Frank Olson “Webber,” my editor barked when I walked into the office that day just after Thanksgiving, 1953. “I want you to look into this story about the CIA guy who jumped out of the tenth floor window at the Statler, on Seventh Avenue. Why did he do it? Could he have been he pushed?” My beat? CIA, MK-ULTRA, “mind-control” drugs. Brainwashing. I knew about Frank Olson already; worked at Camp Dietrich in Maryland, Special Ops, an aerosol expert, his specialty “airborne distribution of biological germs.” Worked on Operation Sea Spray a couple year earlier, where they released a dust that floated like anthrax, near San Francisco. At Dietrich, he directed experiments that involved gassing and poisoning lab animals. “I’ll look right into it, sir,” already booking a flight and hotel in my mind, thinking, too, how that kind of thing just might drive a person nuts. But my job’s to get the facts, not to make assumptions. Deep Creek Rendezvous There’d been a Special Ops retreat at Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland the week before thanksgiving. Nine people got the invitations, which gave detailed directions from both Washington and Frederick, where Olson lived, about sixty miles away. At the bottom a note advised: “CAMOUFLAGE: Winter meeting of scriptwriters, editors, authors, lecturers, sports magazines. Remove CD decals from cars.” Don’t let anyone know about Camp Dietrich. Sidney Gottlieb, the clubfoot head of the MK-ULTRA project, poisoner-in-chief, brains of the operation, convened the retreat. Olson drove to Deep Creek Lake with Vincent Ruwet, who’d replaced him as chief of Special Ops. Olson had stepped down, complaining the pressure of the job gave him headaches, aggravated his ulcers. This much was easy to find out, a few calls, a few greased palms, a few favors called in. I already knew Olson had witnessed “expendables” – suspected spies, moles, security leaks – tortured, drugged, hypnotized – to master brainwashing techniques, memory erasure – at various CIA “safe houses” in postwar Germany. Was there a link between the Deep Creek meeting and Olson’s death ten days later? Then I found out Gottlieb had spiked their drinks with LSD. Preparations Before I left for New York, I drove over to Frederick, less than an hour from headquarters in Baltimore. I figured I’d talk to Olson’s wife, Alice, some of his colleagues at Camp Dietrich, too. No surprise the spiked Cointreau blindsided Olson. He became paranoid, full of self-doubt, asked his boss Ruwet to fire him, claimed he was incompetent for the job. Thought he should start some other career. What? A missionary in Africa? Alice told me Frank told her he’d “made a big mistake,” but he didn’t elaborate; she thought maybe a security breach. He was having problems separating reality from fantasy, she said. That’s when Gottlieb and his deputy, Bob Lashbrook, sent Olson to New York to see Harold Abramson, a doctor who’d helped design mind-control experiments in the forties. Abramson’d guided Gottlieb through his own first LSD trip. Lashbrook accompanied Gottlieb to New York. They booked a room at the Statler on 34th Street and Seventh Avenue, across from Penn Station: Room 1018, way up on the tenth floor. The Room Where It Happened “The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall from 75 feet or more onto a hard surface.” – A Study of Assassination: A CIA Manual “So this is where Olson … jumped?” I asked, looking at the broken window with the jagged shards. A rhetorical question, of course; that’s why I was here with the spooks, the cops. “Are you here in an official capacity, Mr. Webber?” “Nope, just a reporter.” I flashed my credentials, like fake ID in a bar. They weren’t going to talk beyond polite. “Olson was on his way to Chestnut Lodge after he consulted with Harold Abramson?” A sanatorium in Maryland. “I’m afraid this is all confidential, Mr. Webber.” “His boss, Mr. Lashbrook, was here when it happened?” I looked at my notes. “Sitting on the toilet?” I’d gotten to the night manager before they could shut him up. The agents looked at each other. “This is an ongoing investigation, Mr. Webber. I’m afraid we can’t answer your questions.” “OK, thank you, gentlemen,” I said, out the door to the Fourteenth Precinct over on west Thirtieth Street, though pretty sure these guys had already muzzled the cops. A JFK Banquet They met at a Boston restaurant the night JFK won the election, Leary, Huxley and Osmond, psychedelic research on the menu. Osmond had served Huxley his first mescaline trip, which had led to Huxley’s recipe for spiritual insight: The Doors of Perception. Leary wanted in on the feast. Three years later, Leary catered Huxley’s final repast of LSD, as he lay in his Los Angeles bed dying from cancer, the dose fed to him via syringe (100 micrograms) by his wife, Laura, followed by a second course a few hours later, the same day Oswald shot Kennedy in Dallas. He’s So Hard to See “I always thought it was a song about simultaneous orgasms, often idealized in hippie lore as ‘the perfect fuck,’ but then I read Lennon wrote it as a campaign song for Timothy Leary, when he ran for governor of California against Ronald Reagan.” “Michael Jackson covered it, so did Ike and Tina Turner.” “Aerosmith, too, I think.” “But didn’t Timothy Leary get sent to prison for marijuana possession, about then? That put a stop to his campaign!” “Yeah, but then he escaped from prison, helped by the Weathermen, and fled to Algeria. He’d been given ten years for possession, kind of extreme, and he was fighting another ten-year sentence at the same time. “But even though Nixon declared him ‘the most dangerous man in America,’ the authorities decided he wasn’t a flight risk, so he was in minimum security. Leary left a newspaper clipping in his cell of Reagan defending his decision to keep Leary under minimal security, Reagan’s words underscored in red.” “‘Got to be a joker, he just do what he please,’ eh?” Count Me Out (In) “Lucy, Sky, Diamonds,” my cousin pointed out the capitalized letters in the song title. “LSD.” Jim was sixteen, a year older than me. “Tangerine trees, marmalade skies. It’s all about an acid trip.” Not that either of us had done LSD, but at that age, so desperate to be in on the secret. Lennon denied it all his life, claiming the phrase came from his son, out of the mouth of babes. And why would he be coy, deny it? The John Birch Society denounced Sergeant Pepper as an attempt at "brainwashing,” the Beatles part of an “international Communist conspiracy.” Spiro Agnew led the crusade to ban “With a Little Help from My Friends” because it mentioned getting high. The BBC banned “A Day in the Life” because Lennon sang, “I’d love to turn you on.” But no denying the album inspired us all. “You better free your mind instead,” indeed, as he’d later sing in another song. The Last Time I Took LSD It’s been more than forty years since the Great Blizzard of Seventy-eight blasted through Boston. Living in an apartment in Bay State Road, the power out all over the city, I gathered like a group of shipwreck survivors with the six other tenants who occupied the building’s one-bedroom flats, potluck dinners, cheap wine, gallows humor. But when the snow finally stopped, the sun blazing white diamonds on the snow, schools still closed, work still canceled, cars like discarded exoskeletons at the curbs, sidewalks like tunnels through the moonscape drifts, Alan, a college student, one of the other tenants I’d suddenly become acquainted with, offered me a hit of LSD. We trudged across the BU Bridge into Cambridge, the freezing water of the Charles an impressionist painting, fluid geometry in kaleidoscopic patterns, the light stabbing our eyes, arrows shot off the shifting surface. An enjoyable afternoon: we went to the movies in a theater on Brattle Street, Bob Dylan’s great failure, Renaldo and Clara, dinner later in a Chinese restaurant in Central Square. Like the “Storm of the Century,” the anomalous trip a strange atypical event never to be repeated, but never forgotten – never a regret.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. Rammelkamp has three “historical/biographical” poetry collections published by Apprentice House, Mata Hari: Eye of the Day, whose subject is the femme fatale world war I spy, American Zeitgeist, whose subject is William Jennings Bryan, and a collection of poems about Rasputin and Russia in the 20th century, Catastroika, has just been published by Apprentice House as well. Another, Ugler Lee, is forthcoming from Kelsay Books later this year.
This is his second feature on The Fictional Café. You can read his first here.