On My Own

A reader commented that my blog posts about my sister, Suzanne, suggest that my self-reliance early in life was a gift. I’m inclined to believe it was the result of discovering that no one was going to care for me. I had to do it myself. It was the only way I could survive.

By the time I was six years old, it was clear to me that neither my drunken mother nor my absent father (in prison) were going to take care of me. It was up to me.

My mother and I were poor. We lived in the slums of Oakland, California. I needed money for food and clothing. There were days when my mother was drunk that I had nothing to eat. So I found jobs. My first was a paper route. After I was robbed by bigger kids while collecting money from the people I delivered papers to, I learned to collect a little at a time, ideally before dark.

I went on to work as a clerk in a drug store, a delivery boy, a bus boy in a restaurant, a waiter, a gas station attendant, a barista in an Italian coffee house (I had taught myself to speak Italian). I worked part-time throughout high school and college. As soon as I graduated from college, I enlisted in the army for language school where I learned Vietnamese.

The army taught me something new: teamwork. I learned that for a military force to work effectively, the members of that force had to work together. The guy next to you depended on you to survive. Your own survival depended on him. And for the first time, I saw the power of leadership. I came to understand that a leader supports, lifts up, and encourages the followers to do the best they are capable of.

When I finished my enlistment, the National Security Agency (NSA) hired me and sent me to Vietnam. For the next thirteen years, I was in and out of Vietnam supporting army and Marine forces on the battlefield with signals intelligence against the North Vietnamese. Most of the time, I was on my own. I worked alone but depended on intercept and analysis from signals intelligence elements throughout Vietnam and on the superb NSA communications system that fed me instantaneous data.

As always, my survival was up to me, but I was part of a team. And when I was working with others, I was in charge. Almost from the beginning, I learned to lead rather than to manage. I came to understand that the leader is often alone.

More tomorrow.

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