by Francine Mathews
The thunk-thunk of a Chinook grew louder in the damp Virginia air; it swung into view just as we lifted our heads from the deep grass of our hiding place. It wasn’t the Enemy, with their forward-looking infra-red that could detect body heat even in the densest forest; it was salvation, in the form of our pickup chopper. We’d made it to the rendezvous point and survived the ordeal of Escape and Evasion.
|Daniel Craig’s stunt double in a helicopter still from Spectre.|
My squad mate, Karen, lifted her M16 in the air. “Oh, yeah, baby,” she crowed. “Grandma was airlifted out of an undisclosed CIA location!” She was twenty-two at the time and had no kids. She quit our elite training program soon afterward. She told us she’d enrolled purely to have kickass cocktail party conversation for the rest of her life. And she was right: I always wait for the pregnant pause at the dinner table after some new acquaintance says, “Wait. Seriously? You worked for the CIA?”
I did. And it was worth all those hours of being hunted by land and air just to say so.
I wasn’t born to be a spy. But I grew up near Washington, D.C., during the Deep Throat years, when nothing seemed sexier than a small brown sign off the George Washington Parkway. CIA, it said. Just like that. An exit ramp disappeared into a thicket of trees. Could you even take that exit? And live to talk about it? I had to know.
|Sean Connery and Ursula Andress on the set of Dr. No|
All writers begin life as readers—and I cut my teeth on LeCarre. I devoured Ludlum, MacInnes and Deighton. I pressed copies of Nelson DeMille’s Charm School on prospective boyfriends. I wanted it all: the cat suit, the thigh holster, the midnight assignation under a bridge in Prague. I could quote Bond from Dr. No to Never Say Never Again, and there was a special place in my heart for Vesper.
But it’s tough to be a woman in America and really love Bond. Bond Girls have copious breasts and Barbie Doll legs. Bond Girls have names like Honey Ryder. And most importantly, Bond Girls always die–usually because they insist on wearing high heels, or they can’t drive a stick shift. They trip on their stilettos as they race to the helicopter, and expire on the word “James…!”
Far better to wear combat boots, as I did. Provided you carry a particular shade of lipstick in your gear—MAC’s Chili will do just fine—that pairs brilliantly with camouflage.
I applied to the Agency as an analyst, but after a year of FBI background checks and a polygraph, I was pulled into the CIA’s training program as a special treat. For a year I learned to be a spy: tossing supplies out of open airplane doors to imaginary partisans waiting in the bush; rappelling off a helicopter skid with an M16 strapped to my back; making brush passes and taking agent meetings and servicing dead drops. This was long before waterboarding and Rendition and the ugly outing of Valerie Plame. A kinder, gentler intelligence era. Our worst enemy was Moammar Gaddafi, who downed Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. CIA employees died on that plane. I was allowed to work on the investigation. I spent four years at the Agency before quitting to write spy novels, and I don’t regret a day of it. My knowledge of the covert world has proved endlessly useful as background to the stories I tell—particularly my latest, TOO BAD TO DIE, which follow’s Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, as he goes rogue during World War II.
Intelligence is a funny business, worked in the shadows with occasional bursts of glory. There was the time I flew to Houston to debrief George H. W. Bush; the time I got a yellow sticky note of praise from Al Gore; and the never-to-be-forgotten moment when I donned a Dolly Parton wig and rhinestone glasses to meet a terrorist asset. Raising kids, I’ve gotten endless mileage out of my old career. When one of my sons—then about five—told me scornfully that he could never be a writer because “that’s a girl’s job, Mom,” I narrowed my eyes and said, with just the right hint of menace, “Remember, Sweetie. It’s Mommie who knows how to fire a grenade gun. Not Daddy.”
What are your fantasies about the cloak and dagger world?
Until next time–
Love this post! And have you seen the speculation that Gillian Anderson (Scully on X Files) is said to be in the running to play the next 007?
Wow. I was in awe of your writing, and I knew you'd been a CIA analyst, but I didn't know this about you. I am so impressed. And a little envious. When I was a pre-teen, I wanted to be a spy. I dressed up in a trench coat and tried following people through shopping malls in Cincinnati (you can imagine how inconspicuous I was), but that's as far as it went. You've lived what I fantasized about doing, and it shows in your fabulous novels. Great way to deal with a five year old boy, by the way.
That five year-old is now 21, unbelievably. His comment cracked me up at the time, Sandy, because as women writers we all know how male-dominated publishing actually is. Told me that we change guys' perceptions–even at a tender age–just by doing what we do.
I SOOO want to be a spy!
Omg, Francine, what a fascinating, exciting, I-love-it-&-you-to-death post! Spy girl! You are so brave to have done all of that, and you write so well! Y'rs, Waltera Mitty
I don't know about brave, Gayle. But I learned a lot about myself. I'd never been particularly athletic–the last of a family of women whose biggest sport was golf. I gradually grew to understand how fearful people can become adrenaline junkies with repeated exposure to terror. After a few weeks, you wake up each morning with the thought: What exciting thing will I do today??? Real life demands a bit of downward adjustment afterwards.
Hmmmmm. Hooray for INTJ's, Fran! I'm so happy for your success and for each new fabulous read!
That's why I READ and write spy novels. I can pretend I'm so brave, imagine myself doing daring deeds. I'm just not sure I would be great in the field. It would be fun to try. I especially love the lipstick and cammo advice–though you tend to go in for things more orange-y. That color brings out the sallow in me.
I'm always fascinated to hear about a writer's former life. I love that you actually worked in intelligence. I grew up during the Cold War, came of age when Gorbachev was in power and saw the Berlin Wall fall. The James Bond movies were always a part of my life. I too thought about a career with the CIA. But then I was seduced by summer job in high tech. I look forward to reading your latest thriller, Too Bad to Die.
Steve! Great to hear from you! That five-year-old who is now a 21-year-old is ALSO an INTJ….
Ursula, there's a piece of the Berlin Wall on the CIA campus in Langley, by one of the running trails. One of the numerous souvenirs that dot the landscape…except it's starting to seem like deja vu all over again with little green men slipping into Ukraine…
I'm impressed with your experience. Great to have that background to make your stories real.
For the past several Bond movies, the producers have given us strong women to fight alongside Bond. My favs are Michelle Yeoh (in Tomorrow Never Dies) and Halle Berry (in Die Another Day). They were real kick-ass women. So was Eve Moneypenny in Skyfall. Though not technically a Bond "girl" Judith Dench as M was every bit as tough. About time!