Survival

While my protagonists (Dave in The Trion Syndrome, Martin and Peter in No-Accounts, and Chuck in Last of the Annamese) all share characteristics with me, I gave none of them my bullheadedness.

My obstinacy was born in my childhood. With an alcoholic mother and a father in prison, I knew by age six that if I was going to survive, I’d have to take care of myself. I discovered how to bandage my own skinned knees and elbows, taught myself the rudiments of cooking, and learned that I could push myself past what I thought was exhaustion. I came to depend on myself and was wary of others.

One result was that I didn’t do well in school and had few friends, but I discovered I had a knack for music and enjoyed learning languages. When I graduated from high school, counselors discouraged me from going to college—I really wasn’t bright enough. That’s when my stubbornness kicked in big the first time: I was going to get a college education no matter what.

I didn’t expect to do well in college, and so I didn’t. I worked twenty hours a week to support myself, got by with the bare minimum in food and clothing, and graduated with a low B average. I enlisted in the army to go to language school for Chinese but got Vietnamese instead. It was a full-year intensive course, six hours a day in the classroom, two hours of private study at night, five days a week for a full year. I loved it. I graduated first in my class and was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. I enrolled at Georgetown University for a master’s in Chinese. The faculty was hesitant—my undergraduate grades were mediocre at best—so they allowed me provisional admission. I thrived in the world of ideographs and tones and got straight As. I converted to civilian status at NSA in 1961, and in 1962, NSA sent me to Vietnam. I was there on and off for the next thirteen years.

More tomorrow.

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