While I was a junior in my third high school, most of my classmates were taking the ACT and SAT in preparation for applying to colleges. I took the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) instead. This was one of many enjoyable tests that I have taken and my scores made me very attractive to the military. The test is scored many ways but my main score, my overall score, was 99. Theoretically, this is as good as you can get on the overall score. The scoring system prevents you from getting 100.
As my classmates began sending out applications and essays, I started meeting with recruiters. Initially, I met with the Army recruiters thinking that I would join the reserves. After an overnight trip to the MEPS station, the only specialty they offered me seemed to involve installing telephone poles during combat. Blame the recruiter for my imperfect memory of the MOS, but I turned them down.
Next, I met with the Navy recruiter. He asked what I was interested in and I recall saying "codes and stuff.” What followed was a classic example of salesmanship. He had already seen my ASVAB score and knew I could probably qualify for almost any field. He suggested, "Cryptologic Technician Interperative.” Cryptologic sounded exciting so I agreed. I needed another round of tests at the MEPS station, so off I went to Montgomery, Alabama.
This time around, I took two tests. The first was a mathematics test to determine if I was qualified to be a Nuclear Technician. I was particularly good at mathematics in school and did quite well on this test. The second was perhaps the most enjoyable test I've taken in my 40 years of life, the DLAB, or Defense Language Aptitude Battery. You see, CTIs were actually linguists and they needed to determine if I was likely to be good at languages. For a brief idea of what this test was like, check out the sample test about halfway down the page at the Navy job description. I scored 125 on the DLAB, well enough to be guaranteed the language of my choosing.
The MEPS recruiter met with me after they had scores for both of my tests. His candid assessment after meeting with me was that while they were required to offer me Nuclear Tech because of my test scores, I seemed like too much fun to be one. He asked what language I was interested in and I said Chinese. I signed a 5-year enlistment contract with a $5,000 bonus (if I completed school) and 1 year of inactive reserves while I was still in high school. While my classmates were scurrying around their senior year worried about what school to apply to or waiting for acceptance letters, I had already decided what I'd be doing out of high school. I was Navy bound.
To be a CTI, you have to get a Top Secret / Special Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) security clearance. This requires an extensive background investigation, generally considered to cost approximately $50,000. This included listing all of my previous addresses for some period of time, an onerous task indeed, as I went to three high schools, two middle schools, and two elementary schools and had lived at 18 different addresses by the time I was 18 years old. This process starts while you are in school and failure to gain the necessary security clearance means you are likely to spend the rest of the time in the Navy scrubbing decks and painting bulkheads.
When I got to DLI (the Defense Language Institute) in Monterey, California, I found out that the only Chinese they taught was Mandarin, understandable, as this was the language of the Chinese government. Unfortunately, my egotistical and stubborn 18-year-old self was only interested in Cantonese so I asked if I could learn something else. They listed a few languages and I had heard Arabic was the hardest so I chose that.
To understand why I chose the hardest language I could, you need to understand a little of my mentality at that age. In my first elementary school, I was in gifted classes. I was a bright student who loved learning and my parents had engaged me outside of school in reading and in mathematical puzzles. As we moved around the country, I started falling between the cracks of various curricula. In addition, my poor social skills stagnated and I found it harder and harder to relate to my peers. By my last two years of high school, I was disenchanted with the educational process. I had stopped seeking academic challenges and started coasting through classes. I got high grades without trying so why bother making an effort to do more?
At DLI, I thought I was faced with a bigger challenge. I thought I had found something to break me out of my rut, which would require effort and work. Choosing the hardest language was an attempt to use my environment against myself and kick me out of my lethargy. It failed miserably. I didn't appreciate the opportunity I had and I coasted through Arabic as much as through high school physics.
Arabic was a long course at DLI. Where some courses were over in as little as 5 months, Arabic was 67 weeks. The whole time I was in school, I'd have to wonder about my background investigation. I could be the best Arabic linguist they'd ever seen, but fail to get my clearance and I'd be seeing a lot of the insides of toilets for 5 years.
As my first Christmas in the Navy rolled around, I hung out at the school standing watches and going to disciplinary inspections. The school was a lonely place as most people take leave and visit family but there were enough of us around to keep me occupied. Most weekdays, we had to muster at 0700 and were free to head to our classes by 0720. Over the holiday, we didn't have musters and only had to show up at the assigned times for watches.
The first day after the break, I went to muster at 0700 as usual. During muster, they informed me that I needed to meet with DIS (Defense Investigative Service - one of two agencies working on my background investigation) at 0645. Yes, they told me nearly a half an hour after my appointment that I had to go meet an investigator. This was not the most confidence inspiring start to my day. With visions of endless painting swimming before my eyes, I hurried down to the DIS offices where the secretary said simply, "oh, you are one of those. Have a seat."
I sat, stewing in my concern for half an hour before the agent called me in to his office. After some brief conversation about my appointment time, the agent asked me, "Can you tell me why the woman who lives across the street from you in Florida thinks you are a vampire?"
Let that sink in for a minute. I'm being investigated for a security clearance and someone said I'm a vampire.
"Umm, no, I can't. I would like to know why she let me babysit for her if she thought I was a vampire."
"You can't think of any reason this woman would tell our investigators that you are a vampire?"
A few instants of furious thinking later, I happen upon a possible explanation. This woman and her family usually went all out for Halloween. I remembered relating a story to them a couple Halloweens before. When my family lived in Maine, I had worked at a haunted house one Halloween. I was usually the guy who jumps out and scares people in the dark maze. One day, I wasn't feeling well so instead, they had me lie in the coffin and sit up periodically to scare people who thought I was a stuffed dummy. I was tired and ill, the coffin was surprisingly comfortable, and I fell asleep. I remembered relating this story of how I was one of the few people who could claim to have slept in a coffin to this woman and her husband and I told the agent how that had come about. From this, I could see a game of telephone resulting in her believing or at least saying that I was a vampire or thought I was.
The agent asked me a few more questions, seemed to accept my answers, and then produced a piece of paper that I was to sign. This paper attested that, "I am not a vampire. I have never been a vampire. I have no intention of becoming a vampire," to which, I was required to affix my signature. To this day, the US government has that signed paper on file. I just have one question, as it doesn't seem to be covered, "what if I change my mind?"
After I signed the most ridiculous document I've ever had to place my John Hancock on, the agent surveyed me critically and then said, "You don't seem to be very bothered by this."
"Are you kidding? Someday, this is going to make a great story."