35 years in the desert

I was born in Washington DC on a warm November 18, 1939. My father was an assistant district attorney and my mother a registered nurse. Front-page headlines that day were about Nazis executing Czech students, the king of England giving a DFC to an RAF pilot, an American promoting a Nazi political movement in the US, and Hitler’s minister Goering working on the German alliance with Italy.

Two years later, I listened to the radio with my parents and remember the president’s words citing a “day of infamy.” That morning, the Japanese had killed thousands of Americans in an attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the summer of 1944, my mother took me to Providence Hospital where I was diagnosed with Bulbar Polio. I found myself enclosed in a glass room on the Isolation Ward. The boys on my right and left stood in their beds to greet me. Within a few days, I watched both removed on gurneys, faces covered by sheets. Though only four years old, I knew they were dead.

Later that year, I entered kindergarten.  I was skinny. My father called me “Mahatma Ghandi.” I didn’t understand until I met my first bully. I never won a fight until age 13, when I learned to attack, and never lost one afterward. At the time, I didn’t realize the implications of my new attack strategy, nor could I foresee its disconnection from my moral upbringing and transformation of my future.

Our Maryland neighborhood had a single entrance, no fences or walls, and few bullies. We were surrounded by woodland and bordered on one side by a National Park.

We played sports on the stone and tar streets. A fall was painful, so we learned to stay on our feet. We also had two baseball fields, big enough for tag football.

Out my bedroom window was the Potomac River valley, and a couple hundred feet down the hill the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The first lock and bridge over the canal were a ten-minute walk away. On the far bank of the canal was the tow-path. Beyond lay the Potomac River and on its far side the rolling hills of Virginia.

On that hillside across the street lived my best friend: Bobby Burchell. We fished the canal and river and got good at it. Both of us built and flew model planes. We attended Holy Trinity Grammar School together. Upon graduation, he entered a Jesuit high school in Washington D.C., and I went to public schools in Bethesda, which separated us forever.

At age 16, I soloed an airplane and at 17 volunteered and signed a 6-year contract putting my life at the disposal of my country.

At midnight, two weeks after high school graduation, I stood with six dozen recruits before three Drill Instructors at Parris Island Marine Base, South Carolina. Thirteen weeks later, five dozen of us graduated and went north for infantry training.

The Marines taught me self-discipline, camaraderie, and how to defend myself with weapons including hands and feet. I crossed the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Aegean, Pacific, and South China Sea by ship, and discovered the world doing so.

I was stationed in Florida, North Carolina, California, and Okinawa. In my job as Intelligence Analyst, I learned politics by studying failed countries, and I earned two ribbons serving with Expeditionary Forces sent to Beirut and Taiwan.

Three months after I had completed my contracted three years of active duty, President Kennedy announced we’d put a man on the moon by 1969. That Fall, I started classes at the University of Maryland seeking a Bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering.

Nearing graduation, I found the interesting Apollo Program’s design engineering work was completed.

Graduating first in aeronautical engineering opened doors. I considered three Ph.D. programs suggested by my dean but decided to leave this field.

Three months later, I started a 2-year master’s program at Yale School of Management, tuition-free. My wife Nancy worked at Yale to pay rent and put food on the table. I missed a tie at straight High Honors for first in class, with one Honors grade where I tried to solve a final exam problem with a computer, something my professor said couldn’t be done with a computer. He was right, and I graduated second in class. But lots of doors opened.

From Yale, I joined General Dynamics at their head office in New York, as a corporate management intern. Completing the program, they sent me to solve a scheduling problem with their testing of the 673-class attack submarines. After I presented them with a practical computer-supported solution, they sent me to a surface shipyard where scheduling was an existential issue.

There, twelve warships were past their contracted delivery dates. Of these, only six were being constructed, while the other six had not been started. Three commercial ships were scheduled to start. Steel choked all Boston railroad sidings.

Two years later, I supervised all 4,100 men in 23 unionized construction trades with total responsibility for building and launching ships on 3 ways and 3 basins, and helping other trades finish the ships after launch. In 3.5 years, I had trebled the launch rate and helped General Dynamics avoid bankruptcy. At 32, I was the youngest by 10 years in GD’s “Brown Book” of top 50 managers.

But, having done that, my ego wouldn’t let me stay because they didn’t pay me enough for what I had done and weren’t transparent regarding their plans for my future. This reasoning was logical but superficial.

My real reason for leaving was I had strayed far from my principled upbringing and was uncomfortable with what I had become. My behavior was scandalous and far from my roots. Something I recognized as Satanic was urging me to destroy myself, and I wanted to walk myself back from the edge of that cliff.

With Yale Alumni Association’s help, I steered away from aviation (airlines, defense industry, manufacturing) and, at their erudite suggestion, landed a job with Citibank in New York for a 25% increase in salary.

After a year proving myself to Citi management, they assigned me to a team planning the bank’s expansion. I presented my plan to Citi’s top management and was assigned to apply it to integrate three recently acquired banks.

To celebrate, I took a fishing trip to Maine.

At this point, I had trashed my upbringing, broken the Ten Commandments, become a solipsist, and jeopardized my marriage and the future of my young son Jason.

Yet, I saw myself as regaining self-control as Captain of my Fate.

I recognized I was changing, judged unacceptable the debased path I had been sliding down, and began sensing there was an immensely powerful force opposed to the demonic, self-destructive nihilism that had recently sought to destroy me.

I thought I had “turned the corner” and owned my future at age 34.

What I expected was not to be.