Storming the Castle

Lyle and I watched the Sun set a mere 98 million miles beyond the Atlantic Ocean. We watched from the west coast of Portugal, where we were camping on the beach. The broken-off bow of an old ship lay grounded in the sand about 50 yards off-shore. It was June 1978. We were backpacking around Europe for the summer on the cheap.

“The ‘Other’ Point of Espionage” suggests that there was a first one. It also whets the reader’s appetite with irrepressible anticipation of reading about it. Calm yourselves, folks. Patience. How many years did we wait for “Star Wars, Episode I”?

There was a “first one”. It took place in Southern Italy and I haven’t written it up yet. So rather than steal that title altogether, this title placeholds the original “Point of Espionage”, because I type kinda slow. There’s always a plan….

The Portuguese beach was nice. It looked like several small groups of young people like us, partly clothed and with no apparent life-guiding compass, were also planning to spend the night. I planned to take a stroll around the beach to say “hi” and meet a few of them. But first, I planned to storm a castle.

Ah! There’s one! A bit to the north of our position and higher up on the beach. Its stone and mortar walls were about 40 feet high and they angled into the main structure a few degrees off vertical. It could be climbed. It should be climbed. It was dusk and it should be climbed now – before the day’s light waned altogether. I got up and walked over to the castle.

It looked pretty easy. Truly this was a castle that could be climbed. “What good is that…?” I thought but shrugged irony aside and set hands and feet to the citadel. I started to climb.

It was pretty easy. Still, I took time in the gathering darkness to “look well to each step” – the advice of famed English climber, Edward Whymper. I was thirty feet up and I scanned the last ten feet above me. A man was up there peering down at me. A man with a gun. A uniformed man with an automatic rifle at the ready up there. He peered directly down at me. He also appeared to have known exactly where to go up there on the roof in order to peer directly down at me. I sensed I’d somehow been sensed. But I wasn’t startled; I didn’t panic and I didn’t fall. I did expect that he may have a military-type order or two for me.

The man, A soldier in the Portuguese Army was confident. He was clearly in command here. The balance of power was in his favor. His hands were full of automatic weapon and mine were full of stones stuck into a wall. I would not show weakness or fear.

“Think”, I thought. “How will I assure this man that I climb in peace”? Something brilliant…. “A smile”, I thought. “A smile would defuse the situation”. I would try a smile. But when I have no real reason to smile and I have to fake it, my smiles are kind of gooney – like Luigi’s, the Venetian Gondolier. Alleged author S. Morgenstern tells us Luigi had a gooney smile in his book, “The Silent Gondoliers”.

A smile like Luigi’s gooney smile against an Army man with an automatic weapon on the roof. The odds were not good but it was all I could come up with. I looked up at the uniformed man with the automatic rifle and gave him my gooniest smile. No joy. He just looked down at me. He knew I had faked it. I had exposed weakness. I climbed the rest of the way up, crawled over the bulwark, and stood next to him on the roof of the castle.

He stood there in silence. Maybe it was time for me to say something. Something powerful. I was as sure he spoke Portuguese as I was sure I didn’t. But I did speak Italian. And some Spanish. With roundabout description and repetition, I’d have to make do. I decided to try an icebreaker:

Me (In Italian): “The sunset was beautiful.”

He (In Portuguese): “You can’t come up here.”

Me: “Ahh … Right. Well, I wasn’t sure. I just thought I’d do some climbing.”

He: Silence.

So … an awkward, apprehensive atmosphere was his game. He didn’t appear to suffer from it. I did.

Me (In Italian): “What should I do?”

He (In Portuguese): “Go down.”

Me: “Down the wall?”

He: “Yes.”

I guess I’d hoped for an easier exit. But I hadn’t really thought about how I’d get out of the place. Free-climbing down is a lot harder than climbing up. It is for me anyway. But I crawled over the bulwark and extended my body down the wall. I hesitated to let go of the bulwark at the top. Finally, I did and descended to a couple of stony handholds on the wall. It was pretty dark now. I’d have to descend in the blind. I looked up at the Portuguese Army man with the gun. Now I would beg:

Me: (In Italian – sheepishly, my eyes pleading, my face wrinkled, my voice high pitched and shaking): “I’m scared……..”

He: (In Portuguese, shaking his head): “Come back up.”

I did.

“Follow me.”

I did.

We entered into the castle via the roof access and he led me down a stairway to the next level. The Portuguese Army was in there. It was a command post or communications facility or something. Someone asked the man with the gun who I was and what was going on.

He: “This is the idiot who was climbing up the wall. Now he’s too scared to go down. I’ll take him out the front.” I hit them with my gooniest smile and a friendly wave of the hand. They rolled their eyes and shook their heads.

The man with the gun led me down a stairway to the next level. The Portuguese Army was in there. Someone asked the man with the gun who I was and what was going on.

He: “This is the idiot who was climbing up the wall. Now he’s too scared to go down. I’ll take him out the front.” I hit them with my gooniest smile and a friendly wave of the hand. They rolled their eyes and shook their heads.

The man with the gun led me down a stairway to the next level. The Portuguese Army was in there. Someone asked the man with the gun who I was and what was going on.

He: “This is the idiot who was climbing up the wall. Now he’s too scared to go down. I’ll take him out the front.” I hit them with my gooniest smile and a friendly wave of the hand. They rolled their eyes and shook their heads.

I really hoped this was the ground floor. Another floor or two of humiliation that intense could require years of therapy. We came to the front door on the ground floor. The man with the gun opened it and waved me out.

He (In Portuguese): “Don’t climb up the castle ever again.”

Me (In Italian): “OK”, I said, and walked back to our little camp on the beach, mumbling, “Well … How Rude … If you don’t want people climbing the castle, don’t build a castle they can climb….”

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