Tuesday’s Washington Post featured a column by Richard Cohen, one of the op-ed writers I have always enjoyed. It’s titled, “This is my last Column. I’ve been lucky.” Cohen reports that this is the last column he will publish and talks about his career and how so many opportunities resulted from happenstance. His history made me think of my own and how luck rather than planning shaped my life.
I came from an impoverished family. My mother was an alcoholic, my father in prison. We lived in Oakland, California, and when college time rolled around, it didn’t seem that there was any way I could continue my education. Then I found out I could enroll in the one of the finest colleges in the world, the University of California in Berkeley, a bus trip away from where I lived, for a tuition of $58.00 a semester. I worked twenty hours a week to earn money to live on and graduated four years later. It was as if an affordable college education was a gift from heaven.
The draft was in effect when I graduated in 1958, so I enlisted in the army to go to the Army Language School at Monterey, California, the best language school in the country. I was already a budding linguist back then—I’d taught myself French and Italian as a child, taken four years of Latin in high school, and studied German in college. I wanted to learn Chinese, a language that had always fascinated me, but when I got to the school, the staff told me that the army had decided I should study not Chinese but Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—back then we called that part of the world French Indochina, not Vietnam. The army’s decision about which language I would study reshaped my life.
Glum at my loss of an opportunity to learn Chinese, I nevertheless spent a year of intensive study of this unknown language called Vietnamese and was then assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. Once there, I discovered that Georgetown University offered a master’s in Chinese and that the army would pay my tuition. I enrolled.