As a 60th birthday present in 1986, Whit was given his first Personal Computer. He immediately started an ambitious project; to write his autobiography as an exercise in gratitude for the many opportunities he had been given throughout his life He never contemplated having it published. Whit did complete through the year 1984 and left many notes and an outline of the years after that. They give us the possibility of completing this task.
To give you an idea of what he wrote, here is an edited sampling put together by Rachel Ramsey.
If my life in February 1986 depended upon the details of my memory of Brooks Field, San Antonio, Texas, in 1926, I would have to give up the effort of memory and prepare for the certainty of death! I have no recall of specific family context. I know that our home was pre-WW I quarters considered "adequate" for a young student pilot. But one of my earliest memories is of an evening when my father used a tennis racquet to knock a large rat down the stairs of our small apartment. Could this have been a frequent occurrence? I don't remember. But I do remember vividly the sound and fury of that rat, desperately trying to leap back up the stairs against my father only to be hurled down again and again by his powerful tennis arm!
Memory aside, there is no doubt that the sights and sounds of Brooks and March Fields impressed themselves upon my mind: aircraft constantly landing and taking off; aircraft only recently released from the battlefields of Europe including SE-5's and even some German fighters. Thus,such planes were one of my earliest symbols of beauty, presumably reinforced daily by my father's comments about their flying capabilities when friends came by for drinks or a small dinner.Anyone can today see "The Trial of Billy Mitchell", the Warner Color film, to review the dangers confronting the young pilot during those years when neither Congress nor the War Department felt an adequate air arm was necessary….
In that large, two story frame house, minus indoor plumbing and modern kitchen appliances, my tiny grandmother Maggie and grandfather Will provided a place of such warmth and love that even today I cannot think of it and them without experiencing a deep sense of belonging, of home. Barely able to make ends meet, they thought nothing of welcoming their entire family (two sons and five daughters) and eight to ten offspring for at least a month during the summer.
For me those early years in Union City became the foundations for a pattern of attitudes that lasted a lifetime. They validated my frontier roots, my Tennessee origins, my love of the land and country people, the salt of the earth. To this day, I cannot read a Louis L'Amour novel without relating his characters to my own ancestors.In addition to these simple, rural values of family, I soon met my extended family in Union City. It was during those early years that I met and established a special relationship with my cousins. Photos show me riding a broom horse, probably made by my Grandmother, accompanied by Billy and Peggy Wheeler, the children of Ruth, whose husband had died when they were quite young.
Those years in Union City were the beginnings of my attitudes towards the Civil War as an experience in my mythic memory. Had not my Grandmother, a beautiful belle from Memphis, been impoverished by the war? Had she not killed a damnyankee with her own hands? I listened to these and countless other stories on those early and later summer evenings and learned with awe about the Bell Witch, a legendary figure in western Tennessee folklore whose caring for the sick had captured the regional imagination despite the fact that she was a ghost!
Such stories, especially when my grandmother or Aunt Bess told them, must have prepared the soil for my later acceptance of the numinous, that deepest bonding that humans share which belies their physical nature and underscores their spiritual unity. As early as the age of four, I could not have been insulated against stories about how the Bell Witch once had materialized a cluster of grapes for my Aunt Bess during a deep sickness just to assure her that she would recover! Or how the witch, in the form of an elderly woman, had hitched a ride with my Aunt Bess one day in St. Louis and had asked to be taken to a certain address. Upon arrival at the stranger's destination, Bess and the others in the car were astonished to find that the stranger had simply disappeared. When they inquire about and had described the woman to residents at the address, they told Bess that the woman had died of heartbreak some ten years earlier. These and countless other family stories were my earliest introduction to an aspect of my "cultural heritage" that television and the movies, not to mention modern transpersonal psychology and metaphysics, portray today.
Clark Field/Ft. Stotsenberg
Pampanga, P.I. (1929-1931)
My memories of Ft. Stotsenberg are not rich, by any means; but neither are they so meager as to require a fictional and speculative journey into the "might have been" past. During this relatively brief period, I attained the age of four and celebrated a birthday party outside my parents' quarters- a celebration captured for posterity in a photograph. The alien culture of the Philippines and the presence of Filipino "aliens" on "my base" at Ft. Stotsenberg like Rufina, my amah evoked my worst, colonial tendencies. I quickly learned Tagalog, much to the amusement of Rufina, whom I treated with disdain, not only because she was small and dark but equally because she was supposed to watch over me. Perhaps to underscore my rebellious contempt for her competence, I led her into a series of mishaps and adventures that quickly established my charming reputation as a warrior of unpredictable habits.
Lieutenant “Shorty” and Hannah Hawkins lived nearby. Because Hannah had offered me an open invitation to drop in and see her whenever I had a moment's free time, I once wandered into her home in search of female companionship. Needless to say, the unspeakable Rufina was not in attendance. After discovering that Hannah was not at home, I thought to avail myself of any food in the icebox and, to my delight, found a newly baked chocolate cake. I managed to polish off about a third of the cake before my hunger could be satisfied. Confident that some servant would clean up the mess, I cheerfully rambled out of the house in search of other entertainment.
One may imagine my chagrin some hours later when my mother confronted me with an accusing and baleful stare, asking, “Did you steal Hannah Hawkins’ cake this morning?" Of course I swore total ignorance of the situation, claiming some other social engagement as my alibi while ignoring the telltale evidence of chocolate all over my clothes). I loved Hannah, who would bail me out of a much more serious situation some twenty years later, and was wounded when my mother informed me that she had freshly baked the cake for a tea party, now ruined because of my thoughtlessness.
I recall trying to put the blame on Rufina for avoiding me and not feeding me, but the story wouldn't wash. My father, home for lunch and failing to repress his vast amusement at my daring and the consequences, ordered me to march straight over to Hannah’s home to apologize forthwith. Sheepish but still rebellious and angry for being caught, I walked into Hannah’s tea party in full swing. The ladies surrounded me and made much fun of my uncivilized behavior to the point where I was ready to throw cake, when another event diverted everyone’s attention.
To my astonishment, Shorty Hawkins suddenly drove up, slammed on the brakes, burst from his car and raced up the steps onto the screen porch, where the party was being held. Riveting everyone's attention, he demanded, “Hannah, I want your full attention. I want nothing to divert you from the serious question I am about to ask you. Can I be assured that are focusing all your energies on this question?"
"Yes! Yes! " she replied while the assembled gaped.
"Are you sure? I want no bridge or tea party to interfere with your thoughtful answer to what I am about to ask. Do I have that commitment?"
"My God, you fool! Ask your question!" (By now, my cake escapade had faded into insignificance and I had a hunch that the worst might be over. The ladies are breathless with expectation, confident that some earth shaking even has brought the young pilot home from "the line" for a vitally important, life-changing decision.)
"Don't you think that I'm the best looking man on the Post?" asked Shorty. Though he was only in his twenties, hours of open-cockpit flying in sun, wind and rain had already so toughened his face that he looked like a wizened old man.
The peals of laughter that met Shorty’s question exploded into the afternoon and released me from any further agony. The story has lost none of its vitality, fun and absurdity for me down the years, representing perhaps a kind of central theme of my first time in the beloved Philippines: a theme of gaiety and youth and rakish hell-raising in a foreign clime.
Social Sciences Department
In August, 1954, I finally reported to West Point for a three-year teaching assignment. It was a thoroughly fulfilling experience, both professionally and personally. Four people helped shape my spiritual and professional development. Mary (“Dinnie”) Haywood Vance, Lieutenant Dan McGurk, Lieutenant William Y. Smith and Lieutenant Brent Scowcroft.
Mary Haywood Vance
I had met Dinnie in 1949 when I attended the Engineer School at Ft. Belvoir. She had then revealed herself to be quiet, scholarly and athletic: a fine swimmer. Her father was then a student at the National Defense University at Ft. McNair. Her father and my father had been classmates at at the Air Tactical School, Maxwell Field in Alabama, in the Class of 1937. It was a time when bombers were becoming the dominant force in the Air Corps.
Seven years younger than I, Dinnie asked for help with algebra homework whenever I was invited to dinner with the Vances. Later, when I served General Hobbs at Governors Island, Colonel Vance had been an American representative on the United Nations Military Staff Committee. Once again, I had an occasional meal at the Vance residence on Long Island.
For two years, Dinnie and I dated, usually entertained by restaurants and the theater in New York City. Her major at Barnard College was in fine arts, but her specialty was Oriental art, especially Chinese brush painting. Her cool beauty and calm, intelligent tolerance for other people appealed to my better nature over and over. I soon learned that her older (16) sister, Susan, had been a negative role model in Thailand where her father, Reggie, had been our Military Attache for two years. While Dinnie had continued school and had kept fit by daily exercise at the Bangkok Foreign Correspondents Club, Susan had dropped out of school and had become a social butterfly, a chatterbox with countless young foreign service officers and diplomats in attendance.
The contrast between the two sisters was not lost on me. I thought Dinnie was by far the more balanced, well rounded woman whose mind could meet mine without any awkwardness. Perhaps because of my adventure with Marianne, I was suspicious of romantic love. However, as I tested my own sensibility with Dinnie through the two years of our courtship, the feeling grew that she would be a perfect mate, experienced as a world traveler, familiar with the role of “Army wife,” and quite prepared to improvise while we learned to love each other.
Accordingly, we were married on May 30, 1956. Dan McGurk played the role of best man and we sealed our pledge to each other in the West Point chapel. Dan then drove us in a buggy down a steep hill from the Chapel to the Plain where we had a sumptuous reception. My father was inordinately pleased, as if my course had been returned to rationality from Marianne and three years of bachelorhood. We embarked on a glorious honeymoon in the Virgin Islands, returning to West Point to rent a house in Highland Falls and to prepare for the 1956-57 academic year.
Through that year, I counted myself blessed beyond all expectations. Din had hidden her adventurous spirit for years and could now join me in many adventures: feathering our nest with small, inexpensive antiques; congratulating ourselves on acquiring two mutual wedding gifts, a T’ang Dynasty tomb figure from Ralph Chait, a dealer who guaranteed its validity (something he didn’t know he was not qualified to do!) and a teak “Campaign Chest,” the British version of a foot locker for British officers who served in the Raj in India in the 19th century; spending many weekends touring antique shops in the Hudson Valley; buying and selling “Betty,” a hunter that bucked when a saddle rested too tightly on her injured spine; and, above all, celebrating our first son, Whit, Junior, when he was born in April, 1957.
Advanced Infantry Course, Ft. Benning, Georgia (1957-1958;
Courses in Airborne and Ranger Tactics
Dinnie and I reached Ft. Benning in August in time to allocate household goods to a small set of quarters on Post. Fortunately, the house was fully air conditioned, qualified to mitigate south Georgia’s oppressive summer heat and humidity.
The Advanced Infantry Course was the most boring possible survey of “modern” infantry tactics. For most of daylight hours, several hundred officers were imprisoned in a classroom to receive handouts and hear canned lectures on the role of infantry in combat. In theory, upon graduation, we were supposed to know how to command a battalion or even a regiment. In spite of the wartime experience of many instructors in WW II and Korea and the arrival of several new weapons systems, the Course seemed grounded in the same tactics that I had learned at Sewanee thirteen years earlier. The only new elements in the curriculum were the promise of more fixed wing and helicopter support for Army operations and the ominous threat of tactical nuclear weapons on a battlefield.
The Course was very leisurely and permitted all students to socialize at the golf course, tennis courts and the officers club. I could detach my mind from most lectures and write notes about my PhD Dissertation, which I was able to complete before June, 1958. I was friendly with several classmates and foreign students, especially a Spanish exchange student with whom I could practice my Spanish. He was an expert on Islam and Arab culture, having served on Spanish Embassy staffs in several Mid-East countries.
Upon completion of the course in June, 1958, at 31 years old, I received parachute training and six weeks of Ranger training. In my absence from Ft. Benning, Dinnie gave birth to Christina on June 28th. In my view, this was the only event that made 1957 significant. Otherwise, the Army kept trying to shift my interest from international politics and economics to combat-related skills. The practical climax of that balancing act came in August when, bronzed and lean, I went to the Fletcher School to defend my dissertation.
It was another opportunity to reinforce my growing sense of “bemused detachment.” On the night before my scheduled defense I anticipated a lively discussion with three Fletcher Professors (George Halm; economics; Ruhl Bartlett, American Diplomatic History; and a third with expertise in International Law).
However, my hosts had a house full of cats. By the time I awakened on the fated day, my allergy to cats had exploded with sneezes and watery eyes. I dried myself as best I could and resolved to play my role. A professor asked the first question, “What factors do you think are influencing the Berlin situation today?”
A perfect question for an inspiring analysis of economic, political and legal factors on the stage of Berlin. I was about to begin my pitch when tears flowed down both cheeks. While I tried to mop up, the three Profs, thoroughly shocked at this unexpected arrival of a weeping airborne Ranger, began arguing over the relative importance of obvious and not-so-obvious psychological issues at stake in Berlin. They wouldn’t allow me to open my mouth! I never had a chance to mention my dissertation. After they had debated Berlin for about ten minutes, they invited me to leave the room while they made their judgment. In a few seconds, Halm opened the door and, smiling, welcomed me back to hear all three congratulate me on my “spirited defense” of a fascinating subject.
My life-long lesson? Substance often takes a back seat to ritual when the purpose of the meeting is already a foregone conclusion. I would not have been invited to a defense of my dissertation if the committee had not already come to a positive conclusion. I later learned that PhD committees often save time by jumping to sincere congratulations. Once more I was made to understand that “All the world is a stage!”
.........For me the single most outstanding event of our two-year tour at Ft. Bragg was the birth of our third child, Shawn Victoria, in August, 1960.
Army Language School
August, 1961- June, 1962
Aside from the joys of learning a new language and simply living in the beauty of Monterey, the assignment gave me a life style of leisure and family that I had not expected. It was not unusual for me to come home at noon, have lunch and then spend hours listening to taped conversations in Mandarin. Shawn frequently took a nap in my lap while the four tones of Mandarin droned on, perhaps laying a foundation for her later career specialization in China and Chinese. Andy’s birth in November, 1961 added a fourth new member to our family, a fact that did not sit well with Susan Vance, Dinnie’s mother. She accused us of “behaving like Catholics.”
Dinnie and I explored the Monterey Peninsula with a sense of joy and gratitude. In our enthusiasm for the climate and the people, we bought five acres of land in the Aguajito area. We hoped that we would return in retirement some day.
On reflection, I believe that my superb instructors inadvertently began to change my entire sense of reality during that year. They quietly conveyed perceptions that were fundamentally opposed to everything my life and my career had taught me about “ the good life.” Hours of reflection with instructors and Dinnie (who was permitted to attend all classes) opened my mind to the idea that Kipling had been right. “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Little could I know that this was a beginning of my profound acculturation, my liberation from the military paradigm in which I had already invested thirty-five years of my life in 1961. I had only one more year of the Western military mindset before I would pour my energies into the culture of China for seventeen years.
Although I cannot name a single instructor at Monterey who profoundly altered my views of identity and the world, all of them gave so generously of their patience and humor that that year became a firm foundation on which I could erect a new sense of tolerance for ambiguity and cultural differences.
.............During the summer of 1963, while I attended a familiarization course on military intelligence in Washington, Dinnie gave birth to our fifth child, Robert Kenneth Whitson.
THE DECADE OF THE 1970s
That mood of pervasive fear and distrust in the summer of 1970 only added to my own perplexity as I attempted to guide myself and my family into this grim period facing us. I have already written about my dismay with the post WW II, arrogant military attitude of "We won the war, didn't we?" My dismay also reflected my growing dis-ease with the existing military bureaucracy. My assignment to the Philippines, to Fletcher and West Point had served to reinforce my innate rebelliousness against the routines of that bureaucracy and to foster an independence of mind while I searched for a destiny that eluded me. The war and my experience in the Pentagon were crowning disillusionments of a career in which I had repeatedly searched for integrity only to find posturing of insecure "leaders" at the highest levels, baffled by our national security environment..
In my search, the 1970's would introduce me into new ways of perceiving myself and the world, perceptions that would resolve many of the conflicts that had challenged my mind during those tumultuous years. As McLoughlin had predicted, it was during this decade of America's Fifth Great awakening that so many people would become "itinerant ministers", preaching informally of the coming "New Age," attacking the old order and fostering a renewal of spiritual search. Towards the end of the decade, I would become one of those "itinerant ministers." In effect, I would finally and gratefully discover a resolution of identity that I had been seeking for a lifetime. Unfortunately, my next step on the way to that resolution would be strewn with small crises and explosive devices. It remains to tell about them.
Writing now from the perspective of thirty years later, I understand that I thought a job with RAND might be a happy compromise, a bridge out of my dilemma, still pseudo-governmental but blessed with more freedom to write about the Far East and perhaps contribute to national security policy.
After retirement, I went over to RAND (Washington)….By the end of that first trip to RAND, I felt satisfied that I had "come home." Indeed, RAND's style and its "corporate culture" seemed to agree with my personal style. It was not impressed with its military clients (nor was I). It felt no obligation to provide footnotes for the Pentagon's latest fads, theories or visions (neither did I). It charged well for its opinions and paid its analysts well. It provided a secured environment in which open debate at top secret levels could explore almost any aspect of security policy world- wide. I liked many people I had met at RAND on my first visit in 1968: Guy Pauker, the expert on Southeast Asia; Arnold Horelick, Tom Robinson and Tom Wolfe- all profound students of the Soviet military; economists and sociologists engaged in various aspects of policy analysis; and a management team that seemed to be sympathetic to the needs of the professional staff with a collegial sense of unity that attracted me from the beginning. Finally, it was a long way from the frenetic confusion of the Pentagon, in part because RAND could almost choose its own focus for research and let the Pentagon stew over its own petty internal political games and rivalries.
Since I did not expect to spend a lot of time at RAND- West (except for summer, when I promised to stay in residence for a month to six weeks), I began a practice on my visits to RAND that I would follow for the next four years. I tried to stick to a schedule of daily activities that remained on East Coast time….Career equities counted for much less at RAND than they did in Washington. Impressing people was not so important at RAND. The dress code was casual, except for managers, who always had to anticipate a visit from their up-tight clients in the Pentagon. When I first began my time with RAND, these differences were elements of an attitude that eluded me and yet attracted me. The RAND ethos was stimulating and challenging. Challenging because it made a newcomer pay attention to his own discipline, lest the Santa Monica casual veneer erode the newcomer's commitment to deadlines and quality. Since I had never been a beach person, the much touted proximity of the beach from the RAND buildings meant nothing to me. But the climate thrilled me. I had always liked the desert and the dry heat, the aroma of cactus and eucalyptus, the light clothing and the "flex-time" work schedule.
Within a week after my initial briefings there and the cordial reception they gave me, I returned to Washington, reasonably confident that I had made the right decision. I was not sure where that decision would take me; but it seemed to be the right next episode in my life and I was ready to go to work for my new masters!
The two-month period between RAND and BDM was not without some apprehension for me. RAND had been a pseudo-governmental organization whose style and leisurely approach to research had not been much of a shock to my own sense of professional pace. Moreover, I had gone to RAND with a reputation (partly deserved!) in the China field. Armed now with a determination to escape from the China game, I was somewhat confused about “next steps.” The feeling of “hanging in the wind” was not comfortable. So I focused on job search while I continued an active social schedule with friends and former clients in order to publicize my availability.
liked what I heard about an upstart new “Beltway Bandit” called Braddock, Dunn and MacDonald (BDM), just moved to Washington from their roots in Arizona. Their very newness appealed to me because I thought I might really be useful to them as a bridge to the Pentagon, the State Department, CIA and even people in academia who were interested in foreign affairs and national defense. Accordingly I applied for a job with BDM on July 1, 1974.
Fortunately, the summer kept Shawn busy with competitive diving, while the other children filled their time at the farm with Susan and Reggie, at Donaldson Run and at the Army-Navy Country Club.
Library of Congress
April, 1976-August, 1979
Three plus years in the Library of Congress provided an opportunity for unprecedented introspection. I was already a veteran at managing research and professional researchers. Most of my staff of about a hundred scholars and secretaries were familiar with the protocols of the Library and the Congressional Research Service.
Meeting Lin Yun
Still fascinated by China, I went to Taiwan in May, 1976, to participate in a four-day conference about the future of China. By the fourth day, my boredom with written and spoken remarks by fellow “China Watchers” prompted me to search for a Chinese fortune teller. I felt somewhat ashamed of myself because I considered all such “forecasting” as an offshoot of religion, both aimed at exploiting the ignorant, gullible masses.
Nevertheless, I found an elderly Chinese astrologer who apologized for his inability to read the numbers. He said that he knew of only one person who might help me: one “Professor” Lin Yun, then teaching at Hong Kong University. Since I had plans to visit Hong Kong next morning, I thanked him and forgot about my brief diversion from my fixed belief in Henley’s great poem “Invictus,” the epitome of the Western mind: I was the captain of my fate: I was the master of my soul. Imprisoned by fifty- one years of conditioning , how could I know that this brief trip to Hong Kong would shake my world view to its roots.
I landed at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport at around 10:30 am and was about to take a taxi to the Peninsula Hotel when, on impulse, I called our Consul General, Herb Levin, whom I had met fourteen years earlier when I was studying Mandarin in Taiwan. By more than chance, his wife, Lily, answered the phone. When I asked her if she had ever heard of someone named Lin Yun, she replied, “Oh yes. Two weeks ago, I arranged to have lunch with him today. By the way, he told me then to expect you.”
At lunch, I was instantly charmed by a Chinese gentleman whose eyes seemed to be laughing at life. By way of introduction, he said, “Welcome, Master, it’s time for your spiritual education to begin.”
Bemused, I turned to Lily Levin and asked if she had heard Lin’s question.
She replied, “What question? He hasn’t said anything yet!”
Thus did I begin a nearly forty-year friendship with a brilliant, Tibetan-trained practitioner philosopher whose guidance and insights would come to reinforce almost every metaphysical concept that my life would teach me until he died in 2013. Perhaps more important than his belief system (Black Hat Tantric Buddhism) was his role to shake my smug faith in the culture of “national security” in time to prepare my mind for the next step in my life. That was to be a journey that would lead me to the teachings of the 1200 page spiritual psychotherapy called A Course in Miracles.
Trip To China, 1976
As if Lin Yun were not enough drama for me in one year, in the summer of 1976 I went on a thirty-day trip to China at the request of a former Secretary of Defense (James Schlesinger) to help him interpret changes taking place there. Our host was to be Mao Tse-tung. Unfortunately, he died three days after our party arrived. Accordingly, to remove our prying eyes from Beijing politics, the Chinese sent us to Tibet and a circuitous trip to Sinkiang, where resident Islamic shepherds were violently opposed to Beijing authority. While in Tibet I became very ill and was under the care of communist trained nurses in a small hospital. It seemed I was very close to death and was aware of the danger I was in. In that beautiful country, at that high altitude, I made my peace with God. I was thankful for the rich life I had lived, for my precious family, for my many experiences. I was ready to leave this earth but prayed from the depth of my being that if I still had more to accomplish and was to survive this illness, I would dedicate my life to more spiritual pursuits and follow Higher Guidance in order to better serve.
....... Later that year in October, I received a phone call from Walter Reed Hospital. They told me that it was time for a bone-marrow test and biopsies to confirm how far my prostate cancer had advanced. I drove to Walter Reed the next morning with a sense that the door of my life was slowly closing. Nevertheless, I remembered my pledge to God in a Tibetan clinic and, somehow, felt rather indifferent to possible results of biopsies. The tests were not painful and I went away, happy to be in a detached neutral zone between sadness and happiness that had become my sense of “home.” Three days later, the doctors called once again and demanded my presence.
This time, their attitude was curiously apologetic. They finally told me that they could find no evidence of any cancer at all. They wouldn’t admit that it might have been a misdiagnosis in the first place. I knew that I should feel ecstatic. Instead, I still felt as if I were living in a realm where “Thy will be done” was the measure of reality. I went home, glad that I had never told Dinnie or the children that I had been diagnosed with fatal cancer.