Saturday, 20 May 2017

For a few dollars more

What follows is a short story "Bugaboo" based on fact. It is set in the USA and Paris in the run up to the Watergate scandal that led to the impeachment of Richard Nixon. It was also the time that the USA unilaterally dropped the international gold standard - for currency valuation - replacing it with the dollar.

The fictional characters are Salvatore Fiumfreddo writing to his friend Donald (also a fictional character) about the purchase of a hotel which would later be used for the Bretton Woods conference. Dwight Hudson works for Cable and Wireless and later for President Richard Nixon at the White House. In Paris Marie-Claude Drapeau and her cousin visit the Eiffel Tower. Patrick Feeney is a shipping correspondent.

Richard Nixon is not a fictional character although the taped conversations with his friends and aides are imagined.

The incident with the French war ship stuffed with dollars is not fictional. 

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BUGABOO


$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$                                                                                                           
Salvatore Fiumfreddo
                                                                             Somerville Heights
                                                                             Boston MA
4th January '44

Happy New Year Donald,
We got your card and thanks for the photo of your kids. Hope you got ours.

It’s surely going to be a good year all round. Our luck has changed. No more holding onto the blinds and looking at the drop from the top floor. The East Boston investment syndicate has come out laughing. You weren’t wasting your money.

Mount Washington Hotel: Bretton Woods
You remember that beat up old hotel in Washington Mount? The one we bought for a song? Rusting windows, leaking roof and all. But a great setting - Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Well it was worth doing it up – guess what? We’ve made our money back. Roosevelt has booked it solid for July – from 1st for nearly the whole month - every last room. He’s bankrolled us to the tune of $300,000. Then $18 for every guest per day. Bradley who is doing the math tells me that this will keep us in knee socks for life.

But I’m thinking there’s more to it than meets the eye. I had a drink with Herb from the Boston Globe. He only does sports stories so I guess they tell him things that they think will go over his head. More fool them. He tells me the top financiers from the Fed and the banks have invited people from all over the world to the conference. Even the Ruskies will be there. There’ll be more than 40 countries and several hundred hangers on. Some kind of treaty or agreement – world-wide. Encourage international trade and exchange. Not that I can think of much we’ll want to buy out there. A magnum of champagne maybe if the French have kept some hidden. They’ll be desperate to get some dollars now the war is all over bar the shouting.

The syndicate needs to take stock and see the order through. So it might be some time before you see the profit. You’ll be sure to get your slice but in the meantime don’t forget the golf course out there. Let me know and we’ll play a round or two before the big shots arrive. It’s got 27 holes – and more than one club house to take a rest in.

Yours as always

Sal

P.S. Buy as much gold as you can lay your hands on. Do it now. Don’t wait until June – and keep it quiet.
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Paris Metro
July 1969
Dwight Hudson was an intern when he visited Paris with the American company Cable and Wireless. On his afternoon off he went to visit the Eiffel Tower where he took a photo of the
place where Buffalo Bill had signed the visitor’s book. A model of Thomas Edison’s phonograph was on show.
Marie-Claude Drapeau was wearing the latest in Paris fashion – a long kilt over the knee, white tights and a short, tight cardigan with pearl buttons. Her dark hair was cut in an angular style as much like Mary Quant as her hairdresser could manage. Nearly every Parisian teenage girl was wearing something similar. A few British tourists looked out of place with their long tapestry skirts and home-made beads. At the top of the tower the wind threw their long hair over their faces.
Marie-Claude’s cousin Francine was visiting from Montreal and was explaining how General de Gaulle’s plan had been to take the Eiffel Tower piece by piece over to Quebec for the Montreal EXPO in 1967. Marie Claude was amazed.
-   Il ne peut pas être vrai. Es-tu sûr?
[It can’t be true. Are you sure?]
Francine was a couple of years older than Marie-Claude and at 18 felt she understood more about international affairs.
- Oui la tour est un grand exploit d'ingénierie. Mais il était impossibleMon père m'a dit que le gouvernement canadien a opposé son veto. C'est dommage.
[Yes the tower is a great feat of engineering. But it was impossible. My father told me that the Canadian government vetoed it. It’s such a shame.]
- Mais je pensais que Montréal est la capitale.
[But I thought that Montreal is the capital city.]
- Oui tu as raison - la capitale du Québec. Seul le Québec mais pas le Canada.
[Yes you are right - the capital of Quebec. Only Quebec but not Canada.]
- Le célèbre Quebequois
[The famous Quebequois]
- Pourquoi cet homme est nous regarde ?
[Why is that man staring at us?]
The two young women were about to get into the lift and Dwight couldn’t leave it any longer.  
- Bonjour jeune filles. Can I take you for coffee?
Francine looked at Marie-Claude and Marie Claude looked at Francine. Being called little girls wasn’t the problem but the young women generally did not drink coffee with strangers. But this stranger so obviously did not understand the rules. “Sorry no” said Francine “Yes please” said Marie Claude. Marie-Claude liked the young man’s perfect white teeth, she didn’t like his chewing gum but she liked his chinos and plaid shirt.  Dwight asked again and this time he said “just 10 minutes”. Marie-Claude led the way. It was, after all, her city and Francine was as much a visitor as this young man.
Francine lit a Gauloise and looked out of the window. It was a total pain having this oaf come along with them. He looked like every other Anglo Saxon she saw in the supermarket. When the family spent their holiday in Ontario they were everywhere. Pink and white and blond and overfed. To make things worse, it turned out that Marie-Claude quite liked speaking English.
-       Yes I have five years learning English in school. What do you learn?
-       I study engineering and business studies.
Francine muttered
-       Mon dieu.
Dwight kept going.
-       Do you know the Beach Boys?
-       No we have the hits with Johnny ‘allyday and Sylvie Vartan.
-       Did you say Johnny Holiday?
-       No ‘allyday.
-       Johnny Holiday sounds like an American name. We have Billy Holiday.
-       I don’t know him. Johnny ‘alliday is definitely French. He makes good shows with his wife, Sylvie. They are a popular couple.
-       Like Sonny and Cher?
-       I don’t know, maybe. Is Cher French?
-       She could be – she’s dark haired and good looking like you.
Francine stubbed out her cigarette and whispered.
-       Imbecile.
Dwight moved closer to Marie-Claude
-       I’ll send you a record – give me your address. I’ll write to you too.
-       You must not – my father would not allow it.
-       He wouldn’t know.
-       Of course he would know. The post man would tell him.
-       So how can I speak to you?
-       You could telephone me at my work - maybe once a month for a few minutes. But it is so expensive……
-       I’ll find a way.
Francine turned round and said to Dwight.
-       Êtes-vous familier avec le débat entre nos ingénieurs et d'architectes de la valeur de la Tour Eiffel? Par exemple Guy de Maupassant décidé de déjeuner là tous les jours car il était le seul endroit qui ne donne pas une vue de la tour elle-même. 
[Are you familiar with the debate between our engineers and architects of the value of the Eiffel Tower? For example Maupassant decided to have lunch there every day because it was the only place that does not give a view of the tower itself.]
Dwight nodded and said
-       Thank you, thank you - yes 
Francine stood up and said to Marie-Claude.
-       Allons-y. L'homme est un idiot. Au revoir Monsieur.
[Let's go. The man is an idiot. Good bye, sir.]
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5th July 1971


Patrick Feeney  - the New York Times shipping correspondent was trying to get his copy out in time for the July independence holiday weekend. He was standing at his desk speaking into his phone.
-       There’s what? A ship! A warship! Whose warship? A French warship! You must be kidding me. Where? In the harbour. Are they firing at us? Is it trying to dock?
    
-       Don’t tell me to calm down. I’m quite calm. I just want to know what the f**k is going on.
-       The hold is packed with dollars. Say that again. They’ve shipped millions of dollars back to us. This is a joke. It’s a finger up to us.    
-       They’ve come to get their gold. What do you mean? Their gold? What gold?   
-       Oh really - The gold with Banque de France stamped on it.
-       Where is it? How should I know? It’s in the Fed I guess. Somewhere in the building? You don’t know – well I don’t know.  
-       OK De Gaulle refused to speak to the president. So the president already phoned him about all this? F*cker yourself.
-       Oh Volker – Volker the man at the Fed. Read it out to me. -  Slowly.

-       French Gold reserves deposited in New York with the Federal Reserve Bank.

-       Now they want them back. Just like that?
-       They’ve got the dollars. They’re giving them back. They don’t want them - they want the gold instead? There must be millions. Billions even. They gonna put them in the dock like the tea? Or fire them over the quay from their cannons?    
-       I’m not being stupid. The whole thing’s insane. It must have taken the French Navy weeks to get this ship over here.       
-       Do we have to give them the gold? Yes OK I guess we have to. If they’re paying off what they borrowed they have to get something in return and it ain’t going to be Francs.  
-       Give me a pile of dollars any time. I know what that’s worth and how many drinks it will buy.
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15th August 1971
The Oval Office
The White House, Washington DC  
Dwight’s job was deputy personal assistant - telephony and communications: the office of the President of the United States.
President Richard Nixon was at Camp David with all the Treasury officials and the bankers. They were set to be there for days.
In the semi-circular ante-room there were no windows but with the door open Dwight could see enough to get by without turning on the lights and air conditioning. Normally when the president was in his suite the door would be closed and any visitor would be unaware that the section of the bookshelf with the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Gibbons Decline and Fall hid a desk, phone and a bank of reel-to-reel tape recorders.


When there were telephone calls or anything else recorded Dwight had to copy the tapes and store them in the vault. While he was copying the tapes for the previous week Dwight kept the audio running to log the names of the people the president had spoken to. There were conversations with Arthur Burns the Fed Chairman, John Connally the Treasury Secretary and Paul Volker.

The president had a great way with them all.
-       Look Art, you know we can’t let the Frogs and the Japs screw us. We won’t let them have us over a barrel. You’ve got the juice in the Reserve they can’t have us by the pips too.

-       Jack – dollars should be good enough for them – so we can tell that snail-munching boy scout to go screw himself.

-       You’re right Paul – I’m pleased you said it – you are with us guys - we ran things since Bretton Woods, we nailed the Germans – then we bailed everyone out. They should be thanking us for saving them.

-       John – just tell him we bought every ounce of that gold from our own good citizens – ranchers, butchers, even schoolteachers. We’re keeping it safe for the rest of the world.

-       Pat I’m gonna be making a speech about this dollar thing. Give me a word for spook that isn’t spook. No not phantom – more homey than a phantom. Something a kid might see in the woodshed. Genie - no that’s too foreign. Yes heebie jeebie – why not? I’ll say don’t get the heebie jeebies.

-       Keep talking to the Chinks - Henry – if I have to go over there myself I will. You don’t have to play ping pong just let them win. If they’ll put a rocket up the Soviets I’ll kiss every one of their little yellow asses.

The tapes were the president’s little secret. He liked looking at the tape recording machine and watching it go round. He didn’t trust many people so he wanted to make sure he had their words on tape. Dwight and the president sometimes talked about these new-fangled things and the president was one of the few people who liked to hear what Dwight said about new inventions. He did not laugh when Dwight told him to invest in Cable and Wireless because every home would want a tape machine for their telephone in only a few year’s time.

In the two years Dwight had been in the job no-one had ever asked him about the tapes. Maybe they didn’t know. Anyway someone took notes at all the meetings and then the writing and rewriting for the official record went on for days at a time. 

It was 6 o’clock in Washington and 1 o’clock in Paris. It couldn’t be a better time for his call to Marie-Claude.

Dwight sat at the desk and leaned back. He couldn’t bring himself to put his feet up. If someone came in he could always say he was testing the line. He picked up the phone. The line was open. It was always open. The unbroken dialling tone ebbed and flowed.
Dwight pressed the foot pedal and turned off the voice activation switch on the tape recorder. Taking care to avoid the blue button he pressed E for Europe and dialled the Elysee Palace extension 31.
-       Marie Claude are you there?
-       Oui - Yes of course
-       Can you hear me?
-       You are very close I think?
-       No only about 4 thousand miles away.
-       How many kilometres is that?
-       A lot more – several thousand I think.
-       Six , sept, huit?
-       The cable, the cable under the sea that’s why it’s so clear. 
-       The cable transatlantic?
-       Yes laid down by us and the Brits.
-       What does it mean the Brits?
-       The British – you know – the English.
-       Oh you mean the English? No that’s not right – it goes to the New found land too
-       Where’s that?
-       Canada
-       Yes well still North America. Is your boss there?
-       No it is August he is having his holiday.
-       President’s not here either but he’s not on holiday or so they say – they’re at Camp David. Supposed to be a big secret.
-       Sounds like a holiday. We say le camping.
-       Le weekend, le beefsteak…
-       Le bifteck is not what you think.
-       Le sandwich, le Scotch tape
-       OK OK it’s not really permitted.
-       The general isn’t around now?
-       Look - I have to serve the coffee if someone comes.
-       Can’t they serve themselves?
-       No that would not be right.
-       But I thought you had a big job there. Isn’t that what you said?
-       Yes it is a big job I am part of the Aide de Camp. Like a soldier camp – but no fighting.
-       Making coffee.
-       It is important.
-       Can I come to Paris again?
-       Of course – you can meet papa this time. He’s back from his travels now. You can stay with us. I can take you to the Louvre and the Tuileries.
-       Where does he go your papa?
-       Oh all over – he doesn’t always say.
-       He must say something.
-       Yes he says – he’s off for a few weeks or a few months.
-       What is his job?
-       He’s a navigator on a boat.
-       What - a cruise ship?
-       No they don’t cruise - they are defence ships.
-       The French Navy?
-       Yes of course.
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Address to the Nation Outlining a New Economic Policy: 'The Challenge of Peace.' August 15, 1971

United States President Richard Nixon's address announcing the temporary suspension of the dollar's convertibility into gold.
Richard Nixon

In recent weeks, the speculators have been waging an all-out war on the American dollar. The strength of a nation’s currency is based on the strength of that nation’s economy – and the American economy is by far the strongest in the world. Accordingly, I have directed the Secretary of the Treasury to take the action necessary to defend the dollar against the speculators.

I have directed Secretary Connally to suspend temporarily the convertibility of the American dollar except in amounts and conditions determined to be in the interest of monetary stability and in the best interests of the United States.

Now, what is this action – which is very technical – what does it mean for you?
Let me lay to rest the bugaboo of what is called devaluation.

If you want to buy a foreign car or take a trip abroad, market conditions may cause your dollar to buy slightly less. But if you are among the overwhelming majority of Americans who buy American-made products in America, your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today.

The effect of this action, in other words, will be to stabilize the dollar.

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January 1972
The president is on the phone in the Oval office. The door to the ante room is closed. The shelves of the bookcase show the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Gibbons Decline and Fall.
- Gordon Gordon – you’re the guy who can do it. You were Hoover’s man now you’re mine. We’ve got to find out what those Commies are up to.

OK not Commies Pinkos then. We can’t let the Democrats get back in.

Yes I talked to Ehrlichman and he’s with us. Get into that swanky building they’ve hired.
The primaries are coming up and we need to make a stink – find something on them. Screw up their lists – find out who’s funding them and get some dirt. Put in some phone taps and hide some bugs.

I’ve been talking to a kid in my office - he knows every last thing about tape recorders. If we can get them on tape we’ll know what they’re planning. The we can book a TV spot the day before they do, get to their senators – find out who they’re doing business with.

We’ll keep it quiet – so I’ll say we are talking about plumbing. I’ll mention water and pipes and you’ll know what I mean. We want to crawl into their basements and their attics and find the way in. Seems to fit with the name of the damn building. Watergate. Yes, yes it does.
Gordon you know I trust you.  

No nobody knows I’m speaking to you, nobody at all.

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12th June ‘72
Dear Marie-Claude
I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch. You won’t be seeing me in Paris this year. I’ll have to come later. Maybe next year. Tell your dad “Hi” from me. I working on a really important piece of work. I won’t be able to travel for a while and I can only make phone calls to the USA - not even to Canada. I can’t tell you much more than that.
I won’t forget you.
Yours truly
Dwight

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NOTES
  • The Coinage Act was passed by the United States Congress on June 27, 1834. This pegged the value of the dollar to gold. 
  • The French franc was a gold coin introduced in 1360 to pay the Ransom of King John II of France.  In January 1960 the French franc was revalued, with 100 existing francs making one nouveau francA major devaluation occurred (11% in August 1969) before the Bretton Woods system was replaced by free-floating exchange rates.
  • The Bretton Woods Conference, held in July 1944 was the gathering of 730 delegates from all 44 Allied nations at the Mount Washington Hotel, situated in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, United States.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Samaria Gorge – you’ve started now you’ll finish

Gouves sea front
“You must be mad!” George said as he served me Nescafe Frappe (cold coffee whisked with ice) In his view this was madness on two counts – the first that I was planning to walk the Samaria Gorge in Crete in mid-summer and the second that I took my coffee “sketto” - without sugar.

The temperature was in the 30s but I didn’t think I could miss the chance of the gorge walk on my fourth visit to Crete. The thing is you can’t just do part of the gorge once you’ve started you have to finish. You can’t take your own rental car to the top at Ormalos and then leave it. The only exit from the mouth of the gorge is by sea at the coast. So you have to take one of the many excursions offered by the tourist agencies.


Sunrise over Rethymnon
It is easy to forget how large Crete is – 260 kilometres from East to West - so unless you are a few kilometres away the coach picks you up around 5 in the morning and by the time you have stopped to pick up the full quota it is 10 o’clock and time for breakfast, honey and yogurt. 

Do not turn this down. 

Unless you have brought a picnic this will the last food you have before emerging from the gorge around 4 or 5 hours later. 

Expect beauty, calm rest areas and fresh cold water from numerous springs. 

Don't expect cafes or any sales of food. No commercial operations are allowed. The Gorge is a Greek National Park and part of the World Biosphere programme.

So what is the Samaria Gorge?

The Samaria gorge was created during the Pleistocene glaciation  - the Quaternary period 2.58 million years ago.  
The rock formations in the area are formed from dolomite stone  and this is soluble over time – (many, many thousands of years.) Glaciers and water have worn the river bed down to sea level. 

The Gorge is 16 km long, starting at an altitude of 1230m. The walk takes you all the way down to the shores of the Libyan Sea in Agia Roumeli.
The"doors" sometimes called the Iron doors (no iron in sight).
Although the walk is all down hill the steepest section is the first quarter so if you give up then you have to walk back up. There is no way out except by the only possible emergency service – being led on a donkey by one of the gorge’s guards.

So you keep going and try to look at the splendours of the landscape not at your feet. But this is not easy. There are paths but they are so well trodden that the boulders are worn smooth and shiny. The truth is you have to concentrate so hard that all that you can think of is staying upright.

I was lucky enough to meet a delightful Belgian woman on the bus. She spoke about 4 languages and was still learning another one - but was particularly fluent in English. We made friends anyway but our comradeship was enhanced by adversity. I’ve had the same experience when walking in the pouring rain in the Scottish Highlands. You don’t say it but your faces say “Why are we doing this?” 

Are we there yet?

As we walked and stumbled - we mentioned the swim we would get in the cool water at the port. We talked about the peculiarities of the English language and most of all we talked about how far we thought we had gone.

I explained the term “How the crow flies” as a means to measure distance directly and was hoping that this was not the measure used in the guidebooks. I hoped that 10 miles of distance of the walk would include the twists and turns along the way – avoiding the steep paths and the mountainous boulders at the bottom of the ravine.  I suspect that this was not the case and the distance of the walk is more than 10 miles and not “as the crow flies”.
The joy of completing the walk was added to by the pleasure taking off the walking boots at the end. Was it 10 miles or 100? We didn’t care.
New walking boots

The only way is down
Boat trip - Aghia Roumeli to Hora Sfakion
I’ve done plenty of walking in my time and always worried about the challenges of steep hills – but I had heard walkers and hikers say they hated walking downhill more than up and had never fully understood it - until the Samaria Gorge.
What makes walking down more intense is that you do not usually use the muscles you use to go downhill the rest of the time. And you have to hold your weight in position with your knees bent for several hours without sitting or falling. So imagine learning to wind sail for around 4 hours without a break or alternatively hovering over a toilet seat (some women specialise in this and will know what I mean) for the same amount of time.
So for the next few days I could be heard making little cries of agony each time I had to take a step off the curb or walk the gentle slope down to the beach.

Still it was worth it – the water melon juice in the Samaria Restaurant was unforgettable. The cruise along Crete's south coast awesome in the true sense of the word.