As I mentioned earlier in this blog, I essentially raised myself from the age of six because my mother was an alcoholic and my father was in prison. I had to do everything from preparing my own meals to doing my own laundry to figuring out where I was going to get money for everything from carfare to school to buying new shoes. I started with a paper route as a young boy and graduated to working in a drug store as delivery boy and clerk, pumping gasoline, washing dishes in a restaurant, and waiting tables. I accepted the general view that I wasn’t very bright and didn’t do well in school. Even though high school advisers recommended that I not go to college (I didn’t have the brains to make it, they said in so many words), I still enrolled in the University of California in Berkeley and worked twenty hours a week at any job I could get that fit with my academic schedule. True to my advisers’ predictions, I didn’t do well and graduated with low B average.
Meanwhile, I was fascinated with languages and greatly attracted to music. I taught myself to play the piano—even though I didn’t own one—and learned on my own to speak Italian and French. In high school I had four years of Latin, and in college, I added German. Upon graduation, I enlisted in the army to study Chinese at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, the best language school in the world, later called the Defense Language Institute. The army directed that I study not Chinese, but Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—this was 1959, and we still called that part of the world French Indochina. So I had intensive training in Vietnamese, six hours a day in the classroom plus two hours of private study every night, five days a week, for a full year. I loved it. I graduated first in my class and was sent to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. Once there, I enrolled at Georgetown to study Chinese.
I knew I had a flair for languages, but that didn’t mean I was intelligent. In my forties, determined to go on learning despite my lack of intellect, I returned to graduate school and earned a masters and a doctorate. Once again, I loved the study, graduated with honors, and finally realized that I wasn’t dumb at all.
I see now, looking back at a long life, that I succeeded by virtue of being forced to depend on myself. I was strong-willed and stubborn. Since no one was going to take care of me or help me, I had to develop self-reliance.
As I wrote earlier in this blog, my ability and willingness to fend for myself was instrumental in surviving the fall of Saigon and getting all forty-three of my subordinates and their families safely out of the country in the face of opposition from the U.S. Ambassador and lack of help from any quarter. Now in the ranks of seniors (a politically correct term for old people), I’m coming to realize that staying active and healthy is up to me. No one’s going to help me.