Israeli Phantoms were dive-bombing the Sinai desert surrounding him, artillery was smashing alongside his jeep, and so, all hell having broken loose in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, foreign correspondent and story-teller extraordinaire Arnaud de Borchgrave was forced to bolt for whatever cover he could find -- in this case, as he wrote, "a pathetic bush no larger than my head."
Now, there are those who will say that the bush must have been a hedge. Or a giant sequoia. Or . . . well, suffice it to say that friends and close colleagues of De Borchgrave, upon stumbling over the line in Newsweek, roared. One of the best Arnaud stories yet, they called it.
And there are whole magazines more about this ultimate in foreign correspondents, a man who has lived the myth from Rome to Rhodesia, a man who has delighted and annoyed readers through nearly 30 years of revolution, upheaval, talks with kings and commoners and always, without fail, visions of the Great Soviet Threat.
He is among the last of the Cold War jounalists, a man whose news columns have been sprinkled with "I believes." As in a 1972 Newsweek story decrying George McGovern's plan to pull back half the U.S. troops in Europe: "I believe," he wrote, "that such a cutback . . . is fraught with terrible danger."
He still thinks so, but now, in a 1980 novel version of the Great Soviet Threat co-authored with Robert Moss, he's written of Soviet Directorate A, the agency he says is responsible for manipulating the Western press with "disinformation" that discredits American leaders and spreads damaging falsehoods about the United States and Europe.
The book is called "The Spike," newspaper jargon for the instrument on which editors impale a story they dislike, and De Borchgrave says it's terrifically timely now that the Russians have invaded Afghanistan and Americans are held hostage in Iran. It's full of Soviet sexual operatives, Paris orgies, double agents, assassinations, suicides and a young, liberal American journalist named Robert Hockney whom De Borchgrave takes through adventures he says are awfully close to his own.
"Obviously, there's a little bit of me in Robert Hockney," he says crisply and elegantly, holding his cigarette down and cupped, European style. He's on a nationwide tour pushing his book, and is immaculately turned out, charming, civilized, short and tan.
(There are zillions of Arnaud suntan stories. One has him in Florida, in daylong, indoor meetings with Newsweek editors. Worried that he was fading, he crept out one morning at 6:30 with his sun reflector. He was saved. "I'm a sun-worshiper, that's all," he says. "I've been lucky that most of the world's crisis have been in tropical climates.")
He is a U.S. citizen who gave up his Belgian title in 1951 but is still, at 53, called the "short count" by American friends and "Monsieur le Comte" by Brussels maitre d's. As he speaks about his book and weaves through his war stories, he eats a piece of apple pie at the Madison Hotel coffee shop.
This seems ridiculous; somehow, you'd expect him to be consuming esscargots at the Rothchilds'.
Which is where he was on Oct. 6, 1973. Right there, ensconced at Evelyn de Rothschild's grand London home, with nothing for the weekend stay but his blazer and tux. And by God, there on the radio, war was breaking out in the Middle East. What to do?
Dash for the last plane to Benghazi, what else? "When we got on the plane," he recalls, "there were a lot of weeping Egyptians, everybody crying, and no newsmen at all. But as the door was about to close, the BBC crew came aboard and spotted me and said, 'Now we know we've done the right thing.'"
Only problem was, Benghazi was 800 miles from the front.
That one was easy, too. De Borchgrave and the BBC rented cabs for the trek across the desert. And the fare?
"Oh," he replies offhandedly, "it was really quite reasonable. About $400 per cab, I think."
Then there is the tale of Ziare 1978. De Borchgrave, in Brussels this time, heard that European workers were being massacred there and figured, he says, that a rescue operation would be attempted, probably with Belgian and French troops on American planes.
"So I called General Haig on his direct line," he begins, interrupting himself with "That's another thing: I've been collecting confidential phone numbers for years -- and I said to Haig, 'I have information that a rescue operation is going to be mounted with French and Belgian troops. And I want a seat on that plane.'
"And he said to me, 'Arnaud, you'd be the first to know. But I assure you, nothing like that has come across my desk today.'
"Well," continues De Borchgrave, "he called me back the next day and said, "Jesus, were you well-informed.'"
Nevertheless, no airplane seat. But when De Borchgrave got a call at his Brussels hotel from a Belgian intelligence source telling him the plane was leaving in just minutes, at 5 p.m., he:
"Raced into the men's room! Put on my fatigues! [He has 14 different military uniforms hanging in his Geneva closet, he says.] Shouted to the head of the hotel concierges to get me my limo!
"And then I told the guy," continues De Borchgrave, "that there was a $50 tip in it if he could get me there by 5 o'clock, and to go through all the red lights, and to hell with it, I'd pay the tickets."
Once at the airport, he made like a military man and walked aboard the plane. After takeoff, he curled up on some cargo "and pretended to be fast asleep, so nobody would ask me any questions."
And that's how he got there.
How he got to be a foreign correspondent was, first, by running away from school in England at the age of 15 and joining the Royal Navy. You had to be 17 1/2, but his grandmother faked the papers for him. ("She adored me," he explains.) This got him on North Atlantic convoy duty and also got him wounded twice (Normandy and Antwerp).
He wandered all over Europe afterward, happening one day on the offices of the United Press. He became their Belgium bureau manager when he was 21. In 1951, he joined Newsweek and has been there ever since. Now he's on leave until September.
In between, he's been through three marriages. "It's a miracle there haven't been five," he says, pointing out that sprinting toward planes perpetually ready to take off, as well as traveling to an average of two countries a week, is not exactly the stuff wives thrive on.
Another Arnaud story: Twelve years ago, when he was about to marry current wife, Alexandra, he walked into some pre-wedding flower squabble at the East Hill Club in Nassau. He looked around at the squawking and then remarked, loudly, to the father of the bride, "Thank God this only happens to me every 10 years."
This year, he has plenty to say about what he sees as the rapidly advancing Soviet threat.
"It gets bigger and bigger," he explains, "and now they've invaded Afghanistan. Everybody was so surprised. I wasn't surprised at all."
And a little later: "I don't care if people call me Chicken Little," he says, "if they're going to bury their heads in the sand."