One day last fall I saw an old friend from childhood days in The Netherlands. It was the first time we’d seen each other in forty-four years. I had always liked her, but we’d lost touch once we both left Holland, she for boarding school in England and me for my father’s new assignment in Washington D.C. In the long interim, just a few months before, I had discovered that her father had been a covert CIA operative just as mine had been. It was a shock to me. I’d believed her father’s cover like everyone else, assuming he was what he said he was, that is: a foreign service officer. I thought my father was a foreign service officer too. Our fathers, unbeknownst to us, lived under the same cloak.
As we got to talking, at the Silver Spring, Maryland Starbucks, my friend told me (I still have an instinct to hide people’s true identities) the story of how she found out her father was a spy. She learned the news a few years before I did, and she just stumbled onto it. It was while she was in eighth grade, in Holland, back when we were in school together.
This is how it happened: Our eighth grade class had gone that day on a field trip to the American Embassy in downtown The Hague. Our school, The American School of The Hague, periodically took its students there, to give us a little taste of America. The ambassador greeted us, and then we had American cookies from the P.X. and coke. When Celia, as I’ll call her, got home that evening, she and her father went out for a walk with their Irish Wolfhound. These walks with her father were special to my friend: for once she had her father to herself. She was one of four children all competing for their busy father’s attentions.
As they set out into the night, her father asked her, “Well, Celia, how was your day?”
“We had a field trip to the embassy.”
“Good. What happened there?” her father said.
“We met Ambassador Tyler.”
“Oh?” her father said, “And what did he have to say?” Celia’s father was slightly British in manner. He had served in England, and in then-Rhodesia.
Celia thought it would be boring to say just that the ambassador said “Hi.” Her family was the kind that fooled around and matched wits, and Celia wanted to entertain her father, so she thought, “Hmm, well I could say the ambassador said Dad worked for the FBI, but no…they only work in the States. I’ll say he told us Dad worked for the CIA!” Not thinking her father’s job was anything different from what she’d been told, she just made something up, to kid around.
“Well…” she said, drawing out her clever-but-oh-so-innocent response. “He told me you actually work for the CIA.”
Her father didn’t say anything. There was a pause—a long pause—and then he said, “That’s very interesting.” And then: “I wonder why he would say that.”
As Celia described this at Starbucks, she said, “It was a noticeable pause. He didn’t say anything for about thirty seconds. A lot of thoughts must have run through his mind. Would the ambassador have said that to her?…Maybe Thomas (my older brother) told her? Or maybe Cheryl (my mother) told her?…”
It was that noticeable pause that gave it away.
Celia doesn’t remember what happened after that. Her father didn’t tell her the truth that day. She doesn’t remember when he did, but she thinks that sometime not too long afterward he probably told her, “I do work for the Agency, but don’t say anything about it.” In any case, after that conversation, she knew. It was all totally accidental.
Originally published Thursday, January 5th, 2012