When Your Father is a Special Agent
by Maura Conlon-McIvor, author of FBI Girl (Warner Books)
Newspapers these days are flooded with news about the FBI. Growing up the daughter of a Hoover-era agent, I wonder what my father would say about the current state of affairs. Chances are he'd keep me guessing.
My father, Joe Conlon, was a field agent in Southern California. The FBI in our household was sacrosanct, almost as high in the ranks as our ancient Catholic faith. On one family room wall hung a revered picture of Jesus; on another our autographed photo of J. Edgar Hoover. My father called the bureau a "we" organization -- indeed Hoover sent my parents a letter of congratulations each time a new sibling was born!
Joe Conlon weathered the depression, served in Burma during World War II, and attended Brooklyn Law School on the G.I. Bill. In Stiffed, Susan Faludi writes of men like my dad: "Boys whose Depression-era fathers could neither provide for them nor guide them into manhood were placed under the benevolent wing of a vast male-run orphanage called the army and sent into battle." The FBI was a similar bastion for my father -- and in many ways home.
Communism, not terrorism, was the scourge back then, and an ensuing sense of danger captured my young imagination. These suspicions were confirmed Sunday evenings on the TV show, The FBI, starring my hero, Inspector Lew Erskine, played by the handsome Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. I acquired a new identity, transforming into a sleuth who devoured crime novels, logged unfamiliar neighborhood license plate numbers in my notebook, and kept watch at night awaiting the safe return of my father.
The Irish are purported to be grand storytellers, but Joe Conlon didn't fit that mold. If there were ever a Stoic Clan, my father would have been chief. I didn't know much about him -- and I knew even less about his work. I read between the lines, relied on clues, spied upon his clockwork ritual of removing black tie, stashing badge and gun in top drawer, lighting up another cigarette.
As a teenager, I discovered that he pursued intelligence work at the nearby Long Beach Harbor, where 20,000-ton freighters from Communist ports docked. It was a stretch imagining the father who pumped up our bike tires as the same man boarding foreign ships and discerning the validity of bomb threats. "Dad, can you please tell me what happened?" was my usual plea, followed by the eternal response -- "later."
After I went away to college, I started hearing from my dad. He wrote me every week, reporting with a sardonic twist: "Attended the Society of Former FBI Agents national convention. The nicest compliment I got was when I forgot to wear my name tag and two guys who I hadn't seen in 20 years came up and said, 'Joe Conlon?!' Of course they ruined everything by adding, 'You're looking great.' It was all very democratic -- even the guys on crutches and in wheelchairs were told they looked great."
My father, the special agent, loved making his daughter smile. Years later he caught me off-guard when he sent a large manila envelope just prior to his diagnosis of lung cancer. It was filled with correspondence written by J. Edgar Hoover and addressed to Special Agent Joseph Conlon. My father had been saving these letters during his 27-year tenure like a kid collecting baseball cards. I knew that in passing on his prize, he was signaling his life's end.
This fall I will attend the Society of
Former FBI Agents national conference, as my late father proudly once
did. How I'd love to write him a letter and tell him all about it -- or
better yet, to come up to him in his dark suit and Old Spice cologne and
say, 'Joe Conlon?! You're looking great." I know he'd smile in return. I
know I wouldn't ruin a thing.
Posted with permission of the publisher.