James M. Wood earned the honorary title of doctor and my admiration for his sense of humor one evening some years ago at an East Side hospital benefit. He looked at me from across the hors d'oeuvres table, shook his head and proclaimed that it had been a very bad day in the operating room.
As he dipped a shrimp into some cocktail sauce, he said four heart patients had expired, mostly from sloppy surgery, and lamented that good help was hard to find.
"And, sadly, we don't give refunds," he concluded.
Wood's act convinced his audience, a dozen nearby doctors' wives. The look that passed across their faces was as ghastly as Wood's spectral musings. Even now, I recall their shocked expression every time I see a shrimp.
After that, I always called him Dr. Wood.
I called him other things, too, but he was too engaging to hold my wrath for long, although as his editor at Cleveland Magazine I never quite knew what to expect. The man could be a mystery.
In recent years, we had been in touch only infrequently. Then, this spring, as the 9/11 hearings in Washington delved into the intelligence failures, a fellow at lunch offhandedly remarked that it was a good thing that Wood and the Central Intelligence Agency had parted company when they did.
This was such an epiphany that I struggled to relate it to my own experiences with him. Wood, a CIA agent? On second thought, there had always been a spooky aureole around him.
Could he have been a government agent passing himself off as a free-lance writer all these years? He wrote with panache about the arcane qualities of East Side life, capturing moments in Cleveland history as only he can. Now, he describes himself as a retired author living on the East Side with a few works in progress that never seem to reach completion. His output has been suspiciously sparse since 9/11.
For years, he did not appear to hold a regular job — no one was sure what he would do if he did have one — and he seemed to drop out of sight for long periods of time. When I tried to reach him to discuss his ties with the agency, he reportedly was in Australia.
To be fair, Wood looks like a writer. He has, for years, worn a bow tie with more of a professorial air than any other man I know outside of Boston. He talks like a writer, too, and he possesses the inquisitive characteristics of the fraternity.
He wrote for Cleveland Magazine for many years, covering the arts and some business stories, and was unrivaled as a gossip columnist. But there was always something gray and elusive about him.
As a writer, Wood demonstrated one serious flaw: deadlines. He never made them. He had a dog that ate more copy than homework. The man had an unusual capacity to disappear at deadline. When you sought him, he vanished. His wife, Jane, was perfect cover. No, she had not seen him, she would say. I could never figure out whether she meant in minutes, hours or weeks.
A day or two after deadline, he would stealthily slip his work into the office, carefully avoiding me, and then vanish. Demanding his whereabouts was futile. It was like asking whether anyone had seen Lamont Cranston transmogrify into The Shadow.
He was, upon reflection, the perfect spook.
And the rumor turned out to be true.
In the early 1960s, Wood was editing a life-insurance magazine in Washington, D.C., when, one day, he saw a newspaper ad for an opening for an overseas editor of a government publication.
Responding to the ad, he found himself in the U.S. Hiring Authority in downtown Washington, across from the Soviet Embassy. It was noontime, and he was interviewed by a woman eating a banana. There were two bags on her desk, one with her lunch and the other labeled SECRET.
The woman absentmindedly dropped the banana peel into the bag marked SECRET. When she saw Wood's quizzical look, she removed the peel and placed it in her lunch bag.
Then, the woman told Wood that he was being interviewed for a job with the Central Intelligence Agency. He did not hesitate. Anything was better than one more story about a successful life-insurance agent.
A few weeks later, he passed a language exam, then an intelligence test and a test of his mental agility for clandestine work. Soon, unidentified persons were calling him with detailed instructions for secret meetings. He was warned to avoid being followed.
Taking care to follow the instructions, he arrived one day at a crowded Washington bus stop. Asking a transit employee for directions, he rattled off the numbers of the buses that would deliver him to his secret destination.
"Oh, those will get you to the CIA!" the dispatcher bellowed over the crowd to Wood, who feared the disclosure of his destination would jeopardize his career.
Not so. He continued to receive high marks from his handlers. When they asked him to write an essay on how he would break into a 14-story building and open a safe, he presented an exemplary paper, explaining that he would hire a professional safecracker and hide in the building until it closed.
A gray-haired man named Ecceles took note of this paper and informed Wood that he was now being considered for a job as a covert agent. Did he mind learning how to jump out of an airplane? Of course not, Wood responded.
Meanwhile, the agency checked his background and learned from friends that he had an odd fondness for coconut candy bars.
These trials had been going on for nearly a year while he continued to edit stories about life-insurance legends. Ecceles admired Wood for using his own cover stories rather than those of the CIA to get out of work to rendezvous with the agency.
"I used up my sick days," Wood confided years later.
Ecceles also was impressed that Wood lived in an integrated neighborhood, because this made him a good fit for the Belgian Congo and an ideal foil for the KGB.
Finally, he was asked to take one last examination before acceptance into the agency. It was a lie-detector test with about a dozen questions, one of which dealt with coconut candy. He did well until he was asked if he sympathized with the Chinese communists.
Wood had read a magazine story which said that in communist countries, people often had to stand in line for hours for something as basic as a pair of socks.
Since he personally hated waiting in line, he sympathized with those who did. When he denied any feelings for the communists, the needle on the machine betrayed his dislike.
The test was administered several times, each time with the same result. He was asked to return in two days for another session with the machine. The same question tripped him again. As the polygraph operator was removing the sensors from Wood's body, he shook his head and said that, in all likelihood, he would probably not be asked to join the agency.
"Son, you are a wool gatherer," the man said. "In this business, you have to choose sides. The tests indicated that everything about you is gray."
When he told me this at lunch recently, I considered the observation for a moment.
Wood looked at me with that benign expression he wears so well, his bow tie straight and tight. He offered no laments or explanations, and let me pick up the check.
Something makes me think he had never really failed the test. After all, what better cover could the agency create than Dr. James M. Wood?