Spying was both real and romanticized in the news, the movies, in songs and on television. Our country was in the middle of the Cold War, an arms race and a space race with Russia. We had one thing in common with the Russians, a little shared philosophy aptly called M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction.) We were living in the Atomic Age and doomsday was an all-too-real scenario. Spy planes had been shot down, basement bomb shelters dug and the Sputnik satellite kept an eye on us from above. Useless emergency drills were performed in schools, just in case. The school drills were absurdly comical. If an A‑bomb hit nearby, it wouldn’t have mattered. We would have been incinerated curled under the desk or sitting in our seats. Somehow, we survived the Cuban Missile Crisis but there was fear that one provocation by either side would lead to our annihilation.
Secret agents and spying became the rage when 007 hit the big screen. James Bond was cool, calm and collected as he traveled between the dangerous realms of allies and villains. His arsenal of fancy gadgets always got him out of a tight jam. The Austin Martin he drove in “Gold Finger” was not only fast and stylish, it deployed oil slicks, smoke screens and with a push of a button, machine guns. When he finished dispatching the bad guys he got the very best of Pussy Galore.
On TV there was an abundance of spy-themed shows to choose from. “Get Smart,” “Secret Agent Man,” “I SPY” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” The later two were the best of the bunch. Get Smart was too goofy. Secret Agent Man had a hip Johnny Rivers song to open the show, but not much more. Lines were clearly drawn — Adults watched “I SPY,” kids watched “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” The MFU spies, you have to admit, had the coolest names in the history of TV: Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin.
We were all caught up in the web of intrigue. Besides playing Army or Cowboys and Indians, we now played Spies. Spying was basically an elaborate game of hide and seek. We had our own gadgets like invisible spray to elude capture, laser-ray Instamatic cameras and listening devices (cups) to listen through walls. And if you were captured, you had a hidden dagger tucked away in one of our socks. Inevitably you were captured, disarmed and forced to drink truth serum and spill your guts. My sister Karen confessed to passing secret coded notes to a few boys in her class.
Kids can be so cruel to each other in elementary and middle school. For my sister, the idea of being humiliated by her classmates was a fate worse than death. My brother Joe felt the same way the day he faced his own terrible dilemma. One of his sneakers ripped out or something like that. Mom happened to spot it as he stepped out the door and dragged him back into the house.
There was arguing and a tussle inside, by the sound of it, before Joe was literally shoved out the door. He turned and pounded on the closed door to get back in, but couldn’t. Joe was pretty upset; he had good reason to be.
“I’m not going!” he bawled.
“No one will notice, now get going!” Mom said from inside.
“OH YES THEY WILL!” he screamed.
“Notice what?” I said as I looked down.
I saw it—them, it was an awful sight… Poor Joe was wearing an old pair of my sister Karen’s pointy white sneakers. Talk about cruelty to children! Good Lord, what was he going to do now?
“Let’s get out of here,” Joe huffed and looked frightfully up and down the street.
Whew! Lake Badin was clear and he ran quickly across. I followed. Had there been any witnesses to this atrocity, there would be no question … Joe would’ve had to kill them. Those pointy sneakers would have been the very last thing on earth they’d see. Joe raced ahead then detoured from the sidewalk up to the baseball field and disappeared into a dugout. As I caught up, I saw Joe’s tortured face through a small-screened window in the back of the dugout.
“Leave me alone — just go! I’m not going and you better not say anything! OK?”
“No way, don’t worry,” I answered.
Joe sat all day in that dugout and returned home shoeless when school let out. The sneakers were buried deep within one of a hundred squirrel burrows somewhere out in the field, never to be seen again.