By Christopher Heide
“Oh my god. You guys are so old” says Amy Carlson to her parents as they sit down to a late family dinner. “They were dancing to rap music in the car!” she says to me. Sitting down to eat steaming plates of spaghetti, the Carlson family engages in the behaviors of a typical American family. Mom is drinking beer. Dad is drinking water. Mom and Dad make a joke. Amy rolls her eyes and sighs. Mom and Dad make another joke. Mary Ann tells me that humor is really important to her and her husband and that they try to inject as much humor into their lives as possible. Only death and suicide should be treated as serious subjects. As I sit down to eat with the Carlson family, the joking and laughter that they express during dinner makes me feel as I were in the presence of a truly close family. From an outsider’s perspective, the Carlson’s appear to be a rather boring and normal family- whatever normal means. Looking at them reminds me of a Normal Rockwell painting. However, appearances can be deceiving.
Bob and Mary Ann Carlson are high ranking FBI agents. Given their physical appearances, I would have never guessed that to be true. Bob is a personable man of about average build. He looks like he is in shape, but he doesn’t look strong enough to have been an FBI agent. Maybe I expect every federal agent to look like Jack Bauer. He definitely acts like a cop, though. He speaks with a lot of confidence. Mary Ann is slightly overweight and walks somewhat slower than her husband.
By all appearances, I assumed that they were just the nice and carefree parents of Amy and her two brothers; both of whom probably had really boring jobs. As soon as I learned of their professions, the theme music from Mission Impossible began playing in my head.
Before J. Edgar Hoover’s death in 1972, not a single female was allowed to be a field agent for the FBI. Mary Ann was one of the first 200 women allowed to do so. Mary Ann tells me that she joined the FBI because her friend told her to do it and that she really did not want to do scientific research for the next 40 years of her life. And despite going to law school, Bob really didn’t want to be a lawyer. They had choices in life.
My father never really had a decent hand dealt to him. After barely graduating from high school, he went to work on a fishing barge in Alaska for four months. Upon his return his parents kicked him out and he has been on his own ever since. However, instead of finding a way to better his life and further his education on his own, like my mother did, Rod just blamed his parents for life’s shortcomings and was very comfortable with his mundane existence. I never understood my father’s lack of drive or determination to better himself.
Bob and Mary Ann met during their initial FBI training camp. “Doing the training camp was like living in a college dorm, except with better food.”
All new agents at that time were being sent to one of the top 10 offices within 6 months after they left training. It turned out that Bob's wife did not want him in the FBI, and certainly did not want to move to Detroit. They parted ways. He remained in Detroit and worked general criminal and became a part of the surveillance group. He also became a SWAT member.
Mary Ann’s top 10 office was NYC, and she had a great time as a single girl in the big Apple chasing down and "thwarting" the efforts of the Soviets. There were several successes on many fronts through the efforts of a great squad and supervisor.
In terms of dating however, “My view was that I work with these guys, I am not going to date them. Would I really want to be around my husband 24 hours, home and work?” said Mary Ann.
In 1982, there was a communication that came through the FBI about a new team under consideration, the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), which would be based in Washington DC. It was US Government’s plan to fill an antiterrorism need demonstrated by the 1972 assassination of the Israeli Olympians in Munich. Mary Ann joined this team handling the tactical operations, since her physical strength was “sub-par”. During this time, Bob was working as a regular FBI agent, handling what later became known as the Pizza Connection Case in New York City, where the mob used a pizza parlor to launder money. After getting to know each other better at FBI social functions, and despite Mary Ann’s initial reservations, Bob and Mary Ann dated and eventually married in 1985.
As Mary Ann and Bob recount their relationship with each other and the FBI, they hold hands. Two FBI agents holding hands. How interesting.
I am three years old and my dad is attempting to punish me for misbehaving. I must have been holding my spoon incorrectly or something. As I storm the stairs to my room, I turn around and say “God damn you, Rod Heide”. I like to call him Rod. He doesn’t like that. He prefers Dad. I don’t.
When Bob wanted to try out for the HRT and Mary Ann decided to leave the team. “We were trying to start a family,” says Mary Ann. “We didn’t think it was a good idea for us to both work in the field.”
“There was a running joking within the bureau. Every time there was a prison riot, Mary Ann was pregnant” says Bob. “People were taking bets on when the next prison riot would happen while Mary Ann was pregnant. Isn’t that right, boss?”
Mary Ann nods.
“During all of the big FBI events during the late 80’s and 90’d, Bob was there. He was at Marielito, the prison riots in Oakdale, Los Angeles, Atlanta (1987 when Matt was born), and Taladega (1991 when Amy was born). He was also at Ruby Ridge, Waco, LA riots, and the Montana Freemen standoff. I was either delivering a baby or taking care of them.”
I ask Amy what is like to have parents who have such important and prolific jobs. “Really, it’s not different at all. As early as third grade I knew that they worked for the FBI and how important their jobs were, but I really didn’t feel any different than any of my friends. My parents were actually less strict than some of my friend’s parents. I mean, my dad is a bit more reactionary in how he disciplines me and my brothers, whereas my mom is a bit more of an ally. That is probably just because my dad travels a lot, so my mom sometimes says ’just wait until your dad gets home’. Mostly they are pretty fierce team. I really don’t think that has anything to do with the FBI. I just know that I have a lot of respect for both of my parents”, she says.
“I think that is just because Amy doesn’t know any differently. For her, us being in the FBI was all she knew,” says Bob.
“Bob was always traveling and I was at home with the kids. In terms of discipline, Bob definitely became the hammer when he came home,” says Mary Ann.
I hear the garage door slam shut. I sigh and look at my sister. She sighs too. I feel nauseated. Dad is home.
It is a humid and sticky summer day, and my sister and I have been watching TV for hours on end in our naturally cool basement. I hear a pop can slam down on the counter and my dad storms down the stairs and begins to yell at me and my sister for how lazy and irresponsible we are. It must have slipped his mind that she and I both make good grades and that we were at swim team practice all morning long. In his day, kids went outside in the morning and didn’t come home until dark. He has the scars to prove it. Like the scar he has when he was shot in the face with a BB gun. Maybe I should go outside and be real manly and play with guns. I mean, after all, Rod does call me ‘Cindy’.
Later that evening, my mom comes home and my dad instantly starts to tattle on us. “Guess what Chris did today”, he would proudly say. “I calmly asked him to clean his mess up and he gave me the finger!” Luckily for me, my mom knew that just about everything my dad said was a complete load of crap.
“When Bob was home, we pretty much did tag-team parenting.” Bob and Mary Ann claim that the special skills of interrogation or falsity detection were not really useful to them as parents, and that they parented just like any other regular Joes.
“One time, our son Matt was in trouble for something, as he always was, and we said to him, ‘well you know how this works, one of us is going to be good cop and the other is going to be bad cop’. To this Matt replied ‘there is no good cop here- only bad cop and worse cop.’”
Mary Ann and Bob do acknowledge that their FBI skills have influences the limitations that they place on their children.
Mary Ann tells me that, one time, Amy wanted go to the birthday party of an acquaintance that she had met at school. She was only twelve at the time and the party was being held at hotel. “Of course I tell Amy she can’t go and she tells me she hates me or whatever”. Just a few hours later, however, Mary Ann, who at the time was working as negotiator as part of the HTR team, received a phone call. A group of men robbed a bank and were holed up at a nearby hotel. The same hotel that was hosting Amy’s friend’s birthday party. “I couldn’t say ‘I told you so’ enough,” says, Mary Ann.
Damn, I thought that shit like that only happens in the movies.
Its night time and I am getting ready for bed. I go in to say good night to my parents. I kiss and hug my mom. I try to hug Rod, but he just slaps me on the back and tells me to pull his finger. I eventually stop trying to hug him.
I ask Bob and Mary Ann to share with me some of the techniques that they learned as FBI interrogators. She asks me to clarify what I mean. I say I don’t really know. As this point, she tells me that I just demonstrated a classic tell, or signal, that I had something to hide. “First, all FBI agents are trained in interrogation, so Bob and I were not just interrogators. That is a common misconception. Second of all, we are trained to exploit a person’s lack of comfort in a situation in order to obtain information and gain an upper hand, not necessarily determine if he or she is lying. We have polygraphists for that. You, Chris, touched your lip when I asked you to clarify that question, which told me that you were unsure of yourself and uncomfortable in providing an answer.”
Bob chuckles. “Mary Ann just loves body language. Isn’t that right boss?"
“It sure is,” says Mary Ann.
Rod was notorious for being early to places. When he played co-ed softball with my mom, he would make us leave for a 6:00 game at 3:45. We would literally get to the field at least an hour minutes before anyone else arrived to warm-up.
Growing tired of my father’s impatience, my sister and I would purposely try to mess with his mind and make him uncomfortable. It was our own little revenge for his sour demeanor and nasty comments. It was a game for us. He would be worried about being late, get into the car, and pull half way down the street honking his horn at us. My sister and I would slowly get ready to leave for wherever we were going and “forget” things, which forced us to make several trips between the car and the house. Oops, I forgot a snack. Oops I forgot my shoes. Oops, I forgot whatever.
At this point, dinner is finished, and the Carlson family has relayed a good portion of their family history to me. I ask them both what case was the most affecting for them on a personal level, and both Bob and Mary Ann fall silent. It takes a moment, but Mary Ann beings to tell me about a kidnapping case that she worked on. As she starts to tell the story, her voice wavers and she begins to slouch in her chair:
“I remember this one case where there was a baby who was kidnapped from a hospital in Washington. The women who took the child had two children of her own and she was strung out on drugs. We were never able to find out exactly why she kidnapped this baby girl, but she made a grave, yet important mistake that allowed my team to catch her. We put out an Amber Alert for the baby and the woman actually stopped at a Fred Meyer’s in Lynnwood to buy baby clothes. Luckily, an employee recognized the woman and wrote down her license plate number. When we eventually found the woman’s car, the baby was nowhere to be found; only the woman’s own children were still with her. Do you know where the baby was, Chris?”
“In a dumpster behind a tavern. The woman refused to admit that she had even taken the baby and we had to question her two children, neither of whom were over ten years old. The children told us that the mother had left the baby in a dumpster. If those children had not told us where to find the baby, she would have died. Anytime I had to work on a case that dealt with children, it stuck with me, “said Mary Ann.
I am eleven. “Hey Chris, do you want to play catch?” asks Rod. I sigh. “I guess”. I really wish that I could wait until mom gets home to play catch with her.
I follow Rod outside and grab my mitt. I see Rod place a car tire in the middle of the lawn. I am thoroughly confused. “I want you to stand in the tire while we play catch. You need to stop acting like a girl” he says to me. Lately, I have been afraid of the ball while playing baseball and I guess this is my Dad’s solution to that problem. After about ten minutes of playing catch from within the tire, my arm feels warm and I throw the ball towards my dad with as much strength as I can muster. He catches it and throws it back even harder; it is as if he gets some sick pleasure from throwing the ball at me as hard as he can.
After another ten minutes, I wind up and throw the ball. It goes too high and flies past Rod’s reach. Instead of going to retrieve the ball, he just stands there with his hand on his hip, holds his glove in the place where I should have thrown it, and watches the ball roll on and on. He gives me what I like to call the “gay man look”. It’s the look Rod gives to a person when he is disgusted with their actions or behavior. He gives that look to anybody whom he thinks is gay. Like his brother. Or me. I have to run past Rod to pick up the ball. I quit baseball when I am twelve.
We have now moved onto dessert. Bob begins to articulate one of his most haunting experiences with the FBI.
“First of all, let me say that even when you have legal permission to kill a man, as I have numerous times, it is never easy. This one case, however, has really stuck with me.”
“I was actually one of the FBI agents tasked to handle the Randy Weaver case. He was sort of a domestic terrorist who was holed up on some land in Idaho. He was under surveillance by the local authorities for suspicion of illegal possession of firearms. He was holed up on hi land for two weeks, when the local police made an attempt at arrest. The operation was botched and one of the officers and Randy’s son, Sammy, were killed. That is when my hostage negotiation team was called in. We eventually got Randy to surrender, but since he wasn’t ever able to leave his land, he just stashed his son’s body in one of the sheds on his land.”
Bob pauses and takes a drink of coffee.
“Another agent and I were conducting a search of Randy’s land for weapons after his arrest. Unfortunately, we came upon the shed that contained his Sammy’s body. It was a pretty horrific site. Usually after a mission I have very vivid dreams. I was lying in bed one night, and my son Andy jumped into our bed in just his underwear. I was half asleep and I jumped out of bed when Andy did this. I thought he was Sammy.”
I am a senior in high school and I am one of the lead in Our Town. I am really proud of this play, as it is one of the first true dramatic productions that my high school has ever produced. Since I am now one of the tallest and oldest cast members, I have been tasked with playing the father figure in the play. In fact, I play the father of a girl who gets married too young and eventually dies. My mom is in attendance during every performance of the play. My father attends one performance. Mymother later tells me that he fell asleep during the middle of the show. At this point I am disappointed, but I really don’t care. Iam numb to the cold between myself and my father.
At this point, I have finished my intense meal with the Carlson family. As I get ready to leave, Mary Ann says to me “we are really just a normal family. We just go to the gun range four times a year.”
After 28 years of marriage my parents are getting divorced. I know I should be upset by this news, but I am conflicted with feelings of happiness. I cry, not for the end of my parent’s marriage, but because of the pity and lack of respect I feel for my father. Is it possible to not love one of your parents? I think it is.