05/17/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT
It is April in Tel Aviv, and Israel is waking to a rumor of war: Israeli troops will soon invade Lebanon. Michael Gurdus stretches, groans and rises reluctantly from the warm bed in his four-room apartment. He gropes his way to the bathroom, then to the room that serves as his studio. Settling into the comfortable swivel chair that faces his arsenal of radio receivers, Gurdus is just in time to catch the 6:15 report of the Voice of Lebanon, the broadcast outlet of the Christian Phalangists.
"...Syrian troops...north of the Litani River...preparing to resist the pending Israeli invasion..." comes the crackling transmission in Arabic. Suddenly fully alert, Gurdus claps on earphones and begins to record. "...the coastal road has been closed to traffic to clear the way for PLO tanks en route to the south..."
Gurdus dials Kol Israel, the national radio network for which he works, and relays the information on troop movements. Then he records a short commentary for the 7:10 a.m. news magazine before heading to the kitchen for coffee. Later he changes into jeans, a sweater and tennis shoes and settles in for another 16 hours of broadcasts from Lebanon and neighboring Syria.
The crisis soon passes, if only for a moment, yet Gurdus' eavesdropping vigil continues. While other newsmen prowl the globe in their quest for exclusives, Gurdus, 37, keeps his ear to the airwaves. As a British fleet prepares for an assault on the Falkland Islands, ABC hires him to follow its progress. Mickey says he'll do his best, but British and Argentine communications remain tantalizingly out of range of his new high-powered rooftop antenna.
Such gaps in Mickey's efficiency are mere punctuation to his startling successes. In July 1974 President Makarios of Cyprus had been deposed in a coup and was presumed dead. Then Gurdus picked up a faint signal from a small Cypriot town on the Mediterranean. It was Makarios himself, alive and pleading for help. Mickey broadcast the news, and British troops rescued the President, who later credited Gurdus with saving his life.
In October 1977 a Lufthansa flight from Majorca to Frankfurt was hijacked by terrorists. Gurdus, who had locked into frequencies being used by the hijacked plane and a pursuing planeload of West German commandos, monitored the stunning rescue at Mogadishu, Somalia. Three years later, routinely scanning Middle East air frequencies in the early days of the war between Iran and Iraq, he discovered a surprising pattern of flights between Iran and Libya. After several days he announced to the world the inescapable conclusion: that Libya had broken with other Arab nations and was resupplying Iran. The next day Baghdad severed diplomatic relations with Tripoli.
These and similar newsbreaks have made Gurdus a minor celebrity. Correspondents from all over the world flock to Mickey's apartment during a crisis, while in Israel a word has been coined to describe him. Kashaveynu—a combination of "our listener" and "our correspondent"—has become part of the Hebrew lexicon. Recently Gurdus signed with a Hollywood agent who hopes to promote a TV movie about Mickey's career.
All this is heady stuff, but for Gurdus the real thrill lies elsewhere. "You sit in your apartment and you have the whole world in the palm of your hand," he says. "For news of certain events, I was the only source anywhere. Not only that, but my reporting had an effect. That is a very exciting thing."
Less enthralling is the time he spends between stories, sifting through static and pointless radio babble. The life Gurdus has chosen and the career he has crafted—often indistinguishable one from the other—are the hallmarks of what is literally a signal obsession. His radio room is his sanctuary. Situated at the rear of his second-floor apartment on Chen Boulevard, it opens onto a sun-drenched balcony in summer but remains shuttered most of the year. An electric heater is kept running even in mild weather ("I hate the cold," says Mickey), and the walls of the 12-by-10-foot chamber are plastered with aircraft and spacecraft insignia. A large Sony color TV is wired to his rooftop aerial, which on some days can pull in programming from as far as the Soviet Union. On a right-angled desk that runs the length of two walls are a bank of short-, medium-and long-range radio receivers, a computerized scanner that continually monitors 20 Middle Eastern and East European frequencies, several tape recorders and a pair of amplifiers.
Finally there is Gurdus himself, con versant in seven languages, dialing, tuning, adjusting, listening, a virtuoso with a world at his fingertips. Inevitably, Mickey spends most of every day in his room, wolfing a sandwich for lunch. Dinner might be a frozen falafel with french fries, courtesy of his live-in fiancée, Bila Yudelewich, 27. He enjoys the beach in summer, but dislikes going to movies and concerts, and takes along a portable receiver when he goes out to dinner. He can talk by intercom to his mother, who lives one flight down. For relaxation, he watches American situation comedies on Jordanian or Syrian television.
After 20 years of absorption in radio, Gurdus rarely twists a dial at random. Beginning when he was a high school kid fiddling with a primitive receiver, he has catalogued thousands of frequency designations and knows how to lock into anything from Air Force One to an Iraqi tank commander on the Iranian front. "I have everything," he says proudly. "The International Red Cross, the United Nations, U.S. submarines, all the airlines. I also have code names—'Crown' is the White House communications center, 'Acrobat' is Andrews Air Force Base, 'Alligator' and 'Ice Skate' are AWACS planes in Saudi Arabia..."
Surprisingly, some of the most sensitive conversations are transmitted uncoded. Gurdus once overheard the complete security blueprint for a visit to the Vatican by President Lyndon Johnson. In 1974 he recorded Alexander Haig, aboard Air Force One, ordering a White House aide not to release certain Watergate tapes. "Occasionally I've tuned in on diplomatic decisions being made in other countries which affect Israel," he says, but he balks at the suggestion that he is in a unique position to help out his government. "I never do intelligence work. I think it is a betrayal of journalism," he insists. He concedes, however, that he discusses sensitive information with his journalistic colleagues and assumes that it is often passed on.
Gurdus has reason to be wary of telling everything he hears. He knew in advance of the 1977 commando raid at Mogadishu but asked Kol Israel to hold the story. When an editor ignored his request, Gurdus spent a tense five hours fearing that his information might have jeopardized the hostages. Two years ago, when Gurdus revealed that Egypt and Bahrain had cooperated in the abortive U.S. hostage rescue mission to Iran, the American government filed a protest with Israel, accusing Gurdus of violating an international convention against electronic snooping. Afterward, as a precaution, he and Israeli radio-TV chief Tommy Lapid established a procedure whereby all questionable items go directly through Lapid, relieving Gurdus of final responsibility for what is broadcast. "Mickey is a unique institution," Lapid says. "We need to protect his right to continue what he's doing."
Mickey's uniqueness, in fact, is a legacy of his father, Nathan. Born in Poland with a crippling childhood disease that confined him to a wheelchair, Nathan Gurdus nonetheless chose journalism as a career, pioneering the technique of monitoring news by radio as early as 1925. Settling in Tel Aviv after fleeing Warsaw with his wife, Irene, in 1939, he settled in the house on Chen Boulevard where Mickey was born in 1944. By then Nathan had become involved with the Irgun, the anti-British extremist group, which once stashed the proceeds from a million-pound bank robbery in the Gurduses' kitchen cupboard.
After the creation of Israel in 1948, Nathan Gurdus became correspondent for Agence France-Presse, the French wire service. "Mickey grew up in an atmosphere of excitement," says his mother, "full of journalists, diplomats coming to consult his father, the telex and radios working day and night." Through it all, the relationship between father and child was deep and symbiotic, though their personalities were starkly contrasting. Whereas Nathan Gurdus was worldly, dynamic and intellectual, Mickey was introverted, sensitive and uninspired academically. He was interested primarily in soccer, handball and the intricacies of shortwave reception. "I was my father's legs," says Mickey. "He was my teacher."
The elder Gurdus was also severely afflicted with emphysema. In 1972, after years of exhausting ill health, Nathan Gurdus died suddenly one afternoon in his son's arms. Mickey was devastated. "We were very close," he recalls. "Too close. So much of my life was involved in taking care of him and working with him, and suddenly I found myself alone."
Keeping his pain to himself, Mickey retreated to his radio room and poured himself into his work. "I had to prove myself without him," he says. To do so, he became a full-time correspondent with Israeli radio and TV, bearing witness to the chaotic history of the Middle East in the '70s. Understandably, his reminiscences are peppered with scenes of violence. "I monitored Dacca radio during the Bangladesh war in 1971," he remembers. "Then one day the broadcasting suddenly stopped. I assumed it had been bombed, and a short time later Reuters confirmed it. Of course, it's very eerie when you hear a speaker and the next minute he might be dead."
Over the years Gurdus has refined his professional instincts to the point that he can nearly always sniff out a story. Last spring he monitored a series of transmissions in Lebanon that led him to conclude Syria was escalating its activities there. The Israeli government scoffed, but within weeks Israel had shot down two Syrian helicopters, and the Lebanese missile crisis was under way. "It's like music," says Zeev Schiff, an Israeli military affairs reporter. "You can have the best fiddle, but you need the ear. Mickey has the ear."
Away from his radios, however, Mickey has been naively trusting and easily bruised. A disastrous 1977 marriage ended within a year, and only now, with Bila, does he seem to have found romance and stability. Bila, a medical secretary, has adjusted to Mickey's curious life-style, and they plan to marry next month. "Mickey gives me a lot of attention," she says, "and I find it interesting to know in advance everything that's going on."
Inevitably, Bila has brought change to Mickey's cloistered existence. The couple have purchased a car—Mickey's first, although he still doesn't drive—and visit occasionally with a small circle of friends. Though Israel Broadcasting pays him an estimated $15,000 a year, a relatively high salary in Israel, Gurdus occasionally becomes fed up between newsbreaks and toys with the idea of changing careers. "But I love my work so much," he says, "and I've achieved such recognition, I just don't know. Still..." Suddenly, as if on cue, he is interrupted by a squawk from his Yaesu-FRG 7000 receiver, bringing news of diplomatic rumors in Zaire. Radio Moscow is coming in over the Kenwood R-1000, and the scanner has picked up a Lebanese plane en route to Saudi Arabia. Any moment now will come the 7 o'clock news via Cyprus. Politely, Mickey Gurdus excuses himself and turns to coordinate the daily performance.