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When I was 9, I decided to be a spy. This was not what I wanted to be when I grew up, but right then and there, in my sleepy, southern Kentucky hometown where it seemed nothing ever happened except in books.
This was 1964, and the girls who inspired me were not rebels like Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet of Harriet the Spy. I wouldn’t have known what to think of an edgy sixth-grade girl roaming the streets of New York City, notebook in hand and attitude intact. The girls who inspired me were milder, more traditional feminine role models from the pages of mass-market young adult serial novels: Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and Donna Parker.
Of these, Nancy Drew was the best known and most glamorous. Kentucky author Bobbie Ann Mason in her book Girl Sleuth described Nancy as “immaculate and [as] self-possessed as a Miss America on tour. She is as cool as Mata Hari and as sweet as Betty Crocker.” I couldn’t quite identify with Nancy who played golf and tennis expertly, rode horses, zipped around country roads in a vintage roadster and was comfortable sipping tea with the local gentry.
Trixie Belden appealed to me more, an all-American girl who hailed from Crabapple Farm in rural New York. Trixie did chores. She took care of her little brother. She was short, a freckled strawberry blonde with unruly hair. Together, she and her friend Honey Wheeler — sleeker, taller, and lonelier — dreamed of forming the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency, and developed their skills spying on neighbors and friends, solving minor mysteries in settings I could picture — a cave, a farmhouse, an old mill.
Even more appealing to me, though certainly the most mundane, was Donna Parker, an all-around good girl who worked on the school newspaper, whose fiery best friend, redhead Ricky West, provided drama and counter-balance. Donna’s adventures took place at a summer camp on a lake, at a mysterious house in the woods. I grew to love her in the volume in which her parents went abroad but were not able to take the kids along, thus leaving Donna and her brother behind in the care of a neighbor. From the point of view of the middle girl in a four-child, two-parent family, nothing sounded more liberating than this.
When my best friend Lynn Fly and I became spies, we called ourselves the Parker Twins Detective Agency. We made a business flyer advertising our services. We synchronized our wind-up wristwatches, and sent code messages to each other across our fourth-grade classroom, decoding with pencil and eraser. In the afternoons, we experimented with invisible ink made of lemon juice, the message revealed by holding the paper over a hot light bulb. We filched Lynn’s brother Johnny’s walkie-talkie set and practiced communicating around corners and through walls.
I’m not sure what we were looking for. We made up jobs in anticipation of one day having a real one. We longed not so much for adventure as for there to be mystery in our lives. We wanted to discover people’s secrets.
We convinced our friend Melissa to let us come over to her house to spy on her teenaged sister. Cherry teased her hair and went out with boys and wore frosted lipstick and left her bras to dry on the towel rack in the bathroom — surely she must have secrets waiting to be discovered. Lynn and I spent several afternoons stalking her with no results until, finally, Cherry blew our cover, telling us to scram before she told our mothers we’d been spying on her.
We were deflated but not defeated. That night, in the early evening, we raced from tree to shrub, across the open back yards of Lynn’s neighbors’ houses to peek into the sliding glass doors of their family rooms. When the next-door neighbors’ giant Dobermans leapt out from the shadows on their chains, snarling like lions, we retreated to Lynn’s house, breathless.
Before going to bed, we spied on the Flys — Lynn’s brother Johnny, her mother and her father. Lynn followed Johnny into the garage where he practiced drums, and I slunk across the living room floor to the door frame of the kitchen. I peeked around the corner and there were Lynn’s parents, smiling at each other in a close embrace. Right by the kitchen cabinets, they kissed like movie stars, his hand in her hair, her hand across his broad back. Thrilled, I crept to Lynn’s room and made notes beneath the bed sheet we’d fashioned into a tent. My career as a spy had reached its pinnacle.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.