My father was a spy.
For 30 years, starting in the mid-1950s, he was an agent with the CIA. He had offices in places like Pittsburgh (where I was born), Niagara Falls, St. Louis and Schenectady, N.Y., and he traveled a lot, to places like Rochester and Syracuse, N.Y., and Paducah, Ky.
I don’t know much more about what he did than that. His job was always a source of mystery and intrigue but also of ignorance. It was an integral part of who he was, but a part of him his eight children never got to fully know.
Sunday will be my 30th Father’s Day without my dad, who died in March 1987, a little more than a year after he retired. When he died, he took with him all the stories that, in his retirement, he might have told us about his work and what he did and whom he met and why he met them, leaving a large empty space.
R. James Finn was a large, smart, garrulous man, a former college football player with broad shoulders and a barrel chest. My first memory is of him giving me a bath when I was 3 or so. I remember how larger-than-life he seemed and how unintentionally rough he was as he scrubbed my ears with a big finger wrapped in a washcloth and as he shampooed my hair.
Another early memory is of him whisking me out of the same bathroom and into the basement, superhero like, one afternoon as a tornado was swooping toward Pittsburgh.
He was an avid reader and a music lover who was deeply proud of his Irish heritage. In our house, before we heard the Beatles, we’d heard Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers and memorized every track on their classic live album, “In Person at Carnegie Hall,” including the reading of the W.B. Yeats poem, “The Host of the Air.”
As a father, he was more a teacher than a disciplinarian. One summer afternoon, my brother and I started a fire in our garage, intentionally — an experiment with gasoline and matches went awry. We were renting the house, to further complicate the situation, and the garage was lined with old newspapers courtesy of previous tenants apparently, adding fuel to the fire.
We were only a few blocks from the firehouse, so the damage was contained, but my father had some awkward explaining to do to the landlord.
His response to my brother and me was calculated. There was no yelling or spanking. Instead, we had to visit the homes of each of the volunteer firemen who’d responded to the call, tell them exactly what we’d done and apologize for it. It was wise and effective. Nothing expunges the pyromania out of a child like a heavy dose of humiliation and shame.
My dad ended up joining the village’s fire company after that, which provided him with something he didn’t really get at work: a tribe, a network of friends. I remember a few of his work colleagues, but not many. There weren’t any company picnics or Christmas parties in the CIA, no “take your sons to work” days.
So my parents were left to nurture friendships from other places, like church, youth football (he was a coach) and the volunteer fire department. But even within those relationships, my dad had to be private or discreet about what he did for a living, the cost of getting paid to be stealthy.
Occasionally, he attempted to give his children a peek behind the curtain. He’d preface what he was about to say with a “what I say here stays here” speech, then tell us a story about a trip he’d taken or a person he’d met, but the details were so vague and ambiguous there was not much to take from it.
We were under some pressure to keep his job a secret. Our cover was “he works for the government.” A lot of people inferred that to mean he worked for the FBI or the CIA, which we would neither deny or confirm. By high school, I was telling close friends but otherwise toed the line.
His job intruded on my life only once, and just barely. My junior year at the University of Missouri, my dad started visiting Columbia and the campus. Whenever he did, he would call a day or two before his visit to tell me he’d be around and to remind me to ignore him if somehow we ran into each other, which didn’t happen. He’d slip in and out without seeing or speaking to me, no matter how long it had been since we’d seen each other.
In 1980, he received the appointment of his dreams. He was transferred to Williamsburg, Va., where he was an instructor at Camp Peary, a military reservation where the CIA trains recruits. For three years, he was a teacher, surrounded by agency colleagues and free to shed the cloak and talk about his job. The liberation renewed him. He seemed as happy as ever with his job.
His final stop was Schenectady, a dreary outpost not far from Albany, the capital of New York. He would spend less than three years there, retiring in December 1985, weeks after he turned 55 years old. A month later, while on vacation, he became ill with pneumonia. Tests also revealed lung cancer (he was a heavy smoker). He died about a year later, after months of chemotherapy and then hospice.
My dad had his confidants, people he spoke candidly with about his job, including my mother, his brother and sister. From them, I got the general impression that he felt some conflict about his job, a mix of loyalty and discontent.
There was no shortage of scathing opinions about the agency in the world at large. A professor I had in college regularly ranted about the CIA and its nefarious actions. I just sat there and blocked it out.
I asked my dad once what he thought about the agency’s ailing reputation and about some of the dark accusations against it. His response was measured and vague, like most of the talk about his job, something like, “You wouldn’t want it to not be around.”
So I’m left with that: knowing precious little about my father’s career but trusting that, whatever he did, he felt it was a necessity. It was sacrifice, too, for him and much of his family, and the price was the part of him we never got to know.