I am among the most fortunate people I know. In this time of plague and penury, I am remarkably healthy and free of financial problems. I have steered clear of all human contact for the better part of a year, thus avoiding the coronavirus, and my retirement annuity, provided by the federal government, has continued unabated. How lucky can you get?
But that’s only the latest episode. Unerring good luck has stayed with me all my life. As an impoverished youth (alcoholic mother, father in prison), I was able to put myself through college at the University of California in Berkeley by working twenty hours a week at a variety of menial jobs (e.g., restaurant dish washer, delivery boy)—the tuition back then was only a little over fifty dollars a semester for California residents. Immediately after graduation, to avoid the draft, I enlisted in the army with the proviso that I’d spend a year at the best language school in the world, the Army Language School at Monterey, California, studying Chinese. When I arrived at the school, I learned that the army had decided that I was to study not Chinese but Vietnamese, a language that I had never heard of. Back in those days (1959), we didn’t call that part of the world Vietnam; we called it French Indochina.
That chance decision by the army shaped the rest of my life. When I graduated from the language school, I was immediately assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. I became a spy. Once at NSA, I signed up at Georgetown University for classes in Chinese. I had taught myself French as a child (languages come easily to me), so by the time I finished my enlistment in 1961, I was comfortable in the three languages of Vietnam—Vietnamese, Chinese, and French—and NSA hired me at rank and pay scale much higher than usual for a new recruit. At the same time, that little known part of the world called Vietnam was rapidly becoming the focus of U.S. military attention. By sheer luck, I was equipped to help out.
I was first sent to Vietnam in 1962. For the next thirteen years, until the fall of Saigon in April 1975, I was in Vietnam more than I was in the states. My job was signals intelligence support to U.S. military forces, both army and Marine, on the battlefield. Using information derived from the intercept and exploitation of North Vietnamese radio communications, I was able to alert friendly forces to the presence of enemy troops, their identity, location, and intent.