Few people, I think, would doubt Venice’s beauty. But when Kate and I visited just before Covid closed Italy in 2019, I also noticed a bit of the city’s darker side.
As we navigated the maze of bridges and alleyways that lace together Venice’s main islands, we spied shop windows with sinister, long-billed, Plague-Doctor masks… for formal balls and fetes. Other shops displayed glittering party costumes… draped over cadaver-like mannequins. And the store in the above digital-infrared photo specialized in, of all things, convex wall mirrors.
Their many eyes watched, and reflected me back at myself, as I passed. They made me aware of how many other eyes we met– usually quite closely– in the city’s congested lanes. And as I soon discovered, not all of those eyes were physical.
NOTE: This story played out exactly as described. I haven’t made up a single word. And for reasons you’ll soon understand, I did not try to photograph the two men involved.
One year before our trip, Kate reserved a table for lunch at a popular outdoor restaurant in the lovely outer island of Burano. The eatery anchored an isolated square far from well-trodden tourist trails. During our meal, the only people we saw in the square were an elderly woman bringing her groceries home and a young boy playing on the cobbles alone.
Lunch was a peaceful delight until a commotion erupted at the periphery of our seating area. A man with a British accent loudly complained that there wasn’t a four-person table for him, his wife, and the couple standing near them. With no reservations, and after a bit of arguing with the restaurant staff, they finally split into twosomes. The women grabbed a table out at the periphery, and the men came to the table beside ours.
I thought “Oh great… That’s just spiffing!”
There was Something About Them
I never learned their names, but “Frank” and “Clive” feel appropriate.
Frank was tall, lean, athletic, and (like me) quite outgoing. Clive was shorter, beefier and quieter. Frank would be welcome at any poker table. But Clive– with a normally stony poker face– would probably win too often for a return invite. He seemed to be the more serious partner in whatever business they practiced.
The way our tables were arranged, Frank sat even closer to me than Kate. And when she went to the restroom after our meal, he turned and asked:
“Are you Americans?”
I replied that we were, but didn’t quite know what to make of his response:
“I LOVE America! Spent several years there as a guest of your CIA. They treated us very well.”
Clive’s face, on the other hand, contorted into such pinched concern that I decided to ask no further questions.
After Kate returned and collected her purse, I stood, told Frank and Clive it was a pleasure meeting them, and headed inside for my turn in the loo.
Then Things Got Weirder
When it comes to restrooms, I’m no speed demon. So by the time I emerged, I expected Frank and Clive to be gone.
Kate was waiting for me out at the periphery, but the guys were loitering beside their table. Frank’s back was to me, and as I emerged into the sunlight, Clive shifted his gaze in my direction. Frank followed it… but with a new, serious expression on his face.
They were both now looking at me, so I walked toward them. Frank stepped forward, extended his hand, and as I received a painfully strong handshake, he dropped a verbal atom bomb:
“I’ve seen what you’ve seen,
and know what you’ve been through.
You have my eternal admiration.
It’s been an honor to meet you.”
Clive then tapped his shoulder and said, “Gotta go.” They turned on their heels with near-military precision, collected their wives at the periphery, and departed.
And after winching my jaw up off the ground, I rejoined Kate too.
Who Were They?
The strange encounter puzzled me for the rest of our trip. On returning to Massachusetts, I went to our town library to pick up a book for Kate. Near the rear entrance are four large racks of books and DVDs, on sale for $.50 each. It’s one of my favorite “stores.” But it has also proved oddly useful after we’ve returned from vacations.
For instance, before our first trip to Iceland, I scanned those racks for a cheap guidebook. No surprise… there was nothing. We paid full boat at Barnes & Noble instead.
But when I visited the shelves after returning from Iceland, the first book at the nearest end of the top shelf of the rack closest to the door was a mint and complete compilation of the famous Icelandic Sagas! For a half-buck, it was ours.
And when I browsed the same racks immediately after Venice, a 2009 DVD caught my attention. Intriguingly titled “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” it starred George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey… in a fairly fictionalized version of a non-fiction book of the same name. The book described a wacky Cold-War project that U.S. agencies– including the Army and CIA– launched after hearing that Russia was building an army of “psychic soldiers.” And America could NOT be allowed to lag Russia in a psychic arms-race!
The resulting “Stargate Project” apparently did collect some useful intelligence via “mind reading” and “remote viewing.” But attempts to teach its “New Earth Army” to become invisible and walk through walls were apparently unsuccessful. (One participant– with an often-bruised nose– griped that he “could never reach the right mindset for his atoms to slip between the wall’s”!)
These original psychic-army efforts were supposedly terminated around 1995, and the CIA began making Stargate’s records public in 2017. But it has been claimed that another mental-warfare program launched in the early 2000s.
Could They Have Been?
After I watched the movie and checked out the book, Frank’s comments about “being a guest of your CIA” and “being treated very well by them,” began to ring bells. Clive’s obvious discomfort at what Frank was saying made them ring even louder. And Frank’s apparent knowledge of my unusual past cranked them to near-deafening.
So were he and Clive among those “guests of the CIA?” And while Frank sat nearly elbow-to-elbow with me in the restaurant, did movies of my surreal life play in his head? Or– perhaps more concerning– did he “hear” my negative thoughts when he and Clive sat beside us? If so, he obviously didn’t hold a grudge!
The mirrors in the opening photo remind me of the many eyes that watched Kate and me during our Venice stay. And some of those eyes may have been more psychical than physical. I really appreciated what Frank said. But… umm…WOW!
Looking into this story, I learned that the journalist who wrote the original “Goats” book also produced a three-part British documentary called “Crazy Rulers of the World.” Though more factual than the 2009 film, it does little to make the dramatis personae seem any more rational. And being a journalist, its author and host (Jon Ronson) couldn’t keep the story light.
If you’re interested, the documentary’s three episodes are combined here. Just be aware that truth is always hard to come by in matters such as these… and may also be unpleasant.
–Dave Powell is a Westford, Mass., writer and avid amateur photographer.
Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-free Experience
There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:
Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you'll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial).
Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.