I’m editing a manuscript about passwords, and need a very quick anecdote/scene from either a famous movie or history that uses the stereotypical challenge-response password dynamic. The current version of the manuscript cites World War II soldiers using “Mickey” and “Mouse” as the challenge and response, which is entertaining, interesting, and almost completely historically inaccurate. I came up with a more accurate D-Day sign/countersign (flash/thunder), but it’s kind of boring by comparison. Anyone have any ideas for something that actually happened in history, or else a famous scene from a movie? It has to be something that doesn’t need much explanation.
I thought of the password scene from SPACEBALLS, but it won’t work in context.
Well, there’s the scene in Casablanca where Berger, the Norwegian agent, showed Victor Laszlo the ring with the hidden cross to demonstrate his loyalty so Victor would know he was legit. That’s not really a password.
When the Shadow would recruit operatives, he’d explain that folks would contact 'em by saying “The sun is shining…” to which the correct reply is “…but the ice is slippery.” That’s how it played out in the Alec Baldwin movie, anyhow: he lays out the password-and-countersign arrangement so repetitively that the cabbie mouths it along with our hero when the rescued kidnap victim gets told how it’s going to be from now on.
This website gives a list of George Washington’s General Orders during the month of December 1775. As you can see, he issued a parole and countersign every day. (A parole is a password used by officers to check that sentries knew the countersign.)
Well, there is this exchange from Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!:
The figure rapped a complex code on the dark woodwork. A tiny barred hatch opened and one suspicious eye peered out.
" ‘The significant owl hoots in the night,’ " said the visitor, trying to wring the rainwater out of its robe.
" ‘Yet many grey lords go sadly to the masterless men,’ " intoned a voice on the other side of the grille.
" ‘Hooray, horray for the spinster’s sister’s daughter,’ " countered the dripping figure. " ‘To the axeman, all supplicants are the same height.’ "
" ‘Yet verily, the rose is within the thorn.’ "
" ‘The good mother makes bean soup for the errant boy,’ " said the voice behind the door.
There was a pause, broken only by the sound of the rain. Then the visitor said, “What?”
" ‘The good mother makes bean soup for the errant boy.’ "
There was another, longer pause. Then the damp figure said, “Are you sure the ill-built tower doesn’t tremble mightily at a butterfly’s passage?”
“Nope. Bean soup it is. I’m sorry.”
The rain hissed down relentlessly in the embarrassed silence.
“What about the caged whale?” said the soaking visitor, trying to squeeze into what little shelter the dread portal offered.
“What about it?”
“It should know nothing of the mighty deeps, if you must know.”
“Oh, the caged whale. You want the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night. Three doors down.”
Go to the library and get a copy of The Day of Battle, by Rick Atkinson. It’s the second book in his WWII history, this volume concerning the invasion of Sicily and Italy. There are many references to passwords and countersigns, but I don’t remember any offhand.
Password and countersign are misunderstood by almost everybody. While passwords are commonly called out, it’s usually by the person returning to friendly lines when challenged. The countersign is usually not called back unless asked for, as that then could give the listening enemy both words.
An instance where the response might be asked for would be if a patrol wasn’t sure what line it was approaching. An enemy with good English might call out “what’s the password?”, but if the patrol is not sure that it is near American lines, they will not only give the password, but ask for the response to make sure they’re in the right place.
Since even military people don’t always understand how that works, passwords/countersigns are changed frequently.
There are scenes in the Bond movie “From Russia With Love” that include passwords and countersigns, including a bad guy overhearing them and using them.
“The Longest Day” has the Nazis mimicking the sound of the clickers used by Allied troops.
There was a novel I read years ago, serialized in Analog magazine, about a CIA agent in the future. The way agents identified each other was to say something like “Hi! It’s me your cousin Charley. How is Aunt Susan’s lumbago?” with the countersign being something like “It’s been worse. How’s Uncle George’s arthritis?”.
<Off topic>FWIW, the main character of the novel was the son of the main character from another future spy novel, wherein the Mom was a spy who looked like a dumpy old charwoman, and cleaned enemy offices of both dust and secret papers. I think she hooked up with a Nepalese agent, and our multi-ethnic hero came along. Also, the CIA folks used the word “palpably” a lot. I think a space railway was involved. People on the overpopulated earth were, at the end, lining up to be cryofrozen (“baptized in liquid nitrogen”) to wait for a better future. I thought Jerry Oliton co-wrote this, but it doesn’t show on his Wiki page.</Off topic>
In real life, David “Mickey” Marcus was killed in a friendly-fire incident when he was in the Isreali army. He did not speak enough Hebrew to give the password, and the Israeli guard did not speak English.
Incidentally, an example I thought of which I didn’t use because it’s not well enough known, but which is awesome, comes from Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates; a conspiracy of 20th-century time travelers in Victorian London use the first three notes of “Yesterday,” whistled, as the sign and the next nine notes (“all my troubles seemed so far away”), also whistled, as the counter-sign.