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Be Somebody or Do Something?


Drake Lolley

May 3, 2020

Young John Boyd was fascinated by airplanes. During the third grade, he drew sleek, futuristic planes in his schoolbooks, and then stared at them with a strange fixation. A fellow student later remarked, "I'd swear he was flying that airplane."

John Boyd

This sense of focus became more apparent as time progressed. Sometimes he would go into a trance - staring intently in space, unconscious of those around him - as he came up with an idea about aerial tactics or aerodynamics. He would then go around talking excitedly to anyone who would listen. When Boyd started smoking cigars, he became a fire hazard - gesticulating wildly, he would punctuate his points with jabs of his cigar. He once burned a hole in a general's tie.

Boyd had tremendous stamina when his mind was engaged. Fueled by dozens of candy bars and about ten cups of coffee a day - 'smart juice,' he called it - Boyd would work eighteen- and twenty-hour days. He read book after book, seeking some nugget of information that would help his research.

Sometimes he read too much. While technically present at the hospital when his fifth daughter was born, Boyd remained in the hallway - bent over his books.

He learned by talking - a lot. Boyd's close friends would receive phone calls at all hours of the night. The first was Vernon Spradling, Boyd's boss at Nellis Air Force Base.

"Spradling residence."

"Sprad? John."

"Hey, John. What is it?"

"Sprad, I've had a breakthrough."

"What time is it?"

"Sprad, remember that equation I was telling you about this morning?"

"John, tomorrow might be a better - "

"Now I know what was missing. I figured it out."

And off he would go for an hour or two talking about a calculus equation, ignoring all Spradling's efforts to postpone the conversation. Spradling's contribution was an occasional grunt or noncommital "Uh-huh." Initially he thought that if he didn't respond to Boyd's conversation, Boyd would hang up. But after several months of these late-night calls, Spradling realized that Boyd did not want a conversation; Boyd simply wanted to talk. He talked to learn: as he went through his monologues, his thoughts bounced around, various theses were tried and rejected until finally he had gained a better understanding of whatever it was that was on his mind. After an hour or two, Boyd would say, "Thanks for helping me out, Sprad. You've been a big help." And he would hang up.

Another friend, Tom Christie, knew how persistent Boyd could be. These phone calls could last for most of the night, much to the annoyance of Christie's wife. One night, he decided not to answer - and listened in amazement as the phone kept ringing for 32 minutes.

Pierre Sprey came up with a name for these late-night interruptions:

"Sprey referred to these calls as the 'pain' and said they were the price of admission for Boyd's friendship. One weekend Christie and Spinney and Burton were out of town and Boyd spent much of Friday and Saturday night on the phone with Sprey. On Monday, Sprey called the others to complain about their leaving town at the same time."

Why would Spradling, Christie, Sprey, and others put up with this annoyance? After all, their friendship was not risk-free - affiliation with a man as polarizing as Boyd could hinder any hope of significant career advancement.

Part of the reason may lie in a speech that he often gave later in his career - his "To Be or to Do" speech. Ray Leopold - at the time a young captain at the Pentagon - is the first person known to have heard this speech from Boyd.

"Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road," he said. "And you're going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go." He raised his hand and pointed. "If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments." Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. "Or you can go that way and you can do something - something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won't have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference." He paused and stared into Leopold's eyes and heart. "To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That's when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?"

Boyd challenged them to do something - to make a difference. He challenged them - not just their patience, but intellectually. When he called late at night to talk about some new book he discovered, they bought and read it too. They helped him clarify his thinking, and opened up new areas for him to explore. In doing this, they contributed directly to his discoveries. Boyd's great achievements - Energy-Maneuverability Theory, Patterns of Conflict, the OODA Loop - all these belonged as much to them as Boyd. By helping Boyd, they could do something.

Today, will you be somebody, or do something?

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