Four years after I started college, I missed my gradation ceremony because I collapsed from exhaustion from working twenty hours a week and taking a full load of college course credits at the same time. I was in the university hospital and could hear the ceremony being conducted out of doors nearby. But I did graduate with a BA in music.
Meanwhile, since childhood, I had shown a distinct flare for languages. I taught myself French and Italian while still in grammar school, took four years of Latin in high school, and studied German in college. When I graduated from college, I knew I’d be drafted into the army within months, so I instead enlisted with the proviso that I’d go to Army Language School, later known as the Defense Language Institute, to study Chinese, a language that had always intrigued me. But the army, in its wisdom, decided not to teach me Chinese but to teach me Vietnamese instead. I was stuck, forced to learn a language I had never heard of—we didn’t call it Vietnam back then; we called that part of the world French Indochina.
It turned out I loved studying Vietnamese. Asian tonal languages are based on a way of thinking so different from western languages that I had to learn to think in a totally new way. The study was intensive. We spent six hours a day in class and were required to study two hours on our own each night. That was five days a week for a full year. When I graduated first in my class of ten, I was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA), an organization I had never heard of. Being close to Washington, D.C., I enrolled at Georgetown to study Chinese. The fees were low enough that I could afford them on a soldier’s salary. So by the time I finished my enlistment, I was comfortable in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. NSA hired me and immediately sent me to Vietnam. Between 1962 and 1975, when Saigon fell and I escaped under fire, I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S.
My work after 1975 is still classified. I had demonstrated my willingness and ability to support friendly forces on the battlefield in combat, so I as assigned to similar work in different parts of the world. By then I was proficient in seven languages other than English. The reader is free to guess where I might have been assigned.
More next time.