Saturday, May 8, 2010

February, 1991 Oral Assessment Autobiographical statement

In the following statement, I will outline the general milestones of my life and discuss that chronology from the perspective of the influences, the persons, the places, and the ideas which have guided me, steered me and propelled me through life.

First, and most significantly, as influences are my parents, Raymond Robert Maxwell and Sallye Anne Hairston Maxwell, both of whom are deceased, yet both of whom continue to exert a tremendous influence on my life, my daily decisions, my hopes and my aspirations.

My mother was the socializer of the pair.  She enjoyed parties and balls and relished giving teas on Saturday evenings and dinner parties after Church on Sunday.  She worked as a secretary but she found special satisfaction in volunteer work, carrying my sister and I out with her as she canvassed the neighborhood annually for Easter Seal, Muscular Dystrophy, the March of Dimes, NAACP membership drives and voter registration.  Her dream for me was to become a lawyer, and she saw law as the loftiest, noblest, and most lucrative profession.

My father was not a grand socializer, church being the extent of his social life.  But in some respects my father was just as much a people person as was my mother, concerned with improving the lot of those less fortunate by direct action and on an individual basis.  He was an electrician by trade, and he brought many families into the twentieth century, wiring, at low cost, old houses for electricity for the first time, which meant heat during the winter and light at night and television and access to the use of modern appliances.  He wanted me to become a preacher and a teacher.  The most enduring lesson I learned from him was that one can’t help large groups of people collectively to bring about a change in their condition, but small groups and individuals can be shown how to help themselves, and many small groups become a large one. 

I was born in Greensboro, North Carolina and attended public schools through junior high.  My elementary school teachers were all friends of my parents, either through prior association or from my parents’ involvement in PTA and civic activities, and they all took a special interest in our academic and intellectual development.  Supplementing our public education was the weekly pilgrimage to the Carnegie Negro Library with my father, where I developed a love for books and acquiring information while he developed his lecture for the adult Sunday School class which he taught.  At one point, I decided I would become a librarian, and eventually, my first real job was as a library assistant at that library.

At age 11 I joined the Boy Scouts.  George Herring, my scoutmaster, was a boyhood friend of my father’s, but he showed me no favoritism.  I learned under his supervision hiking, camping, map-reading, Morse Code, and self-reliance.  But more importantly, I learned from Mr. Herring that nature and the environment can be very unforgiving, and that there are no substitutes for gains and achievements that are hard-earned though diligence, persistence, and directed efforts.  (Here I was thinking about the campfire incident at the Snowflake Camporee at Camp Wenasa, December, 1968.).  The parallels between my experiences as a Boy Scout and years later as a naval officer, as I reflect back, are amazing.  Troop #442 presented me with my first exposure to a relatively heterogeneous group, where I began to develop the ability to deal with a variety of people with varied interests, from varied backgrounds, and with varied personalities.

I discontinued my involvement with the Boy Scouts when, in the eighth grade, my parents gave me permission to go out for the junior varsity football team.  I made the team as defensive and offensive end, playing both ways, and I was appointed team captain.   Our JV team went undefeated and unscored upon.  We were ecstatic, and I was certain that I was on the fast track to the NFL.  After the eighth grade, I was awarded a scholarship to a prep school in Virginia, Woodberry Forest, not necessarily to play football.  There my football career floundered, giving rise instead to a promising future as a middle distance runner.  But other things also happened at Woodberry Forest. 

Woodberry Forest exposed me to society’s upper crust and a whole new world of perception and expectation.  I had a Spanish teacher from Spain, a history teacher descended from British nobility, and a track coach who told me that blacks could not run long distances competitively.  After a disappointing first quarter academically, I made the necessary adjustments to my studying habits and my grades improves substantially.  Athletically, track and cross-country practice provide me the opportunity to measure personal improvement, and the long afternoon runs enabled me to do the deep introspective thinking that, daily, nourished my soul.  I despised mandatory chapel on Wednesdays and Sundays, and I resented the conspicuousness of my absence which insured my punishment (there were only eight of us that first year, so the prefects only needed to count black heads and issue demerits to the ones not counted…).  I utilized extensively the school library, which was extremely well-stocked, better stocked that any library I had previously visited, and I especially cherished those long-distance runs, where my thoughts would take wings and fly.  (see endnote on the Woodberry days.)

After two years, I returned home and enrolled at Dudley Senior High.  The adjustment to public school was difficult, and I never made the adjustment.  Unfortunately, my track career ended at Dudley; I worked during the afternoons, evenings and weekends to help out with family expenses.  Those part-time jobs, at a library and a bakery, reading books and baking pies, convinced me that my future was in the understanding of economic theory and development.  The following summer, I was selected to attend the Governor’s School of North Carolina, a summer enrichment program for the state’s top performing high school juniors.  There I learned more about economics, the economic impact of current and international events, and the interrelationship of various disciplines of knowledge.  We also watched daily telecasts of the Watergate hearings.  At Governor’s School I met and studied with the brightest and best high school students in the state, some of whom I have kept in touch with over the years.

Going back to Dudley in the fall was analogous to a college basketball player who, in the summer between his junior and senior year, made the Olympic Team, traveled to Munich, and overcame great odds to win the gold medal, only to return to a mediocre team in the fall, or so I imagined.  Impatient, adolescently immature and foolish, and against my parents wishes, I left Greensboro and moved to Washington, DC.   There I got a job at a larger bakery, and spent my off hours at a larger library, the Library of Congress.

Washington provided me my first exposure to an international city, and I took full advantage of that opportunity, visiting embassies and consulates and talking with people from foreign countries and cultures.  The Arab oil embargo was in full swing at the time, and I was especially interested in Arab cultures and cultures.  Being of African descent, I also spent a lot of time reading about and talking with African nationals.  Shortly, however, the price of sugar skyrocketed, driving our bakery operation bankrupt.  We tried several remedies, such as decreasing sugar content in our products, substituting honey for sugar, and concentrating on bread sales (low profit margin) as opposed to cakes and pies which required large amounts of sugar (high profit margin).  But none of these measures were successful.  I found a part-time job at a restaurant, and started looking into enrolling in school, concentrating my efforts on American University.  My mother’s unexpected death resulted in my return to Greensboro, where I enrolled in electrical engineering at North Carolina A&T State University.         

Grief-stricken and perplexed, I made several false starts over the next two years, my performance roller-coastering between excellence and failure.  I worked for a year as a coop student at Farmer’s Home Administration in Reidsville, NC, and, everyday, walking back and forth to work, I passed a Navy recruiting office.  One day I stopped in to check things out, and the rest is history:  I enlisted in the Navy Nuclear Power Program.

After many months of intensive training, I reported to my first sea-going command, the USS Hammerhead (SSN-663), a fast-attack submarine.  My greatest achievement there was in becoming battlestations and special evolutions helmsman, where I became known for my ability to sense changes in the depth and course of the ship before those changes showed up on the indicators, and applying the proper correction.  That gift, in abstraction, of finding and solving potential problems before they became actual problems, has been a tremendous asset for me in life.  After fifteen months, I was encouraged to re-enlist for reassignment to the commissioning crew of one of the new Trident submarines, the USS Michigan (SSBN-727 (B)), serving under then Captain Wayne Rickman.  Captain Rickman was (and still is) an outstanding naval officer whose abilities and example of command I viewed as the highest expression of leadership.  The next three years passed quickly; I made several deterrent patrols and maintained my equipment in top-notch working condition.  As I approached rotation to shore duty, my supervisors encouraged me to apply for a program that would enable me to return to college to complete my undergraduate degree in preparation for a naval commission.  I applied and was selected to attend Florida A&M University (FAMU).

At FAMU, I majored in economics and took courses in international studies, mathematics, and ROTC courses in naval science.  I did very well there, graduating at the top of my class.  Two of my professors became best friends and confidants.  Upon graduation, I returned to the fleet as an Ensign, to the destroyer USS LUCE (DDG-38).

Within a month of reporting aboard, we deployed to the Mediterranean, conducted operations with NATO navies, and visited ports in Spain, France, Italy, Turkey and Israel.  The remainder of my time aboard LUCE was spent in shipyards and maintenance periods, on short underway periods in the Caribbean, and managing a large number of inspections, examinations and assist visits.

As I approach the end of the period of my military obligation, I am involved in the decommissioning of a great ship, the USS LUCE.  I am optimistic and excited about the challenges of the future.