Dad’s Interview with the CIA (1962)

The CIA recently tweeted the story about a woman who worked overseas for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, during World War II. She described an interview process in which she wasn’t told anything about what her job would be. “They fingerprinted me and told me not to speak about anything, although I didn’t know anything anyway.”

Dad was interviewed by an old OSS man too and his interview was even stranger.

He didn’t tell many stories about his work but he loved this one. He always started by saying, “Those were dangerous times. The Soviets wanted to take over the world and I thought the days of the U.S. were numbered. I really did.”

He was working in the San Antonio city manager’s office at the time but his heart wasn’t in it, so he bought a ticket and flew to D.C. He lined up interviews with the FBI and the Peace Corp and then landed one with a mysterious man inside an old army barrack.

“This guy who looked like a stern prep school dean sitting behind a desk. There was a bright bird on a perch in the corner. Can’t remember if it was a parrot or a toucan. He started out with questions. Where did I go to college? What was my major? Things like that. Every time he asked something he threw a seed. That bird caught everything too. Curve balls, ground balls, line drives.

At the end of it, the old OSS guy said he couldn’t tell dad much about the job.

“The guy said he couldn’t tell me where I’d work or what I’d do or anything. He said, ‘After what I’ve just said, why the hell do you want to join the Agency?’ I told the guy, ‘I have no idea. You haven’t told me a thing.’ He must have liked what I said because he said, ‘Good answer!’ Two weeks later they sent me a letter and that was it.”

Every time I think of this story, it’s like I’m discovering a different of Dad than the one I remember. When I was growing up, he seemed so sure, focused. But twenty-something-Dad was different. He was undecided and open. Joining the CIA hadn’t been a calculated act after all. More like a giant leap of faith. He accepted a job with an agency he knew virtually nothing about. It seems amazing to me that the decision that determined so much of his life and shaped so much of mine was the result of happenstance – a random interview with a guy and a bird.

Coming Out of Hiding

As a writer, growing up with a CIA dad means I’m forever trying to come out of hiding. Forever trying to unlearn the lessons of blending into the background, keeping quiet, letting others go first. On the surface, Dad was sociable and gregarious. He liked listening to jazz records, was an amateur magician and loved football. But if he was in a crowded restaurant or at some social function he’d blend into the background, smile, laugh, nod. He’d seem innocuous, and to my teenage mind, boring. I didn’t put it together that he was being this way on purpose then. That’s because as a teen I didn’t even know he was in the CIA. I knew something about his job was a big secret, and that he often changed who he said he worked for- sometimes it was the Pentagon, other times the State Department – but I didn’t know he was officially in the CIA. But even if I didn’t know that, I knew whatever he did was important and that I should never, ever talk about it. Not with him or anyone. There was no family meeting with dad saying, “Okay kids. Here are the rules. My job is secret and so we can’t talk about it to anyone okay? It’s important and keeps our country safe and that’s why it stays between us.” He never had to say these things explicitly. All he had to do was example them and I learned. If someone at an event asked him about what he did, he’d say something dry, general and unmemorable. Something no one would remember or ask a follow up question about. I watched him do this for years until I became good at it too. I’m still good at it, still peeling back the onion, learning to voice, take up space. As a woman. As a lesbian. And finally as a writer. Writing about what it was like growing up with a CIA dad is the last frontier in my quest to shed my internal self censorship. Every time I put a pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I remove my own inner silencer, day by day, word by word.