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 admirate 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.
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 that would be undecipherable to the
Japanese. Philip Johnson, son of a missionary, had grown up on a Navajo
reservation, and for these reasons, he suggested the Navajo language:
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.
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 got me thinking….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 when her boss said, “Take a letter, Miss Jones.”
you drew me aside and asked me how old I was, after I shot you, I would
probably blather on about the spring
in my step and the gleam of adventure in my eye. In truth, I am old
enough to remember carbon copies; when the opposite end of a lead pencil
(and not a delete button) erased mistakes; and the incredible magic of
an IBM Selectric typewriter.
More importantly, I remember Gregg Shorthand.
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 as a writer, you
might want to learn to type. A secretary can always get a job.”
So, I learned to type, and I became the fastest typist in the world. I learned Gregg Shorthand, and I became
the worst stenographer who ever lived. I tried. I really did. But how often can one write: “Dear Mr. Winterbottom: We are in receipt of your order for two-dozen boxes of widgets”
without being bored to death.
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
Much more satisfying.
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 interesting conversations.
They could communicate in a secret language. And had their skills not
been so widely disseminated throughout the country, they would have been
Thirty years ago, Gregg Shorthand was ubiquitous. Now, computers are ubiquitous and shorthand has disappeared.
To all intents and purposes, it is a dead language. Its scribbles and scrawls are meaningless to just about everybody.
brings me (wake up now!) to my 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 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 and show us how to transmit messages for de-coding back at Mission Control.
that, using symbols as obscure today as ancient Navajo was during the
World War II, we stenographers
can outthink the bad guys, outmaneuver anyone too young to know how to
whip out a steno pad and act upon the instructions to “Take a letter,
But at least I can type.
of the 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
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Gregg illustrations provided by Andrew Owen.