I never, during my adult life, have had money worries, even though I never took a job or accepted a position because of the pay that it offered. When I joined the army a pauper straight out of college, I was sent to the Army Language School to learn Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of. Back then (1959), we didn’t call that part of the world Vietnam—it was French Indo-China. When I graduated first in my class, I was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) and on my own enrolled in part-time classes at Georgetown University in Chinese, a language I had always wanted to study. I already knew French; I had taught it to myself as a child. So by the time my army enlistment ended, I was comfortable in the three languages of Vietnam (Vietnamese, Chinese, and French).
NSA hired me, not at the normal starting grade of a GS-5 but as a GS-11, and immediately sent me to Vietnam. I kept adding to my languages until I spoke seven, and NSA kept sending me to assist on battlefields and kept promoting me. Put in charge of a group at NSA, in imitation of the military I’d spent so much time with, I chose to lead them rather than manage them and was phenomenally successful. The promotions kept coming until I reached top of the executive ranks. Then I retired with a more than generous pension.
But as a child, I had known penury. With my father in prison and my mother drunk most of the time, I often found myself hungry with nothing to eat. I got part-time jobs to assure that I’d have food. For a good many years, right up to my college graduation, I worked as much as twenty hours a week while in school and fulltime over the summer to keep myself housed and fed.
As a result, I became a first-class penny-pincher. I taught myself to stretch each dollar to its limit. The perfect miser, I bargained when possible, ate what was on sale, and frequented the Dollar Store and Goodwill. But by the time I was in high school, I had started waiting on tables and depending on tips. I promised that if I ever had money, I’d be generous to servers.
More next time.