Wednesday, June 12, 2013

My Life as a Secret Agent

I was a child of the Space Race.  Given that, I spent a significant part of my early youth wishing that I might someday become an astronaut.  But, like many of my peers, I soon realized that being launched into space was a rather remote possibility and decided early on that I needed a fallback occupation.  Thanks to TV and movies, a viable alternative soon materialized.

The dream of becoming a secret agent began to take shape sometime around 1965, shortly after the TV series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." premiered on NBC.  By this time, James Bond films had become wildly popular, and "U.N.C.L.E." became a great fill-in between Bond releases.  The show featured Robert Vaughn as the dashing Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as his sidekick Illya Kuryakin.  My fifth-grade compadres and I became obsessed with the show, and before long, we were scooping up all the themed toy spy kits available at Walgreen's or Grant's.  We didn't have big box stores then, or we would have cleaned them out as well.  Once we were all outfitted, as it were, with cap pistols, grenades, black attache cases, shiny silver membership cards, and special numbered identification badges, we were ready to roll.  In order to better synchronize our watches and our collective efforts, we formed a club.

The first order of business was to establish officers, and that we did without delay or contention.  Next, we recognized the need for encoded communications and therefore set about establishing a code book.  The master version of the code book consisted of a green binder which was strictly off limits to anyone not in the club.  It could, however, be clearly identified by the title on the front, "U.N.C.L.E. Club Code Book".  The Book was widely copied and distributed, although the original was closely guarded, and safekeeping was periodically rotated from agent to agent.  The Book was used to write notes which we would pass to one another surreptitiously during class, that is, until the existence of The Book was recognized by our teacher, Mrs. Swaim.  She confiscated it for a brief period early in the school year, during which time communications were severely impaired and the entire class was effectively left at the mercy of evildoers from the neighboring classes down the hall.  Many of them were suspected to be agents of THRUSH, the organization which was the enemy of U.N.C.L.E. on the TV series and, of course, bent on world domination.

My friend Kip, always a champion of innovation, made waves one day when he appeared in class with a special yellow ID card to replace the standard issue silver version.  It turned out that Kip had, unbeknownst to his fellow agents, written to NBC indicating his fondness for "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", and the network had in turn sent him some special tchotchke, including the heretofore unseen yellow card.  This in turn prompted the rest of us to contact NBC in kind, whereupon we all received yellow cards.  After a short transition period, the original silver cards were no longer in vogue, and indeed, we soon began to look askance at anyone who continued to carry the old card.

And at this point of the story, I must admit to bit of wrongdoing in the name of espionage.  For the last forty-seven years, I have kept this story relatively quiet, but now is the time to come clean.

One of my classmates, a rather easygoing fellow, had been a friend (insomuch as that is possible among pre-teen boys) for some time, but things had recently gone awry, and one day on the playground at recess, we got into a fight (yes, I know this is hard to believe, given my general good nature, but hey, I was eleven).  After we came back into the school, my opponent promptly reported the incident to Mrs. Swaim, who did not like me to begin with...she considered me a troublemaker of the highest order.  Anyway, the two of us were led into the "film room", ordinarily reserved for Disney short films on Friday afternoons but a detention center of sorts on other days.  Mrs. Swaim asked each of us in turn what had happened, and my adversary recounted the incident with cool, detached clarity.  When the teacher then asked me why I had provoked the fight (which was true, by the way), I replied that my classmate was "a THRUSH agent".  I actually said this.  When Mrs. Swaim looked confused, my opponent replied, "It's a TV show, Mrs. Swaim...he's talking about a TV show."  At this point, I truly felt like a spy left out in the cold.

The incident soon faded into memory, and in the manner of young boys, my adversary and I eventually became something resembling friends again.  But it seemed that the tide had turned, and that the vision of a life of espionage no longer held the same thrill for me.  Before long, The Book was confiscated for a longer period, and then, along came summer, and with it, the impending responsibilities of becoming a sixth grader, a rising junior high student.

And you know, now that I think about it, I'm not sure I would really have fit the mold of a secret agent anyway.  After all, living in places like Monaco, sporting a dashing wardrobe, and driving fast cars...maybe it wouldn't have been for me.  But then again, I wonder.  My passport needs some stamps.