‘Scotty, I’m a Spy’: True Lies From My CIA Father
One lazy Saturday morning, my father took me with him to his office.
He picked me up in a light-blue Buick, ugly as hell, and started down Ten Mile, just one of a dozen—or a hundred—parallel streets that stretched across that vast grid of the north. We could see the Detroit Renaissance Center on the horizon, looking like some lost and gutted metropolis, which it just about was.
I didn’t like that damn Buick. It was beat-up and broken. Even I, never a connoisseur of cars, knew that it was meant for mechanics and fishermen and longshoremen with beer guts and wife-beaters and a permanent five-o’clock shadow. But he turned the classical music up, and we just coasted along.
My decision to leave my father the year before had turned out to be short-lived. By the time I had started high school, I was back with my dad.
The year with my mother hadn’t been easy, for anyone. She was working full-time, but she was also still sorting out her own problems, and being a single mother didn’t make it any easier. She wanted to keep me there with her—to have a chance at raising me. But I didn’t like the guilt of depriving either parent of me and it began to seem easier, or less painful somehow, not to deprive my father. So I had left my mother again, and gone to live with my dad.
Once he had served his time at Camp Peary, my father had settled in gray old Michigan. Maybe it felt safer to be in the middle of America, where the bleak, urban anonymity was comforting—as if those long, gray streets and mini-malls and endless plains of suburbia could camouflage us more expertly. Maybe it had just become necessary. I was fourteen, old enough to be asking the kinds of questions to which my father’s answers—or sleight-of-hand that masqueraded as answers—no longer sufficed. I think, too, that he knew the ordinariness that permeated most aspects of our life was corrosive, and that I craved something more; he may have suspected that his hold on me was tenuous, and that making me complicit in his secrets might be a way of staving off my inevitable revolt. Perhaps this was why he took me to his office.
We pulled into an office complex, and he tracked across to the mostly empty lot, past a Dalton’s, a Baskin-Robbins, a CVS pharmacy, a laundromat and video store, and a pizza joint, easing into a parking spot in front of a drab-brown two-story building. The blinds on the second story had been shuttered. He put the car in park and turned off the ignition, leaving the engine to tick down. Then he shifted to look at me. When I reached for the door handle, he said gently, “Wait.”
I turned back to look at him. His normally confident mouth slackened. He was stuck between apology and pride, which morphed into a mischievous grin, and then again into gentle certainty.
“Wait,” he said again, and placed his hand on my shoulder.
The windows had started to fog from our breathing.
“Scotty,” he said.
The warm seat was between us, an open space where the latticed wall should have been to transform it into a devotional bench. I was half-expecting a lecture about my bad behavior at home or my middling algebra grade, but these didn’t materialize.
My father sighed, and then smiled. “I need to tell you something,” he said.
“It’s nothing bad,” he said. “But it’s serious.”
He let the pause go. Then, “Do you know what I do for a living?”
I stared at him. I stuttered and began to laugh nervously. “The Foreign Service?”
But even as I spoke, I knew I was wrong. I looked around. We were in a mini-mall, sitting in a Buick, and that was our life.
He was straightforward, blunt. “Scotty,” he said, “I’m a spy.”
His face twitched. He grinned.
I didn’t know what to say, so I said what anyone might. “Like . . . like James Bond?”
But he was nodding already, anticipating me. “Yes,” he said simply.
And there it was, that feeling, just a glancing thing in my belly: impunity. As a boy, I had loved those movies in such a proprietary way: Goldfinger and Dr. No and The Spy Who Loved Me. I had wanted him to be like those dashing men, and I imagine he did, too, and that’s why he encouraged the connection. The slightly bushy eyebrows that arched up at their corners, the charming wink, the dark Scottish gloom—there was a slight resemblance to Sean Connery. Other people commented on it, he sometimes said, or thought he looked like Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: all low-slung and severe, as flat and hard-bitten as some desert butte; except in the eyes, which twitched with the glee of ambiguity.
“A spy.” I repeated the word a few times, testing it out. “You mean, like in the CIA?”
But there was no wily Q providing a poison-darted pen, no desert hideaways, bad guys, or shark-infested waters—nothing even remotely similar. Nothing that I could see, anyway. And the Buick seemed like it was beginning to overheat.
He nodded and crinkled his brown eyes at me.
“Just like that,” he said.
The clues had been there: the moving, living in strange places, the secrecy, the different jobs he had told me he had had, the various languages he had learned and now forgotten. But whereas before there had been only suspicion, now there was proof. He had released the truth like a genie from a bottle.
We sat in the car for a while. A few people strode across the parking lot. It was cold outside, and gray, the trees barren. My father looked at me sideways and smiled. I sniggered. He chuckled. Then, like two maniacal idiots, my father and I laughed and laughed. I was near-hysterical. My stomach hurt; my eyes watered. On it went until eventually we calmed down, and the laughter came in smaller bursts, faded, and finally subsided altogether. He took out the keys and opened his door. “Come on,” he said.
An excerpt from The Wolf and the Watchman: a Father, a Son, and the CIA by Scott C. Johnson (@scott_c_johnson). Now in paperback.
“Evokes John le Carré’s dark autobiographical thriller The Perfect Spy.” —Washington Post, A Notable Book of the Year