* Before you dig in, I have a shameful confession for a writer to make: My father ghost-wrote the essay, featured below, for me in 1982, during my senior year in high school.
Was this the norm? No.
So you might wonder, why didn’t I just complete my assignment?
Valid question. However, on this particular night, juuuuust as I was opening my books to start studying for a big exam, my chair suddenly turned into quicksand. I had completely forgotten about a huge personal interview assignment for English, also due the next day.
I can’t say I was distracted or exhausted by the college application process, as back in the day we only applied to one or two schools. I have purposely forgotten the very lame reasons that necessitated me skulking in and announcing to my 72-year-old, TV-snoozewatching father, “Uh, Dad, I’m in sort of a bind. Dad, are you awake? Good. Okay, as I was saying, I was in a bind BUT I have a great solution.”
“See, I was supposed to interview someone,” I continued, “and of course it was GOING to be you, because you know how you’ve led such an interesting life, and then type a…ahem..uh… minimum three-page essay. But— I sort of forgot about it. And, uh, it’s due tomorrow.”
“Here’s my big idea though,” I had absolutely nothing to lose, so I carried on. “You’re a great writer. You could just write an essay on yourself, and just— pretend you are both you AND me, answering a bunch of questions I would have asked you…” (had I even known what to ask you, had I not been so busy, and so forth and so on, insert lots of teenagerial bullshit that it’s no wonder I abolished it from my memory banks.)
“It’s like I am actually doing the assignment, except that we’re skipping the part where we talk and then I write it down. You know?”
On this occasion I was a lucky girl to have a father that was old enough to be my grandfather. Because of the softness of heart that accompanies advancing age, he miraculously, albeit reluctantly, agreed to my desperate, conspiratorial plan.
“You will? And you’ll do it— tonight??”
Frank Terry sat down at his little green Olivetti typewriter and saved my butt. And ironically, what my dear old dad cranked out post haste has proven to be such wise and practical advice that I saved the essay. Over the years I have read it so many times that I’ve nearly memorized it, and consider it one of my greatest treasures.
Fate was in a really good mood that night, shifting those events in my favor, not just so I would have a good grade in English, rather that I might have loving advice from my father, in written form, to guide me through the fatherless years that followed his passing two years later. These words have been my way of keeping him close in spirit, as my memories of him grow a bit fuzzier around the edges. A way for my daughters to know a little bit about the impressive adventures of their Grampa Frank, whom they never met. So now, without further ramblings, I will now share
How to Wind Up in the White House Without First Being Elected
Ghost written for Mimi Terry
by Frank J. Terry, Ret. Lt. Cmdr. USN
When I was a little girl, living first in Fort Worth and then in Dallas, it became known to me, in a number of ways, that my father had spent a long time in the Navy before he married my mother. In fact, he had retired as an officer in 1956, after having served for 30 years following his first enlistment in 1926 at the age of 17.
As time moved along and I grew older, it was plain to see from the hundreds of pictures that had been accumulated, and which were often displayed and talked about when visitors came to see us (many of whom had also served in the armed forces) that my father’s experiences in the Navy had been unusual, to say the least.
From time to time I could not help but overhear many of the conversations that were taking place at our house, and also when we visited relatives on both sides of the family. This prompted me to ask questions on a number of occasions, in order to learn a little more of the details.
While he had not been on active duty for a number of years, my Dad always liked talking about his life in the Navy, although during these latter years he was the manager of a firm in Fort Worth which organized and directed financial campaigns for schools, colleges, hospitals and churches of numerous denominations.
Many of the interesting pictures and other material that he had collected over the years were acquired as a result of years of Naval duty performed while stationed at the White House in Washington, D.C., as an assistant to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Naval Aide. I was quite interested in his collection of photographs of the activities of people who were making what I now recognize as history before and during World War II. All this caused me to ask my Dad how he, as a Navy man, managed to find himself on duty in the White House and therefore in frequent contact with the man who was then our President, FDR. His answer went something like this:
My Dad was born in 1909, and ever since he was a small boy, my father had a constant and burning desire to be a sailor on board a ship at sea. In those days, long before TV was invented, he said there were weekly newsreels shown in the theaters, and that regularly these newsreels would show a big ship being launched or one plunging through heavy seas during a storm. Every time this would happen, Dad made a vow to himself: that one day he would be part of the crew of a ship like those shown on film. As soon as he was barely old enough to enlist, he talked my grandparents into letting him join the Navy.
While he was in high school, my father took a commercial course and learned, among other things, shorthand and typing. He told me that during his early years in the Navy, he further studied and concentrated on these two skills, to the point where he became very proficient, resulting in his being transferred from service on a battleship to duty with the Naval Aide to the President in the White House.
It was the established practice of Franklin D. Roosevelt to take vacations, combined with inspection trips, on board a Navy ship. The President loved the sea very much, and when he was a much younger man, he had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy. On his trips to sea, FDR took only a few members of his personal staff, in order that he might relax from the pressures of the day-to-day crowded schedules at the White House. The photos I looked at occasionally were taken during cruises where my father was in attendance, mostly in the Atlantic, to places such as Newfoundland, the islands in the West Indies, Panama, South America and so forth. While the President was out of the country on these trips at sea, important mail, including legislation passed by Congress, would be sent by airplane to wherever the President’s ship might be at the time, so that the President could take any action that might be required.
One of Dad’s trips that was mentioned more frequently than others was FDR’s meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on board British and American warships anchored off Newfoundland. This meeting later became known as the Atlantic Charter Conference.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, there was an important conference at Casablanca, and it was my father’s privilege to be a member of the party that accompanied the President. Dad never seemed to tire in relating the features of that trip: It was a secret one. Their party left Washington by train, and in the middle of the next night, they transferred in Florida to those very first flying boats, the Pan American Clippers. Then they flew at what, today, would be a very slow speed, down to Brazil. From there it was an overnight flight across the South Atlantic to the western coast of Africa, then by land plane up to Casablanca.
I am finally getting to the main point of my story: How does one get exceptional duty, such as I have been talking about? My father constantly stresses the fact that there is a key to success if one is seeking unusual, and often pleasant and profitable, experiences in any of the military forces or in the hundreds of organizations and occupations making up the business and industrial worlds. That key is this:
You will find yourself at or near the top, working with those who are really responsible for our progress and survival as a great nation, if you will devote extra time and energy to becoming definitely superior to the “average” in the field of endeavor that you have chosen for your life’s work.
In Dad’s case, he asserts that it was his above average ability to write shorthand rapidly and understandably, and then to transcribe the information swiftly and accurately, that resulted in the job coming to him, rather than his looking for the job.
In short, whatever you do, do it extra well, and you may expect to be richly rewarded.
Below is a photograph of my father taking notes on the conversation between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Casablanca Conference in 1943.
For years I thought, by having my father write this beautiful and engaging essay for me instead of writing it myself, I had pulled off the perfect “scam.”
Thirty-five years later it occurs to me, “What more could I have learned about this fascinating man, who had a front row seat to crucial moments in world history, had I simply taken the time to sit down, actually study his many photographs with him, and ask him questions?
This short essay is but the tippiest tip of the iceberg when it came to all he saw, heard and experienced. His anecdotes and his keen observations passed away with him. Friends and family always said, “C’mon, Frank, you should write a book!” And he would brush them off with his reply, “I’m not part of the ‘kiss and tell’ generation of today.”
In the end, I turned in an assignment, but ultimately it was my loss that I never interviewed him.
Benefit from my mistakes: Set up an interview. Ask your parents about everything you ever wondered about them, and write down the answers so you won’t forget. Because often, as was my own situation, you can’t go back and fill in the blanks later.