The Lighter Side of Sigint

After two years of training, which included 18 months learning Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, a couple of months at a garden spot in West Texas known as San Angelo, and a stint at Ft. Meade, I headed to Field Station Berlin. I spent the next three years more or less listening to the troops the Soviet Union stationed in and around Berlin do what troops do: train and complain. On the whole, the experience convinced me of a number of things, one of which was that the fearsome Soviet Army's ability to storm flawlessly through the Fulda Gap and reach the English Channel within three days was hype, a mere myth. That being said, I still went to work on Teufelsberg each day wanting to get it right, knowing in the back of my mind that the Cold War was deadly serious business, and that our collective efforts there "on the hill" mattered. Obviously the superpowers managed to avoid World War III, but I have to admit there were times when at least one of the men (that would be me) assigned to keep tabs on the commies was not entirely sure if what he'd just heard was the beginning of the end, or just some chit chat between friends back in the Soyuz. I think all radio ops will be able to relate to the following scenario which happened more than once in those three years: a couple of Russian ops come up in clear voice, no encryption, precious few call signs, just straight conversation, and they're spilling their guts, mostly complaining as soldiers everywhere and in all eras have done. The static is a little rough, so getting the particulars is a challenge, and then one of the guys rattles off something official sounding, something clearly important, and I only get about 20% of it. I'm sweating as I scribble some hand copy, hoping that the guy on the other end will ask for a repeat by giving his buddy the old "Povtori!" No such luck. Instead, he transmits "Ponyal," which means, roughly, "I got it, but I doubt if the capitalist listening in has any idea what you just said." Unfortunately, he was often right. Fortunately, we had tape recorders and transcribers, and for three years I confess that I made liberal use of both.