OLD LYME — In the 50s and 60s, David H. W. Griswold grew up assuming his life would follow a specific path laid out by generations of his aristocratic family.
“For Griswolds, you went to prep school, and most of them went to Choate, some went to Loomis and Taft. But there was no question where you went to college — you went to Yale, everybody went to Yale, that was never discussed,” said Griswold, 70. “You get a good job that paid well, Money was never discussed but it was assumed. And you live in the right part of town, you’d marry the right girl, and you’d belong to the right clubs.”
But Griswold — who later learned he has attention deficit disorder — wasn’t a great student. He did not gain admission to Choate, Loomis or Taft, nor did he get into Yale. He didn’t fit the family mold. He was faced with navigating a different life path, whether he liked it or not.
“It wasn’t rebellion on my part. I wanted to do those things, who wouldn’t?” he said.
He learned that he related easily to people across all economic and social strata, including his friends from Old Lyme who were the children of tradesmen, electricians and plumbers
But, as with his family, Griswold didn’t completely fit in with his local friends either. Most of them enlisted in the military, a few went to college and many found jobs at Electric Boat, Pfizer or G.E. Others became tradesmen like their fathers and uncles. But none went to prep school or Yale.
As a young adult, he’d dress in a blue blazer and khakis to drink old fashioneds with his family at the country club. Later he’d drive to the town dump to join his friends for beers. He navigated two worlds as an insider and an outsider, never quite measuring up to his family’s expectations and never quite being part of his blue collar friends.
The theme of not fitting in is central to Griswold’s new autobiography, “Outside the Box: An American Experience.” Along the span of his 70 years, he reframes his outsider status as a strength, giving him the ability to see people and issues from multiple perspectives, which supported him in his roles as a marine commander in Vietnam, a “northern” baseball coach at colleges in Alabama and Louisiana, and a consultant in New York City among high-powered business executives.
“This whole project started when my younger son said, ‘Dad, you should write down some of your Vietnam stories, they’re pretty funny,’” Griswold said.
But, after Griswold discussed the project with his friend, Ken McAdams, a marine, Old Lyme resident and published author, the story evolved into an exploration of not fitting in along a pre-ordained life path.
Still, Griswold devotes many pages to his personal experiences as a marine in Vietnam.
“I was there in ‘67-68. We were going to win the war. No question about that. We were going to win the war… And then you got over there and it wasn’t like World War Two, it was so confusing,” he said.
He said that it was impossible to know who to trust in Vietnam because the enemy intermingled with civilians.
“The little rice farmer who’s waving at you during the day was planting a mine out on the road at night,” he said.
Griswold said the idea that 17- or 18-year-old Marines or army soldiers would win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people didn’t make sense to him, but he developed great respect for the troops, especially considering the harsh conditions that included leeches, mosquitoes, snakes and rats.
“They were just good kids. They were well trained. They did the best they could. The weather conditions were awful — the monsoon rains, I’ve never seen rain like that. Oh my gosh, it just poured and you’re wet and cold and miserable and the rest of the time it was humid and hot,” he said.
Griswold said a number of members of his marine troop were killed in Vietnam, leaving him with existential questions.
“Well, some people came out of the war mad, bitter, some were on drugs and alcohol. I just came away extremely grateful. I’ve tried to live life and to help others because I was spared,” he said.
After applying to 14 prep schools, Griswold was accepted to the Darrow School in New Lebanon, New York. He later graduated from Springfield College.
“The [family] were less than enthused when I didn’t get into Yale. Springfield College is a good school. It turns out great teachers and coaches and social workers. But it wasn’t Yale and I could just sense the disappointment that they all had,” he said.
He coached football at high schools in the South, where he said winning games was crucial.
“You know, up here if you have a football team, it’s nice to win, but it’s not a big deal if you don’t. You lose down there, the coach will be looking for a job,” he said.
At one point he had the opportunity to continue coaching high school baseball, but the possibility of coaching college teams and then moving up to the professional leagues motivated him, along with trying to win the approval of his family.
“There were things I could have done but there was always this desire that I’ve got to do better. And I came back here and I coached at Yale for a year,” Griswold said.
He said his uncle commented, “Well, if he can’t graduate from Yale, at least I guess he can be a coach.”
Bridging two worlds
“I think growing up in this elite family, and then also hanging around with my high school friends … if I have a skill, it’s that ability to get along with and understand and respect people from all different backgrounds. And that was true of the South and that was true of the North. It’s probably the number one reason I’ve been successful, along with hard work,” he said.
He said he didn’t pressure his children — two sons and a daughter — to attend Yale.
“From that standpoint, they all went to a very good school in Georgia, and then they all went to University of Kentucky,” he said.
A couple of nieces and nephews in the family have attended Yale, but the vast majority have chosen colleges elsewhere, he said.
“Back in the 40s and 50s, you went to Yale because you had a family legacy and you could afford it. And then you got into the 60s and 70s and 80s, it was a lot more about academics,” he said.
Fifteen years ago, he and his wife, Elaine, moved back to Old Lyme, where he operates his own consultancy firm that helps veterans transition to civilian jobs.
“Most of the business is veterans, mostly officers and I was good at that — I could motivate them and I could relate to them. A lot of people think a colonel or a Navy captain shouldn’t have any trouble getting a job — but they have a lot of trouble,” he said.
He said he dedicated the book to his mother, Rosalie Wood Griswold, who taught him to be respectful of others, especially those who have different viewpoints.
“There’s two sides to every story, whether it’s the South or the North, or coaching or Vietnam, or what college you go to. Don’t take life too seriously — don’t take yourself too seriously. Life should be enjoyed. I mean, there’s some funny things in there,” he said.
“Outside the Box: An American Experience” is available on Amazon for $19.95, as well at Griswold Inn in Essex and the Bowerbird in Old Lyme.