My mom was a living contradiction. She would think nothing of leaving me in the car for a lengthy subzero wait while she visited her church friends, but strictly managed bedtimes and television viewing at home, which made my introduction to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. nothing short of a miracle. That first viewing happened in the winter of 1965 and came about only because it was an “underwear night”, one of those rare instances when my dad and I would stay up late and watch TV together while lounging in T-shirts and pajamas.
I was eleven and languishing in the twilight zone that is prepubescence – starting to realize that an action hero didn’t necessarily need a cape, and those icky girls were starting to look interesting, but to be honest I was mostly just concerned with staying up past 9:00 PM, but when the sedate academic environment of Mr. Novak was abruptly replaced by trumpets blasting out the opening bars of one of the most totally bitchin’ themes ever I was riveted to the TV set.
Bond films were a year or two in my future, so it took me an episode or two to figure out the whole secret agent thing. Even at age eleven I was fueled with a strong sense of transpersonal commitment and the idea of a benign secret world-wide organization composed of people from all races and nationalities fighting evil was an idea I wished I’d come up with myself. I was struck by the casual but deadly teamwork between veteran enforcement agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuriyakin, and when you factored in the witty banter, cool equipment, and slinky ladies (which were starting to be extremely interesting at that point in my life) I was sold …but unlike previous television favorites I didn’t want to just sit and watch images on a screen.
I desperately wanted to be an actual U.N.C.L.E. agent.
I figured they had to have some sort of feeder organization, kind of like Boy Scouts, but without the knot-tying and flag-folding. Unfortunately there was no U.N.C.L.E. number in the phone book and to make matters worse, my parents and school teacher told me no such organization existed (the question alone was enough to trigger one of my mom’s legendary rants about the United Nations). As my dad had briefly worked in intelligence during his naval career I finally concluded that the denial had been implanted in his brain during those years afloat as some sort of protective measure because at the end of each episode ran a credit line:
We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law Enforcement without whose assistance this program would not be possible.
However, I was undeterred by the lack of information or contact. If I couldn’t join the organization I would:
- Train myself as an agent
- Acquire and become proficient on the equipment
- Organize a subunit of U.N.C.L.E. there in Sterling
Taking on the persona of uber spy Napoleon Solo was the logical yet the most unattainable first step. For starters no matter how many tubes of SCORE clear hair gel I worked into my unruly ginger mop there was no way it would be mistaken for his carefully tonsured brunette locks. My single attempt at wearing my dark-colored woolen go-to-church suit to school ended with a disaster involving a faulty milk carton, but to be honest the suit situation wasn’t a deal-breaker for me –I was rapidly outgrowing the suit and when the wool material itched so bad that I had to wear long underwear year-round I ended up looking less and less like a secret agent and more like Ken® dressed in three outfits at the same time. I decided to stick to the everyday plaid flannel shirt, denim trousers and Tuffy® work boots, reasoning that I was working in very deep cover for the time being.
As for training in spy craft there wasn’t much I could do with a foot of snow on the ground and not access to any sort of gym, so I resigned myself to the fact that training would have to wait.
Equipping myself was bit more difficult. In those dark pre-mobile phone days the best I could do for secure communication was a Marx Monkey Division® walkie-talkie set handed down to me from my cousin Gary. Unfortunately it was a sound-powered device just one step up from a pair of tin-cans connected by string and while the olive-drab military design of the handsets fit the mission, the twenty-five feet of copper wire connecting them would be counter-productive to any sort of covert function.
As for the requisite attaché case: while neither Napoleon nor Illya had anything nearly as cool as James Bond, the 1965 Sears Christmas catalog featured a four page color insert of 007 related toy that included a detailed diagram of the aforementioned attaché case that I referred to during my planning. I momentarily considered asking for the 007 set for Christmas but I was sure such a request would trigger a Mom-rant worse than her United Nations tirade so I settled on using a generic book bag until I accumulated enough summer baby-sitting money to buy a for-real attaché case when school started in the fall.
The gun was simultaneously easier/more difficult to get. The single element in the universe more certain that death or taxes was a Christmas gift request to my Grandma Esther. Once she understood that the IDEAL Man from UNCLE Napoleon Solo Gun set was what I wanted I knew that nothing would stop that from happening, but it wouldn’t be happening until December. As a stop-gap measure I created a model using a fountain pen with extra cartridge, a 2 inch binder clip, Bic® pen and a #3 bulldog clip which worked great until Tacky Powell’s white shirt ended up blotched with blue ink during a recess training session.
The organization consisted mostly of compiling lists of names and organizing them into sections in rosters made up of official stationery made by pasting UNCLE logos carefully cut from Gold Key comic adaptations. Of all the aspects of my self-made covert training this lasted the longest with the organization going through several name changes until my freshman year of high school when the rosters morphed into “reliability ” lists of classmates I compiled as I was getting bullied . The list-making was discontinued only upon discovery by my parents and my explanation was met with something very similar to the “have you no shame” comment that helped take down the red-baiting Tail-gunner Senator Joe McCarthy thirteen years earlier.
For years I assumed that longest-lasting benefit from my tenure as a junior U.N.C.L.E. agent was my eventual work as an intelligence officer with both the Army and the Navy Reserve when I took great delight in pinning my triangular U.N.C.L.E. badge inside my jacket during classified exercises. I wasn’t aware that the most beneficial aspect of my interest was the least tangible and one that I didn’t appreciate until I was much, much older.
My dad spent his entire life running, dragging us from one out-of-the-way spot to another, never staying anywhere for longer than a year or two, even after he retired from the navy. It was a murky situation made even murkier as more and more snippets of “what really happed” came to light after my parents passed away and I’ll probably never know anything other than that Sterling was the end of the road and the running.
The seven of us were crammed into a tiny three bedroom house in the middle of an ocean of burned-out snags from a catastrophic fire seventeen years earlier, ten miles from town with no local radio stations, and spotty radio and a single TV channel from Anchorage, 65 miles to the northeast. Even more distressing was the fact that no plausible explanation was ever given as to why were there. After traveling the entire length of the west coast of the United States, Sterling was end of the road, and an unfriendly end to boot as my classmates there were all “territory babies” and understandably reluctant to accept a chattering mob of Californians into their midst.
Every night I struggled to find sleep as I worried about what I had done to deserve the exile, but at nine o-clock on Tuesday nights everything changed. Never mind that the back streets of Los Angeles were standing in for New York, London, or Paris. After fifty minutes of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuriyakin using the coolest guns to fight evil THRUSH Agents, restful sleep was no longer a problem. While drifting off to sleep with the strains of the most totally bitching closing theme echoing in my mind, I was no longer stuck in the middle of a burned out wilderness – I was traveling the world.