Billy Mays left the Tri-Cities in 1977 as a wide-eyed high school graduate. He returns next month with tales of Cold War intrigue.
He came to Kennewick in 1970, graduated from Kennewick High in '77, left for college on the west side and went out into the big world.
Next month, the 52-year-old is moving back to the Tri-Cities -- and he is bringing back 20 years' worth of hair-raising stories.
Mays spent two decades in Eastern Europe, officially as a businessman and consultant. But from 1983 to 2003, he also went on cloak-and-dagger missions for the American embassy in Warsaw, Poland, and by extension the CIA, he said.
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On The Job Training: Berlin to Vladivostok, the first of four books chronicling his adventures, was just released by Proudfoot Publishing.
Mays was a graduate student in economics at the University of Washington in 1983 when he saw an ad for a seminar in Poland. The Eastern European country -- still behind the Iron Curtain and just emerging from martial law -- would become his home for the next 20 years.
He continued his studies at the Central School of Planning and Statistics in Warsaw but found his master's thesis on market and political reforms in Eastern Europe rejected by a conservative professor at UW.
Mays took his manuscript to Radio Free Europe, a broadcaster paid for by the U.S. government to beam news and music into countries where state-run media offers no critical view of society. The radio officials paid him for his paper and asked him to go back to Poland and glean more information for U.S. agencies.
And that is what Mays did for almost 20 years, he said. He received telegrams or letters with instructions. He delivered packages -- some filled with money -- to informants. He kept an eye on movements of trucks around military bases.
He became fluent in Polish and was the translator for Sen. Ted Kennedy when he came to Poland. He sang karaoke with Lech Walesa, the hero of the Polish labor movement who is widely credited with setting in motion events that brought down Soviet rule.
Meanwhile, he consulted for Western businesses wanting to expand into Eastern Europe and became the country director for FedEx in Poland after the Cold War.
With the end of the Soviet Union came worries about nuclear proliferation out of former Eastern Bloc states. There was no more need to spy on the now-democratic governments, and the focus turned to the black market in potentially devastating materials.
As a businessman, Mays was well-positioned to monitor trading in the region. But black-market traders turned out to be more difficult to deal with than Soviet generals. Mays had been closely watched, threatened and even arrested by the military running the country under the old rule, he said.
But the shady characters running illicit materials across Eastern European borders resorted to harsher methods. A courier who was scheduled to bring Mays a packet of money for an informant was tortured with a propane torch by Russian mobsters, Mays said.
The embassy informed him that if the Russians knew the couriers' identity, they surely knew about Mays too.
The mobsters never caught up with Mays, and he never was tortured, although an Estonian man stabbed him in a Finnish restaurant once, an attack Mays thinks was not coincidental.
He has lived through a lot of episodes that usually are the stuff of spy movies, he said. And he knows some might doubt the veracity of his tales.
The bigger picture checks out -- dates of state visits, names of places and current events cited in his book. For the thrilling details, there is no paper trail. But Mays has about 10 references who worked in the same circles as he did at the time, he said. They can back up his stories against any serious accusations of his having too vivid an imagination, he said.
Mays returned to the United States for good in 2003. His regular business activities had taken over his life to a point where he no longer could perform the underground jobs assigned to him from the embassy.
He got into commercial construction, which led to an interest in energy-efficient building, he said. He currently is devoting all of his time to writing the books, but plans to go back to energy consulting once they are finished.
Mays is moving back to the Tri-Cities, which will give him opportunity to connect with some people who will understand his motives for taking on risks behind the Iron Curtain, he said.
He initially was motivated to take on odd jobs from the embassy by a young man's hunger for adventure and the need to pay bills. But he realized he was contributing to a worthy cause, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.
"I had a sense of duty," Mays said. "There was real danger in what was coming out of Russia in strategic materials."
That sense of duty in part came from growing up in the Tri-Cities as the son of a nuclear engineer.
"I've always felt a close alliance with the Cold War patriots," Mays said.