December 15, 2016
Years ago, during my final months in the Navy, I was trying to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My underlying ambition had always been to become a science fiction writer. I started my first novel, The Canals of Mars, when I was about ten. Mars had taken over my life during those early Bradbury years. But I decided pretty quickly that a writing career was not going to work out. At least not with fiction.
So I started my post-Navy hunt by applying for a position at The Washington Post. They offered a job as a copy boy. Seriously? They wanted me to play Jimmy Olsen? At the time, I didn't realize that was the way most people with no background in the news business could expect to start. It was a foot in the door, and if I'd taken it I might by now have had a seat on Morning Joe.
During the next two months I drove a cab, worked as a journalist for a small New Jersey weekly, and signed on briefly as an insurance investigator. Nothing was really working.
It was late summer of 1962, and Dr. No had just been released. That was the first Bond film, which I, like everyone else, enjoyed thoroughly. And it struck me that it was the kind of life I'd enjoy. Of course I'd need some serious combat training, and I wasn't sure I'd be good at jumping onto the wing of a moving aircraft. But life was short, and I suspected I'd regret it if I didn't at least try. So I applied.
I don't think they took me seriously during the interview. I remember being tempted to introduce myself as "McDevitt. John McDevitt." Afterward, while I was waiting to hear from them, I received an offer from Woodrow Wilson High School in Levittown, PA, which needed an English teacher. They were only a week or two from starting so there wasn't much time to think about it.
Which is how I got into teaching. And in case anyone's curious, I never heard back from the CIA.
It was a wild period. The Cold War was at its height, and I'd been at my new job about five weeks when the Cuban missile crisis happened. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but it appears that a Soviet naval officer, second-in-command of one of the nuclear subs, vetoed his captain's intention to launch a nuclear strike against US naval forces. (All three senior officers on the sub had to concur.) The aspect of this that has always blown my mind is that the Soviets didn't have a requirement that the decision come from the Kremlin. In any case, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov probably saved the world from a nuclear exchange which would likely not have ended there. He should have a statue somewhere.
The one regret I have from this period of my life: If I'd taken The Washington Post job, I might have been up front with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Watergate business.