It was a beautiful day for a drivce through the scenic Northern Virginia countryside. The driver had no way of knowing that the curves and hills along the road he traveled—U.S. 29, Lee Highway—would one day become a virtual gauntlet of housing developments accompanied by burgeoning commercial sprawl. In June of 1951 all of that was beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
Having left his Washington, DC home at 4100 Nebraska Avenue NW, he proceeded along MacArthur Avenue, then Canal Road, traveling not too far from the familiar restaurants and taverns of Georgetown he had grown to love during his brief sojourn in the United States while serving as First Secretary to the British Embassy and as liaison between the Embassy and America’s intelligence services.
Crossing the Key Bridge he raced south along Lee Highway trying to put sufficient distance between where he had been and where he was going, both geographically and figuratively. Soon Arlington was far behind—Falls Church, too. He wasn’t actually all that sure exactly where he was going. He just knew that he had to find that spot he had scouted out in late March, though the previous trip was in weather not nearly as pleasant as this gorgeous day.
He remembered that there was a left-turn onto a narrow road and then a certain bend of the road somewhere the other side of Fairfax. And there was a fairly large cherry tree a few hundred feet or so from the road. It had been covered with beautiful white blossoms. That was what stood out that day in his mind’s eye. He loved cherry trees. They reminded him of his boyhood days when there was an old hedelfingen cherry tree outside his bedroom window. Once, during a drive around the Shenandoah area over by the Blue Ridge Mountains, he found several dozen such prunus avium trees. But finding one this far from there, a solitary tree eschewing the crowd to live and stand alone, well this was something. Now if he could just find it. It was the perfect spot. In a way, the tree reminded him of himself.
The driver’s mind was racing even faster than the car. Just that morning his world had been turned upside down—no small feat for someone who daily managed to navigate his own personal wilderness of mirrors. There was a meeting in his office, followed by his abrupt announcement, “I think I’ll go home and have a drink …” He did. Then another—a double. But by now the alcohol was barely felt, having been forced from his bloodstream by surging adrenaline. He drove the powerful dark green 1941 Lincoln Continental Convertible sans top and the wind massaged his face, while his usually in-place hair flapped from side to side. The machine’s powerful 12-cylinder engine seemed to be happy to be out on the open road, having sat idle for several weeks since its real owner had boarded the Queen Mary for England.
Finally, after what seemed to be hours, but in fact, less than one, he saw the spot up ahead. It was just as he remembered it. The tree no longer bore the blossoms of spring. Its branches were now abundantly covered with dark, sweet fruit. He guided the large automobile off the road and began to move it toward the site, but was slowed down by the soft earth. Deciding not to chance getting stuck—the last thing he wanted or needed was any other eyes on him—he stopped the car at a point less than 50 feet from the road and went immediately to the boot, smiling at the Americans and their odd word for it—“trunk.”
He reached in and grabbed a large leather bag almost the size of a small suitcase. He knew it as a portmanteau, but his American friends wouldn’t have a clue as to what that meant. It was a Gladstone bag, a very nice one he had acquired years back at a fine leather shop in the Westminster area of London at home. The case had two sections and a place for secrets, of which this man had many. He earnestly hoped he wasn’t seeing the last of it. Then seizing a shovel he had taken from his garage back in the city, he began making his way toward the big tree. Reaching his destination, he looked left and right seeing no one around or on the road. It was a nearly isolated spot. He removed his tweed sport coat, loosened his necktie, rolled up his white shirtsleeves, and finding a spot partially concealed from the road by the tree, he began to dig. He wanted to go down at least four or five—maybe six—feet, creating a hole large enough for the leather satchel.
Not used to this kind of work, he found himself further energized by the digging. Then, sensing he had created a sufficient void, he dropped the shovel, removed his handkerchief and wiped a small amount of sweat from his brow. As he folded the cloth to place back in his pocket his eyes rested on his initials, all four of them, embroidered on it—noting that those same initials were actually also on the leather satchel—H.A.R.P. Reaching for the bag, he wondered if he should try to remove them. But he thought better of it. After all, he was sure to come back to this spot to retrieve what he was burying as soon as—how did the Yanks say it? The coast was clear, that’s it! This was to be a temporary stash; he was sure he’d be working with the contents of the case again very soon.
He placed the satchel in the hole, grabbed the shovel and went to work replacing the soil. Eventually, satisfied that he had buried it well, he picked up his jacket and with shovel in hand he started back to the car. Then he stopped abruptly and reached for a dark cherry from the tree, allowing himself a momentary indulgence. Eating it, he spit out the pit and took another, then another. The burst of flavor triggered his memory and for an instant he was back in England; then he heard his father’s severe voice reprimanding him—his old man at once scared and fascinated him (he had that effect on many people). After a few moments, he went back to the Lincoln and soon he was heading swiftly north on Lee Highway wondering what the next few days held for him. Would he be able to come back soon to this beautiful and quite delicious tree by the road? If not, had he buried all the material safely enough? Had he double-checked everything? For someone used to stealthy work, he found himself very nervous. He was glad to be alone. To engage even in small talk just now, as shaken as he was, would only magnify his problem with stuttering. A problem he could—and did—no doubt blame on dear old Dad.
Of course, he had every reason to be concerned. The news he had received earlier that day was unnerving. “The bird has flown” hadn’t bothered him that much, he was braced for that. But not what followed. The “bird” was a reference to a fellow named Donald MacLean—someone who had been long suspected of being a spy for the Soviets with the code name HOMER. Now came word that MacLean had run. No news there. In fact, that was good news, something the driver himself had helped to arrange. Then he was told, “And what’s worse is that Burgess is gone, too!”
“Burgess?” And he braced himself for the storm certain to come.
Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known to one and all as “Kim,” didn’t have to conjure up feigned surprise at this revelation. Years later he would write that he was shocked. But he knew what was happening and had, in fact, had a hand in it all, though holding out hope that Burgess would stop short and not make life a living hell for his good old friend, Kim. He had given Burgess a message for MacLean—that MI-5 was close to arresting him, believing him to have been passing secrets to the Russians. The message also contained instructions for Burgess. But, frankly, you never knew what Guy was going to do; he was the poster-child for unpredictable and contrary.
Guy Burgess had, in fact, lived at the house on Nebraska Avenue with Philby and his wife. He was now driving Burgess’s Lincoln, his pride and joy purchased just a few months before for the sum of $1,145 from a Virginia dealer. They were known to be friends. Now surely suspicion would be cast on Kim Philby. Was he a spy, as well, the Yanks and Brits would surely wonder? This was what he faced and hoped he would be able to survive. So he needed to get some of his “tools” out of the house. It wasn’t stuff that was easily disposed of, and he was very much hoping he’d have future occasion to use it in America—but for now he had to try to bury it somewhere. Somewhere far enough away, yet close enough to retrieve should the need arise. Sure it would. Sure it would, he tried to tell himself.
Then it hit him—he had forgotten the shovel! But he decided not to return to the scene just yet, the shovel would be there waiting for him when he went back to dig the case back up. Actually, it’d be pretty convenient.
But in fact, Kim Philby would never go back to the big cherry tree for its fruit or the stash buried beneath the shadow of its branches. Within days he too would be on a ship headed home to England, having been unceremoniously and unofficially deported as someone quite unwelcome in the States by the CIA and FBI. J. Edgar Hoover himself had demanded it of the British Embassy, or else things would grow quite cold between the allies. Hoover’s threats were effective. Philby would never again set foot on American soil. And in the fateful year 1963, he would join his comrades in espionage, MacLean and Burgess, in Moscow.
Russia, for whom they all had secretly worked most of their adult lives, would be his home for the rest of his pathetic days. He would live and die as a British pariah, though a Soviet hero—they would even print a postage stamp in his honor. The cause of death would be a decades-long overdose on the drug of deceit.
And he would never know the ultimate fate of the personal treasure he buried that day in the Virginia countryside.