by Ed Williams
Looking back at my Foreign Service career, one of the things that strikes me is that I observed or was involved in many stories whose beginning or end I never came to know. I often wonder what ever became of of the fortyish American woman whose new American husband, supposedly working in Turkey, sent her money in the United States and told her to meet him in Piccadilly Circus, London, on such and such a date. She spent that day walking around the famous statue of Mercury, but he never appeared. So she came to the Embassy on Grosvenor Square, where I was the Protection and Welfare officer on duty. I have no idea whether she ever again encountered her husband; certainly she did not immediately through any of my efforts to help her.
Then there was the London-based American woman in her thirties who left her husband to live with an English boy half her age, described by her to me as a “super stud,” or whatever equivalent term was in use in 1955. She wanted to get him an instant immigrant visa for the States. I was unable to be of a great deal of assistance on that occasion.
And I still recall one of the most beautiful young women I’ve ever seen, an English girl who, by qualifying for a visa for the United States, escaped from an abusive relationship with her Barbadian boyfriend. After receiving the visa from me, she departed with her newborn baby to marry an African-American Air Force airman.
I worried about those people, and wish now I could know what became of them in later years.
Just to show that not all of my memories are of females, I come to the strange and much more involved story of the American in Madrid who styled himself an inventor. I was a jack-of-all-trades in the Consular Section of the Embassy then, not yet having gone into economic reporting and trade promotion, which subsequently became my main career track. One day an American citizen came in with an unusual request. He wanted to know how to file for a patent. At that time (1957) there were no American lawyers in Madrid, so I offered to furnish him information from our copy of the Martindale-Hubbell law directory. He declined, however, saying he didn’t want to apply for a patent by mail because someone was intercepting and reading his letters. I asked about the nature of his invention, but he said he couldn’t talk about it — it was too dangerous, which was why someone was after him. He refused my offer to approach in his behalf the Spanish police, with whom I necessarily had good working relations. Finally, I even offered to send his letter, with my return address on it, to an American patent lawyer through the diplomatic pouch. He thanked me and decided to think about it.
About a week later, the plot thickened. The Embassy duty officer called me at 2 a.m. to ask me to go to the central Madrid police station because there was an American in trouble who wouldn’t talk to anyone but me. There I found my “inventor.” When I asked the police supervisor what the charge was, he replied in a somewhat embarrassed way, “Toreando con la autoridad.” Never having heard of such an offense, I enquired further. Apparently my American friend was pretty drunk and singing loudly in the Plaza Mayor. The police tried to detain him, but he whipped off his jacket and used it like a bullfighter’s cape when the policemen approached; he was said to have executed some neat faroles and veronicas before they detained him. The inventor chap, still in high spirits, seemed rather pleased with himself.
I couldn’t spring him that night, and when I returned the next day, he was a bit subdued and wanted to talk. He informed me that he had invented a death ray, which he wanted to patent. He thought the U. S. Army would pay a lot for such a weapon, but they — or somebody — might steal it if he didn’t have it protected. I asked him how it worked. My new friend replied that it was a ray-like light that did not spread out as does a normal beam of light, but rather stayed concentrated so as to do a lot of heat damage at long distances. It could, he told me, heat up a tank miles away so that the ammunition in it would explode; it could set off the explosives on a bomber.
In reply to my question, put to him with a completely straight face, about the physical principle behind his invention, he simply stated that he didn’t want to go into detail. That was the secret part of his invention that needed to be patented, but he did note that it resembled the principle of the solenoid. Although physics was not my strong suit, I remembered that solenoids operate by inductance inside an electromagnetic coil, causing movement inside the coil of a rod made of a magnetic material. My American admitted that he was not a scholar or physicist in a formal sense, but claimed he had done a lot of reading.
The police wouldn’t let him go because he was unable to pay his fine. Rather than send, through the Embassy, a telegram to a relative back home asking for money, he decided to sell some of his possessions. The following day, however, he became ill and was taken to a hospital, still in detention. I happened to mention the case at that point to one of my friends, a Spanish army colonel. When I returned to check up on the inventor, the police told me that he had been released in the custody of the Spanish army. Shortly thereafter, I left on two months home leave and never saw the American again. Later, my friend, the army colonel, mentioned to me that he, the inventor, was engaged in research for the Spanish military, but the colonel was reluctant to elaborate. As the inventor obviously was no longer a consular case, I didn’t press the matter.
Four years later, back in Washington I read about a scientific breakthrough by an American physicist, Theodore Harold Maiman, who had developed a device, the laser, that emitted a very narrowly focused light beam over long distances.
Ah, no! I thought — there couldn’t be any connection. Still, it’s intriguing: What really had become of the American who thought he had urgent need of a patent lawyer?
J. Edgar Williams retired from the U. S. Foreign Service after 27 years, including assignment abroad as consul general at Auckland, New Zealand.