I was born in 1945 in Crumpler, West Virginia, a coal camp near Bluefield. My father was a mathematician then serving in the Pacific aboard the destroyer USS Franks, which he described as a wallowing and bovine antique with absolutely no women aboard, but the best the Navy had at the time.
My paternal grandfather was dean and professor of mathematics and classical languages at Hampden-Sydney College, a small and (then, and perhaps now) quite good liberal arts school in southwest Virginia. My maternal grandfather was a doctor in Crumpler. (When someone got sick on the other side of the mountain, the miners would put my grandfather in a coal car and take him under the mountain. He had a fairly robust conception of a house call.) In general my family for many generations were among the most literate, the most productive, and the dullest people in the South. Presbyterians.
After the war I lived as a navy brat here and there — San Diego, Mississippi, the Virginia suburbs of Washington, Alabama, what have you, and briefly in Farmville, Virginia, while my father went on active duty for the Korean War as an artillery spotter. I was an absorptive and voracious reader and a terrible student, and had by age eleven an eye for elevation and windage with a BB gun that would have awed a missile engineer. I was also was a bit of a mad scientist. For example, I think I was ten when I discovered the formula for thermite in the Britannica at Athens College in Athens, Alabama, stole the ingredients from the college chemistry laboratory, and ignited a mound of perfectly adequate thermite in the prize frying pan of the mother of my friend Perry, whose father was the college president. The resulting six-inch hole in the frying pan was hard to explain.
I went to high school in King George County, Virginia, while living on Dahlgren Naval Weapons Laboratory (my father was always a weapons-development sort of mathematician, although civilian by this time), where I was the kid other kids weren’t supposed to play with. My time was spent canoeing, shooting, drinking unwise but memorable amounts of beer with the local country boys, attempting to be a French rake with only indifferent success, and driving in a manner that, if you are a country boy, I don’t have to describe, and if you aren’t, you wouldn’t believe anyway. I remember trying to explain to my father why his station wagon was upside down at three in the morning after flipping it at seventy on a hairpin turn that would have intimidated an Alpine goat.
As usual I was a woeful student — if my friend Butch and I hadn’t found the mimeograph stencil for the senior Government exam in the school’s Dempster Dumpster, I wouldn’t have graduated — but was a National Merit Finalist, and in the 99th percentile on the SATs.
After two years at Hampden-Sydney, where I worked on a split major in chemistry and biology with an eye to oceanography, I decided I was bored. After spending the summer thumbing across the continent and down into Mexico, hopping freight trains up and down the eastern seaboard, and generally confusing myself with Jack Kerouac, I enlisted in the Marines, in the belief that it would be more interesting than stirring unpleasant glops in laboratories and pulling apart innocent frogs. It certainly was. On returning from Vietnam with a lot of stories, as well as a Purple Heart and more shrapnel in my eyes than I really wanted, I graduated from Hampden-Sydney with lousy grades and a bachelor-of-science degree with a major in history and a minor in computers. Really. My GREs were in the 99th percentile.
The years from 1970 to 1973 I spent in largely disreputable pursuits, a variety that has always come naturally to me. I wandered around Europe, Asia, and Mexico, and acquired the usual stock of implausible but true stories about odd back alleys and odder people.
When the 1973 war broke out in the Mid-East, I decided I ought to do something respectable, thought that journalism was, and told the editor of my home-town paper, “Hi! I want to be a war correspondent.” This was a sufficiently damn-fool thing to do that he let me go, probably to see what would happen. Writing, it turned out, was the only thing I was good for. My clips from Israel were good enough that when I argued to the editors of Army Times that they needed my services to cover the war in Vietnam, they too let me do it.
I spent the last year of the war between Phnom Penh and Saigon, leaving each with the evacuation. Those were heady days in which I lived in slums that would have horrified a New York alley cat, but they appealed to the Steinbeck in me, of which there is a lot. After the fall of Saigon I returned to Asia, resumed residence for six months in my old haunts in Taipei, and studied Chinese while waiting for the next war, which didn’t come. Returning overland, I took up a career of magazine free-lancing, a colorful route to starvation, with stints on various staffs interspersed. For a year I worked in Boulder, Colorado, on the staff of Soldier of Fortune magazine, half zoo and half asylum, with the intention of writing a book about it. Publishing houses said, yes, Fred, this is great stuff, but you are obviously making it up. I wasn’t. Playboy eventually published it, making me extremely persona non grata at Soldier of Fortune.
Having gotten married somewhere along the way for reasons that escape me at the moment, I am now the happily divorced father of the World’s Finest Daughters. Until recently I worked as, among other things, a law-enforcement columnist for the Washington Times. It allowed me to take trips to big cities and to ride around in police cars with the siren going woowoowoo and kick in doors of drug dealers. Recently I changed the column from law enforcement to technology, and now live in Mexico near Guadalajara, having found burros preferable to bureaucrats. My hobbies are wind surfing, scuba, listening to blues, swing-dancing in dirt bars, associating with colorful maniacs, weight-lifting, and people of the other sex. My principal accomplishment in life, aside from my children, is the discovery that it is possible to jitterbug to the Brandenburgs.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.