Nancy Drew books

The Middle Distance 3.1.13: I Spy

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Photo by Sean Cayton

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.

 

4 Responses to The Middle Distance 3/1/13: I Spy

  1. Tim Boddington says:

    Crimes and misdemeanors, very little crime, mostly misdemeanors. A good day’s work. Thanks for the beautiful image of loving embrace.

  2. Dotti Richardson says:

    This reminds me so much of something that I did in the sixth grade. My friends and I decided we wanted to help the FBI. We formed a club and actually had meetings. Can’t remember what we did at those meeting except eat snacks that our mothers made. We sent a letter to J.Edgar Hoover to let him know that we were very interested in helping the FBI. We actually got a letter back from J. Edgar Hoover! Sure wish I had kept that letter.
    Loved your story, as I always do.

  3. Cate Noyes Boddington says:

    Oh what a wonderful piece! I remember paying spy so well! Thanks for taking me back to a thrilling time!

  4. Dixie Cole says:

    Lovely! Thanks, for this Katherine, once again touching and real.

News

Getty Images
December 7, 2016 | KHN · Early intervention for treat psychosis and grants to train more psychologists and psychiatrists are just a few of the ways the 21st Century Cares Act would change mental health care.
 

Getty Images
December 7, 2016 | NPR · America remembers the fallen — and how the nation responded to what President Franklin Roosevelt called a “date which will live in infamy.”
 

AP
December 7, 2016 | NPR · Royal Dutch Shell has signed an agreement to develop oil and gas fields in Iran, despite the nuclear deal’s uncertain future under Trump.
 

Arts & Life

December 7, 2016 | NPR · With tantalizing twists like liqueur, coffee and spices, kids may turn up their little red noses at these decadent delights — but that just leaves more for you and your adult friends.
 

Getty Images
December 7, 2016 | FA · The Fox News host tells Fresh Air that she worries about Trump’s “de-legitimization” of the media. “Too many millions of Americans aren’t listening at all to what the press tells them,” Kelly says.
 

December 7, 2016 | NPR · New social science research shows that women in the arts earn significantly less than men across the board.
 

Music

Courtesy of the artist
December 7, 2016 | NPR · This week’s episode features music by children’s entertainers Cilla Fisher and Artie Trezise.
 

Mountain Stage
December 7, 2016 | NPR · Hear the singer-songwriter play songs from her second solo album, In The Magic Hour, live onstage.
 

Courtesy of the artist
December 7, 2016 | NPR · Alynda Lee Segarra tells NPR her new song is about “people of color claiming their space and their right to exist.” It’s dedicated to the protesters at Standing Rock and Peñuelas, Puerto Rico.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab