My Careers

When I was preparing to do the blog post about polyphony, I dug out my copy of Hugo Leichtentritt’s Musical Form, published by the Harvard University Press in 1951. In my days as a music student, and still today as far as I know, it was the final authority on the subject. When I opened the cover of the book, I found a hand-written inscription which reads, “Christmas, 1955. I hope this book might help you somewhat. I also hope you’ll soon come to the point where you no longer need it. Sincerely, Mary”. The inscription tells me that it dates from my second year in college and my first year of studying music at the college level. I took my Batchelor of Arts degree in music in 1958.

Mary, who gave me the book and signed it, was a woman a year or two older than me whom I greatly admired for her musical talent. She, too, was studying music at the University of California, Berkeley. After we finished college, I went into the army (the draft was still in force), and Mary got married and ceased communicating with me. I know that her marriage didn’t work out, but that’s all I know about what happened to her after that. I never heard from her again despite my many letters to her.

Mary’s inscription brought back to me many memories of my undergraduate college days and my impecunious youth. With my mother drunk and my father in and out of prison and writing bad checks against my checking account, I had to work twenty hours a week to feed and clothe myself while attending a regular schedule of college courses. As I have reported here before, I missed my college graduation because I was in the hospital suffering from exhaustion. But once I graduated with a BA in music, my career as a musician was launched.

I majored in music because I was hoping to escape my fate of being a writer. I had known since I was six years old that I was born to write, but I dabbled with other careers. I was also a budding linguist, comfortable in French, Italian, Latin, and German. Learning languages came naturally to me—I taught myself French and Italian as a child—and it never occurred to me that learning foreign tongues was challenging. Only later did I come to understand that we Americans regarded foreign languages as very difficult because, as a dominant nation, we required others to learn our American English and consequently considered learning other languages as preeminently demanding.

After I graduated from college, I enlisted in the army to go to the Army Language School (later called the Defense Language Institute), the finest language school in the world, to study Chinese, a language that fascinated me but was too difficult for me to teach to myself. The army in its wisdom decided that I should study Vietnamese, not Chinese. It wasn’t until after I had completed a year of intensive study of Vietnamese that I was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA), found myself near Washington, D.C., and enrolled at Georgetown to study Chinese.

More next time.

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