Many of you have asked for some factual background on the man who inspired this multi-faceted and multi-talented character in the Corridor of Darkness novels. In his postwar years my father, Dr. Leonard O’Bryon, was known as a beloved professor of modern languages and literature. That calm and charming exterior however hid a fascinating story that even his children barely knew. Let me share a few details to round out that picture.
As the oppressive and dangerous authoritarian regime of Hitler took its toll on German thought and society, his journals evolved to disguise his thoughts and actions. He wrote in the tiniest of script in miniscule notebooks and hid political commentary in dreadfully boring classroom notes on unrelated topics. Many of the adventures and locales portrayed in Corridor of Darkness were derived directly from personal adventures described in these journals. From time to time on this blog I will share actual passages from these actual reports.
My father kept extensive daily journals, starting in 1927 and later chronicling his life in Germany and France from 1929 to 1939. While a young banker at Irving Trust Company in Manhattan, he received a prestigious fellowship to the university in Berlin. Irving Trust encouraged his acceptance of the offer, believing it would make him an even greater asset to the bank. When the Great Depression hit the worldwide banking industry, he was already studying in Germany and decided to transfer to a field less subject to the whims of world economics. Moving back and forth from Berlin to the university town of Marburg an der Lahn, he witnessed first-hand the rise of Nazism and reported back to American newspapers as he earned a doctorate in history at the Philipps-Universität. His intellect, skill with language and culture, and charming personality won him friends and trust in every group he encountered. The perfect spy.
His covert work for the US government, however, both before and during WWII, remains shrouded in mystery. We know he was assigned to the State Department’s Special War Problems Division before America took up arms. Although officially working for the Foreign Service and living in Washington, D.C., he was away and incommunicado for lengthy periods during the war years. He somehow held the field rank of Major in the US Army, although he never undertook traditional military training.
Tantalizing clues suggest he was sometimes deep within the Third Reich in these troubled times, including dates and locations of acquisition noted in books he purchased. We know that in 1945 he went undercover in American POW camps for SS officers to ferret out signs of possible unrest. In one such camp he was recognized by a former German university acquaintance. The prisoner shouted out my father’s nickname from his Marburg days, drawing immediate attention from the prisoners in the crowded dining hall, and my father was hustled out by camp guards who knew his covert mission and were tasked with his protection.
He held to his official lifetime oath to never reveal anything he did or witnessed during the war years and took that knowledge with him when he died. My late mother, Martha Seffer O’Bryon, confirmed that he had been a covert U.S.-government operative, but could give no details. She said he had lost two Jewish friends he was trying to extricate from Germany in a final mission, and that left him unwilling to ever discuss the tragedy with anyone, even her. I can attest that he never responded to my specific questions about his wartime service. Instead he always switched topics to his pre-war adventures in Europe, many of which are reflected in my novels.
His brother, James Edward O’Bryon, had a lifetime career in the Foreign Service both overseas and in Washington. When asked about his recollections of the war years, “Uncle Jim” also declined to comment, suggesting only that I ask my father directly. The reader will recognize here the fictional character of Ed in my novels, Ryan’s older brother.
I revisited Germany and Austria with my father in his final years, hoping that these travels would bring him pleasure. One day I witnessed what was certainly a PTSD episode reflective of the covert life he had led. We were crossing an open field near Salzburg, having finished breakfast with family members at a nearby inn and wishing to take a morning stroll. We always spoke German together when not in the company of others. Suddenly he left the present moment in a horrifying flashback. In his mind he was eluding Nazi pursuers out to kill him, and his normally gentle demeanor turned to ferocious determination. To him I was no longer his son, but rather an SS officer taking him into the field to execute him, and he was not about to let that happen. He tried to reason with me, to convince me that I didn’t need to follow the order. When I sought to calm him, he pushed me aside and made a run for it. The frightening episode was over within a minute or so, leaving him with no memory of what had just occurred.
My father’s favorite pipe tobacco was a distinctive Latakia blend. In the course of writing these novels I have twice found my home office filled with its unmistakable aroma. In one instance, the printed draft on my desk had been turned back some twenty pages from where I had recently left off editing. The manuscript sat open at an earlier chapter about which I had some questions. I sat there dumbfounded, recognizing he wished me to take a closer look at that particular episode inspired by a journal entry. I hope I figured out what he wanted me to revise in relating that detail of his story. I expect to ask him in person someday.
I can’t help but believe he is often watching over my shoulder as I spin the ongoing story of Ryan Leonard Lemmon, and I hope he is enjoying the fictional account inspired by his covert early life.
AND BY THE WAY…
In case you missed its introduction in my previous blog entry, the fifth novel in the Corridor of Darkness series is now available. Crucible of Deceit can be found at www.amazon.com/dp/BOB9QH14LD
Thanks for sharing this Patrick.
Trish and I would love to host you and Dani for dinner soon. Any interest? I’d love our kids (those that currently remain) to see a few more pictures of their great-grandparents as well- especially Gavin.
Hope you are both well.
I knew he was your father. That is some very interesting insight into who he was and what he did
I have no doubt that he is over your shoulder…with you while you write… Thank you so much… sincerely!