William B. May

MayEarly Life

Born on a ten-acre dirt farm in south-central AR in the middle of the Great Depression (1935), my early years were spent in “survival school” among the pigs and chickens, and my later childhood and adolescence were devoted largely to the inhalation of mule flatulence as I followed “Ole Jack” across the field from sunup to sundown, trying in vain to grow more food than he nipped off as we plowed along. Since he and I never agreed on much of anything (with him usually getting his way), I concluded early on that there must be a better way to make a living and started looking for it. After careful analysis, it became clear that the way to go was to join the Navy. So, I set off for the local recruiting station only to find the Navy recruiter absent that day. As luck would have it, however, the Air Force recruiter was there. Even though I wore coke-bottle-bottom eyeglasses, I left his office (having signed on the bottom line) convinced that I would be flying jet fighters in no time at all. Thus began a well-planned career.

Enlisted Life

After being disabused of the idea of flying jet fighters (or anything else for that matter) and upon completion of basic training in 1955 at Lackland AFB, I was offered most any career field I wanted (obviously someone had stepped on my aptitude test answer sheet with golf shoes). In what was becoming a trend in misguided decisions, I asked about a cloak and dagger language program I had heard about being conducted at nearby Kelly AFB. The counselor replied that by all means I could have that, but he couldn’t tell me anything about it-all classified. So, I left with visions of being parachuted behind enemy lines to carry out the operation that would win some future war and make me a hero. Little did I know that I was destined to spend the next several years wearing headsets and, in a valiant effort to decipher what was being said, turning the gain up so high that my hearing would be irreparably compromised. Helen and I (we had been childhood sweethearts and were married during my stint at Indiana U. in 1956-57) enjoyed the foreign travel (Greece and Germany) associated with my assignments and after the second overseas posting (and my less than meteoric rise to SSgt), we decided that this wasn’t a bad life (certainly better than following a mule) but if I was going to make a career of it I should become an officer (especially since MSgt seemed a long shot). I had received an AB degree in Slavic Languages when I finished my second language school at Syracuse U. in 1959 and was eligible for either OCS or OTS. In what I would later come to consider (during fire drills, Victory at Sea, Saturday inspections, etc., etc.) the Mother of All Misguided Decisions, I chose the former.

OCS Memories

The thing I remember most about OCS was the lack of enthusiasm associated with the idea of starting over again in Class 63B, after having gone through the first six weeks with 63A (a torn tendon in the elbow and subsequent hospitalization to repair it was responsible for the hiatus). Fortunately, I had much encouragement. Helen opined that we had so much invested in uniforms that not to continue was the height of fiscal irresponsibility. In his visits at the hospital, Capt. Pulliam let it be known that not continuing wasn’t even an option. He informed me that not only would I start over, but also that I would graduate-if he had to kick my ass (his words) across the stage every step of the way to accept my diploma. With this kind of support, who could resist?

Life After OCS

My first assignment as an officer was back with AF Security Service (whence I had entered OCS). I’ll never forget the day I reported for duty. I was told to report to Major [Jones] at 0800 sharp. Precisely on the hour, I rapped twice loudly (OCS style) on his door. A voice mumbled something like “come in”. As I entered, I could see a pair of feet on a desk and a newspaper covering the face of their owner. I marched sharply up to within 30 inches of the desk, popped my first class heels together, saluted and began, “2Lt May, (SN), reporting….” and never got any further. He interrupted and said “Put it away, balloon.” Thus began the unlearning of many of the important lessons of OCS. After an assignment at NSA, I transitioned from the SIGINT to the HUMINT side of the house and spent most of my commissioned career in the diplomatic arena. During the course of the next 20+ years, we rotated between Europe and Washington (except for the year I spent in Thailand during the Vietnam war-the only assignment I ever had on a real Air Force base). Our diplomatic postings included Moscow, Sofia, Budapest and Prague (we were in Moscow in 1968 when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and in Prague in 1989 when they left) and we spent a tour in Stuttgart, Germany (EUCOM) where I worked for Gen. Haig. I was lucky enough to be selected for all the major service schools, including the National War College (where two of my classmates were Hugh Shelton and Wes Clark-and I outranked them both, by a full grade, at the time). Although I had reached O-6 fairly quickly (18 years), another (some would say misguided) decision was to become essentially a State Dept. employee. This meant I was a very senior Colonel when I retired, but I had enjoyed every minute of it-and have no regrets. Because of my seniority, it was difficult to find a job when our tour in Prague was finished. I could have had another attaché posting (and would have gone to Warsaw), except Helen had encountered major medical problems and we wanted to be close to good medical facilities. So, I decided to retire at port and we moved back into our house in northern Virginia (which we had bought in 1970, and where we still live).

Life Today

Upon retirement, I was recruited for a job as the East European representative for United Technologies, to be based in Prague but working all of East Europe, including Russia. They offered more money than I knew existed and fantastic perks, but we needed to be close to good medical care, so I declined. After lounging it up for a few months (I never had any trouble adjusting to retirement), I went back to school and got a degree in horticulture (that damned mule must be turning over in his grave). This led to a job as consulting editor for a horticultural software company, as well as writing the Q & A page for the American Gardener magazine, publication of the American Horticultural Society (all work done at home via telecommute). Otherwise, we stay busy working in the garden and doing some traveling (of which we’ve never tired). We don’t have much in the way of future plans except spoiling the grandchildren when we visit with our two sons and their families. One lives nearby in northern Virginia, the other lives in Seattle.