The Cold War holds many secrets. It was a clandestine conflict. It is time to tell some of the stories from that period from 1944 to 1992. This is one of those stories.
I shall forever be grateful to God for the influence of my professors at “në Institutin e Gjuhëve të Huaja për Mprojtje”—the Defense Language Institute, Monterey, California. When one is eighteen years old and selected for top-secret service, the world is your playground—or so one supposes. You see, there was this “small matter” of studying. My study habits were poor, even if my recall was excellent. That one quality, combined with a love of reading, had always held me in good stead. I read as much as I breathed. However, my seat-of-the-pants study approach to Albanian and Balkan language and culture in the context of cryptography “did not cut it” at the prestigious Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Soon, dangerously soon, I was in over my head. “There’s a nice radioman chair in Guam for smarty-pants guys like you! Get with it, Milton, or you will be painting rocks on an island in the Pacific!” Funny. That grumpy senior chief petty officer—they wore beards then—was much wiser than his speech led me first to believe. I thought I was clever enough to wing it. I was mistaken. One man, though, took notice and intervened.
Professor Zef Nekaj (pronounced, Nei-Kai) was an Albanian Catholic. Removed from his classroom by Stalinist thugs in the 1940s, Professor Nekaj served five years of hard labor, supplemented with regular maniacal beatings for refusing to deny Jesus Christ. He would later tell us with stoic devotion when the Communist-Socialist soldiers stormed his classroom with discarded Soviet DP-27 machine guns, he moved not an inch. Indeed, the tall mountain-man-academic continued his thought as he lectured. With the murderous marauders waiting, weapons charged, Professor Nekaj announced the homework for the morrow. The idea of a teacher under siege of evil minions dispatched from the wolf’s lair, dictator-in-the-making Enver Hoxha, assigning readings from classical literature, is a contrast that is at once absurd and spectacularly noble. Only then did that defiant Skanderbeg of letters acknowledge the soldiers. The students never saw their teacher again. Nor did they recite their poems again until 1992.
Zef Nekaj became a prisoner of the Socialist-Stalinists for teaching students history through the artistic senses of writers, from Homer, Milton, and Shakespeare to the great Illyrian writers of their homeland. He was sent to a primitive labor camp in Montenegro, Yugoslavia. There, in that Balkan gulag, this remarkable mountain man with the calloused hands of a farmer moving at the impulse of a disciplined mind of a scholar, embarked on a plan of escape as defiant as his teaching. First, he built a crude boat hidden in the forests high on the cliffs along the Dalmatian coast. He constructed the rudimentary craft under the cover of spruce, pine, and sea-salted darkness. Then, after a year of clandestine working and planning, when the moonlight was in retreat, the underground communication lines had cleared for passage, and the attention of the guards snapped like brittle-cold Slavic twigs beneath the weight of their leaden eyelids, Professor Zef Nekaj walked away from the camp, slipped into the forest, down a cliff, and into the silent sea. No searchlight or even moonlight traced the treacherous crossing of the Adriatic Sea to Italy. No ancient Illyrian merchant ship carrying spices from Lebanon to Rome ever made a more gallant cruise against the mysterious and mercurial sea. As concealed in its landing as it was in its departure, the pine boat came to a halt. Zef Nekaj left the tattered escape vessel at the Italian shore. The untethered boat washed back into the Adriatic Sea with the sand and foam eventually being swallowed whole. The sailor-scholar walked down the shoreline until he found an entrance into the Italian countryside. Zef Nekaj was a prisoner no longer.
From an Albanian expatriate camp in Italy, Nekaj, at length, found passage to America. From the nation’s capital, the Illyrian eventually crosses the continent to California. It was there that the generals and civil servants at the Defense Language Institute had the good sense to recruit him to teach the Albanian language and culture. This enigmatic man, this jocular-stern, farmer-scholar, would go on to teach years of classes of Cold War military and naval intelligence personnel to defy and defeat the Marxist-Leninist-Socialist system that imprisoned his people—and his invalid wife. When her husband, the professor, was arrested Zonja (Mrs.) Nekaj remained in Northern Albania, in their village, in their humble home, and in her wheelchair. Husband and wife would not reunite until 1992. That was three decades away.
I was only one of many linguists or cryptologists who would experience the remarkable gifts and commitment of Zef Nekaj. But I was one. For that, I will always be grateful. That Albanian refugee taught me how to learn. He showed me the wonders of plot and sub-plot, presenting issues and real issues. Professor Nekaj taught me how to express ideas with awe over the priceless value of words. In thinking through my lessons from Dr. Nekaj, I keep thinking that he also taught me to teach. He captivated us with remarkable stories of enduring the nightmarish decades of Communism (often with hilarious physical imitations of foolish Communist guards, bribed with a piece of moldy bread and spoiled jam), and he taught me even more. He taught me how to cherish the freedom from God, not a human government. In education, Dr. Nekaj showed me student-centered teaching. Decades before “competency-based education” and “scaffolding” were “the thing,” Professor Zef Nekaj set similar standards of excellence. “First, you must receive knowledge. I am here to impart that knowledge in every way I can. In the end, you must apply knowledge. I am, then, an observer, a guide.”
Professor Nekaj was both demanding and generous in his teaching methods. Standards were perceived through respect. One stood when he entered the classroom. He never asked for such. Our professor expected it when a student failed a test or “took the bait” in a Socratic encounter in a classroom session. I used to observe the back and forth between Dr. Nekaj and my fellow student with glee. The final checkmate when Nejaj cornered the student with the student’s own thinking, sounded like that downward spiral of noise when one loses to the PacMan machine. Yes, I loved those moments, until I was the student! He watched us chase our tales in circles until he finally stopped the scene. No one ever bested our teacher in the critical thinking match! He didn’t win to outwit us but to instruct us in reasoning. Nor did he see our losses in such word contests with him as a defeat. Rather, our failure in this Socratic string of questions demonstrated to all that we needed to learn. “This will humble you,” he might say, and then break out in an Albanian folk dance to bring laughter to the humbled student (and the rest of the class). Once an administrator came into the classroom as we were all dancing a Northern Albanian folk dance! “What’s the occasion?” the administrator asked. Someone would reply, “Mr. Milton got whipped by Dr. Nekaj!” The poor civil servant seemed to scratch his head and look over at Professor Nekaj, who dropped his chin while looking sheepishly at the administrator. “Sir,” whispered Zef Nekaj, as if caught with his hand in a cookie jar, “It is my fault. Poor Mr. Milton is learning things the hard way, but not the bad way. We were just celebrating his progress.” Then, the administrator and all of us let out a laugh! This was teaching and learning at a remarkably high level. No one wanted to leave.
Yet, a darker spirit brooded beneath the dance of the “Jester.” If Professor Nekaj poured his considerable creativity and energy into teaching the pathway to one’s advancement and guiding one to a passageway of deeper learning, and that student flinch? If the student failed to see the open door of learning and walk through it, then the climate changed like a storm brewing over Shkodra. No sin seemed more heinous that failing to seize the moment to learn. The Albanian professor took it personally. Any student who stutter-stepped after being allowed to saunter through the golden palace of knowledge, a sacred mountain to our Northern Albanian teacher, invariably regretted the misstep. Laziness, inattention, or his perception of students’ disrespect for education could jettison this tenacious pedagogue into a fierce rage. I have seen him erupt in righteous indignation. I once thought I saw him leave the class near tears. I will never forget how I felt. “This man is weeping because his students wasted the opportunity to learn.” What deep river ran beneath the soul of this man?
No student—an Airman, “Coastie,” CIA operations officer, FBI agent, Marine, Sailor, State Department field officer, Soldier, Sailor, or special-assignment Merchant Mariner—would ever remain behind unless they were fearful of crossing the sea that leads to the liberty of learning. The Balkan baron of his “million-acre classroom of the mind” labored until all students achieved the standard. One did not fail his classes. One repeated the pathway until the standards were met. If there was a failure, it was certain that it was negligence to walk through the open door of learning.
On most early mornings in 1976, I could be found walking down from the towering mount, the Presidio, which guards old Monterey. In only a few minutes from my barracks, I was there: the famous imperial blue bay before me, breathing in the sweet and salty air—pine tar and cypress scent, trawlers’ diesel and fish, always fish, and the soul-warming aroma of bread baking in the giant old black iron ovens. I felt that I was in Steinbeck’s novels as I strolled down Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf. Soon, I was ritually tearing off steaming shreds of freshly baked sourdough bread, soaking in Mr. Gennesse’s generous scoops of deep-yellow Jersey butterfat, and crouched on a seaweed-slick boulder. I took coffee and bread from that perch while watching the playful otters beneath Fisherman’s Wharf. That was my favorite “thinking place” during those days. Thoughts often turned to a question born out of yesterday’s experiences: “Where will this magnificent curator of ideas take us today?” I can never erase the pure joy of anticipation of those unforgettable halcyon hours. His lesson plan must have contained only one ink-smeared line: “Let them experience Albania.” The thing is, Dr. Nakaj’s lesson planner notes are an unknown entity. Yet, his lessons were renowned. What would follow would be an indelible three-hour, one-person living history festival. His goals of imparting vocabulary, conjugating verbs, declining nouns, and teaching art and literature, history, and politics, were accomplished with a collection of characters—Cold War dictators, an Illyrian widow, English spies, Italian Fascist soldiers, Nazi goons, Greek pirates, spring mountain weddings, and community harvests. He would act like a little dog jumping to get some cake at that northern Albanian wedding. In that way, we learned several vocabulary words, “Dog, wedding, jump,” and so forth. That was his method. This one life-loving, imaginative, Albanian mountain teacher-man brought the characters to life. He used a veritable magician’s mystery bag of national costumes, impromptu pantomime, facial expressions, voices, and stories—oh, the stories! —to host his amazing adventures of learning. Yet, the end was never in question. He wanted to glory in your accomplishments.
I graduated from the Defense Language Institute in September 1977. Dr. Nekaj pulled me aside before graduation exercises. I had been his project. He had carved a unique individual out of the roughhewn stone I presented. Perhaps, one should not say “unique,” suggesting that I was his only project. There were many who were transformed by this man. Dr. Nekay was a sort of Professor Henry Higgins, and we were each Eliza in our way. However, unlike Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Dr. Nekaj went about his transformative work with no interest in self-aggrandizement. He was laser-focused on his students inside and outside of the classroom (He once showed up at my door, when I have moved off-base, carrying the pieces of a bed frame: “I heard you were sleeping on the floor; How will you learn with no sleep?”). I have never known a more student-centered instructor. Standing tall and as gangly as Abe Lincoln, Dr. Nekaj leaned in to whisper his charge to me (I suspect that he repeated a personalized version of the charge to each of his students): “Learning is a privilege. It is nothing short of a gift from God. A course conclusion is never a terminal degree. A degree—any degree—is merely a ‘license to learn.’” I couldn’t help it. I teared up. “Dr. Nekaj, I will miss you.”
He frowned at the heavy pathos of the moment. His expression was not a portrait of displeasure but empathy, empathy with gratitude. He then suddenly spun on his heels, he laughed that kind of laugh that starts a party on a gray day, a “happy-to-be-alive laugh,” and he began to dance an Albanian mountain “jig.” This was an intuitive response to parting, sadness, or heaviness of spirit. I am sure today as I was then: my professor was dancing to replace my tears with my laughter. It worked. And that is how we parted. And that is how I remember the greatest teacher I have ever known.
One day I went to Albania. The Cold War was thawing. Frightened yet courageous former detainees (called “citizens” in the cruelest irony) were coming out of the darkness of a long, cruel, and bloody winter called Socialism, and Communism. I was there as those people emerged from the horrors of that system. In the years since I studied under my esteemed professor, God had called me to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ to those who were in spiritual darkness. By His grace, I was able to preach that Message of Christ to souls coming out into the light from the darkness of an “evil empire,” a physical, dictatorial nightmare. I preached in the language, with the proper dialect, given to me by the teacher, the persecuted Albanian who would not leave his students until they “had their homework for tomorrow.” I believe the lesson he imparted was somehow fulfilled in those days.
There were some American, British, and Allied troops who never returned. Their stories are still in files, still waiting for the light of truth, the truth that the Cold War was, well, it was just a war.
There are thousands of former top-secret “spooks” who were on duty day and night 24/7/365 from the end of WWII until the statue of Enver Hoxha fell in Skanderbeg Square in Tirana, Albania. Some Veterans have stories they can tell. Most will stay quiet. There were some American troops and Allies who never returned. Their stories are still in files, still waiting for the light of truth, the truth that the Cold War was, well, it was just a war.
This article is dedicated to Cold War Veterans, and, especially to fellow intelligence personnel who lived and died to destroy the hideous walls that held humans captive and to shred the inhumane iron curtains that denied divinely-endowed liberty to all of God’s children. Memento semper.
Learn more about the Cold War.
Special thanks to the Miller Center, UVA.
Angela Timpson says
Thank you for sharing your story. There is so much we can all learn about our teachers, who also become our mentors. What we gain along the way enlightens and encourages us along life’s journey. What would you say is the one thing you have applied to your life, which Dr. Nekaj taught you that keeps you going strong?
Dr. Michael Milton says
Thank you, Angela. I would say that the one greatest thing he taught was the sanctity of teaching and learning. He treated the classroom as a sanctuary. Equal with that, though, was his ability to adapt his teaching to the student and not the other way around. The Lord bless you!
Berti Kona says
Thank you for this wonderful article. I have shared it with all of my friends in Albania. Beautifully written. What an amazing teacher you had. I had one just like that one in highschool for the Albanian literature. He also was a northern Catholic. Amazing experience. Blessings
Dr. Michael Milton says
So GREAT to hear from my beloved brother. We are proud of you in the Lord. God bless you. Give my love to your wife.