All this recent talk about White House security clearances sent me to my personal archives and the security clearance I received 50 years ago.
It came when I began working at Honeywell, Inc., in Minneapolis during my final year at the University of Minnesota.
I had spent most of my college days in rather nefarious employment. Since leaving the Marine Corps, I had worked at a liquor store as a deliveryman, then at various saloons as a bartender and once, in the summer, as a Teamster at the Joseph Schmidt Brewery.
Friends in journalism school argued that none of these, while interesting, were preparing me for a career in newspapers.
I know, I said, but they pay well. Who could live on the salary of a part-time journalist?
Eventually, I conceded the point, went to the bulletin board at school and applied for a job as part-time copy editor at Honeywell.
The company needed someone familiar with the English language to edit highly competitive defense proposals from Honeywell scientists and engineers, turning their half-sentences and complex formulas into full paragraphs that a Lockheed executive could understand.
But first I had to get a Secret security clearance. I think Secret is the lowest rung on the American security ladder, so I wasn’t worried.
The reason for the clearance was spelled out by my boss:
“This employee will require access to all secret phases of Honeywell contracts on air-to-surface missiles.”
Wow. Heavy stuff and a long way from figuring the precise ingredients in a drink called a Side Car.
But I needed the work and I was ready to open my life to Uncle Sam.
I listed every school I attended from 1947 through 1967. I listed my recent jobs (sadly, each one was alcohol-related). I listed immediate family and three relatives I had in Germany (two cousins and a great uncle, none of whom I ever met).
I listed five friends as personal references. Finding five was easy back then; today, after writing a newspaper column for 28 years, it might not be so easy to find five.
I even listed my one traffic violation, for having an open bottle in the car ($35 fine, big money at the time).
The thing is, I came clean. I bared all. I sang like a canary. I told the Defense Department stuff my mom didn’t know – that embarrassing traffic violation, for instance.
In the end, I received my Secret clearance and spent the next nine months poring over sensitive documents with a red pencil, inserting nouns and verbs and even an occasional adjective.
Generally speaking, I had no idea what Honeywell’s scientists were talking about, but I guess I faked it enough to be offered a full-time job when graduation neared.
I had to admit to my bosses that I was out of my league editing high-fallutin’ scientific stuff.
I’d better stick with ordinary, everyday stuff, thank you. I’d better stick with newspapers.
Contact Bob Bestler at firstname.lastname@example.org.