Some stories feel rooted to my psyche, as if I’ve always known them. Like the story of my father’s job interview with the CIA. I feel as if I was told this story as a young child but in reality I was twenty when I learned what he did for a living. By the time I first heard the parrot story I was already in my mid-twenties. Why then does the story feel older than that? Maybe it’s because my father told so few stories about himself and fewer still about his work. Or maybe it was the way he told the parrot story, laughing throughout, instead of using the serious tone he usually reserved for work related topics. Then again, maybe that’s just how memory works. With a twisting logic all its own.
The year was 1961. My father’s future stretched out before him like a shiny ribbon. The Cold War threatened this future. To my Dad, it threatened all futures. My father felt he had to do something; he bought a plane ticket and flew from San Antonio, where he worked in the City Manager’s Office, to Washington D. C. Once there, he interviewed with a number of government agencies, looking for the right one, the one that would allow him to make a difference.
He landed inside an old barrack with a stern man behind a desk and a brilliant green parrot on a corner perch. The interview consisted of questions. Name? College? Major? Each time the man asked something, he picked a sunflower seed from the mound in his palm and tossed it toward the bird. The man never took his eyes off my father. This must have unnerved my father. He must have fought the urge to follow the seed through the air, to turn and stare at the bird. Instead, my father kept his attention on his interviewer. Out of the corner of his eye he couldn’t help but notice the ease with which the bird caught everything: grounders, curve balls, line drives.
My father did his best to answer each question simply and directly.
Question. Seed. Question. Seed. Things went on this way for a while.
Finally, the man leaned forward and said he couldn’t divulge anything. Not what my father would do or where he’d live or what type of people he’d associate with. “After what I’ve just said why the hell do you want to join the Agency?” The man demanded.
I try to imagine my father in this moment, before all his certainty set in. Flustered and unsure, he is a young man of 26 standing at a crossroad. He has answered an endless stream of questions while watching a man throw seeds at a bird for who knows how long. The last question hangs in the air still. How can he answer it when he’s been given so little information? My father takes a breath and says he has no idea why he wants to join.
Good answer! The man responds brightly.
Two weeks later my father finds the letter in his mailbox. The path is cleared. The way decided.