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Authors: William F. Buckley

Who's on First

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Who's on First

A Blackford Oakes Mystery

William F. Buckley, Jr.

MYSTERIOUSPRESS.COM

For
Dino John Pionzio

What were the terrible 1960s and where did they come from? To begin with, the 1960s did not start in 1960. They started in 1957. A bell rings in my mind every time I hear the date 1957 mentioned. On October 4, 1957, the Russians placed a medicine-ball-sized satellite in orbit. It needs an effort to remember how stunned we were when we discovered that the clodhopping Russians were technologically ahead of us, and that we would have to catch up with them. We reacted hysterically.

Before the Sabbath

Eric Hoffer, 1979   

 

A:
Now, on the St. Louis team we have Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third—
C:
That's what I want to find out—
A:
I'm telling you. Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third—
C:
Well all I'm trying to find out is what's the guy's name on first base.
A:
Oh, no, no, What's on second base.
C:
I'm not asking you who's on second.
A:
Who's on first.
C:
That's what I'm trying to find out.
A:
Well, don't change the players around.
C:
I'm not changing nobody.
A:
Now, take it easy.
C:
What's the guy's name on first base?
A:
What's the guy's name on second base.
C:
I'm not askin' ya who's on second.
A:
Who's on first.
C:
I don't know.
A:
Please. Now what is it you want to know?
C:
What is the fellow's name on third base?
A:
What is the fellow's name on second base.
C:
I'm not askin' ya who's on second.
A:
Who's on first.
C:
I don't know.

Abbott and Costello

1

He heard the roar of an oncoming truck. The noise broke the silence of his fourth-floor apartment on Dohany Street. It was the first sound of a motor vehicle he had heard since late in the afternoon of the preceding day, when, finally, the last sniper's shot was fired. The last, he gathered from the shortwave radio, of the resistance in Budapest.

During the breath-catching days of liberty—one full week, the high emotional point reached with the elated release from prison of Cardinal Mindszenty on Wednesday—rumors had swept Budapest that the Russian Army was grouping for an assault. But optimism had been overwhelming: Russian tank drivers would refuse to fire on the students … The Secretary-General of the United Nations would fly in to abort any attempted Soviet military reoccupation … The people of the other satellite states were in open revolt … Khrushchev would call back his divisions from Eastern Europe before the week was out.

When the Russians did move—with eight divisions—at 4
A.M.
on Friday, the protests poured in from European capitals. The Security Council was convened at three in the morning, New York time. President Eisenhower publicly deplored the turn of events. But the voice of BBC soon lost that flush of excitement, and the announcers once again sounded—Blackford Oakes recalled George Orwell's phrase—“genteel and throaty”—as they acknowledged the fall of Budapest and the “desultory resistance” in the countryside. The BBC attempted to coordinate transmissions from pockets of resistance, relaying directly broadcasts from the freedom fighters who had begun by using government facilities—they controlled them: They were, were they not, the legal government of Hungary? When the Communists, with their unerring eye for the ganglia, seized the radio stations, the broadcasts resumed from shortwave transmission sets secreted in the outskirts of the city, and in the country. These dwindled in number, and then there was that last haunting voice at 0924 which had addressed the outside world and ended with the simple words “Help! Help! Help!” It was fifteen minutes after midnight when broadcasting resumed, and the Hungarians informed that they had been saved from “the rebirth of fascism.”

Blackford Oakes sat in a stuffed easy chair, in the little suite at the Hotel Sarkany with the heavy furniture, which once was red, perhaps the same color as the heavy drapes, though over the generations their colors had polarized. Now the ample couch and armchairs were a dirty brown, the sun-bombarded curtains an anemic pink, the carpet just that shade of gray designed to conceal dirt of almost any hue, a rectangular section of it, shaded by the husky oak table he used as a desk and to eat from, darker than the surrounding area in the congested little living room, where Blackford reflected mordantly on the comforts of home during other people's carnage. But the window was imposing, as if once it had served grander purposes: Perhaps a larger room had been subdivided. He could adjust the venetian blinds and see out clearly; or he could turn the latch and draw open by as little or as much as he wanted, one-half the vaulted glass, and run his eyes up the ancient Gothic street, cobblestoned, of medium width, lined with shops and apartment houses; closed now, though three days had passed since the fateful Sunday morning when the troops and the tanks came. They alone had come; no one else. The leader of the free world, as people liked to call him, and as he was not entirely averse occasionally to calling himself, was apoplectic. But not about the Russians. About the British and the French, who had elected the week before to invade the Suez, bound ostensibly for Cairo. Besides, only yesterday he had been recrowned by the American voters, and today, Wednesday, he was expected to fly to Denver for a little golf. How how how, Oakes wondered, could providence have been so perverse as to synchronize a rebellion for freedom with a venture that would be denounced as imperialism? Yes, from the office of the stricken British Prime Minister reproaches were directed at the Soviet Government, which heard also from the French. But the Soviet press swiftly retaliated with denunciations of British-French imperialism. The American Secretary of State was so overwhelmed with frustration by the furtive operation in the Mideast mounted by our closest friends, without consultation, that he had had to be hospitalized. So that as it happened, nothing emanating from the White House or the State Department would have stopped a Russian ballet, let alone two hundred Russian tanks. The American ambassador at the U.N. uttered a sharp rebuke. Oakes could imagine Khrushchev and Gromyko playing games the Sunday before—Khrushchev liked that sort of thing, though he was heavy-handed—imitating the excoriations from the West, including gestures. Gromyko, Oakes thought, reaching back over thirteen years' experience at, or near, the top of the Soviet diplomatic establishment, would say: “The more emphasis the Americans put on the U.N., comrade, the less we have to worry about.”

Oakes's ruminations were interrupted as the sound of the motor got louder, and he rose and opened the window discreetly to look down the street, in the direction it came from. He saw leading the column a jeep with four men, the civilian next to the driver holding in his hand a clipboard. Behind him two officers, one of them studying a map spread out over his knees. There followed a half-track armored car, six soldiers with machine guns seated on the platform to the rear of the heavily armored driver's cabin. There rose from the same platform what looked like a small gantry. Swinging coquettishly from it—Oakes stopped breathing—was a clearly discernible noose. Instantly his eyes turned to the building across the street, two doors down.
Theo!
—the word formed itself in his throat. But no. The room in the quiet old boardinghouse, the small, tidy room maintained by the little salesman who regularly paid the rent but was seldom there, was surely inviolate. When on the Wednesday night two weeks ago young Theo told him the action was about to begin, Oakes had made a human gesture. “If it goes sour, you'll be safe.” Had Theo taken refuge there? Theo had taken to sleeping at Frieda's house whenever Frieda's mother was in Vác, looking after her orphaned nephew and niece. Perhaps Theo was hiding at Frieda's. Perhaps he had been captured.

Oakes remembered the utter elation in the young student's face when he met Blackford at the tavern, during the tense week before the assumption of power by Imre Nagy. At twenty, Theophilus Molnar was slight of build, but the star soccer player at the university. His fingers were slender and his voice had a premature gentleness, that of a philosopher who, along the way, decides that, really, there is nothing left in the world worth raising one's voice about. His excitement was internalized. Theo knew Blackford Oakes as a young engineer hired by an Austrian firm to be the purchasing agent for special American equipment required to construct the huge new municipal aquarium. They met first irregularly, and then two or three times a week, usually at the same tavern, a favorite of the students and the younger teachers. At first Theo talked mostly about the soccer games, occasionally about his absorption in classical studies: but gradually about his determination, and that of his friends, to strike out and free their country from the Soviet Union. One night he introduced Frieda, almost as tall as Theo, with bright eyes and intense manner, passionate in her convictions, inquisitive about Blackford, exultant over her command of English, so much more fluent than her fiancé's. She laughed a lot, her political passion notwithstanding, and the hours went quickly as they had beer, and chicken, and peasant bread, and tea, since coffee was rare. Always, as summer turned to fall, the conversation would turn to the imminent emancipation of Hungary, and of Theo's and Frieda's plans. They would travel the following summer. Might they visit Harry—as they knew him—in the United States? Theo had a maiden aunt, he told Harry, who had divulged to him where she kept gold she had hoarded beginning when she started to work during World War II, and it would be his when she died; and she was very feeble, at seventy-six. She was a woman of great thrift, Theo explained, and although she had never specified how much gold she actually had, she loved to tell him that it would all be his, “so you can travel, anywhere you want, before you become a professor of Greek or whatever it is you are doing,” Theo imitated his aunt's prim accent. “I will marry Frieda first,” he said—“and you, Harry, will you come to my wedding? For a wedding present, you can give Frieda and me an aquarium.” “Just a little aquarium, Harry,” Frieda interrupted, holding Theo's hand across the table. But it all depended, Theo said, on the success of the great venture ahead of them. His almond-shaped eyes would light up at every mention of the prospective freedom about which at first he fantasized cautiously. He spoke usually in German, occasionally in a lilting English into which he effortlessly insinuated the German when he did not know the English word. He had told Harry that their plans were not mere abstractions. That they intended to take power. How? By actually forcing the resignation of the satellite Prime Minister and replacing him with a patriot. What would the Russians do? The Russians, he explained earnestly, his dark hair falling down loosely over his young, unlined forehead, could not
hope
to hang on to the satellite empire. Theo spoke in his still, soft way, playing with a breadstick, which he looked down at as he whispered discreetly. The Russians, he reminded Blackford, had had troubles earlier on in the year in Poland. Czechoslovakia was restive. Bulgaria and Romania would be tougher to pry loose, and East Germany probably the last to assert itself. But—he smiled, showing his small, even teeth; a smile with the assurance distinctive to the truly innocent—the Russians would accept
fatalistically
the nationalism that was about to take over. Stalin was dead. He had been denounced only eight months ago by Khrushchev himself. Khrushchev had spoken of a thaw and released millions of prisoners. It is God's will, Theo said, that man should be free. The emancipation of the satellites was a necessary next step, didn't Harry think so?

BOOK: Who's on First
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