My Three Addictions (2)

Continuing the discussion of my passion for languages: As a child, I was fascinated with music. When I ventured into opera, I realized that most of it was not in English. So I proceeded to teach myself French and Italian (German would come later). In high school, I had four years of Latin, and when I got to college, I finally got around to German. I grew up in the San Francisco bay area and was surrounded by Chinese restaurants and stores. I spent many happy hours in San Francisco’s Chinatown wandering through shops and byways and listening to people speaking Chinese.

I became determined to learn the language, but I knew it was too difficult for me to teach it to myself. I’d have to go to a language school. The best in the world then (and probably still now) was the Army Language School (ALS) at Monterey, California, now called the Defense Language Institute. Since I was going to be drafted anyway, I enlisted in the army to go to ALS to study Chinese. I looked forward to six hours a day in class, two hours a night of private study, five days a week for a full year. But when I got to ALS, the army informed me that I was not to study Chinese but something called Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of. This was 1959, and we didn’t call the country Vietnam back then; we referred to it as French Indochina. But I had to do what the army commanded. So I spent a year in intensive study of Vietnamese.

When I graduated from ALS, I asked the army to send me to Vietnam. The answer was no for two reasons: first, the army had almost nothing going on in Vietnam in 1960; and, second, soldiers who graduated first in their ALS class, as I had, were always sent to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. Once in Maryland, I discovered that Georgetown University in nearby Washington, D.C. offered a master’s degree in Chinese. So I enrolled.

By the time I had finished my army enlistment in 1961, I was comfortable in the three languages of Vietnam—Vietnamese, Chinese, and French—so NSA hired me and sent me to Vietnam for the first time in 1962. I spent the next thirteen years trundling between Vietnam and the U.S., immersed in the three languages of the country.

More next time.

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