My Father Was a Spy?

My father died 14 days before his 56th birthday and 3 days before I was to return to my fifth semester at Boston College. I stayed for the funeral and six more months to help my mother adjust. It was a painful, difficult time, but together we got through it. Eventually, she took up tennis and I cataloged, packed and otherwise rid my mother’s house of any trace of my father.  She never said so, but I thought it would make her feel better—sort of a new start.

One day I found, in the very back of the top drawer of a small chest in my father’s closet, a little wooden cigar box. It was the old fashioned kind with a hinged top and a little latch holding it shut. I sat on the edge of his bed and peeked inside. Among the random items were an old Rambler car key and another, little key with the letters P.O. etched on it; an old fashioned Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle opener; and a zippo lighter. One after another, floods of memories filled my imagination, like was so often the case when I found my father in some precarious situation or another. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me first tell you about my dad.

Like so many men in our town, my father showered after work. And, like many towns in the Midwest in the 1960’s, our town was pretty much divided between those who made things and those who made money. My father made bottles. It was hot, dirty work that made his shirts stick to his pits. He may have been a factory worker, but he was also witty, clever, and knowledgeable. He was extremely well read and would devour thick, dense novels in a sitting or two. A fresh stack from the library occupied the corner of the fireplace mantel nearest to his favorite chair, and was replenished every week. It hovered above him like the hand of God. 

Why tell you about my blue-collar, maybe smarter than average father? Because my father was different. I can’t tell you how different, because I never knew exactly, but what I can tell you is what I saw, or thought I saw. Each of the items concealed in that little wooden box had a story. I’ll share each with you and you can be the judge. Read on and remember, this might not have happened at all, or at least not as I tell it. But, then again, maybe it did.

 The Rambler Key

High above the Muskingum River, on the north side of town, sat a grand old mansion. Built far back from the road on a large lot with a long, straight driveway, the house stood empty for many years. My friend Joe lived directly across the street from the entrance. We often camped out in Joe’s yard during the sweltering summer months. With direct sightlines to the mysterious old place, we kept watch with toy binoculars pointed out of Joe’s army surplus tent. Whole months flew by without so much as a kid on a bicycle braving the potentially haunted house. Until …

Late one night in August—and days before the drudgery of school once again overtook us—a red, ragtop Rambler appeared out of the still, sticky night. The sputtering old car slowed as it approached from the steep curve below. The Rambler (did I mention that my father owned a red Rambler?) doused its lights and turned slowly into the long drive, killed the engine and coasted toward the old house.

What was my father doing there? It had to be him. There was only one red Rambler with a ragtop in our town and I had never seen another one, even on our road trips back east. It was a rare vehicle, more for its poor construction than desirability. The fuel formula was something like a case of oil to a tank of gas, and it reeked of both. But it was a convertible with red leather seats and my mom loved convertibles and red leather seats. 

Joe and I snuck out of the tent, flashlights at our sides. Once we were sure to be out of sight of Joe’s house we switched them on. We crept through the woods that ran alongside the long driveway for what seemed like ten minutes, even though it was less than one hundred yards from the street to the front of the house. Once we could see the Rambler we stopped and tried not to breath. 

Joe tiptoed from the woods and looked in the driver’s side window. The Rambler was empty. To this day I don’t know how he mustered the courage to do that. He came back and we sat on a thick log and waited. It wasn’t a long wait. We heard distant voices, and then shadowy figures emerged from the far side of the house. There were rumors that the house had a secret tunnel that went all the way down to the river and people on their way further north would sneak up from the river and stay here overnight, or rendezvous with someone to help smuggle them over the border into Canada. I never really understood this function as the Underground Railroad was skipped over in our history classes. What I did know was that my father was there, in some 1960’s version of the Underground Railroad, moving people toward some destination. He loaded three or four men and one woman into the Rambler. Just before he got in the drivers side he stopped and looked into the woods where we were crouched down, trying to see. We froze. He shined a light over our heads, paused for a second, and then climbed into the Rambler.

I don’t know why this happened, or who those people were, or where my dad took them, or how he came about making this surreptitious move in the middle of the night in the first place. I never actually saw my dad’s face that night, but I think I heard him say, “Hurry, get in. We’ve got to go.” But it was a whisper and there were trees between the suspects and me—if that’s what they were—and my dad, or the spy, or agent, or whatever he was. 

This was not the first time I witnessed my dad doing peculiar things. My earliest memory of something out of the ordinary happened when I was about five or six. 

The Little Key

For some reason my father had a post office box. Sometimes he would take me with him when he went to check it. We would usually go there on Sunday evening and he would leave me in the car, eating ice cream, while he stepped just inside the outer lobby and slipped his key into the small, glass fronted box. He never returned with any mail. I often thought it was peculiar that, if he could see inside the box and it was empty, why would he still open it? 

One night, a little later than usual, we stopped by the PO as he called it. Same routine, but for some reason no ice cream. We pulled up and parked in the lot, just to the side of the main doors. He waited for a moment or two before going inside. He was staring at a man standing very near to the wall of glass boxes, looking closely at something inside one of them. My dad told me to stay put and walked into the main lobby. As he entered, he didn’t go directly to his box, which was around the corner, but went instead to a box on the same side as the mysterious man. He looked carefully inside another box but didn’t open it. Instead, he glanced several times as the strange man. Finally, he came out just as casually as he entered and got in the car, not saying a word. We drove out of the parking lot, but instead of turning left toward home, dad turned right, driving along the side of the post office, and inside the truck parking lot, which was clearly marked one way (the wrong way) and off limits to anyone other than official post office vehicles.

We parked right at the loading dock. He got out quickly and said, “Come on, hurry.” (It was the same whisper that I recognized at the old house a few years later.) We walked through a pair of unlocked swinging doors, which opened onto a vast sorting room full of packages, machines, and men and women dressed in blue uniforms. For some reason I still can’t explain, nobody questioned us or bothered us at all. 

There was a grey steel door just inside to the right that buzzed as we approached. Inside was a small room, with only a plain metal desk and chair. There was a narrow stairwell leading up to who-knows-where. Dad sat me down in the chair and told me not to move and he would be right back. He ascended the stairs with what sounded like two steps at a time. I remember thinking “I thought only kids did that.” I could hear really quiet and muffled voices for about two or three minutes, then my dad came back down. We left through the double doors and got in the car, still without one employee speaking, or even looking at us. As we rounded the corner, there was a black car pulling out of the front parking lot with someone in the back. The brightly lit main lobby was now empty, but for some reason the suspicious man’s car was still in the lot.

We turned away from the post office and drove silently to the ice cream store at the bottom of the hill. I got mint chocolate chip and dad got a bag of cashews. As he handed me the cone he smiled and, under his breath (as if to let me in on a secret) he said, “You probably shouldn’t mention this to your mother.” I was so nervous that I didn’t speak, but nodded and sat quietly, eating my ice cream.

The Bottle Opener

One of my favorite memories of my father was going with him to Larry’s Tavern on a Saturday afternoon. I would sit proudly on the bar stool next to his. Dad seemed to know everyone, but not in a completely buddy-buddy way. They said hello, or nodded, but rarely do I remember a conversation. Not that I would have noticed. My focus remained on the little green onion potato chips, Seven-Up and, when I got lucky, a tiny glass of my dad’s Pabst. 

Saturday was not the only time my dad visited Larry’s. His weekday routine was pretty predictable. He left the factory at 3:30, stopped for one beer­­—two at the most—bought a 6 pack from the bartender and headed home. I know this because I used to stake him out. You see, my favorite movie of all time was “Emil and the Detectives,” so I spent every waking moment spying on anyone I could. I would ride my bike down Elm Avenue to see if my dad’s red Rambler was in Larry’s parking lot and wait for him to come out and follow him home, trying never to be seen. 

One day, the Rambler wasn’t there.  When this pattern was broken two days in a row, I started poking around the neighborhood. I scouted all of the other bars on Elm Avenue, of which there were more than a dozen. Even for a youngster I thought this seemed like a lot. It took two days of searching, but I finally found the red Rambler parked on the alley behind the Green Front, a slightly lower class establishment than my father generally patronized.  I had never been inside that bar—known as a hangout for bikers and other criminal fringe—and to my knowledge neither had my dad. But there was no mistaking the Rambler, and it was that time of day. I didn’t dare go inside, so I waited down the street, out of sight of the bar and the Rambler. Eventually my dad drove by and I tailed him the whole six blocks home. 

The next day I repeated the stake out. Like clockwork, the red Rambler was once again parked in the alley. My father’s routine seemed not to vary. Why was he in an even seedier bar than Larry’s? I needed to find out. I enlisted my pal Joe to join me. We would meet every day at precisely 3:25 in the little park down the street from The Green Front. We would ditch our bikes in the gulley behind the park and climb the jungle gym for a better view. From there, we could see dad’s car arriving and the back door of the bar where he entered and, 45 minutes later, would exit. We began sticking around after he left, trying to see some reason why he was suddenly in enemy territory. Joe even went inside the bar one day, claiming that he needed to go to the bathroom. He was quickly and sternly turned out. 

We kept this surveillance up for nearly two weeks before Joe had to go away to scout camp, leaving me on my own. It had to have been a coincidence that the first day of Joe’s camp was the day that it all went down. I was there in my normal perch, waiting patiently for the Rambler. By now, I could pace my climbing and hanging upside down with the car arrival. I would round the lower rung, hoist myself up between the two upper rungs and sit back like a hammock, waiting. Strangely, the Rambler was a no show. Instead, a dark colored Ford with a single flashing red light haphazardly attached to its roof pulled up, and two men in ill-fitting suits got out. It seemed like they weren’t going to stay long because they didn’t bother pulling off to the side of the alley like my dad did. Less than a minute later I heard sirens; not ambulance or fire truck sirens, but low, guttural sounding sirens like you hear on Dragnet. I jumped down, grabbed my bike and pedaled as fast as I could to the front of the bar, stopping a few doors down the street. There were six police cars on the street and one straddling the sidewalk in front of the Green Front. Some of the officers stayed out front and others ran in. They all had their guns drawn; something I’d only seen on TV. A few other kids from the neighborhood joined me and we watched the activity from a safe distance. After several long minutes, four of the cops emerged from the bar, each escorting a man in handcuffs. They then put the rough looking men in the back of two of the cruisers and drove off, no sirens or lights. And just like that, the place was back to normal.

I don’t know who those men were or what they were suspected of doing. I don’t know what, if anything, my father had to do with the arrests. What I do know is that, as I suspected, my dad returned the next day to Larry’s and his normal routine.

The Zippo Lighter

My favorite times with my father were spent on the front porch, me drinking a coke, and him drinking a Pabst and smoking Marlboros. He sat in an old swing and flicked his butts into the gravel driveway behind him. He didn’t talk much. If the quiet of the evening were broken by the sound of fire engine sirens, one of us would suggest following them. We could tell the difference between fire, ambulance and police sirens and the latter two were of no interest. But a fire, that was a spectacle that we had to see for ourselves.

Often, we either couldn’t find the trucks, or it was a false alarm and we would pass the trucks going the other way on one of the main thoroughfares, as my father called Elm, Maple and Franklin.     

 But once in a long while we would hit the jackpot and find a burning building or barn, with multiple firefighters rushing about, trying to extinguish the flames. We would stand with the gathering crowd and watch the damage with curiosity, and marvel at the efficiency of the rescue effort. It was better than any Disney movie.

The last fire that I remember attending was Downtown, and it was maybe the largest I had ever seen. I was thirteen or fourteen at the time—a little old for this sort of burning voyeurism—but my dad was still interested and I still relished the time with him.  

A four-story department store had caught fire late on a Saturday evening. The store was closed and the word quickly made it’s way through the assembled onlookers that no one was inside. It was massive. By the time the seven trucks and many firefighters from all over the area got it under control it was the middle of the night. The next morning there were still trucks there, but the building was reduced to a few steel beams and a two-story pile of smoldering rubble. I know this because we went back down the next day to see it. My dad and I had been to many fires over the years, but this one was different. He suggested that I sit on a bench at the courthouse, a safe distance from the rubble, while he crossed the street. I watched him closely as he walked the perimeter of the fire, and then found two men in suits, wearing hard hats, at the opposite end of the scene—probably a block from where I sat. He talked to them for a long time. They were too far away for me to make out any of the conversation, but it looked serious. My dad did strange things sometimes, but never did he actually seem to be participating in something like this right in front of me. As a teenager, I was less interested in making up stories to go along with his peculiar behavior and more interested in knowing what was really happening. 

When he returned, I asked him point blank what he was doing. I’ll never forget his terse, succinct reply. “I know those guys and I wanted to see if they thought anything was suspicious about the fire.”

Why did my dad care if there was anything suspicious about this fire? So I asked, “Did they? Was there?”

“We shall see.”

“We shall see? Is that all?”

 He stopped and thought for a moment. “You probably shouldn’t mention this to your mother.” 

Six months later I saw in the paper that two men were arrested for arson and insurance fraud pertaining to the department store fire. No clue what role my father played in that, but by now I knew it was not nothing.

All of my father’s belongings were sold, stored or given away to the Goodwill. I closed the little wooden box and packed it away, along with my overactive imagination, and slid it into the attic. My mother was settled into her routine and seemed to be coping well without my father. The fall semester at Boston College was starting in a few weeks. It was time to go. 

On my solo drive across Ohio, Pennsylvania and into New England, I stopped for the night at a hotel that my parents and I had twice before stayed. The Hartford Hilton was just off the freeway, was affordable, and had a bar. I checked in, carried my boxes of crap into my room and headed to the bar to put the endless miles of the PA turnpike behind me.

The lounge had not been updated in quite some time. The musty, industrial carpet stuck to the bottom of my shoes. The place was empty except two gentlemen at a corner table and a young guy at the bar. I sat at the end opposite of the guy and ordered a beer. It took no time for the stranger to relocate to my end and attempt to engage me in some political conversation. I didn’t take the bait, but listened politely. He went on and on about how the insurance companies were the bane of all existence in this country. Had I noticed that every tall building in every major city in the US had a name of some insurance company or another scrawled across the top of it? He wasn’t wrong, but I had no interest in participating in what quickly escalated into a rant. Pretty soon he was leaning into me and expressing in hushed tones that he was going to blow up these institutions one by one. It was the only way to show the world how evil they truly were. I was starting to get a little nervous. The bartender was steering clear, and I really had no valid reason to excuse myself without seeming to want to get rid of this guy. Fortunately, what must have been a wave of paranoia came over him and he paid his bill and disappeared without explanation. With relief, I ordered another beer and hoped for the dread to pass. 

Instead, the gentlemen from the corner table joined me at the bar—flanking me on both sides, a little too close for casual conversation. 

“Do you know that guy?” asked one. 

 “Never seen him before in my life, and hopefully never will again.”

At this point they relaxed a little, flashed badges of some sort and asked to see my ID. I obliged. The one on my left took it and studied it for a long time, looked up at me and then at the Ohio driver’s license. He chuckled and handed it to his partner. The partner’s eyes widened and he said, “Ohio, huh? Tobias Osborne, Toby Osborne? Are you Dan Osborne’s youngest?”

“You know my dad?”

“We knew your dad. We were really sorry to hear about his passing. I’m so sorry,” the other answered and extended his hand, “Dale Wilson and this is Mike Parker. We’ve both known your dad for years.”

Those were the plainest names I think I’d ever heard, almost like they made them up. “Nice to meet you, but how on earth do two agents from the…?”

“FBI,” said Mike.

“How do two agents from the FBI in Connecticut know a factory worker in Zanesville?”

“Well Toby, if we told you that we would have to kill you.” 

We all laughed, me a little more nervously than them. 

“No, seriously,” Dale said, “We would.”

They laughed again, but that was the end of the discussion about the hows and whys. They continued about the stories they used to hear about my exploits on my bike and how I liked “Emil and the Detectives” and how they liked it too. They bought me a couple of beers and a ham and cheese sandwich. They took turns telling me what a wonderful man my father was, how smart and clever and fun he could be—still never letting on how they really knew him.

At the end of the evening they said their goodbyes, half-jokingly asked if I really did know the guy from earlier, and said they were keeping an eye on him. They thought he was just a big mouth, but threats to blow up big buildings had to be taken seriously and so that’s what they were doing. They didn’t have any reason to arrest him yet, but they would eventually find something.  They stood to leave. If I had any doubt that these two guys knew my father, it was dispelled immediately when Mike leaned over to me, and in a hushed voice said, “You probably shouldn’t mention this to your mother.”

3 thoughts on “My Father Was a Spy?

  1. Love it! Brought back some wonderful memories of my dad. He never went to the “Green” Front”, but every night after work there was a stop at the Cosy Corner next door. One or two beers and a six pack to take home. IF I had walked to his office after school rather than taking the bus, I got to drive him home that big old LTD. LOL. Thanks Chris

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  2. While not usually a fan of the short story format, I found this one particularly enjoyable. There is more than a little of Chris in Tobias, I feel. As a Zanesvillian I found the local references fun to watch for. Short stories are difficult for me because I enjoy good character development, which often takes more pages than a short story affords. That said, there are some great, brief characters here. Your father wasn’t really a spy……was he?

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    1. Although an employee of the federal government, no he was not a spy. There are shards of truth throughout the story though. The house was rumored to have a tunnel to the river used in the Underground Railroad. I did witness my father participate in the apprehension of someone spying into the post office with an eyepiece through the glass in the PO Boxes, and there was a scene similar to the one in the Hartford Hilton, sans FBI agents.

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