My Background

A question from a reader of this blog prompts me to risk repeating myself and review for you my background and history. Suffice it to say that I have had a wild life, and my experiences have permitted me to write wide-ranging fiction.

Growing up in Oakland, California, I became fiercely independent and self-reliant as a child because my parents cared for me so poorly. My father was repeatedly sentenced to prison, and my mother was drunk much of the time. Despite our poverty, after high school, I was able to attend the University of California, Berkeley, just a bus ride away, because the tuition was so cheap to a California resident. I worked twenty hours a week to support myself and put myself through school and ended up in the university hospital suffering from exhaustion listening to the graduation ceremony I was supposed to be participating in not far away.

Meanwhile, fascinated with languages as a child, I taught myself French and Italian. In high school I had four years of Latin, and I took German classes in college. When I graduated, I wanted to study Chinese—living in the San Francisco bay area, I was surrounded by people from China and was intrigued by the tonal language. So I enlisted in the army to go to the Army Language School (now called the Defense Language Institute) to study Chinese. But when I arrived at the school, the army told me I was not to study Chinese but a language I had never heard of, Vietnamese—back then, we didn’t call that part of the world Vietnam; we called it French Indochina. I was disappointed, but because I was in the army I had to follow orders, so I studied this unknown language in the most intensive training I have ever experienced: six hours a day in the classroom, two hours of private study every night, five days a week, for fifty-two weeks.

When I graduated first in my class, I asked the army to send me to Vietnam. They said no. This was 1960 and they had nothing going on in Vietnam. Instead they assigned me to an organization I had never heard of, the National Security Agency (NSA), at Fort Meade, Maryland. I found out that Georgetown University in Washington D.C. offered night classes in Chinese, so I enrolled as a part-time graduate student. Thus, by the time I finished my army enlistment, I was proficient in the three languages of Vietnam, Vietnamese, Chinese, and French. NSA immediately hired me as a GS-11, six steps above the usual entry level grade of GS-5, and in 1962 sent me to Vietnam.

More next time.

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