Monday, January 3, 2011

Secret Sam

The Window View, 2008

We called him Secret Sam. That wasn’t his real name, of course. But at the time that’s all we could come up with.

When I was in my teens we lived in a brick house built on top of a low sand dune about a block from the ocean. It was a sturdy two-story duplex, but it looked out of place at first, sitting as it did on top of the dune surrounded by nothing but sand. The house overlooked an even bigger sandy block that had once been the valley between several dunes, but was now flattened into a city block-sized sand lot.

There were just a few houses on the street when our house was built. From my bedroom I could look down the street to Atlantic Avenue and across to the ocean. The closest neighbor was two lots away.

One morning during a Christmas break from school, I happened to notice a car, a late model Chrysler, driving slowly up and down our. The street was paved with crushed stone and tar in those days, but was more often than not covered with sand during the winter. There weren’t enough people on the street for there to be much traffic. I noticed the car that morning because of the way the it moved slowly up the street, stopping briefly in front of each of the houses along the way.

For over a week I noticed this car visiting our street at different times of the day. Each time the driver would slow down and look at each house. The next week the car appeared one morning and pulled into the driveway in front of the house closest to us. The driver got out of the car. He was dressed in a suit and wore the kind of fedora that people of my father’s generation wore whenever they went out of the house. Later in the day I noticed that all of the windows of the house he’d entered had been covered from the inside with tin foil. Still later in the afternoon an ambulance pulled up out front and two burly attendants carried a stretcher occupied by someone small wrapped up against the cold like a mummy into the house.

By dinner time the phone line was buzzing with neighbors calling each other to see what was going on with the tin foil-covered windows. It was easy to conclude that the man had something to hide. Hence, the nickname “Secret Sam.”

There was so little activity in the house over the next several days—only the man continuing to drive his car up and down the street before parking in front of the house—that I finally called the police. That night, the Chrysler pulled up in front of our house and the suited man came up and knocked on our door. We were cautious as one might be with a stranger. But it turned out that the man just wanted to introduce himself and explain what was going on.

It seems we hadn’t been far off in our reckoning. The man’s real name was Marvin Farmer. He was a federal agent, in fact the head of the local Secret Service office. That conjured up all kinds of cloak and dagger possibilities in my mind. But Mr. Farmer explained that most of his work involved counterfeiting, handwriting analysis, cigarette running and drug case property seizures.

And the tin foil? Mr. Farmer frequently worked at night, he explained. The tin foil was to block the light when he needed to sleep during the day.

And the person bundled in from the ambulance? That turned out to be Mrs. Farmer, who was convalescing from lung surgery.

Until houses were built between us, the Farmers were our next-door neighbors for a few years. They were a peculiar couple. I never saw Mr. Farmer in anything but a three-piece suit. Mrs. Farmer was a frail woman, not unfriendly, but rarely seen out in the sunlight. They had no children. I never saw her leave the house and no one ever visited them.

I’m reminded of all of this because the newspaper reported the other day that Lawrence M. Farmer died at age 88 in a local hospital the day after Christmas. The notice mentioned that during his career he’d protected six American presidents, twenty-eight foreign heads of state and been known as one of the world’s most respected handwriting analysts.

He was known professionally by his first name, Lawrence. But we’ll always know him as Secret Sam.


  1. Wow. I can't imagine a better story to start my work day off with. Thank you and welcome back!

    Happy New Year!

  2. Fascinating story. My secret person, as I grew up in a suburb of Chicago was the father of my girlfriend. Turned out he was a member, high up, of the mob.

  3. Amazing! He sounds as if his temperament was well-suited to what he did. Definitely would have been the Boo Radley of the neighborhood for kids!

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.