Well, maybe this is just a story about Howard Hart, an ex-CIA guy. Or maybe it’s about something bigger. Maybe it’s about communication, about humanity, about compassion, about respect — about speaking the right language in the right situation.
So many stories tumble into my mind. I think of the Jew who comes to the Rabbi to ask him to arrange for a divorce. “Wednesday!” the Rabbi shouts. “Giving a divorce on Wednesday?!” The congregant slips off in puzzlement, embarrassed for his lack of scholarship. Of course, Wednesday is no different from any other day, but the Rabbi buys some time for the man to go back home and think better of his rash move. Here a man imagines that he is missing some key word in the language of scholarship and he is silenced by his ignorance.
I think of Rabbi Eizel Charif, chief rabbi of Slonim, Poland, in the early 1800s, who was confronted with a crisis. Restrictive laws against Jews made most businesses and much property ownership illegal for them, so there was a lot of hanky-panky that went on in order to survive. A local blackmailer had been soaking the community for a hundred gold coins a month. When he asked for a raise, the Rabbi called him in and yelled, “You either take a hundred or I’ll import a competitor from out of town who will take seventy-five and put you out of business!” In that case, the language of business was an absurdity and both men knew it, but it was a way of drawing a line.
But mostly I think back to the time that I was assigned The Plague by Albert Camus in a college Literature class, and I ran into a friend who had been assigned the same book in medical school for its detailed description of the symptomatology of bubonic plague. I had a flash of insight in that moment that I have carried through my adult life: it’s possible for two people to read the same book, but for him it’s medicine and for me it’s literature.
Let’s not forget Howard Hart. He was a CIA field agent, a hero who toiled in shadows of drear and dread. All his former commanders and colleagues, even the ones who didn’t like him, concede that he always sought out the toughest and most meaningful posting, which usually was also the riskiest. A real spy, out “in the cold,” yet with his sleeves rolled up to take on the big challenges.
He began that career in 1968 and distinguished himself from the first. No surprise, then, that he was made acting station chief of the pared-down five-man CIA team in Teheran during the treacherous days of 1979. The Shah was being shooed and Khomeini was comin’ in. The streets bristled with danger. Being American was like wearing a bull’s-eye. This was a time that told the men from the boys and the great men from the ordinary men. In such a moment, Fate no longer (as the poet Gray said) “circumscrib’d their growing virtues.”
In the midst of the madness, March of 1979, six weeks after Khomeini’s return, Hart made a daring run to bring travel papers to a former CIA “asset.” On his way back to the Embassy (just months before it was taken hostage), two soldiers caught him in a roadblock. They threw him face down on the ground and began kicking him with their boots. Finally, they turned him over to deliver the coup d’ grace, at which time he pulled a Browning pistol from his belt and shot them both dead.
He never reported that beating because he did not want to be pulled out of the field. At the time, he worked through the pain with gritty determination and resumed his intrepid field work. But a quarter-century later, in February 2003, he began to experience pains and symptoms that could not be ignored. When surgery was performed, the doctors found that all his internal organs were out of place. Ribs pried far apart, intestines jammed against his lung; doctors were amazed how long he had lived productively despite these traumas.
Now, three surgeries later, he struggles daily to cope with the damage that long-ago beating has left in his 64-year-old body. Yet his claim for Workmen’s Compensation from the government has been denied twice. Technically, they make valid points. He cannot corroborate by other evidence that indeed he was injured on the job; furthermore, he made no contemporaneous report. He has one final hearing in a month, his last chance to get this decision reversed.
When Mark Twain feuded with fellow author Bret Harte, he once fumed: “He has no heart, except his name.” For years Howard Hart had no way of showing the public his heart, except in his name. Now it is time for us to acknowledge that name. Let us stop talking to him in legalese and answer him with the language of the heart.