After I posted yesterday’s blog on my experience with medical practitioners, a reader asked how I could afford the lifestyle I described, replete with time for sleep and exercise. The answer is that I retired as early as I could thirty years ago so I could write fulltime. Because I had been promoted to the highest levels of the federal government’s Senior Executive Service (SES), I was able to retire with a generous annuity. I now have six books and seventeen short stories in print as a result. That begs the question: what did I do to gain all that income? The answer is: nothing. I just did what I wanted to do and enjoyed.
At the beginning of my career, the government hired me as a linguist. Languages come easily to me, and I enjoy them. As a child, I taught myself French and Italian. In high school I took four years of Latin. In college, I took courses in German. When I graduated from college, I wanted to study Chinese, a language so difficult that I knew I couldn’t teach it to myself. The best language school in the world was at the time (and probably still is today) the Army Language School, now called the Defense Language Institute (DLI), in Monterey, California. So I enlisted in the army to go to DLI for Chinese. But when I got there, the army told me that I was to study Vietnamese. I had to follow orders, so I spent the next year in intensive study of a language I had never heard of—back then (1959) we called that part of the world French Indochina. The chance decision to teach me Vietnamese reshaped the rest of my life.
When I graduated from DLI, I asked the army to send me to Vietnam. But the U.S. had no interest in Vietnam back then. Instead, the army assigned me to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C. I found out that Georgetown University offered courses in Chinese, so I enrolled as a part-time graduate student. As a result, by the time my army enlistment ended in late 1961, I was comfortable in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. NSA hired me as a civilian linguist as a GS-11, six levels higher than the normal starting salary (GS-5), and in 1962 sent me to Vietnam for the first time.
More next time.