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Exiled to Greenland for being left-wing

Michael Chapman - Film-maker

I was... I was, in my head if not in... and... and in... the people I associated with, rather left-wing as a young man, and – I suppose I still am in a silly kind of way – but in those days, you know, I took it all terribly seriously, but I didn't really do much of anything about it, but... when I was in, drafted into the army, it was partly... well, never mind, it was partly for reasons of heterosexuality, but, when I was drafted into the army, after I got through basic, they... they realized that I could read and write and do simple sums and things, so they didn't send me to Advanced Infantry Basics, they put me in a... in a signal core unit, which was a sort of intelligence unit, and... and they began to try and get me a clearance. In those days, you know, it was not long after McCarthyism and all that and it was all taken very seriously, and I sort of said to them that I... I didn't want to... the last thing in the world I wanted to do was to be shipped off to, you know, Advanced Infantry Basic, but I said to them that I thought perhaps they shouldn't... that they should maybe put me somewhere else, and not tell me any secrets. And they said, you know, well, we... we'll... we'll decide that, you just shut up and go away. So I said fine, because they sent me to a... a very nice base in New Jersey, on the Jersey shore, it was wonderful.

And then they began to do these background checks and everything and they found out that, indeed, I had perhaps not... they shouldn't have done this stuff to me. I mean, not that I... I mean I don't mean I was a spy, I was just trying to get laid off left-wing Jewish girls, and various things like that. And also, I, you know, also I believed that I was this big, macho, Marxist, whatever, nonsense, but... they were sort of embarrassed and I was embarrassed, and... and I was in a... a secret unit of sorts, I mean, it... it wasn't a secret unit, it was a perfectly ordinary unit, but it had to do with monitoring Soviet tests, Soviet atomic tests, in some complicated way which I now cannot in the life of me remember. It had something to do with changes in atmosphere pressure, or something, and it was a big deal, a... a mildly big deal anyway, and they had units around the world, in various places, surrounding the Soviet Union. And the news of the... the... I can't remember the details, but somehow or other, some piece of information from this unit, or about this unit, came up in The New York Times, and some papers were missing from the place where we were, and I had fortunately had... they thought that somehow I had... was involved with these papers. This has nothing to do with cinematography, but it is an amusing story, so. And I hadn't, I mean I... I probably had, because every Friday I would go and burn these secret papers in a big trash can, and that was part of my job, and I... I had had a... a holster and everything, I think it was even white, but... and... and a gun in it, but the gun was not loaded, so I'd march down and I'd burn the papers, and I... we didn't care or know, and I'm sure they got burned, you know, and I... how it would get to The New York Times, I have no idea, but it wasn't for anything in our unit, we just burned the papers and then, who... who knew where the papers were?

So they went on and on and got on it and they made me take a... a lie detector test, which I, if not failed, at least it was on the point of failure, I was terrified, it was really scary, because I kept trying to say, look, I didn't do anything, and, you know, it would go up and down that, I guess. And I hadn't done anything, I mean I really hadn't! And so that I had to take another one, and that one was also inconclusive, and so, not knowing what to do – look you, you're laughing your head off – not knowing what to do, and realizing that in fact they hadn't... I hadn't done anything and there was no evidence, and so it was all nonsense, they sent me to Greenland. They sort of exiled me for the rest of my stay in the army. So I spent a year in Thule, Greenland, which was an airbase, not an army base, but there was one of these little units that went monitoring Soviet tests. Now, there were no Soviet tests in the year I was there, but every once in a while an iceberg would break off, and that would go ‘ga-boom!’ and there would be some change in the atmospheric conditions, and the needles were like, rather like the lie detector tester, I always thought that was a nice kind of metaphor, because they would go up and down, up and down, up and down, and we'd have to call Washington and say, ‘The needles are going up and down and going up and down!’ But in fact it was just an iceberg. Then they would go send somebody driving off 20 miles to where the icebergs were, and they would find out that an iceberg had broken off, and it wasn't a Soviet test.

Diana Athill - Writer
Marvin Minsky - Scientist
Donald Hall - Poet