Visiting Mister Sherman
by Jill Hand
It’s been fifty years since I last saw Mister Sherman. I’ve forgotten most of the details about our encounters, which is a shame, given what I later learned about him. I wish that I’d paid more attention to him, but at the time all my attention was riveted on his horse.
Buddy was the horse’s name. He was a palomino with a coat the color of a manila envelope and a white mane and tail. He looked like Mister Ed, star of the television show of the same name, whom I’d only seen in black and white on our Motorola TV. The Motorola was housed in a wooden cabinet that stood on four splayed metal legs that tapered toward the bottom, giving it a space age look. It had round plastic knobs that had to be turned manually to change the station and adjust the volume and the horizontal hold because there were no such things as remotes back then. The horizontal hold frequently needed adjusting or all you’d see instead of Rocky and Bullwinkle or Walter Cronkite or whatever it was you were trying to watch were blurry black and white lines.
Sometimes no amount of fiddling with the knob would make the horizontal hold behave itself. Then my father would have to smack the side of the cabinet. That usually straightened it out. If he wasn’t home, we’d be out of luck because neither my mother nor I were able to deliver a blow in exactly the right spot with just the right amount of force to make the horizontal hold settle down.
I was sprawled on the living room rug in front of the TV one night, raptly watching Mister Ed converse with his owner, Wilbur Post. Mister Ed was a talking horse, but he’d only talk to Wilbur. It was unclear how he came to acquire the power of speech. It was also unclear why he refused to speak to anyone except Wilbur. Perhaps they’d gone into that in an earlier episode and I missed it. Clenched in my right hand as I lay on my stomach was a little plastic horse (a palomino, naturally) which I made bounce up and down whenever Mister Ed spoke.
I was making the horse bounce when I noticed my father was watching me. He usually didn’t pay much attention to me, except to yell at me for leaving my bicycle lying in the driveway, or to quiz me on the state capitals or the multiplication tables, which I never did learn, much to his disgust. But now he was studying me thoughtfully over the top of his newspaper.
He took a swallow of beer from the pilsner glass on the table at his elbow, next to his brown vinyl La-Z-Boy recliner and smiled. “I know a man who has a horse like that,” he said, meaning Mister Ed. “Would you like to go and see it?”
Would I? Of course I would! I was absolutely crazy about horses and had been begging for a pony for years. “Will he let me ride it? When can we go?” I asked, practically beside myself with excitement.
“I’ll see if I can set something up,” he said, and went back to reading the paper.
The horse’s owner, Mister Sherman, my father told me as we were driving to his house a few days later, worked with my father at the Army base near where we lived. My father wasn’t in the Army, although he had been at one time. Now he was a civilian, but what his job entailed was a mystery to me.
“Paperwork,” he’d say vaguely, whenever I asked him, his gray eyes expressionless behind horn-rimmed glasses. “Reviewing documents. Boring stuff like that.”
“What kind of paperwork? What kind of documents? I have to know for school,” I’d plead, but that was all he’d say. If I pressed him any further he’d tell me to go and clean my room.
That was frustrating because every year, regular as clockwork, we’d have to stand up in front of the class and give a report on what our fathers did for a living. Every year I had to admit that I didn’t know. (We were never asked what our mothers did, the assumption being that they didn’t do anything worth mentioning.)
“He wears a suit, and he has a briefcase,” I’d start in hesitantly, feeling a hot flush creeping up my neck under the merciless gaze of my classmates. “Sometimes he goes on business trips.”
The teacher would cut in at that point and impatiently tell me to speak up so everyone could hear me. Thanks to the post-World War II baby boom, there were about thirty-eight of us in the class. We were packed in like sardines, our desks barely a foot apart, which made learning anything nearly impossible, what with all the whispering and bickering and accusations of punching, chair-kicking, copying and so on. What, exactly, the teacher would ask, looking like she wished it were time for recess so she could go and have a cigarette, did my father do?
“Paperwork? Paperwork, I guess,” I’d mumble, looking down at my ugly Buster Brown oxfords and feeling incredibly stupid.
There’d be roars of contemptuous laughter at that, as my classmates savored seeing me blush and squirm. “You don’t know what your own father does? Jeez you’re stupid,” some boy would sneer.
That kind of thing wouldn’t be tolerated today, what with the hullabaloo about bullying, but those were rough and tumble times, when children were permitted to get away with verbally abusing each other. The attitude was that it toughened us up and prepared us to face the harsh realities of adult life.
The teacher would sigh and tell me to sit down. Before she called upon the next kid to stand up and give his or her report (and more than likely get taunted and insulted in turn) she’d advise me to pay more attention the next time my father talked about his work.
That would have been fine if he ever talked about his work, but he never did, except in the vaguest of terms. But now I was getting a chance to meet someone he worked with, someone who owned a horse!
“Does Mister Sherman have any kids?” I asked as we drove. I hoped not. Being envious by nature, I would have hated it if he had a daughter my age who was fortunate enough to have her very own horse.
He didn’t, my father absently replied, piloting the light blue Plymouth Belvedere that he kept impeccably washed and waxed. Mister Sherman lived alone, with only Buddy for company. That didn’t sound so bad to me. I settled my cowboy hat firmly on my head and rubbed the apple that I’d brought to give to Buddy against my blue jeans-clad thigh, making it shine so that it looked especially tempting.
My mother had curled my hair that morning and ironed my red and white checked shirt, a shirt that I fancied a cowgirl might wear while riding the range, on the lookout for cattle rustlers. “Be sure and thank Mister Sherman for inviting you,” she told me, brushing out my curls. She stood back and surveyed her handiwork, hands on hips. “There! You look just like Shirley Temple. Have a nice time and don’t forget…”
“To say thank you for inviting me,” I finished for her, hopping from foot to foot, in a frenzy to be off. “I know. Can we just go, already?”
We pulled up to a house that I was delighted to see was similar to Wilbur Post’s house, being located not on a farm in the country, but smack in the middle of a subdivision. Behind the house was a tidy little red barn with white trim and a shingled roof that had a tall silver antenna on top. My father had mentioned that Mister Sherman tinkered with radios and was a ham radio operator. Buddy occupied the front portion of the barn. As we got out of the car, he stuck his head out of the top of a Dutch door and eyed us appraisingly.
Mister Sherman came over from where he’d been sitting in a lawn chair, listening to a baseball game on a portable radio. He looked younger than my father, who was approaching fifty at the time. His hair was sandy blonde and he had pleasant blue eyes. He looked friendly, like the sort of man who might coach Little League. “I thought you said you were bringing your daughter, Jim, but surely this is Dale Evans,” he said, winking at me.
Dale Evans was Roy Rogers’ wife, and a top-notch cowgirl. I was immensely flattered. Mister Sherman went on to remark that Dale rode a quarter horse named Buttermilk, but I probably already knew that, didn’t I? As a matter of fact, I did.
“I brought an apple,” I said, showing it to him. “Can I give it to Buddy?”
He said Buddy was looking forward to meeting me and would appreciate the fact that I was kind enough to bring him an apple.
My father sat and listened to the ball game while Mister Sherman showed me how to curry Buddy and brush his mane and tail. Then he and my father drank beer and talked about baseball while I leaned over the fence that enclosed Buddy’s corral and patted his velvety nose, breathing in his horsey scent and pretending that he was mine.
We made five or six visits to Mister Sherman that fall. To my delight, I got to ride Buddy, first around the corral, and later on a trail through the woods behind Mister Sherman’s house, with Mister Sherman walking beside me, one hand on Buddy’s bridle, his shoes crunching through the drifts of fallen leaves. He was good company. He didn’t talk down to me, like some adults did. He seemed genuinely interested in my opinions about things like movies and music. (I confessed to not really liking the Beatles, although I pretended to because all my friends did.)
And then one day when I asked my father when we were going to go and see him again, he told me he’d moved. An emergency had come up and he had to leave suddenly.
“Is he coming back?” I asked, sad at the thought of no longer getting to ride Buddy.
My father said he wasn’t coming back, and that was that, until twenty years later.
I was working as a reporter for a daily newspaper in my old hometown where my parents still lived, my father having long since retired. I’d been assigned to interview the man who ran the little museum at the Army base where my father used to work, and was going through clippings in the newspaper’s library, trying to find an interesting angle for what promised to be a dull story.
There were articles about the construction of a new PX, a visit from a general, improvements to the golf course. Boring, boring, boring. I was about to give up when I came upon a yellowed clipping from the nineteen sixties that definitely wasn’t boring. It seemed a Russian KGB agent who’d been masquerading as a civilian employee named Daniel Sherman had been apprehended with plans for an American missile in his possession!
Mister Sherman was a Russian spy! Holy cow! I never would have guessed, considering that he knew things like the name of Dale Evans’ horse and how the Boston Red Sox were doing, but then I suppose Russian spies were trained to know those kinds of things. I couldn’t wait to see what my parents would have to say about this. Were they ever going to be surprised! But then I realized, as I was driving to their house after work, that Mister Sherman’s double life was probably old news to them. It certainly would be to my father, who—now that I thought of it—had been unusually amenable to spending hours on his days off driving me over there and hanging around while I chatted with Mister Sherman and rode Buddy on the trail through the woods.
I recalled how, at my father’s retirement party, his coworkers had found it riotously funny when the band kept playing a song called “The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World.” I remembered all the times that I’d been embarrassed because I couldn’t give a satisfactory accounting of what he did for a living. It was starting to make sense.
Come to think of it, my mother had taken special care with my appearance whenever I was going to visit Mister Sherman. She’d make a point each time of telling me to be nice to him. Even she knew what he was up to! I was the only one who’d been kept in the dark.
“I can’t believe it,” I said, bursting into the living room, startling my parents, who were watching a game show on a huge color TV, the black and white Motorola having long since been replaced. They blinked at me in surprise as I continued, indignantly. “You used your own daughter as a honeypot to catch a Russian spy! Nice parents you are!”
My father thumbed the remote, silencing the TV. “Now wait just a minute,” he said, frowning. “For one thing, you weren’t a honeypot. You were more like…” he paused trying to come up with the right term before finally settling on “bait.”
“Not that being a honeypot is a bad thing, necessarily,” my mother brightly put in. “I got to be one once and it was fun.”
“Lillian, for Pete’s sake! That’s enough!” my father said, but she was off on a stream of pleasant reminiscence. “The girl who was supposed to be the honeypot had her appendix burst just as she was on her way to a hotel downtown to meet a German fellow.”
She widened her eyes and added, significantly, “East German, he was. Anyway, there was no one else available on short notice, so your father told me to hurry up and put on my emerald green satin cocktail dress and go over there. Do you remember that dress? It had a matching clutch purse with rhinestones on it.”
I said I remembered and asked what happened next. My father had shut his eyes and was shaking his head, muttering that she’d promised never to tell anyone and now here she was blabbing. “You realize she’s a reporter, right? If she writes about this, there goes my pension and you can see how you like living on cat food,” he said, grimly.
My mother ignored him. She went on with her interesting tale, describing how she’d taken a cab to the hotel and gone into the lounge, where a man whom she referred to as “the target” was seated at the bar.
“I flirted with him and he bought me a piña colada. I just love piña coladas; they’re so festive,” she said, as my father sat there, rigid. “Then I said that I’d like to see his room because I’d heard the rooms there were very nice, which they were.” She smiled in recollection at how nice the target’s room had been. “He had a room on the top floor with a very good view, not that you could see anything much because it was dark, although I’m sure that in the daytime the view would have been lovely. We sat on the bed and talked, and drank champagne and we kissed…”
“Lillian!” my father interrupted, horrified.
“Oh, pshaw, Jim! It was just kissing. There’s no reason to get upset,” my mother said with a light little laugh. “When he wasn’t looking, I poured something in his glass from a little bottle that your father gave me and a few seconds later he was out like a light.”
“Wow, mom, you drugged a guy. Way to go,” I said. It’s surprising, sometimes, the things you find out about your parents.
“Yes,” she said proudly, patting her hair. “Then I opened the hotel room door and let your father in. He went through the man’s pockets and took pictures of some papers that he had with the cutest little camera you ever saw. It was so tiny that I couldn’t believe it was a real camera, but it was! And then we left and your father took me to the Jade Pagoda for chow mein.”
“Jim,” she said, turning to my father, who was looking appalled at what she’d just disclosed. When he didn’t respond, she said, louder, “Jim! Isn’t it a shame that they closed the Jade Pagoda? It was such a good restaurant.”
Twenty minutes later, we were on our way to the Lobster Pot for surf and turf, my father having agreed to take my mother and me out to dinner in return for my promising not to write about what I’d just learned, a promise that I’ve kept up to now.
“Blackmail,” he said disgustedly from the passenger seat, where he sat, his arms folded, sulking. His vision had deteriorated to the point where he no longer felt comfortable driving at night, but he disliked being a passenger. “What kind of daughter blackmails her father?”
“The kind of daughter whose father uses her as bait to catch a Russian spy, that’s what kind. He could have killed us,” I replied. “And it’s not blackmail, really. Blackmail would be me making you pay my rent, which I thought about doing, by the way.”
My mother piped up from the back seat. “You were never in any danger. Mister Sherman, or whatever his real name was, wouldn’t have killed you if he found out what your father was up to, would he, Jim? He might have shot your father, but he wouldn’t have harmed you.”
My father said certainly not, sounding less convinced than I would have liked. Sherman had seen a picture of me that my father kept on his desk at work, one taken at a pumpkin farm in which I was grinning maniacally and holding up a pumpkin. He’d asked how old I was and whether I liked horses. My father seized the opportunity.
“Turns out he had twin daughters back home in Russia, teenagers by that time. He hadn’t seen them in years,” he said. He added that he was surprised that Sherman got away with spying for as long as he had. A huge mistake was using the radio in his barn to communicate with other spies. Apparently he was supposed to radio from someplace that couldn’t be traced back to him.
“And the way he hid those missile plans! Amateurish. I found them in less time than it took me to brew a pot of coffee. I would have thought the KGB trained them better,” he said, shaking his head, disappointed that it hadn’t been more of a challenge. He’d gone inside and made coffee while Sherman and I were in the barn, grooming Buddy. Then he’d searched for the plans. The coffee was a ruse in case Sherman came in unexpectedly and he needed to explain what he was doing in there.
I was impressed. “Very clever, Mister Bond,” I told him. We pulled into the parking lot of the Lobster Pot. I parked and got my mother’s walker out of the trunk. “You too, Mrs. Bond,” I told her. “It sounds like you were one hell of a sexy honeypot.”
“Thank you, dear,” she said, beaming.
My parents are long gone now, Mister Sherman, too, I suppose. I alone am left to tell the tale of a man and his horse and of a little girl’s role in a thrilling story of Cold War intrigue. I wish I knew what became of Buddy.
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Jill Hand is the author of The Blue Horse, a science fiction/fantasy novella from Kellan Publishing based on a true story. It contains no zombies, moody teenage vampires, or young people forced to fight to the death in a post apocalyptic future. It does, however, contain humor and some lively historical facts.