The Autobiography Of BS: How I Spied Against Brazil
To commemorate the sudden departure of Marcelo de Vasconcello’s Illustrated History of the Brazilian Car, I’ll resurrect The Autobiography Of BS© – just for this one time, honest. It only tangentially has to do with cars, but a lot with Brazil. As all the other stories, the story is true. Even the name wasn’t changed. Hans-Peter is alive and well. He eluded the Brazilian DOI-CODI (their secret police) after I got him into hot water. He lives the good life, somewhere in Europe.
In the 70s, I started my career in advertising at GGK, one of the hottest shops in Europe. Our biggest client was Volkswagen and that client was mine. At that time, Volkswagen was on the verge of bankruptcy, the world went from one oil crisis to the next, and the end of the automobile was predicted by all. “When the liter Benzin will hit one Deutschmark, people will stop driving,” was the prediction by many experts, and everybody had bought into it. The other guys in the agency fled to safe accounts, such as alcohol and cigarettes, and I could take over Volkswagen.
One of the Art Directors I worked with was Hans-Peter Weiss. I made him a target of Brazil’s secret police.
He was a flamboyant man from Switzerland. He was one of my collection of friends who was born “comfortable”, as the saying goes. His father had owned a company that made high precision spindle motors in Switzerland, and for reasons that were clear to me immediately, but totally alien to Hans-Peter (or “Hanspi” as his friends and many girlfriends called him ), the father had deemed Hanspi unfit to bear the responsibilities the management of a Swiss maker of high precision spindle motors entails. The father had willed the company to Hanspi’s brother. There was enough left for Hanspi’s discerning lifestyle. (For non-Swiss: “Hanspi” is pronounced as “Hanspee”, but has nothing to do with it.)
Hanspi had a small lisp. We never figured out whether it was a speech impediment, or the result of his Swiss extraction. According to lore, the Swiss had been expulsed from Germany due to a genetic speech impediment, so Hanspi did not stand out a lot. When he said, “My name is Hanzzzzsssssspee”, it was advisable though to stand not all too close to him, unless you had a towel.
Hanspi was the best dressed man in the agency. Not that it was a complicated goal to reach: It was the 70s, and we all looked like we would work for the Pick-N-Pull frequented by Murilee. Hanspi on the other hand could have modeled for CQ.
He was involved in many romances, and many made him sad. Once in a while, he used to announce: “I’m depressed. I’ll go to Selbach and buy a new Armani.” Selbach was the fanciest men’s store in Düsseldorf, and Armani was a brand we had heard about. Our office suits had fading labels that said “Levi’s” or “Wrangler”.
When Hanspi came back, I asked him: “Do you feel better now?” Whereupon Hanspi answered: “Nope. But I have a new Armani.”
Everybody loved Hanspi. The women loved him. The clients loved him. Being entertained by Hanspi was highly entertaining. He had eclectic tastes, and the biggest T&E bills of the agency. But one day, it came to an end.
“I’m going to Sao Paulo,” Hanspi announced. We were thick with Volkswagen at the time. Volkswagen had gone to Brazil early, in 1953. Volkswagen became famous for witty advertising much later, end of the 60s. They had asked us to open shop in Brazil, and so GGK Sao Paulo was born, our first agency outside of Europe.
GGK Sao Paulo did all of the famous Volkswagen ads of Brazil in the 70s, and most were Hanspi’s work.
We also had the Swissair account, which helped with the obscene travel expenses between Europe and Brazil. The distance between Zurich and Rio was too far at the time, and the plane had to make a fuel stop in Dakar, Africa. That fuel stop sometimes turned into an overnight stopover in Dakar, and that overnight stopover, but I digress …
One day, my phone rang in Düsseldorf. It was a guy with a thick Swiss accent. He identified himself as a friend of Hanspi. “Can you tell Hanspi to remove his motorcycle from my barn, please? I am selling the barn and if he won’t remove the motorcycle, the new owner will get it.” I did not know what he was talking about, but I knew the motorcycle.
It was a huge red Indian Chief. I wasn’t into motorcycles, so I can’t tell you which one, but Indian Chief connoisseurs possibly can identify it from the picture, taken about ten years after the drama that will shortly unfold.
Hanspi had terrorized Düsseldorf with the monster, and once it nearly killed him. With the usual bottle or two of the finest French vintage in him, his skin protected by nothing more than the cashmere of a new Armani, Hanspi lost control of the beast and skidded halfway down the Grafenberg in Düsseldorf, with a red Indian on top of him. He did not hurt his face, and the ladies could run their delicate fingers down the scars the accident had left the length of his body.
That had been long ago, Hanspi was in Sao Paulo now, and the meticulously restored Indian was in a barn in Switzerland, surrounded by Swiss peasants.
I went down to the little room behind the reception and sat down at the Teletype. At that time, one did not make phone calls between Europe and Brazil. It would have bankrupted the company. One sent telexes. Jeannou, our receptionist who could charm the pants off any customer with her French accent and petite figure, and I were the only ones who could operate the monster. Actually, it wasn’t a Teletype, it was a Siemens Fernschreiber that sent messages at the breathtaking speed of 50 bits per second, or 50 Baud.
I dialed GGK Sao Paulo, and when the other machine answered, I typed: “TO HANSPI FROM BERTEL YOUR FRIEND FROM SWITZERLAND SAYS TO REMOVE MOTORCYCLE FROM BARN BARN BEING SOLD MOTORCYCLE IN DANGER OF GOING TO NEW OWNER IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED RESPOND”.
I hit the bell. You could get the other party’s attention by hitting the bell. After a few minutes, the machine came back to life and said “MOMBI” – which was Fernschreiber-German for “MOMENT BITTE”. A few minutes later, the machine woke up again, and rattled “TO BERTEL FROM HANSPI MOTORCYCLE TO BE PICKED UP ASAP BY OTHER FRIEND TELL FRIEND ONE TO RELEASE MOTORCYCLE TO FRIEND TWO GGK SAO PAULO OUT.”
I told the guy in Switzerland and forgot the matter. A few weeks later, a good looking as always Hanspi stood in the door, dropped some expensive luggage on the floor and plopped in a chair in my Düsseldorf office. He looked rested, he must have had a stopover in Dakar.
“Looking good as always, Hanspi,” I said.
“Gruusig Arschloch,” Hanspi said in finest Swiss German, having passed through Switzerland an hour ago. “You nearly had me arrested. You and especially I are lucky I’m here.”
“Me? When? Where? How? I didn’t do anything.”
Hanspi pulled a Cohiba out of its leather etui, and decapitated it with a miniature guillotine. He lit the Cuban cigar carefully with an out-sized match, and began to relate the harrowing story.
A few days after I had sat down at the Fernschreiber, a posse of men in what Hanspi described as “badly fitting suits” rang the bell at the villa in Sao Paulo that acted as our office. They flashed cards that identified them as members of the “Destacamento de Operações de Informações – Centro de Operações de Defesa Interna”, also known as DOI-CODI, to the frightened receptionist, and demanded to see the Managing Director and a “senhor HANSPI.”
This was, readers of Marcelo’s history will remember, the dark days of military dictatorship in Brazil, and the DOI-CODI was the regime’s infamous secret police.
“Did you receive a telex from a city called Dusseldorf last week?”
“We receive them often.”
“A message purportedly about a motorcycle?”
“That was me,” Hanspi volunteered.
“And you are, Senhor?”
“The message was to a Senhor Hanspi.”
“That is me.”
“You are using an alias?”
“It is my first name.”
“This here says your Christian names are Hans-Peter,” the secret policeman said and tapped the two Swiss passports he had collected.
Before Hanspi could explain, the secret agent thundered: “Senhores, you are aware that the use of code in communication, especially with foreign countries, is a serious offense against Brazilian law. Swiss companies are not exempt. This will have consequences.”
“We would never do that …”
“And what is this?” the DOI-CODI agent said with a stern face and dropped the perforated copy of a telex on the table.
Hanspi studied it for a minute and said:
“This is a message about my motorcycle. See, my motorcycle is in a barn in Switzerland …”
“Do we look like fools?” barked the agent. “Do we have to continue this at Rua Tutoia?”
Rua Tutoia was their infamous “downtown.”
“Sir, as the message says, my motorcycle is in a barn…”
“Are you trying to tell me that this gibberish about a barn and a friend and a motorcycle is a plain-text message? This is commercial code! You will hand over the code-book immediately. You will decipher this message. Anything else depends on its contents and your cooperation!”
Hanspi had to produce photographs of a red Indian (motorcycle) leaning against a barn with the Swiss alps in the background, the Swiss ambassador had to intervene and vouch that Mr. Weiss indeed owns said motorcycle, and that the message may sound odd, but that it is genuine and harmless and not in violation of the laws of the Brazilian government, with which the Swiss government always had cordial relations.
A year later, GGK Sao Paulo lost the Volkswagen account to an agency belonging to Brazil’s communication giant Globo, which was infamous for its connections with the military regime. Whether the loss had anything to do with the red motorcycle, we will never know.
Hanspi went to work at our agency in New York, where he stunned the SOHO gliterati with his big breasted Brazilian import and the red Indian, that found its final resting place as a piece of art in Hanspi’s penthouse loft at West Broadway and Spring in Manhattan, a place that became famous as a background for lavish parties.
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