Being A Foreigner Comes Easy, But So Does Not Being One

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I can honestly that one area where I have a lot of experience is being a foreigner. The Air Force arranged that by seeing to it that during my 21 years in uniform, I was overseas for all or part of 14 of them — almost two-thirds of the time.

I served from 1952 to 1973, and the book “The Ugly American” came out in 1958, followed by the 1963 film of the same name. If you think about how much time I spent overseas, you can see why I was well aware of the possibility of falling into that category, something that didn’t appeal to me. Fortunately, it didn’t happen.

Oh, I suppose I goofed a couple of times. Nobody’s perfect. But by and large I managed to avoid being cast as the poster boy for either the book or the film, and I thought you might find it interesting how I missed out on that honor.

I can summarize it in one sentence. By being an American, Johnny. By just being an American.

So, I avoided being seen as an American by being an American?

No. I avoided being seen as an ugly American by being an American. Truth is, it was one of the easiest things I ever did. I can explain it by using something I learned when I first began teaching, which was in the service as a DI, or drill instructor.

I’ve already told you how I ended up in GIS, or General Instructor School, a euphemism for drill instructor’s school. If you missed that, all you really need to know is that I picked it because it was the lesser of two evils.

Something one of the instructors at GIS told us was that to build a basic trainee into “a military man” we first had to “break him down.” I have to be honest with you. I never for one minute believed that. It sounded like some kind of macho BS to me.

I almost told the instructor that too, but a nice instinct for what not to say in DI school kept my mouth shut. I did tell my classmates how I felt, however, and the frowns I got from some of them was an education. It made me suspect that some of the people in GIS could be counted among those who could hardly wait to be in charge of something, life never before having offered them that opportunity.

So there I was after I graduated from GIS, me and my 60 basic trainees. I had a choice. I could either go along with what they had taught us in GIS — the “break-’em-down” bit — or I could just accept my men as they were and do my best to help them get ready to serve their country in a uniform.

I decided to accept them as they were and build on that.

Best choice I ever made, Johnny. Best choice I ever made.

There is nothing worse in this world than a person who thinks you ought to be someone you aren’t. Especially if he is convinced that what you ought to be is a carbon copy of him.

It was an easy decision for me. And I made one a lot like it as we disembarked from our ship in Iceland. One look as a small boat ferried us to shore across an icy bay toward a city set below snow-covered slopes told me I was headed for a new experience.

One of the guys near me on the rocking, rolling boat said, “Oh, hell! Look at this icebox! I already hate it!”

I eyed the Icelandic helmsman as other guys chimed in. Two minutes in a foreign country and those guys had already insulted someone. Right there and then I made up my mind that while I was there I was going to keep my big mouth shut about things I didn’t like. I made the same choice I made later as a DI. I didn’t try to change the climate, the culture, or human nature.

And it worked. In all my overseas assignments. In the Far East. In Europe. On Pacific Isles. In English speaking countries like India and the Philippines. In places where nearly everyone spoke some English, like Iceland, Japan, Pakistan, and Okinawa. And even in non-English speaking lands — in England for example.

Lolly is like that too. She just takes people as they are. In 1969, when she and I and our two kids arrived in England, we began scouting around for an off-base house because base housing on RAF Upper Heyford was very limited.

We finally located a place in Cropredy, a tiny village just north of Banbury, 12 miles north of the base. An estate agent from Banbury took us out there and showed us a house that was just perfect for us. Brick. Two stories. Three bedrooms, bath, dining, living, and kitchen. Oil-fired steam heat. At the end of a cul-de-sac. Nice back yard for the kids. Garage. School bus stop right at the end of the street to take the kids to an English school in Banbury. We smiled and told the estate agent we would take it.

It took a while to sign the papers, but we didn’t have to drive to Banbury, which surprised us because some relatives of ours living in England had told us that everything would be very formal for us, that as Americans we would have to jump through lots of hoops, and do all our signing at the estate office.

We asked our relatives why that was, but they just kind of fobbed us off with a vague, “Oh, well. Perhaps you won’t have to.”

Anyway, being the curious type, I was about to ask the estate agent why we hadn’t had to go back to the office when he said something that puzzled me. After we finished signing the papers, he paused a moment and asked, “You are an American, aren’t you?”

I smiled. “Sure.”

“You don’t seem like an American,” he said. And off he went, looking as pleased as punch, both with himself and with us.

Later that day some neighbors from across the street came over to welcome us to the neighborhood — the Stillers, a husband and wife in their 30s. We later became best of friends, and you know how I am. I always have to ask the question. So I did. I asked what the estate agent had meant by that cryptic comment.

Jack and Helen Stiller both laughed, especially Jack. “You didn’t mention how small the fridge was, I take it,” he said. “Or ask why there is no clothes dryer. Or mention your car would barely fit in the garage. Or that you hate driving on the left.”

“No,” I said, beginning to get the picture.

“Or ask why there are two separate taps in the sink? Or why the voltage isn’t 110? Or why petrol isn’t cheaper?”

“No. Of course not.”

Jack chuckled. “Estate agents get a lot of that, I’m afraid.”

Lolly and I loved it overseas — everywhere. And we always felt welcome no matter where we were. I read something the other day that seems to fit. Maybe you should read it too. Goes like this:

“As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”

You know what? There’s something to that.

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