Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Dinner Conversation -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 1

It was just a dinner conversation.  No, not even that, it was an after-dinner remark.  It was a warm spring evening in 2002, and two friends had come for dinner.  When the time came to leave, Bob stood with me waiting for his spouse, who was saying a long goodbye.

Casually, Bob said, "I signed up for the Foreign Service exam today."

"What's that?" I asked.

"Oh," said Bob, "it's the exam you take to join the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer.  It's free to take, and I try it every year to see if I can pass.  Why don't you take it also?  We'll go together.  You've got nothing to lose."

Laughing, I allowed Bob to walk me over to the computer, and the next thing I knew, I had registered.

Scout Camp, Summer 2002
The exam was not until many months later, and I nearly forgot about it.  Summer came and with it came those things I like best about normal family life, a week at the beach and a week with my son's Boy Scout troop at the Broad Creek Scout Reservation north of Baltimore.  The scoutmaster now knew about my being transgender, but he told me he knew me as a gentle person who loved the troop and had always acted properly.  It was to be my last summer with my son at scout camp, and I treasure the memories of the sounds and smells, the heat of the summer, the practical jokes, the lazy conversations, and the gentle friendship of being far away from urban life.

By autumn all was again not well at home.  The brief honeymoon following my capitulation in March had ended.  I had in effect agreed to unconditional surrender.  Always a second fiddle, I now had almost no say in the decision making.  This was particularly true in financial matters, where our not-too-abundant retirement savings were now to be diverted for another home renovation and addition.  I signed the refinancing documents, put down the pen, looked around, and said quietly to no one in particular, "I've just lost my home."

The notice came in the mail reminding me of the Foreign Service exam that fall.  I wasn't at all sure I would go, but the night before the exam had given rise to a fruitless argument.  As Saturday morning dawned, I thought to myself, "I can stay home and continue the argument, or I can go take this exam."  I got up, got dressed, and drove to Catholic University to join several hundred other, mostly young hopeful exam takers.  When it was over, I drove home, uplifted by the diversion of having put my mind to a task that, upon reflection, had been unexpectedly fun.

I forgot about the exam quickly enough, but I was reminded six weeks letter when I received an envelope from the Department of State with a form letter notifying me I had passed the written exam and was now invited to a full-day oral assessment that would take place in January.

Again I was uncertain I would take the exam.  The written exam had taken place on a weekend, but the oral would be given on a Monday.  That would require me to take a day off from work.  It was only the night before the assessment that I decided to go.

I had no expectation that I would pass the oral exam, but I was intrigued.  How far will this go?  The day consisted of a variety of group and individual exercises conducted by a group of expressionless examiners who took copious notes.  Two dozen of us were being assessed that day.  In the late afternoon we all sat in a common room and were called in by the examiners one by one.  The room was nearly empty when something different happened.  Instead of calling a single name, an examiner called my name and that of one other person.  We followed him into another room where several other examiners were waiting.  The door closed behind us, and suddenly the examiners were all smiles.  Amazingly, two of us out of two dozen had passed.

What happened next was that I was given a conditional offer of employment.  As I read the fine print, I realized I had taken the day off from work for nothing.  The odds of real employment with the State Department were slim and were contingent on medical and security clearances.  "This could drag on for years," I thought, but then I decided there would be nothing wrong with getting a free physical exam.

It was six months later, in the summer of 2003, that I received a letter informing me that my clearances had come through and that my name had been placed on the register of candidates who had been cleared for hiring.  In fact, my scores had put me somewhere in the top ten of those listed on the political register.  "Gee," I thought, "is that significant?"

My Office at CSC
The Call came within days.  I was in my office at CSC.  "Mr. McCutcheon,  could you join the next group of incoming Foreign Service Officers in the orientation class that will start next month?"  It was a Human Resources (HR) representative from the State Department who had called.  I was speechless.  "Mr. McCutcheon?. . ."  After a long pause, I answered quietly, "No."

I must credit the HR officer with an ability to read the feelings behind the words.  "Mr. McCutcheon, is that a real no, or is that an I need to go home and think about this no?"  I said it was the latter, and she said she would call again the next day.

I did not sleep that night.  Almost age 50, I had just been offered a chance to turn my life upside down.  Would I take it?  I loved my work for NASA, and the people I worked with on Hubble were almost more family to me than my real family.  Still, Hubble had been launched thirteen years earlier, and one day the mission would end.  Many of my friends had already left for other projects.  More troubling, CSC no longer seemed interested in NASA contracts, and some of my departed friends now found themselves on contracts that had nothing to do with NASA, science, or engineering.

I consulted a trusted CSC friend.  "Take the State Department offer," she said, "because this company will lay you off one day.  CSC is a business, not a family, no matter how many friends you may have here."

The next day the same HR representative called back.  "Have you thought about it, Mr. McCutcheon?  Will you join us?"  This time I replied, "Yes, but I need time to put my affairs in order."  "When can you start?" she asked.  "Sometime in the first half of 2004" was my answer.  "Good," she replied, "I will call you again in six months."

Last Day at CSC, March 2004
The months passed by, and I got ready both financially and emotionally.  Joining the State Department would mean a significant salary cut for at least the first year, and I had to save extra hard over the next six months to have enough to tide my family through.  After twenty-five years with one company and more than half of that on Hubble Space Telescope, the time had come to say an emotional, tearful goodbye.  My farewell luncheon took place in late March, and in April I bought the suits, ties, white shirts and other business clothes I had never had to wear at CSC.

At the end of April I went by myself to Little Orleans, Maryland, where I rented a small cabin I had come to love through the years.  For a week I took long walks along the C&O Canal, went on bike rides through the hills, and lay on the grass at night, marveling at the Milky Way just as I had as a child.   "What will my future be like?" I wondered.  I was nervous and fearful, sensing more than knowing I had cast my career and family into the unknown.  "What will become of me?  What will become of us?"

Little Orleans Retreat, April 2004
The stars shone brilliantly.  The gentle Maryland night embraced me.  A light breeze rustled through the branches and caressed my face.  Somehow, I thought, this will work.  I got up, went inside, and slept the last full night's sleep I would know for many, many months.

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