Take a letter, Miss Jones … and while you’re at it, save the world

I am not saying that I’ve always wanted to be a spy or that the Lord High Admiralty of Secret Keepers would accept me even if I tried. But I do admit to an admiration for espionage … at least when it is conducted by the good guys. And I have a special fondness for the oddballs, eccentrics, and patriots who broke the Nazi Enigma code during World War II. More recently, I have learned about the Navajo code talkers.

They came into being at the beginning of the War in the Pacific when the Marine Corps was looking for a way to communicate tactical information in a code that would be undecipherable to the Japanese. Philip Johnson, son of a missionary, had grown up on a Navajo reservation and suggested the Navajo language because it has no alphabet, no symbols, is extremely complex, cannot be written, and was only spoken by those who lived on Navajo lands or in the American Southwest.

In other words, it was perfect.

Eventually, a code, including a dictionary for military terms, was created. The Marines recruited over 200 Navajos and this group, known as “code talkers,” participated in every assault in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. According to Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine signal officer, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” The Japanese, please note, never cracked the code.

Which sort of got me thinking. Well that and my realization that it has been many years since I last saw a secretary whip out a steno pad, cross her legs, and respond to a boss’s request to, “Take a letter, Miss Jones.”

If you drew me aside and asked me how old I was, after I shot you, I would probably blather on about my youthful complexion (ha!), the spring in my step, and the gleam of adventure in my eye. In truth, I am old, old, old. Old enough to remember when carbon paper was used to copy letters; when the opposite end of a lead pencil and not a delete button erased mistakes; and when alphabet keys were replaced by the magic silver balls of a Selectric typewriter. I can even remember mimeograph machines and Ko-Rec-Type.

Most importantly, I remember Gregg Shorthand.

As an exuberant young thing on my way out the door to conquer the world, my wise mother said, “Just in case you don’t write a best seller within your first two weeks in New York, you might want to learn to type. A secretary can always get a job.”

So, that is what I did. I learned to type and I became the fastest typist in the world. I learned Gregg Shorthand and I became the worst stenographer ever born. I tried. I really tried. But how often can you write: “Dear Mr. Winterbottom: We are in receipt of your order for two-dozen boxes of widgets.”

Boring. Boring. Boring. So I tucked a copy of Wuthering Heights between the covers of my steno book and translated instead: “…the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy.”

Much more satisfying.

Despite my failure at shorthand, I have always been a wee bit jealous of stenographers. They could scribble exotic symbols. They could eavesdrop on and record whatever interested them. They could communicate in a secret language. And had their skills not been so widely disseminated throughout the country, they would have been perfect … spies.

Twenty years ago, Gregg Shorthand was ubiquitous. Now, computers are ubiquitous and shorthand has practically disappeared. To all intents and purposes, it is a dead language. Its scribbles and scrawls are meaningless to just about everybody.

Which brings me to my (wake up now!) suggestion. That whoever is in charge of military intelligence should gather together a bunch of us old bats, give us a manicure, a pedicure, a few tubes of dark red lipstick, a can or two of Aqua Net hair spray, and transform us into espionage agents. Teach us how to press our ears against tent flaps hiding madmen who decapitate journalists and blow up office buildings. Train us to write Gregg in invisible ink; show us how to transmit messages for de-coding back at Mission Control.

Recognize that, using symbols as obscure in today’s War on Terror as ancient Navajo was during the World War II, we stenographers can outthink Al-Qaeda and outmaneuver anyone too young to know how to whip out a steno pad, demurely cross her legs, and act upon the instructions to “Take a letter, Miss Jones.”

Well ... I can’t. But at least I can type.

Translation of Gregg Shorthand Quotation: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Gregg illustrations provided by Andrew Owen.

Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com

Copyright © 2008, Shelly Reuben

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