I am fortunate to have a steady income that allows me to write full-time. My government annuity, earned by more than 35 years of service, is generous enough that I have no money worries. That means I can fulfill my life mandate of writing without concerning myself about earning a living since, famously, writing doesn’t pay.
But that I find myself so well situated is in no way due to any intention on my part to work toward that goal. Rather than seeking well-paying jobs, I always did work that I enjoyed the most. The most important element in my financial success was luck.
Granted, I was exceptionally good at what I did. I had the talent required. And I worked as hard or harder than anyone I knew. And I was willing to put my life on the line for the good of my country. There again, I was lucky. I survived. But I didn’t do any of these things to get ahead. I did them because I wanted to.
It all started when I graduated from college in 1958—with a BA in Music of all things—and enlisted in the army to go to language school to study Chinese. Languages had always fascinated me. As a child I taught myself French and Italian. In college, I added German. I yearned to learn Chinese, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to teach myself—a language written in characters would require teachers. So I wanted to go to the best language school in the world, the Army Language School (now called the Defense Language Institute) in Monterey, California. When I arrived at the school, the army told me that I was to study not Chinese but Vietnamese, a language I’d never heard of. Back then we called that part of the world French Indochina.
Language school proved to be ideal for me. I spent all day every day five days a week for a full year submerged in Vietnamese. I loved the language, so different from anything I had encountered before, and graduated first in my class. I was then assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) where I worked full time in Vietnamese. When my army enlistment ended, NSA hired me not as a GS-5 or GS-7, the standard starting grade for a new employee, but as a GS-11. For the first time in my life, I felt like a rich man. NSA immediately sent me to Vietnam.
Between 1962 and 1975, I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S. After the fall of Vietnam to the communists in 1975, I began studying part-time as a graduate student at the George Washington University, not to get a degree but to learn—the same reason I’d gone to the University of California as an undergraduate. Meanwhile, I went on with my job at NSA. I had a wife and four children to support. My studies led, almost incidentally, to degrees—a masters and a doctorate. And those degrees led to more promotions on the job.