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First Person: Remembering what might have been

Richard Szlosek at his home in Northampton.

Richard Szlosek at his home in Northampton. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

January 1961 should have been a joyous time for me. John F. Kennedy was about to be inaugurated, the Boston Celtics still dominated the NBA, the American Football League had been founded and I was of legal drinking age. But, if there had existed such a title, I would have been voted Mr. Trepidation for that year. I was about to begin my final semester at Amherst College and I was totally confused about the future. Did I really want to try to become a professor of literature? How about law school or perhaps business school?

I was not alone in my indecision. My friend Ron was one of the brightest guys in the class. He was as extroverted as I was introverted and our bond was a shared offbeat sense of humor that poked quiet fun at everything. We undoubtedly irritated a lot of our classmates with our constant joking around, but neither of us was laughing as we attempted to figure out our futures.

A few days into our final semester, Ron told me he’d seen a notice that the CIA would be interviewing on campus next week. The clouds fell from my eyes. The CIA! Of course, that would be perfect for me. For starters, 1961 was the height of the Cold War. In the waning days of the Eisenhower Administration, the Soviets had shot down one of our U-2 spy planes, resulting in an international crisis. There were huge tensions over Berlin. The U.S.S.R. was a real old-fashioned enemy with lots of troops and weapons they could use against the West. Conflict between the Soviet bloc and the West seemed inevitable, and I stood ready to do my part in the looming struggle. After all, I knew Polish, was studying Russian, and was good at languages. Many of the great spies in history had unobtrusive personalities and there was no one more inconspicuous than me. I could enter or leave a room and no one would ever notice. It seemed to me I was a natural for their service. I signed up for an interview and so did Ron with his what-do-I-have-to-lose attitude.

All our friends knew about our appointments and, when they asked, here is what we told people that we did.

I had my interview at 1:30. It seemed to go all right.

Ron went in at 4:30. The interviewer said, “Your name is Ron …”

“No,” said my friend. “My name is Rich Szlosek.”

“Wait a minute. Didn’t I just interview someone by that name?” the interviewer asked, frantically looking through his notes.

“Yeah,” said Ron. “Pretty good disguise, huh?”

We then kidded everyone that, from then on, the CIA probably kept files on us as undesirables somewhere deep in the bowels of their headquarters.

The story always got laughs, but here is what actually happened. Nothing. We both had standard interviews and the representative apparently was not impressed with either one of us. We never heard from him again. Ron took the LSATs at the last possible moment, scored in the 98th percentile, went to Harvard Law and became a partner in a major New York law firm. I went to graduate school in American Studies but never became an academic. I took the long way around to get to law school but I have no complaints.

Still, I sometimes wonder, what would have happened if I had impressed the CIA? Would I have been merely an analyst or could I have been trained to run a network of spies?

The interviewer was sharply dressed with every hair in place. Was he unimpressed with my suit from Northampton’s own Cahill & Hodges or was my hair not parted right? Would it have made a difference if my grades were a little higher or did he just decide I wasn’t going to fit into the club? Who knows? I have no regrets that I was not set on the path to “spookdom,” but a small part of me wonders where I would be today if that had happened. However, like the old song says, I wonder but I really don’t want to know.

Richard Szlosek, a retired attorney, lives in Northampton.

First Person welcomes submissions from readers. Email columns of 800 words or fewer to Suzanne Wilson at swilson@gazettenet.com.

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