February 16, 2023

Remembering times that the FBI came knocking

Imagine a steel-vault door clanging shut, and then you twist the combination dial several times. Just to be sure, you spin the knob one more time. Satisfied, you walk away.

            That’s the way it was when I confided in Mary Durden. God rest her soul. You could have stapled the softspoken bookkeeper’s lips, and you could not have had them more sealed.

            I was a lucky “boy” publisher in the early 1970s. I was blessed to have a host of loyal associates who were patient with me as I learned. They knew—and I knew—that I was a rookie. The only thing tighter than Mary’s imaginary safe was money. We were always scrambling for money to stay afloat.

            Too often there was more month than money. And Mary was so protective, I had to gently scold her to cash her paychecks. If I didn’t, she’d hold her checks to be sure everyone else’s checks had cleared the bank.

            Bless her heart, Mary was ever so polite, borderline timid. At times, I’d hear a faint knock on my office door. It’d be Mary announcing that I had a visitor. “Thanks, Mary,” I’d say. “Is it the FBI? I’m afraid they might be here to investigate us.” And then I’d tease, “Did they show their badges?” Mary’s already pale face drained to ghost-white, and then she’d blush.

            I pulled that trick enough times that she finally learned to shake her head and say, “Awwwww.”  

But one morning, Mary appeared at my door with her right hand covering her mouth. I thought she was going to faint or at least cry. Jumping up, I asked, “Mary, what is it?” As if the words were hung in her throat, she gasped, “The FBI, they’re here to see you.”

            “Did they show their badges?”

            Lost for words, Mary just nodded.

            Mary sank into a chair. I stepped around her and walked to the front counter. Sure enough, flashing their badges, the two dark-suited men introduced themselves. By the time we got to my office, Mary had disappeared.

            Later, she reappeared. I explained that the FBI wasn’t looking for me. The agents just wanted a back issue—with a crime story—that we had published months ago.

            This time, she giggled and found the words to stammer, “I didn’t want to see you hauled away in handcuffs.”

            When I delivered Mary’s eulogy, I told that story. If the good Lord wants to share just one secret with His most-trusted angel, He can whisper it to Mary. The only thing other angels will hear is the door to her steel-vault door clank shut.

            Not long after that 367 W. Plum St. incident, the FBI came back to Jesup. This time, they were investigating me. After the two feds left Jimmy Sullivan’s menswear store, my former boss called. In a hushed voice, he asked, “Are you in some kind of trouble?”

            “I don’t think so. Why?”

            The FBI was here asking about you.”

            I laughed.

            “I’m serious,” Mr. Sullivan said.

            “My apologies,” I said. “I wasn’t supposed to warn you about their visit.” And then I explained that with my new Air National Guard assignment, I needed top-secret clearance. I had listed him as a character reference. When we were hanging up the phones, we were both laughing.

            The FBI has been in the news a lot lately. They’ve been finding classified—top-secret—documents in the homes of the former president, the former vice president and our current president. I don’t imagine Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Joe Biden are laughing.

            Whatcha think?