandoned the project, quit the corporation, and moved to Kansas City to play in a jazz band.
A couple of years after the war started someone in Washington—rumor had it that it was President Roosevelt himself—appealed to Weird Wendell’s patriotic nature, and convinced him to get back to work on the Codemaster device. The Codemaster when it was perfected, was supposed to be able to encode, decode, slice, dice, fold, staple and spindle any message you threw at it.
Weird Wendall toyed with the government for months and months. He kept telling them he was days away from perfecting the Codemaster. Then he’d say there was a snag. Finally the government dispatched Lt. Sam Goldfarb to work with Wendell, and spy on him. Weird Wendell knew that Sam was a government spy, but he thought, egotistically, that he could fool Sam as well as the government.
Meantime, Weird Wendell, a bachelor, got involved with Ernestine Duval, a Kansas City jazz singer of great beauty and charm. Ernestine Duval was really Feda Von Gubler, one of Germany’s top undercover agents.
Soon after he began working with Weird Wendell, Sam Goldfarb discovered that the Codemaster would never work Sam realized that Weird Wendell had perpetrated on everyone. Sam sent a detailed report to his superiors. Two days later the government shipped Sam off to a remote weather station in Greenland where he spent the rest of the war.
A few weeks after Sam Goldfarb was banished to Greenland, Weird Wendell let it slip to Ernestine/Freda, his German spy lover, that the Codemaster was operative and was being deployed to all Allied commands. That sent the Germans and the Japanese into a code-changing frenzy which fouled up their communications systems for weeks and hampered their ability to react to crucial Allied military initiatives.
Weird Wendell and his Codemaster device were a small, but significant footnote to the war effort. The prototype of the Moncleef Cryptographic Codemaster that Weird Wendell used to fool U.S. government bureaucrats and, through Ernestine/Freda the German high command, was placed in top secret storage at a site near Kansas City.
Somehow, decades later, it turned up at a local flea market where a decorator from Blevins Department Store bought it and put it on display, surrounded by fake bougainvillea.
And that’s where Sam Goldfarb saw the device for the first time since the just before he was shipped off to Greenland during World War II. When Sam saw the Codemaster sitting there, he reacted instinctively and somewhat irrationally. He grabbed the machine, stuffed it into a shopping bag and covered it with a couple of blouses that Molly had just bought. Then he hustled Molly out of the store and out of the mall.
A mall security man stopped Sam and asked him to open the bag. Sam smacked the guy in the jaw, and ran. Sam made it to his car and burned rubber out of the parking lot. He led police on a merry chase through the neighborhood until they ran him into a cul de sac.
When he saw he was trapped, Sam jumped out of his car, and, holding the Moncleef Crtographic Codemaster above his head, threatened to blow the neighborhood to smithereens. Then he jumped back into his car and slammed the door.
At that point the whole thing turned into a made for TV movie scene: police cars, helicopters, bullhorns. The media from all over the area were giving feeds to national networks.
Sam’s cell phone rang. He demanded to talk to the President.
A few minutes later Sam’s cell phone rang again, and a familiar drawl said, “Hello Sam. This is the President. Is it all right if I call you Sam?”
“Yes, Mr. President,” said Sam.
“Good. Now, Sam, what can we do for you?”
“I want the government to apologize for shipping me off to Greenland to freeze my buns off for three years for just trying to do my job during World War II.”
“Tell me about it, Sam,” said the President, “I’ll try to help.”
Sam told him the whole story.
A few minutes later the phone rang in the office of a gray-haired spymaster at the Central Intelligence Agency.
“Wendell,” said the President, “We’ve got a situation.”
“Tell me about it, Mr. President,” said Weird Wendell Moncleef, director the
O.O.O., the CIA’s super secret Office of Oddball Operations.
The government opted for what is known as a modified hang out—a damage control initiative perfected by the CIA.
That night the network news shows carried the story of a heroic World War II veteran who risked his life to save his fellow shoppers from a booby-trapped World War II device that had somehow turned up on display at a local department store. Print journalists crawled all over the story the next day, but the government’s version held up long enough for the next “barn burner news event” to show up on the media radar screen. After three days the Codemaster incident was old news even in Kansas City.
Sam and Molly can shop at the mall again without being approached for autographs.
Dr. Larry Day is a retired KU J-School professor turned humor writer. He is the author of a collection of short stories, Day Dreaming: Tales from the Fourth Dementia available on Amazon.