Some books are truly inspirational. That’s because the characters in them touch your heart and move you to action. I would rate “Dark Horse” by General Larry O. Spencer, USAF (Retd), as one such book. He came from fairly humble circumstances, being born in 1954 to a African-American family in a tough inner-city area called The Horseshoe in Washington DC. He enlisted in the United States Air Force at the lowest level as an airman. After 44 years of distinguished service he retired as a four-star General and the Vice Chief of the United States Air Force. He was only the ninth African-American to get four -star rank. His is an extraordinary story of grit, commitment to his profession and an ability to aim high and achieve his goals. He became and remained a top achiever despite many challenges that came his way.
General Spencer’s story is all the more remarkable because as a student he was considered a failure. The circumstances in which they lived didn’t help. His father was a US Army veteran who had an arm amputated following war wounds in the Korean War. He had to wear a prosthetic arm and was derisively called Captain Hook by the kids in the neighborhood. His mother wasn’t well-educated either having studied till the 10th grade. Theirs was a family with 6 growing children. His parents naturally faced a lot of hardship in making both ends meet, with his father working at two jobs to bring home enough to feed his family.
Larry Spencer, like most African-Americans of his background, thought the way to break away from poverty was to succeed in professional sport. He wanted to become a star football player. In 1971, he enlisted as an airman in the US Air Force as there was no assurance that he would succeed with a career in football. In the Air Force there was an opportunity for him to study and better his life. He served a stint in Taiwan and after his first spell in the USAF, he decided to re-enlist so that he could work towards becoming a graduate.
An encouraging supervisor suggested he try for Officer Training School after his graduation. He was selected and became the first person in his extended family to become a commissioned officer in 1980. Many of his family and friends were in the US Military but none of them were officers. He had broken a huge barrier.
Over the years, Spencer felt the hardships that commonly came the way of African-Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, even when he wore the uniform of the United States Air Force.
He was a committed professional, held himself and others to very high standards and worked with great passion for his profession. Perhaps because he was not a trained pilot but served in the financial management area of the USAF, his rise to higher positions saw him break more barriers.
General Spencer writes with a lot of candor on how he coped with difficult and challenging situations in his career. Needless to say, many of them were because he was an African-American.
More than the high command positions he held or his professional achievements, laudable as they may be, the book’s value lies in our understanding of General Spencer as a person. We see how he succeeded against the odds. We marvel at the way he emerged to be the dark horse in horse racing parlance. And, last but not the least, General Spencer leaves us with a crisp summary of his life lessons, which are invaluable.
Overall, an inspirational book about an officer and a gentleman.