When a bunch of 20-year-olds live next to one another in close quarters, mischief will invariably appear on the scene.  In the famous Great Battle of the Dorm, tear gas became the predominant weapon.  For us chemistry students, making this kind of odious substance was a breeze. There are many chemical compounds that will make one’s eyes tear up, but the easiest to manufacture is bromoacetone.  All it takes is a few drops of bromine mixed with a small amount of acetone, and the wicked deed is done.

During the Great Battle, the warring parties came up with all kinds of creative ways to use this “weapon”.  I remember two of those tricks: The first one involved a syringe with which we injected the poison through a keyhole.  The other one was a harbinger of things to come in my life.  We sent an innocent “undercover” agent (sometimes a girl) into the target room.  That agent would, when unobserved for a moment, place a rag drenched with the tear gas behind the radiator and then quickly excuse herself.  The rest of us would surreptitiously peek through slightly opened doors as the victims spilled out, one by one, into the long hallway that connected all rooms.

However, when a small group of us took the show public, we tempted fate. Our target was the local ice cream parlor where we positioned ourselves at a table near the exit and placed a few drops of bromoacetone on a saucer.  For quite some time, absolutely nothing happened. Disappointed in the failure of this daring experiment, we were just about ready to leave the place, when we noticed that some of the folks in the back of the room started rubbing their eyes.  A few minutes later, the customers at the far end of the room left the premises; and from that point on the entire ice cream parlor emptied out slowly – back to front.  The explanation for this counter-intuitive progression is that the rather volatile bromoacetone had evaporated, moved to the ceiling, traveled to the back of the room and then descended on the unsuspecting patrons.

When the four of us realized that we had created a public disturbance in a country where such behavior was subject to punishment amounting to more than just a slap on the wrist, we grabbed the evidentiary saucer and hastily left the scene. If discovered by authorities, we would have at least received a reprimand from the university but most likely also spend a night in a jail cell for a civil offense.

This foolish prank could have made a major dent in what was a stellar career ahead of me.  In hindsight, the path of my life has often been redirected by small incidents with big consequences.   Think back about your life – I am sure you can find a few of those yourself.  And if so, what does that say for one’s ability to devise a master plan for one’s life?


  1. Just started reading your book, going through the harsh childhood years in post-war East Germany. Definitely a place and time that defines a person. Great reading. Thanks for sharing your fascinating story and keep this blog going with its nice stories and opinions.

      • Please do keep that brain in condition! Loved your Spymuseum interview earlier this year and your bits on radiograms that I’ll probably also find in the book. Check my pages to revisit some old tricks of the trade like one time pads (also Soviet and HvA), numbers stations and SIGINT 😉

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