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Waging War on Laziness : For the nation's top soldier, hard work and a high school diploma were the tickets out of a blighted neighborhood.

September 26, 1993|COLIN POWELL | Gen. Colin L. Powell, 56, hailed for leading the allied troops to victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, will retire this week as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His talks to students, stressing self-help and self-reliance as the surest guides to success, have been incorporated into this text from his "Message to Young People" video

I was born in Harlem, raised in the South Bronx. I went through the public school system, got out of public college and went into the Army as a second lieutenant and stuck with it. Lo and behold, I became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

When I was about your age, we had problems too. We had drugs in my neighborhood. On every street corner there was some pothead junkie who was trying to sell, or deal or get others involved in it.

I didn't do it. Never in my life. Never experimented to see what it would be like.

And I didn't for two reasons: One, my parents would kill me. . . . But the real reason is that it's just stupid. It was the most destructive thing you could do to your life that God and your parents had given you.

*

It took me 31 years of hard work to become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Had to go to Korea, went to Vietnam several times, all around the world. I've been hurt in a helicopter crash, fallen into a hole and had a spike driven though my foot in Vietnam. A lot of things, a lot of sacrifice and a lot of hard work.

But this long road that I've traveled . . . began in one place and began with one event. And that one event was high school, getting that high school diploma. . . .

I tell a story about three boys who were ditchdiggers. And they loved to be out there every morning, digging their ditches. Except one guy would always be leaning on his shovel, talking: "One of these days I'm going to own this company." And the second guy was leaning on his shovel saying, "They don't pay me enough. I don't like the hours. They were mad at me yesterday because I was late." And the third guy just did all the digging. The man said dig for eight hours and he dug for eight hours.

(Time goes by, and) the first guy is still leaning on that shovel: "One of these days I'm going to own this company." Second guy (is) still standing there complaining about his hours and how much he gets paid. And the third guy is now driving a forklift.

As the years go by, the fellow with gray hair is saying, "I'm going to own this company." The second guy had to retire on disability. . . . And the third man owned the company.

Hard work: I'm telling you there is no substitution for it.

Some people get shocked when I say as a 16-year-old, I used to mop floors. In summer periods, as a high school and college student, I used to mop floors at a soft-drink bottling industry in New York . . . in a very large plant that made a certain kind of cola.

The black kids were the porters; we did the mopping. The white kids worked on the bottling machines.

And so I mopped floors. I think it was 90 cents an hour. I learned how to mop. And when someone comes and dumps about 50 cases of cola on the floor, I want to tell you, that's some serious mopping. I could mop floors as well as anybody right now. I know how you do it. You swing back and forth and not left and right. . . . There is a technique to mopping floors.

I mopped floors all summer long. I didn't complain. The man was paying me 90 cents to mop floors, I mopped floors.

At the end of the summer, the foreman came up to me and said, "You mop floors pretty good."

I said, "You sure gave me enough opportunity to learn, sir."

He said, "Why don't you come back next summer."

"And do what?"

And he said: "We're going to put you on a machine."

So the next summer I went back on a machine, just taking bottles out and putting them on a conveyor belt. At the end of the summer, I was one of the top kids on the machine . . . and the next summer I went back and I was deputy foreman of the machines.

You've got to start somewhere.

You finish high school, you get the diploma and you are on your way to somewhere. It may be being a general, it may be being a doctor, it may be being a teacher, a politician or a businessman or a lawyer or an accountant. . . .

If you don't get that high school diploma, you are on a journey to nowhere. You are on your way to a dead end. Please, please listen to me when I tell you to stick with it--more than that, I'm giving you an order: Stay in high school and get that diploma. . . .

The problem of drugs is out there. Fight it. Don't fall for it. It's stupid. It's destructive, and the road it takes you down to is the road to nowhere.

And my second order to you is: Don't do drugs. It's stupid.

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