Podcast featuring Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr., Lt. Col (retired), U.S. Marine Corps; Faculty, AMU and
General Larry Spencer, U.S. Air Force (retired)
Being successful, whether in the military or the civilian world, often involves the same formula. In this episode, AMU professor and retired Marine Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr. talks to General Larry Spencer about the driving forces behind his 40-year career in the U.S. Air Force. Learn about the role of education, the value of mentorship and being surrounded by positive people, the drive to try new and difficult things without fear of failure, and much more.
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Read the Transcript:
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr. Today, we’re going to talk about the experience of a veteran officer transitioning from uniform to success in the civilian sector. In the spirit of this podcast, we’re going to talk about our guest’s perspective on his military service and the edge it provided him and providing a successful transition and life after the military.
My guest today is General Larry Spencer, Air Force retired, who is known to many in the Air Force as the former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. Retiring as a four-star general, General Spencer, spent over 40 years in the Air Force.
His last assignment was as the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Washington D.C. In this capacity, General Spencer was the second-highest rank and military member in the Air Force. He presided over the air staff and served as a member of the Joint Staff of Requirements Oversight Council, and the Deputy Management Advisory Group.
I also will just add, because I was just speaking with him about it. General Spencer is also an author of two books. His first book is, “The Green Eyeshades of War,” published in 2016. And then one that I’ve actually partaken of, is the second book autobiography titled “Dark Horse.” Sir, it’s great to have you on the podcast.
General Larry Spencer: Well, thank you so much for having me and I’m looking forward to the discussion.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: All right. Well, I know the audience is looking forward to this. We’ll just start our conversation by talking about you, the man. A lot of times individuals don’t get this insight into a general officer, just knowing the culture because of what we do and the way we carry ourselves, we don’t get to see a lot of things, and hear, where you came from and just what made you the person that you are.
As an Air Force veteran, you served around the world. You gained a great perspective, but for us to further understand that, let’s see where you started from. Why did you originally join the service?
General Larry Spencer: Well, that’s a great question. And, frankly, one of the reasons I wrote the book. So, I was born and raised in Southeast Washington, D.C. in the inner city. And my father was in the career Army. So, I had the sort of military upbringing, if you will, but I was not a traditional Army brat because, my father lost his left hand in the Korean War. And because of that, he was stationed at Walter Reed and today wounded Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, Sailors, if you are wounded, it’s not unusual to remain in the military.
Back in the 40s and 50s, it was unusual. And so, they wanted to discharge him, he did not want to go back to the farm, if you will. So they stationed him in a laboratory, which was an auxiliary of Walter Reed, and they worked on prosthetics. And he stayed there 20 years.
And so, we lived in Southeast D.C. for 20 years, never moved. I saw him in uniform every day going to work, but we never lived on a post. So other than going to the commissary occasionally going in for a medical appointment, I didn’t know much about the army other than my father was a soldier.
So, my upbringing was, I had that background. I was born in the fifties. Anyone born back then will sort of understand what the inner city was like. One of the stories I tell in my book is, I watch a lot of the older guys sort of wearing, and they don’t use this term anymore, it was called a conk hairstyle when they sort of straighten their hair to be like the old Temptations, the James Brown, Little Richard, that sort of hairstyle. The school system in D.C. was not very good at the time.
I guess the picture I’m trying to paint here is that, it was a very confusing time for me, trying to figure out what I was going to do, I was the really poor student in school. And, by the way, to some extent still true today, my focus was sports, and academic acuity took a backseat. And that’s unfortunate. I encourage my kids to do just the opposite, but that’s the way it was back then.
Because, think about the role models we had, I mean, they were in all Black neighborhood. The folks we looked up to were either entertainers or folks in sports. And I didn’t have the role models of doctors or accountants or plumbers or folks like that. It was a very confusing time for me. So, I was a very poor student, but I was really good at sports. Make a long story, worked my way through high school, All-County, All-State football.
But the challenge was, I was the oldest of six kids. Again, my father was a soldier, so he had never been to college. My mother had not even graduated high school. And so there was a lot of confusion. I had football coaches calling my home, trying to get me to come and play.
I specifically remember the coach at Howard University saying, look, if you will come to Howard, I guarantee you, you will start as a freshman. Now, if I know then what I know now, I would’ve jumped on it in a heartbeat, but I just did not have many mentors if you will. Which is why one of the things I write about in the book is, how important mentors are. I was confused. I was living in my parents’ basement. Didn’t know what my future was going to be.
I got a job as a GS1 in the Census Bureau, Suitland, Maryland. No car, so I hitchhiked to work every day. If you can think about this now, I know you can see me on the screen, others probably can’t so you’re going to have to use your imagination there for a second. You and I have something in common in terms of our hair length. But at the time, when I was at the Census Bureau on my lunch hour, I went, walked down to a mall in Suitland, Maryland, that was called Averson Mall and I had a big afro. And I purchased a purple jumpsuit and matching high platform shoes and a wide-brim black hat. Don’t hold that against me, that was the sign of the times.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: And that’s a thing where I’m struggling with right now. Because like you said, I can see us now. And as the General kindly put that, we’re the exact opposite of that in hair length right now. So yes, sir.
General Larry Spencer: Exactly. I had my bag of clothes and I was walking through the mall and I walked by a recruiter’s office, and I was looking at the airplane pictures and I was really impressed. And a recruiter walked out, Air Force recruiter, he looked at me and he said, “Hey, you interested in the Air Force?” I said, “Well, not really, but I’m impressed with the airplane pictures.” And he said, “Well, you look like you play football. Is that right?” And I said, “Yeah. I was.” And he said, “Well, do you know you can come in the Air Force and play for the Air Force Academy?”
Now, in hindsight, that story was quite a stretch, but that’s what he told me. I said, “Air Force Academy. What is that?” So we talked about that for a second. He said, “You know Roger Staubach.” I said, “Yes.” Well, he went to, I think it was a Naval Academy and he played with the Cowboys at the time.
So, I said, “Yeah.” So I said, “So you’re telling me, I can sign up for the Air Force and go to the Air Force Academy.” He said, “Yes, you can.” So, I sort of stumbled into his office and about an hour later, I stumbled out of there and I was in the Air Force.
I didn’t tell my parents, I didn’t talk to anybody about it. The scenario he laid out for me was, I would join the Air Force, go to basic training. Once I finished basic training, get to my first base, take the Air Force Academy test, get accepted for the Air Force Academy, and go play football. That’s what he told me. Obviously, it’s not quite that simple. But nevertheless, I did sign up for the Air Force. I went home and talked to my parents about it, frankly, they were relieved. They really wanted me to go to college.
But, particularly with my father’s military background, from their perspective, that was a good thing. At least I was doing something productive that I could grow, I could learn, I could experience life, experience the military.
And so, my father dropped me off at the Greyhound station, downtown D.C. and off to the Air Force I went. It’s inexplicable today, how that all happened. I can call it fate, but it just worked out that way. And I’m really glad I did. I’m not sure where I would’ve ended up if I hadn’t been walking through the mall that day and walked past that recruiter’s office. I don’t know what path I would’ve taken.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: That’s really interesting, sir. Because, like you said, it wasn’t the recruiter that stopped you. It was you looking at that photo that gave them an opportunity to come out and speak with you. I’m trying to gather myself here, sir. Because I’m from Texas, I’m a Dallas Cowboy fan, heart-to-heart. And athlete.
And I call, going to the Naval Academy and we’ll talk later on, as my last rebellious act as being an Army brat. And it was because you could play, you can go on. And so, I know that aspect of the story, but I can tell you by what you were seeing, it really showed that the different paths we can all take to join in the service, it’s not always like the commercials or what some would say is a “traditional route.” You happen to find yourself joining the Air Force and probably what would be untraditional to some. And with that, though, I like to bring it back to education because that’s one of those focuses. When you joined, obviously you had to pick a specialty, something to work in and I don’t know if that’s what the recruiter was really selling you on also, on what you could do while you’re in.
How did that come about? What was your, they call it MOS for those that are not familiar, it’s a Military Occupational Specialty or your branch depending on what service you’re in. What did you do, sir?
General Larry Spencer: Yeah, I was in financial management. That’s sort of where, how I grew up if you will, particularly with my enlisted time. And then when I got my commission later on, after I completed my degree, I remained in financial management and then crossed over into logistics a little bit later on.
But, again, just to be completely transparent, I had no idea what career field I wanted to go into. We were in basic training. They gave us a list of MOSs, if you will, after we had taken sort of the aptitude test. But from a young age, growing up in Southeast, I was a poor student in school, but there’s one thing I learned and I don’t know why, but I learned about the theory of compound interest. And so, I was always focused on saving money, earning money.
So, picture this as a young teenager, not even teenager, 10, 11 years old. So, I used to deliver the Washington Post, back then, there was Washington News it’s defunct now, but I delivered their papers as well.
I started actually a little business of my own selling lemonade out of my little wagon. There’s a story in the book that talks about I got robbed on the first day, so I had to stop doing that. But, I cut grass, I shoveled snow. I was always hustling basically based on the example of my father, grandfather, they got up and went to work every day, worked hard. Worked hard when they came home.
And so, that example really helped me, not only as a kid growing up, but as an adult, I was always about getting up, going to work. And so that drew me to financial management because I knew the power of financial independency, if you were able to do that. And so, I was always focused on making money, being efficient. And so when I saw financial management, I was drawn to that.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Okay, sir, in the Navy and in the Marine Corps, we often refer to as Mustangs. I don’t know if same thing in Air Force.
General Larry Spencer: Yes, same.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Okay, sir. And there’s an added bit—some would argue—respect put on someone who’s walked in the shoes of both the enlisted and the officer. I never took anything as a commissioned officer directly from it and my father was a first sergeant and I respect it all. But for someone to see that you walked in their shoes, you’ll also be able to speak to, how they viewed education. And I took the long route to get to this point.
A lot of times individuals join, and it’s usually that NCO that they see taking classes. They see that staff NCO with some books on their desk and you predate me, sir. So back in the day, I’ll use a term that some of these young people don’t know, called “the box of books” or things of that nature when we had to do professional military education. And then when online and other things came along, how did you find yourself moving from just doing your everyday job to “let me sign up for some of those classes as well?”
General Larry Spencer: Yeah, that’s a great question. And this is not hyperbole. When I say that education, me getting my college degree changed my life. That’s not hyperbole. It literally changed my life. And it involved the senior NCO. So, again, I’m trying to be respectful of your time.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: We have all the time you have, sir.
General Larry Spencer: Okay. I even hate to admit this story, but I mentioned my long hair when I joined the Air Force because that was the style. And so, when I joined the Air Force and I’m a young Airman, one-striper, two-striper. Very early on in my career, I got an assignment to Taiwan. So, I was over in Taiwan for a one-year tour. And I think back on this and I feel bad about it because it wasn’t the example of what you would consider in the Marine Corps, squared-away Marine. I was not a model Airman in this behavior, but all of my friends, they all tried to get away with the longest length of hair they could without getting in trouble. And so, I did the same, again, in hindsight, I would not have done it, but I did. And when I was in Taiwan, my friends and I made a bet that we could go the whole year without getting a haircut. And I did.
And you know, I would disguise it, put a stocking cap on it, again, I even hate saying this, but I think it’s important to let people know. So, I would disguise it and pack it down at night or in the morning to try to get through work without someone saying something.
Let me skip and make a long-story short. I was stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. And then that was a strategic air command base back then. And it was known to be very strict. Spit and polish, it was just a serious command, by the book, shoe-shine kind of command. And they did not tolerate that sort of thing. So I went into work one day and in fact my hair was so long my wife would braid it during the weekends. I know that’s hard to believe now.
And so, I went into work one Monday and I did not have time to sort of disguise my hair length. And so I was sitting in my office early, worried that I was going to get in a lot of trouble. And I was the only one in the office. So, if you can picture this, I’m sitting at a desk, but I’m looking right at the door. So, if you walk by the office, you could see me at my desk. A Chief Master Sergeant, which is in the Air Force, the top-enlisted grade, Chief Master E9, Chief Master Sergeant, walked by, looked in and kept going. And I kind of wiped my brow and said, “Man, I got away with that one.” And you know, this is before Michael Jackson made this popular, but that Chief Master Sergeant literally moon walked back to that open door and he looked in and he said, “My God, I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”
He said, “Airman, get up from the desk and follow me.” I tried to say, “Chief, my boss,” he said, “Get up from your desk and you’re coming with me.” And so, I got up and I followed him outside and I don’t know why every Chief Master Sergeant I’ve known since then, they all have pickup trucks. Don’t ask me why they all have pickup trucks. So, he put me in his pickup truck, he drove me to the barber shop. He walked in, he paid the barber. He said, “Give him a regulation haircut.” He sat down with a big smile on his face.
And I sit there and watched my hair fall on the floor. And so, after it was over, we got back in his truck and he said, ” You know I’ve seen you around the base. You look like you’re doing a good job. I think you have a family.” He said, “You otherwise seem pretty much squared away, but what are you doing?” He said, “Look, I was young once I get the peer pressure for trying to keep up with your friends.” But he said, “You’re in the United States Air Force. We have standards. If you want to grow your hair long, if that’s your priority, get out of the Air Force and go grow your hair long.” But he said, “As long as you’re going to be in the Air Force, you need to follow the regulations.” And, by the way, no one had ever talked to me that way before.
For the first time. I said, “Chief, you’re right. You are absolutely right.” And I said, “This will never happen again. I apologize. I should have known better, but you’re absolutely right.”
Because I think the reaction he was expecting from me to be mad and upset, I didn’t react that way. He said, “Well, what are you doing with your life by the way, are you taking any college courses? I mean, what is your plan?” And I said, like all Airman did back then whether they believed it or not, “Well, I’m going to get out at the end of four years and I’m going to go back to civilian life.” And he said, “Well, it doesn’t matter.” He said, “The worst thing you can do is spend four years in the Air Force and leave the Air Force with exactly the same thing you had when you came in. And that was nothing.”
So he said, “That doesn’t make any sense.” So he said, “Do you have a few minutes?” And I said, “Sure.” So he drove me over to the base park. We got out of his truck, sit on a picnic bench. And he started talking to me about taking college courses. And I said, “Chief, you are 100% right. I’m going to sign up.” He said, “No, you’re not going to sign up. We’re going to leave here, and we’re going to the base education office and you’re going to do it right now.”
And we literally went over to the base education office. I signed up for college courses on the spot and never looked back. And that Chief Master Sergeant kept up with me the entire time. He would come to my classes, by the way, he ended up coming to my graduation and he became my first mentor.
Someone that put me under his wing, I’ll never know to this day, why he picked me to do that, but he put me under his wing and he literally changed my life. Not only did he change my perspective, and that is, you joined the military, there are rules in the military. You have to follow those rules until you leave. And he also put a fire in me about education. That look, I don’t care whether you stay in the Air Force or not. But you need to get your education because that’s going to help you in the long term. If for nothing else, it will help your earning potential. But more than that, it will help you grow as an individual and grow professionally set aside, what your earning potential is. That day stands out for me as a turning point in my life. And I’m not over-exaggerating that because that Chief Master Sergeant changed my life.
Look, it’s not about, because you have a college degree, you’re any better than anybody that doesn’t have a college degree. It’s not about that. And, in fact, I would have been just as happy if I’d have stayed in enlisted and if I would’ve ended up a chief one day, would’ve been great as far as I’m concerned.
But his point to me was, I would love for you to stay in and progress as an enlisted member. He said, he used that old term, ou probably heard in the movies, “Enlisted folks work for a living.” He said, “So, I would be happy to have you stay in and work for a living.” But he said, “I’m talking to you like I would talk to my own son or daughter, and I would want them to get more education.” By the way, the Chief already had a college degree. He said, “But I would want you to get more education, whether you stay enlisted or not. It’s not the issue. Because if you get your degree, you’re going to be a better enlisted member or a better senior NCO when that time comes.”
So, again, I want to be clear. It’s not that one’s better than the other, because I think regardless of your status, where you are in life or your status, where you are today, continuous learning is very important.
And so, that changed my life from that day forward, because otherwise I’m not sure I would’ve gotten it. Maybe the light bulb would’ve come on at some point, but the light bulb came on for me that day with how important education is. And I’m grateful to this day to that Chief Master Sergeant.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Well, I appreciate that, sir. And as I even said, because I’m probably not the most traditional podcaster and I like to talk plain to people. And I want to stop right here because you hit on such an important point. And, I believe a number of people can relate because, you mentioned right at the very beginning that you moved with a number of individuals, just like anyone in the service, because that’s just how the service is made up. There’s squadrons, there’s fire teams. There’s groups of individuals that you will move with and whatever you might be doing at the time is what others are doing.
But what I wanted to point out is, at one point in time, you were still enough to listen to somebody that decided to pour into you. Because, I always talk about there’s a challenge when there’s a lot of, I won’t say naysayers, but people are going in another direction. You have to be still enough to at least hear when something might be positive and that you could go.
And so, you were able to hear that, and the message that I want everyone to take away is like you said, it didn’t dictate the exact path, but education changed your life because, for what I’m hearing, it also required a certain discipline. It changed likely your routine, how you approached your career, and all of that. And the last piece of that—so I’m going to hit with two and just ask for you to confirm—was the mentor piece. It is surprising the number of individuals who either don’t understand that.
And, the responsibilities, not just as the mentee, but as the mentor as well, because both of those are so important. So, I’m not going to steal your thunder and we’re going to move. But I just want to say, sir, did I hear that correct? Those two things, how education and being still enough to get that point and then also to be open to a mentor, someone to take you to the next place.
General Larry Spencer: Absolutely. A hundred percent. You mentioned something earlier about watching senior NCOs with books and reading and studying. Coincidentally, I had a conversation with my son a couple weeks ago, and we were just sort of reminiscing about how it was for him to grow up in a military family.
And he said, “The one thing I remember most about you growing up as a kid, is that you always had a book, you were continuously studying.” I always carried around this yellow highlighter because as I read, I would highlight things in the book. And he said, “I always remember you in the books and in classes and writing papers and in the library.” And he said to me, which is one of the reasons that he did so well in school because, that’s the example that he saw. So, you’re exactly right about that.
And back to the other thing you were mentioning, I think it’s really important for folks to surround themselves with people who are very positive and also have positive things on their mind. We all need to be careful who we associate ourselves with. I always want to be in a room with people that are smarter than I am. Even growing up, I tended to hang out with a little bit older crowd because I wanted to learn. So, I think that’s important as well.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Well, sir, I appreciate that and your openness about that. And even at that point with family because, not just family, but also, for leaders out there that are still in the service or those that are even out, that everyone’s watching. Your subordinates, even your peers are watching what you’re doing, so you’re in there getting education. You can lead by example and I will tell you, it doesn’t just go up, it’s also down.
I remember, and this is shout out to Corporal Sam. And I’m sure he probably retired as a more senior individual, I want to say in a positive way, got tired of signing his tuition assistance for him and making me look bad because he surpassed me with his bachelor’s, started on his master’s. And I said, “Well, what am I doing with myself?”
For those that don’t know, that’s what you have to do in the military, you take a document into your officer, probably also goes through your staff NCO, that authorizes, you says that you have the time to take the education that you want to. And that was how my NCO was leading me because, he completed within a tour and he was getting ready to move forward.
Well, sir, the conversation with you is a little different because as we were talking about at the very beginning, I often have a part where I say, let’s talk about the transition, because many of us are in for so much shorter of a time period. And I was just joking with the General that he served 40 years. I served 24, and I couldn’t imagine if somebody walked to me and said, “Hey, you’re almost there young man.”
So, with that, sir, and you look at how important education was for you, did you have the opportunity as you started to pin on senior leadership positions to influence how education was considered in the Air Force or at least the approach, and we can open it to professional military education and that. When you became a person of influence, what would you say was your hallmark that you left with how it changed your life on the Air Force?
General Larry Spencer: Yeah, no, absolutely. So one of the things, I was I think known in the Air Force for pushing education, both professional military education and personal education as well. And so, whenever I would talk to groups, I talked about education. When I talked to young folks, I would tell them about the story of the Chief Master Sergeant. And I would look them in the eye and say, “Okay, now what are you doing? How are you continuing your education?”
I think the key is, regardless of where you are in the military or outside of the military, where you are today is great, may be great, but we only get to live once. And so, I think it’s important to try to expand your knowledge as best you can.
There’s a former Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, Army Chairman. When he retired, I was working for him. And I think he was about to go down to Duke. And I think he teaches at Duke University. And folks were bugging him about, why don’t you retire, why don’t you relax, why don’t you sort of go home and sit on the rocking chair.
And his comment to me was interesting. He said, “When I die, I’m going to be dead a long time. So, while I’m upright, I’m going to do everything I can to maximize the potential that I have.” And that stuck with me.
I think it’s important to live, to get the most out of life you can. And part of that is, continually to grow as an individual, as a person, as an American citizen. And also, it’s important to continually expand your education, expand your knowledge, expand your experience, so we can be better people, overall. So, yeah, there’s no question about it during my Air Force career and post-Air Force career education is something that I’ve always emphasized and always will.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Okay, sir. That I appreciate. You have a lot of young Airmen that would tell you, “I don’t have time. I can’t make it happen or the computer doesn’t work, there’s this.” And I alluded to the box of books where at least back in earlier times, for those that didn’t have a computer on their desk, the service used to send out CDs when we were moving to that point, but then before that there were just large boxes of books that would come on, but what probably everyone would see as Amazon or UPS or whoever delivers things now. And that’s how you got your education.
Or, if there was a university on your campus, somebody was assigned your education officer was facilitating for you while you were going. What was probably the most unique story that either you had, sir, or you saw someone that was going to make it happen. They didn’t take no for an answer. They made it happen.
General Larry Spencer: Yeah. So, the most impactful and my latest book, “Dark Horse” really is a collection of these stories, life experiences that I had, but probably the one that was most influential on my life was, as I mentioned, I grew up in Washington D.C. And so, I was a city kid. But in the summers, I got to spend those with my grandfather who had a farm in Southwest Virginia, not far from Appomattox, Virginia, literally out in the middle of nowhere. He had like 60 acres. It was my grandmother, grandfather, my cousin who was my same age was there. And when I was there, it was the four of us. My grandfather was a deacon in the church. We were in church most Sundays. Mostly all the day on Sunday in the Baptist Church. But other than that, we literally never left that farm. We were just there by ourselves.
And so, I spent my summers there working in his tobacco field. Well, one summer I went down and my cousin wasn’t there yet. He was with his mother in Philadelphia. And so, I had about two weeks with just my grandfather and I. And we were both sort of introverts. So, we didn’t talk a lot, but he decided to take this summer to mentor me. There’s that word again.
As an example, he gave me these pearls of wisdom, many of which I don’t understand today. He told me the difference between a mule and a donkey. Now, why I needed to know that is beyond me, but he thought I needed to know that. He also said, “Even a blind rooster finds a kernel of corn every once in a while.” I’m still scratching my head over that. I don’t know what that means, but those are the sort of things he was passing on to me.
So, one day, our routine was to get up early in the morning. And by the way to this day, I don’t know how in the world a rooster knows it’s 5:30 in the morning, but the rooster would crow on schedule at 5:30. And so, we had our routine, we’d feed the hogs, do this and that and eat breakfast. And we would jump on the tractor and go out to one of his many tobacco fields.
Well, this particular day was different. He went and hitched up the horse and behind the horse, he connected a platform. And on that platform, he put a plow on it. Told me to sit down on the platform and he walked with the horse. The horse pulled us out to a field. And once we got there, he hooked the plow up to the horse and keep in mind, I’m 10, 11 years old, I’m fascinated, had never seen anything like this.
So, I’m sitting on the dirt and he starts plowing this field. Perfect rows in sync with the horse, up and back, up and back. I’m just blown away. Never seen anything like it. And so at some point about halfway through, he stops to take a potty break in the woods.
And so, I’m thinking now, well, we’ve got this sort of newfound relationship. He’s mentoring me. And he generally thought of me as a lazy city kid. So, I said, I’m going to show him. And keep in mind, I’ve never plowed before. Don’t know anything about a plow. Don’t know much about a horse. And this is a big farm horse. I mean, this is not the horse that you see on TV. And so, he disappears into the woods. I get up, walk up to this plow. It’s about the same size as I am.
I lift this thing up, barely I get in behind the reigns. I knew the command to make the horse go forward. So I gave the command and the horse starts to walk. The problem is, there is an art to plowing and keeping the plow straight and being in sync with the horse. Needless to say, I didn’t have that skill.
And so, this horse now is cutting diagonally across my grandfather’s perfectly plowed rows. Now let me pause for just a second, because I want to be clear. I don’t advocate this and I don’t believe in this. But back then, in the sixties, you could whip your kids. And by the way, if anybody found out about it, they would encourage it. And we were in the middle of nowhere anyway. Now he had never done that before to me, but the disciplinary tool of choice was called a switch, which essentially a branch off of a tree.
So, I’m thinking I’ve never gotten to spanking or whipping by my grandfather, but this is it because, I’m messing up his work and there’s plenty of switches out here. And so, that’s going through my mind as I’m trying to keep up with this horse. So he bolts out of the woods, my grandfather, and he yells out, “Larry, what are you doing?”
And picture this in your mind. I’m walking behind the horse, trying to stay upright, and turn at the same time to see him. I stumbled and almost fall, and instinctively, I just yell out because I’m trying to balance myself. I yell out, “Whoa, whoa” of course the horse stop. That was the command to make the horse stop. I didn’t know that.
So, the horse stopped and I’m looking at the tree branches and my grandfather storming toward me. And he came up to me, and although I was expecting the worst, he looked at me and he said something that was very, it wasn’t very articulate, but in hindsight it was very profound, and probably the most important lesson I learned in my life.
And what he said to me was, “It’s okay to try and fail, but it’s not okay not to try.” It took me a while to understand what he meant by that. But what he really meant by that was, “It’s okay to fail, but you got to get out there and try and you can’t let anybody talk you out of trying. You’re going to get knocked down in your life, but that’s okay. Get up and keep going. Never give up.”
I can’t tell you the number times in my career and in my life, and by the way, I don’t know why there’s so many haters out there, but they are. People telling me what I couldn’t do. People told me, you can’t be a General, you’re not a pilot in the Air Force.
You can’t be Chief of Staff. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. When I applied for Officer Training School, when I was a Staff Sergeant. You can’t be an officer. I heard that my whole career. And every time I heard that, those words from my grandfather rang in my ear, that even if I fail, I’m going to try, and you’re not going to stop me. That was probably the most important thing I ever learned.
I tell folks a lot of times and using a football analogy. You can’t score a touchdown, if you’re sitting on the bench. Or you can’t score a basket in basketball, if you’re sitting on the bench. And there’s always a lot of people on the bench doing a lot of talking, but they aren’t out there in the game. Life and your career, it’s a game, and you got to get out there and play. And you’re going to get tackled, knocked down somebody bigger than you is going to push you around. Go get in the weight room, come back and try it again.
And so, that one lesson has carried me my entire life to this day. I’m about getting things done. We don’t have the time, I could give you a story at the story of story, where someone asked me to do something and I had doubts in my mind whether I could do it or not. But my grandfather’s words would kick in and say, “Why can’t you? The worst you can do is fail.” And by the way, from that failure, you’re going to learn. And you’re going to go back.
A friend of mine retired, Four-Star General, Fig Newton, Lloyd is his name, but he goes by Fig. He was a generation before me in the Air Force, but he was the first African-American Thunderbird pilot in the Air Force. Fig Newton tried out for the Thunderbirds three times before he got selected. And everyone kept telling him you can’t be a pilot.
And back in those days, they were actually telling him as an African American, you can’t be a Thunderbird pilot. And he said, “yes, I can. I’ve got this skill and I’m not going to give up.” And he never did and he finally got selected. And, by the way, once he got in the Thunderbird pilots, he was one of the best performers they ever had.
So, my point is, if folks get nothing else from this podcast, I hope they get this lesson. And that is, we’re all born with talent, some talent, and we developed that talent over time. But if you just put it away and you sit with it on the bench, it’s not really doing anybody any good. Get out there in the game, and don’t worry about failing. Get out there and try. That is sort of what’s guided me certainly through my career and certainly through my life,
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Sir, I can’t tell you how valuable these words of wisdom, where you just actually took that last part of this podcast. For those that have listened to me before, we do this hot seat where I say, give me this word that comes to mind and the General right there just gave us the final of those golden nuggets. That has been a great conversation, sir. I really appreciate if I could, just those three points that I’m going to emphasize to the audience, the General opened with was how education changed his life.
And if I could just elaborate on that is, the thing that he said that was probably the most impactful there, that there was action that happened immediately. You have to show up and that kind of ties to this last one. You have to not just talk about your plan, but they went over there and registered for classes right then.
So, for all the Airmen, all the servicemembers, everyone else that’s out there. And then, just the general public, because we are open to more than just the military, just the general public. Plans are great, but you got to execute. That’s the one thing I took from the General.
The second thing was about the mentorship. And he expanded that about surrounding yourself with people that were doing positive things. If we could go on about adages, they talk about the people that you surround yourself with. But that was another thing.
And then just this final piece from what he learned there about, again, I tie it back and using these words, say, you have to show up. You got to try and you got to learn. Sir, I give you the floor on being respectful of your time. This has been a great conversation. Is there anything else you’d like to add to any of the veterans or just the general public at all?
General Larry Spencer: I would just say, first of all, thank you for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you for your service. Thank you for what you’re doing for veterans.
And I would just say to veterans, thank them all for their service. When you walk through an airport and folks recognize you’re in the military and they say, thank you for your service, they really believe it and they really mean it. Thank you.
I’m sure this audience knows that less than 25% of our country are even eligible anymore for military service, and only a small percentage of those actually serve. So it’s such a small percentage of our population serves in the military anymore.
And the fact that your audience primarily does and did serve in the military is something they should be proud of. So thank you all very much for your service and Dr. Parker, thank you so much for having me and thank you for what you’re doing for our veterans. It’s very much appreciated.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Sir, again, thank you so much for sharing your expertise for this episode and to our listeners, thank you for joining us. Be well and stay safe.