How I got an FBI record at age 11 from dabbling in cryptography then got into more trouble


Les Earnest <les at>


Growing up in San Diego, my first encounter with advanced technology was the gift of a one-speed fat tired bicycle in 1937. The second one, acquired a short time later, was my own radio with mysteriously glowing vacuum tubes, which enabled me to listen to a series of 15 minute kids’ radio programs every afternoon, such as “Magic Island” and “Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy.” 


At some point the Jack Armstrong program invited listeners to mail in a Wheaties box top to get a decoder ring that could be used to decipher secret messages that would be given near the end of certain broadcasts.  I sent for it as did Bobby Bond, my best friend through most of grammar school.  Bobby was particularly intrigued with cryptography and in 1942 he bought a new book called Secret and Urgent. Note that this was early in World War II.  We both read it and learned how to use letter frequencies to break ciphers, then went on to more advance topics. 

Fletcher Pratt, Secret and Urgent, Blue Ribbon Books; Garden City, NY; 1942


Bobby and I decided that we needed to have a secure way to communicate with each other, so we put together a rather elaborate jargon code based on the principles described in the book. I don't remember exactly why we thought we needed it.  We spent nearly every afternoon together so there was ample time to talk privately.  Still, you never could tell when you might need to send a secret message!


We typed up the code key on single sheet of paper with a carbon copy and each carried one at all times.  I had recently been given eyeglasses but didn't like to wear them, so I kept them in a hard case in the pocket of my trousers.  I figured that this was a good place to keep my copy of the code key, so I carefully folded it to one-eighth of its original size and stuck it at the bottom of the case, under my glasses.


Every chance I got, I went body surfing at Old Mission Beach and usually went by streetcar. On my way home from the beach one time the case carrying my glasses somehow slipped out of my pocket unnoticed. When I reported the loss to my mother that night, she called the streetcar company to see if it had been turned in. Unfortunately it hadn't.


After a few weeks of waiting in vain for the glasses to turn up, we began to lose hope.  My mother didn't rush to replace them in view of the fact that I hadn't worn them much and they cost about $8, a large sum at that time. (To me, $8 represented 40 round trips to the beach by streetcar, or 80 admission fees to the movies.)


Unknown to us, the case had been found by a patriotic citizen who opened it, discovered the code key, recognized that it must belong to a Japanese spy and turned it over to the FBI.  This was just after local citizens of Japanese descent had been rounded up and taken away to concentration camps, though I was not aware of that at the time.  I remember hearing that a local grocer was secretly a Colonel in the Japanese Army and had hidden his uniform in the back of his store. A lot of people actually believed such things.


About ten weeks later, my mother told me that she received a mysterious telephone call at work–at that time she was Vice Principal at Roosevelt Junior High.  The caller, who identified himself as an FBI agent, said, “I want an appointment with you at once.”  She said, “Come right over to my office.”  “No, we must see you in your home,” was the reply. She went home and waited for a substantial period.  I happened to be off on another escapade, so I wasn't aware of all this.


Eventually a black limousine pulled up in front of the house. Two men sat in it reading notes then eventually came up the steps. As my mother let them in the living room, each rolled back his coat lapel to flash identification and said something like, “I'm Joe Blow of the FBI.”  One of them then threw my glasses on the coffee table and said, “Have you seen these before?”  My mother replied, “They look like my son's glasses, which he lost awhile ago.”  “They are your son's alright,” said one of them.


They wanted to know why there was a code sheet in the case with the glasses.  My mother said we had been studying cryptography and that this was no doubt something that we had put together for fun. At first they refused to believe her, arguing that the code sheet could not have been compiled by kids, but after awhile, one of the two began to be a bit friendlier.


My mother told the investigators how glad she was to get the glasses back, considering that they cost $8. The sourpuss did a slow burn, then said “Lady, this case has cost the government thousands of dollars. It has been the top priority in our office for the last eight weeks. We traced the glasses to your son from the prescription by examining the files of all optometrists in the San Diego area.”  He went on to say that they had been interviewing our friends and neighbors for several weeks.


The friendlier one eventually described how much it had cost to investigate another recent case where a person was reported to have pulled down an American flag and stepped on it.  Only after the investigation was well under way did they learn that the perpetrator of this nefarious act was only four years old.


The tough agent apparently remained convinced to the end that I really was a Japanese spy.  He insisted on keeping code sheet “for our records.”  He apparently wanted to be in a position to decode any of our secret communications if they should find any.


Since our coding scheme had been compromised, Bobby and I devised a new key.  I started carrying it in my wallet, which I felt was more secure.  I don't remember ever exchanging any coded messages but I was always ready.  I didn’t expect anything more to come of our misadventure but we managed to get into more trouble.


Postscript: Bobby and I got into more trouble

Bobby’s dad was a medical doctor and at some point Bobby discovered a stack of preprinted forms for recording information about pregnant women. As an expression of wishful thinking we filled one out in the name of a cute 12-year-old girl who lived across the street from me and who everyone called “Alabama” because that was where she was from and because she spoke with a charming southern drawl.


After we left the form by her front door her parents somehow figured out who had done that and, when Bobby’s and my parents learned of this stunt they decreed that we would no longer play together.  We followed that guidance for over 40 years.


A few years later, when I was in college, I ran into Alabama on a warm summer day at Old Mission Beach where I was body surfing. Not surprisingly she was sexier than ever, wearing a bikini bottom but Instead of a bra she had a scarf tied around her top. When I learned that she had come there by public transit I offered her a ride home even though she no longer lived in my neighborhood, which she accepted. We had a friendly chat at the beach and on the way to her home but I didn’t follow up by seeking a date, figuring that her parents likely still had a negative view of me.


A slap on the wrist

Around the same time, I got a summer job at the Naval Electronics Lab in San Diego working on the assessment of sonar and underwater passive listening systems. This involved going to sea on a round-bottomed boat that rocked a lot and, after I had chili for lunch the first day, I experienced substantial lossage. I also got to go out on a submarine, which was much cooler, though there was some consternation when I popped up on the conning tower without doing the protocol of asking permission. I noticed that our passive listening system, using microphones on tripods resting on the sea bottom, managed to detect the submarine just once, when it ran into the microphone and made a large “thunk”.


At some point they decided that I should have a security clearance and one of the questions on the single page application form was “Have you ever been investigated by the FBI?” Naturally, I checked “Yes.” The next question was, “If so, describe the circumstances.” There was very little space on the form, so I answered simply and honestly, “I was suspected of being a Japanese spy.” When I handed the form in to the security officer, he scanned it quickly, looked me over slowly, then said, “Explain this”--pointing at the FBI question. I described what had happened.


He then got very agitated, picked up my form, tore it in pieces, and threw it in the waste basket, then handed me a blank form, saying “Here, fill it out again and don't mention that. If you do, I'll make sure that you never get a security clearance.”


I did as he directed, thus lying, and was shortly granted the clearance. I never again disclosed that incident on security clearance forms. However about twelve years later I learned by chance that putting slightly provocative information on a security clearance form can greatly speed up the clearance process. See my journal article, “Can computers cope with human races?


Epilogue: Bobby and I start a new conspiracy

In the early 1970s I was drawn into bicycle racing by my two sons and, after racing a bit, took up officiating, then became editor of the U.S. Cycling Federation Rulebook and began systematically proposing amendments to the racing rules. Most of my proposed rule changes were accepted without controversy but my proposal in the early 1980s to require that strong helmets be used while racing ran into a brick wall because it constituted a strong break with tradition. I had based that proposal on my observation that nearly all serious injuries or deaths incurred in races were the direct result of head injuries.


While looking around for support I came across an article in a national cycling magazine advocating the same thing, which was written by a Dr. Robert Bond.  I recalled hearing that my former friend had gone off to Stanford and had become an M.D., so I wondered if he might be the author. It turned out that he was, so we joined forces and the next time I visited San Diego we and our wives got together and reminisced a bit but didn’t discuss how Bobby and I had been separated.


We both continued to advocate adopting strong helmet requirements but my own bicycle club opposed me and booted me off their board of directors, then campaigned against my reelection to the national board of directors with the result that I lost my seat there for two years. As I departed I wrote a report refuting all known arguments against the strong helmet rule. By chance another cyclist died as a result of wearing an inadequate helmet at a velodrome near where the board held their next meeting. They finally saw the light and adopted a strong helmet rule.


Two years later I regained my seat on the board as the riders finally figured out that the strong helmet rule was a good thing. It then started spreading around the world and has since become standard in racing organizations almost everywhere, saving hundreds of lives and preventing thousands of serious head injuries. I’m proud of that.


Recreational cyclists often follow the lead of racers in their selection of equipment and attire. In the U.S. the use of strong helmets has now become widely accepted and even enacted into laws in some places, at least for younger riders. However that trend has been less pronounced in Europe and other parts of the world so far.


For more on the prolonged helmet fight in the U.S. see The brain bucket bash.