Memories of Killenworth

The Obama administration action to shut down Killenworth, the Russian country manor in Glen Cove, N.Y. brings back memories of the Cold War. According to news stories about local reaction, some residents had no idea the Russians even owned the facility, but in the late 1950's and 1960's, it was the talk of the town. The Soviet delegation to the UN was known to unwind there. We would drive past from time to time and peer at the compound hoping to catch a glimpse of the enemy. The Pratts had owned this house and the Pratt name was well known in the area for multiple estates and their contributions to charity. So there was something eerie about the takeover of one of those estates by the Russians, even if it was a simple purchase. You almost had the sense of encroachment, that they could gradually take over more of the country surreptitiously and you might not even realize it.

One time, in 1960 or so, Soviet Premier Krushchev was known to be in town, so my older brother and I rode our bicycles the two miles to wait outside the compound hoping to catch a glimpse of the leader of the unfree world, possibly arriving or leaving. A dozen or so other locals were there as well, but we tired of waiting and gave up after an hour. Later I found out a kid in my third grade class managed a snapshot of the dictator in his limo. Damn! This was our early 60's version of red carpet sightings - with a sinister twist. Nothing like capturing evil in black and white.

During the mid-to-late 1960's my father worked in management in the petrochemical industry. His company built refineries throughout the world, often under a joint venture structure, which sometimes meant working with a Soviet government-owned company. He studied conversational Russian to enhance his ability to communicate with the Russian engineers. Due to our proximity to the Glen Cove country house, Soviet businessmen would occasionally visit us soicially on the weekend, with our without their wives.

On one occasion I will never forget, only my father and I were home when the Russian businessman visited. I was alone in my room, but decided spontaneously to be a bit more sociable, so I descended the stairs and walked into the kitchen where the two men were standing across from each other. On my father's face I saw an expression unlike any I had ever seen - a smile as broad as it was fake. Across from him, a similar expression. Both men were staring down. Neither acknowledged my arrival or, within seconds, my immediate departure. Later I learned that this occasion marked one of multiple attempts by the Soviets to enlist my father to provide information, to spy, which he, of course, declined each time. The Russians were constantly trying to acquire better technology which they could not develop themselves by any means possible.

In those days, there was a constant game of cat-and-mouse, with the Soviet operatives constantly probing for weaknesses in American defenses. Meanwhile, the American operatives within counterintelligence would never be far from the scene. Whenever my father traveled to Russia or other countries behind the "Iron Curtain", we would receive a check-in call upon his return. When he was not available, I remember distinctly answering the phone and taking the message for him to call back "Mr. Smith". Really? Mr. Smith? Yes, the CIA was there, hiding in plain sight, like the operatives at Killenworth.

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