Sometime around age fifty I felt the world beginning to pass me by.
Technology was the catalyst. Facebook. Twitter. I wanted no part of them. The same, later, for Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok. I would catch my daughter or her boyfriend, heads down, thumbs flying, even as I was trying to engage them in conversation. They were in a different world, one I was not even interested in visiting.
Naturally, I thought of my own father. As personal computers became ubiquitous in his final decades, he assiduously avoided them. He never used one, not once. I made my effort to convince him otherwise. I tried to show him how Google could take him, virtually, to all those corners of the world that fascinated him, how it could bring him new information that so delighted him. He wasn’t swayed. His antipathy to the machine doused any spark of curiosity before it could alight.
I, I realized, was headed down the same path. Thirty years his junior, I was already giving up on a world changing beneath my feet. I had opted off the moving sidewalk, would spend my next score years and ten watching the world to hustle past me. The passivity of my resignation, so early in middle age, was disconcerting.
How universal is this conservatism of age? Does anyone stay fresh in the second half of a life? Is it possible to escape the tyranny of our coming-of-age years on our understanding of the world?
Miss Aggie Meyer came of age in the early decades of the twentieth century when there were no planes, few cars, and little electricity. The cultural fruits of mass production and mass consumption were still but a gleam in Henry Ford’s eye.
Governmental intelligence-gathering was unheard of, too, but this was about to change. War came for the Americans in 1917, and Miss Aggie, 29-years-old, enlisted in the Navy in 1918, among the first women to do so. Her assignment to the Code and Signal Section of the Director of Naval Communications led to a lifetime career just then coming into being: cryptanalyst.
Herbert Yardley argued successfully for continued intelligence-gathering after the war, and his so-called Black Chamber decrypted foreign diplomatic communication throughout the 1920s. At the same time, both the Army and Navy maintained their own cryptologic departments. William Friedman turned the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service into the crack operation that would eventually crack the Japanese PURPLE cipher machine. The Navy’s was always a smaller operation. Miss Aggie began work in 1919 as a stenographer before working up to the lofty title of clerk.
She did more than type and file and take shorthand. Meyer studied the Navy’s crypto-systems for the purpose of improving their security. Her studies in math, physics, music, and foreign languages at Ohio State University provided a strong foundation for this work. But it was her innate ability that carried her ahead. Her superiors recognized that this skinny, thirty-something had what Yardley termed “cipher brains,” and they put her to work on whatever she could handle. [Yardley 120-121] She handled more than most of men who supervised her. In 1921 she solved Edward Hebern’s first-of-its-kind rotor cipher machine, much to the inventor’s chagrin. He hired her to consult for his Hebern Electric Code Company in 1923. She resigned from the Navy, knowing she could advance only so far as a civilian and a woman within its hidebound system.
For a variety of reasons, Hebern’s cipher business didn’t take off, and the now-married Agnes Driscoll returned to the Navy in mid-1924. She worked under and alongside a series of men who would go on to achieve cryptologic greatness in the war, at Midway and beyond. As Robert Hanyok wrote of her years in OP-20-G in the 1920s and 1930s, “Agnes Driscoll would teach an entire generation of Navy cryptologists whose later exploits would influence the outcome of the Pacific theater during WWII.” [Hanyok 3] Among them:
Captain Laurance Safford, who wrote, “Mrs. Driscoll got the first break [on the Japanese Red code book], as usual.”
Commander Joe Rochefort: “When I first came in contact with Mrs. Driscoll in 1925 in Washington, she was exceptionally capable, very capable. I considered her sort of a teacher to me.”
Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton: “She not only trained most of the leading cryptanalysts of World War II, but they were all agreed that none exceeded her gifted accomplishments in the business. …In the Navy, she was without peer as a cryptanalyst.”
And Captain Thomas Dyer: “…absolutely brilliant…” [Johnson 38]
Agnes Meyer Driscoll had both the skill and the patience to endure what David Kahn has called “perhaps the most excruciating, exasperating, agonizing mental process known to man.” [Kahn 21] Even William Friedman, considered by most to be America’s greatest cryptologist, admitted quavering at the task: “The work is so hard and the results so very, very meagre. Sometimes I fear I haven’t got it in me at all.” [Fagone 103] There is no evidence that Mrs. Driscoll ever suffered similar self-doubt. As cipher machines gained rotors and the super-encipherments produced ever more random cryptograms, Driscoll plugged away with pencil-and-eraser, magnifying glass, and boxes and boxes of index cards.
Though she had helped co-invent an early cipher machine and consulted with Hebern in the development of a second, for the most part Driscoll eschewed their use in decryption. This proved a hindrance. She didn’t adapt as the world of decryption changed around her. As Kevin Wade Johnson explained in the closest thing we have to a biography on Driscoll: “A catalog attack, with hundreds or thousands of possibilities to search for by hand, was a practical method with the cryptosystems Driscoll was used to [in the 1920s and early 1930s]. But searching for millions of possibilities would make timely exploitation impossible.” [Johnson 26]
Frank Raven, her subordinate–and most vocal critic–during her final years at OP-20-G, said her method was “a trial of exhaustion. …She can’t test one crib, one message in the lifetime of the war.” [Ibid] A less biased cryptanalyst still believed her work “would take only a fraction of the time if she would use and rely on machine support. But it was her apparent belief that there was no substitute for hard copy traffic, and she was supplied with endless boxes full of it to use for her analysis.” [Johnson 33] Driscoll didn’t abjure all machine assistance, but it seems inescapable that she resisted the advent of proto-computers and clung perhaps too tenaciously to the time and place of her original successes.
There is another factor in her story that needs to be considered. In 1937, at age 48, she suffered a devastating automobile accident that some said adversely affected her personality. They called her a “hag,” a “witch,” and “very secretive.” Yet there were others who insisted she returned to work months later “herself in every respect.” [Johnson 21, 22] Even so, it seems likely that there was at least some crotchetiness beginning by late-middle age.
No one called Eddie Rickenbacker a hag, but they did call him an “s.o.b.” [Lewis 448] Crotchety, yes, and a Jeremiah, too. He was aggressive in his conservativism. His leadership style has been described as “authoritarian.” [Lewis 525] Booton Herndon, the ghostwriter for his autobiography, who for two years spent more time with the aging ace than anyone else, had these not-very-complimentary words to say about his subject: “He is a competitive and aggressive individual who occasionally flies off the handle into bursts of hysterical fury. He is an egomaniac who considers most of us mortals to be beneath him and he doesn’t hide it….” [Lewis 544] There is evidence that the younger Rickenbacker, aged 25 to 40, could rub people the wrong way, sometimes. But no one made so categorical a judgment as Herndon did about the 74-year-old.
Does age sour us?
It is interesting to note that devastating accidents served as pivots in both Driscoll’s and Rickenbacker’s lives, for each on either side of age 50. In Rickenbacker’s case, he suffered two such near-death experiences almost back to back. In the second, adrift in a lifeboat for 23 days on the Pacific, he browbeat his fellow crew members into staying alive. They remembered him as “the meanest, most cantankerous so-and-so that ever lived” and “confessed that they swore an oath to live for the sheer pleasure of burying [him] at sea.” [Rickenbacker 1943, 53] Drawing their ire on himself, Rickenbacker felt he was giving the men energy to survive, the will to live. This was a revelation to him, and he used the same approach in his public life thereafter. If he could inspire his countrymen’s anger, he could wake them up to the dangers of communism and give the country the will to defeat it.
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that Rickenbacker was no Luddite. His conservatism was not the kind that resisted technological change. Remember, he had embraced the automobile and aeroplane just as they appeared on the scene, just as he was coming of age. Welcoming new technology became a defining aspect of his person that he carried with him into old age. New ideas about his country, its government and political economy? Not so much.
So far I have mere anecdotal evidence, a study with an n of two. (Though I can double it by including Rose Wilder and her more famous mother, Laura Ingalls.) My father, while phobic on digital technology (and many other kinds), never approached anything like crotchety or reactionary. He became “set in his ways,” as he sometimes said, and my own are starting to fix in place, too. My wife has called me out on a certain inflexibility. Not in my political views: I remain staunchly open-minded (oxymoron intended). But in the ways of doing or thinking about the small things of life. Boy, can I get exercised over my own and other’s micro-transgressions!
Look out, Eddie. Look out, Aggie. Here I come!
Kahn, David. The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1967.
Fagone, Jason. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: a True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.
Hanyok, Robert. “Still Desperately Seeking ‘Miss Agnes,'” NCVA Cryptolog, fall 1997: 3,22-23.
Johnson, Kevin Wade. The Neglected Giant: Agnes Meyer Driscoll. Ft. Meade: Center for Cryptologic History (NSA), 2015.
Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: an American hero in the twentieth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
“Remembering Navy Cryptanalyst, Mrs. Agnes Meyer Driscoll.” Station Hypo. July 24, 2017. https://stationhypo.com/2017/07/24/remembering-navy-cryptanalyst-mrs-agnes-meyer-driscoll/ [All images of Agnes Meyer Driscoll]