The Neighborhood Spy Ring

THE Undercover Detective Agency has been reactivated; a new generation of secret operatives is at work. But the story properly begins with the agency's last meeting, in late 1966. A founding member, I have taken it upon myself to declassify the minutes:

November, 1966. At the last meeting we discussed the secret handshake and the UDA secret sign. We reached agreement on both and decided they would be too secret to include in the minutes. Agent Nelson reported on suspicious activity in his neighborhood - three people in a car drove down the street slowly. They turned left on Merriam Street and peeled out. The car was white. The meeting was adjourned at 8 p.m. so that the members could watch "Get Smart."

Danny, the chief, took the minutes, since he was the only member who understood the concept of minutes, being a year older than I.

In those days, the UDA filled the gap between the international field of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and the domestic work of Maxwell Smart and Agent 99. We emulated Napoleon Solo and especially Ilya Kuryakin, wearing the distinctive dark turtleneck with a blue blazer, with our white sweat socks and loafers, while delivering curt karate chops to neutralize the agents of chaos. And we spent hours in the basement trying to reproduce Max's technical gadgetry, seeking ways to hide coded messages in the heels o f our shoes without destroying them, which would invoke the wrath of my mother. At age 10, Daniel would have known the meaning of "emulated;" he wanted to be a supreme court justice when he grew up. I didn't know what a justice was, but I liked sneaking around the yard and watching stuff.

In that "neighborhood," little escaped the UDA's skilled observers, ever at their listening posts, from Hurley's Pond to the Big Woods. We wanted not so much to solve mysteries as to have mysteries. Creating codes, handshakes, surveillance techniques and developing a suspicious attitude about everything and everyone was our preoccupation. I liked having secrets; seeing without being seen; knowing the handshake.

For a while now, my son, Spencer, about to turn 10, has been in training for this work. He has been fascinated by booby traps and burglar alarms for years, building many an ingenious rope snare in the backyard, guaranteed to hoist heavy robbers into the apple tree or to lower baseball bats or bricks onto their unsuspecting heads. He dreamed up fantastic burglar alarms for our front yard, though they required too high a degree of cooperation from the burglar to be effective. To his sister Hilary, this was

all a matter of getting real. Burglars are not tooth fairies: "There are burglars in the world, you know!"

When, two towns away, his friend Andrew's house was actually burglarized, Spencer's engagement of the reality really shifted from defense to offense: He started taking down license numbers and noting "suspicious characters" around our neighborhood. He was also curious about the burgling profession. Did burglars have telephone numbers, he wondered? Do they advertise?

For a period of time, he was fascinated by symbols of law and order: superheroes, law officers, badges, and uniforms. His interest seemed connected with safety and authority, simultaneously asserting and seeking assertion of their presence in his life. But this was still nascent stuff, mere police work: FBI compared with MI-5. He continued his training in traps, hand-to-hand combat, surveillance, and counterintelligence, only waiting activation by his spy master.

Today was much like any other Saturday morning after breakfast and chores. At her desk, Hilary was encasing ants in glue, her version of amber, and naming them (Teddy, the Joes, Harvey) while drawing horses for her "horse collection box." Younger sister, Ariel, was putting on her roller skates and singing the Davy Crockett theme song. (The original version runs: "Then he came home when his politicking was done." Ariel's rendition went: "When he came home, Polly's chicken was done.") But Spencer was using

my computer to write a memo to his agents, struggling with a calendar to determine the dates for every Saturday over the next year. I had stumbled upon an important piece of information. The Undercover Detectives would be meeting on Saturdays! Eyes only. Classified.

My next discovery was their cryptography: Every letter of the alphabet was assigned a number. It hadn't been that long ago that the alphabet was itself a code to be cracked. I saw that folders were being established for each agent; could the secret handshake and password be far behind? When Brian from across the street came to the door that evening and furtively handed Spencer a piece of paper, it was obvious what was underway. Brian's message was meticulously computer printed in a minuscule font. Spence r read it with relish and without sharing. He was pleased to have a mystery, pleased to be giving us one too.

The game was afoot. Spencer was advancing to the level of "knowing things that Mom and Dad don't" - of observing without being observed. It brought back to me that pleasant, scandalous realization that occurred for me at age 10: I am separate from my parents. They don't need to know everything. I have decided that this will be a secret. My secret.

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