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Old-Timers Need Not Apply

Can it be too late to begin a life of international intrigue and adventure?

A. Kam Napier
This can't be right. There must be some mistake. It has come to my attention that I am now, officially, too old to be a secret agent.

You see, the Central Intelligence Agency's Clandestine Service has entry-level positions open. The gig pays $42,906 to $52,188 annually. Applicants must have a college degree (check), solid communications skills (you bet), "impeccable" integrity (sure) and the "ability to handle ambiguity" (I'm all about the ambiguity-if you know what I mean. Wink, wink). But applicants may not be older than 35.

Thirty-five? I recently turned 36 and, believe me, I never would have done so if I had known it was going to close the door on a life of international intrigue.

In fact, I'm suddenly too old for most of the cool jobs with guns. To my surprise, I'm even too old to enlist in the military-the maximum age is 27 for the Air Force and Coast Guard, 28 for the Marines and 34 for the Army and Navy. Now, I wasn't exactly poised to up and join the Navy, as my dad did in World War II. But a man likes to think that such options will always be there for him.

Of course, if you've already got one of these cool jobs, you can stay with it until retirement. But when you think about it, the people in these organizations pushing 50 or 60 are not out "taking point" or field-stripping an M16. They're in management by then. And there is a world of difference between a 19-year-old man and one almost twice that age. The military doesn't want you showing up for boot camp in your late 30s, set in your ways and probably one squat-thrust away from a debilitating back injury that you'll bitch about endlessly when you're not complaining about the crap music all the kids in the barracks listen to at intolerable volumes.

Illustration: Scott Thigpen

Still, all these roles-soldier, spy, cop-churn in our imaginations. They appeal to men. Especially, I think, men like me. Pampered, 21st-century guys who work in air-conditioned offices and who grew up on steady diets of action movies and TV. We are the guys who think that suits were invented for homicide detectives, tuxedos for spies and that either outfit is sadly incomplete without a German semiautomatic handgun in an Italian shoulder holster. We are the guys who throw action-movie lines at each other as inside jokes. Grab a table with both hands, shake it ferociously as you yell, "Gimme all you got!" and almost any guy my age will answer, "Heat, 1995, Al Pacino as Det. Vince Hanna."

We love these notions because action heroes do not grow in cube-farms, and we know it. So we fantasize and make-believe, eating up spy thrillers like The Bourne Supremacy, playing videogames like Rainbow Six, the "virtual" experience of special forces combat. We do this for fun! We've wrapped our imagination around things like this since we were six, and now, a mere three decades later, the shocking reality is-dream on, cubicle boy. You're too old.

The most generous age limit I could find was for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The maximum age for applicants to the Special Agent program is 36. Even the job title is cool. What is a typical day like for an FBI Special Agent?

"A Special Agent does not have a typical day," reads the FBI's recruitment FAQ. "As a Special Agent, your day varies depending on the nature of your work assignment. You could be assigned to a squad where your day starts with an early-morning raid, an interview or a surveillance. There are so many variances in a Special Agent's job, which make this work so unique and special."

Doesn't that sound great! I know exactly what I can contribute to an outfit like that. I'm pretty sure the FBI meant to say "variables," not "variances." If they had an experienced wordsmith like me in the Bureau, I really could have whipped "Operation: Recruitment Brochure" into shape.

I would've reached for the Italian shoulder holster under my suit jacket and let loose with a couple of shots from my red editor's pencil. It's a dangerous job, but somebody's got to do it.

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,September

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