I was born in Tokyo, Japan on November 12, 1961. No, my father wasn’t with the military. In fact, Willy Wolfgang Reich is Swiss, and he was in Japan running a travel agency that sent Japanese tourists to America.
We moved back to the States in 1965 and settled in Los Angeles. I attended Carl Curtis School before moving over to Harvard School for Boys (now Harvard-Westlake), where I graduated in 1979. Some people say you learn more in high school than in college. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I definitely learned as much. A few of my teachers, among them Dr. John Johnson, Father John Gill, and Jerome Margolis, made a lasting impact on my life and I’m grateful to them.
A highlight of my high school years was a summer spent at Outward Bound East Africa located on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I was fifteen and you can pretty much imagine how exciting it was to attend a camp in Kenya. At least, it was exciting until we discovered that every morning we had to run a mile and then jump into a frigid pool and swim a length before being “allowed” to begin our daily chores.
We had one tough guy in our cabin, a kid from Detroit who at the age of sixteen already had a set of muscles that would’ve made Arnold Schwarzenegger blush, and he wasn’t afraid to use them. Every camp has a bully and this guy was it. Anyway, one night we’re all falling asleep in our cabins (remember this is high on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We’re talking “rustic,” as in wood floors, stone walls, and a thatched roof that certain vermin loved!) when suddenly, someone lets loose a blood curdling scream. A real gut wrencher that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
“Rat! A friggin’ rat just ran across my chest!”
Everyone sat up, unnerved, but being the wilds of Africa, there was no light to turn on….just flashlights. Meanwhile as the beams of light crisscross the cabin, the cries are going from loud to hysterical. “Rat! Rat! Oh, Jesus, help me!”
You know who it was…the tough guy from Detroit.
Naturally, no one moved an inch. And we couldn’t help but chuckle as Mr. Muscles actually started to cry. We’re talking bawling here. Finally, he calmed down, buried his head under the blankets, and went to sleep.
The next morning he was a changed man. Once you’ve cried just because a little old rat ran across your chest, it’s hard to be so high and mighty. I’m happy to say that the incident turned him into a great guy. From there on after, there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do to help out his patrol mates, or anyone else in the camp, for that matter. Go figure!
At the end of camp, we all climbed Mt. Kenya, which was an adventure unto itself. Now, here’s the funny part. It wasn’t until we were all back in Nairobi waiting for the plane home that we discovered that there had never been a rat. The culprit was his bunk mate, a real wiseacre from New York City, who’d tied a smelly gray sock to a string and thrown it onto the bed above him. He’d done it just to give the guy a rise, having no idea he was intensely “rat-phobic.”
Boy, did we all laugh. And no one more than the kid from Detroit.
After graduating from Harvard School, I hightailed it back east to Georgetown University, where I attended the School of Foreign Service. Holding both a Swiss and American passport, and having spent nearly every summer abroad, I thought the school would be ideal for me and I was right. My four years in D.C. were among the most stimulating in my life. Where else could you enroll in a seminar with newly retired Fed Chief Arthur Burns and at the same time, work on Ted Kennedy’s presidential campaign. I’ve since grown more conservative in my politics, but I’ll tell you one thing. The Democrats have all the good looking girls! Sorry, Laura Ingraham.
While at Georgetown, I joined Delta Phi Epsilon, the national foreign service fraternity, though in truth the only service we provided was in throwing outstanding parties for the Georgetown campus community and our adored sister schools, Mt. Vernon and Marymount. I didn’t quite make Phi Beta Kappa. I think my “D” in Financial and Security Markets took care of that. But I did graduate with honors in history, earning the W. Coleman Nevils Gold Medal for outstanding student in the field of Diplomatic History.
So what was my first job getting out of Georgetown? Ding. You got it. A stockbroker. It was not a pretty sight. Luckily, one of my clients was a friend of George Kozmetzky, the founder of Teledyne Corporation, and a benefactor of the University of Texas at Austin business school. I remember the client, Charlie Jawetz, calling me up and saying, “Chris, you’re a nice young fella, but you don’t know *@#!! about stocks and bonds! You better get to business school before you get yourself into trouble!”
At UT, I knuckled down and graduated near the top of my class. By then, I was firmly on the investment banking track. Nothing was going to stop me from taking my place next to Mike Milken, Ivan Boesky, and Carl Icahn – the heroes of the “Junk Bond” 80’s. I remember seeing the movie “Wall Street” and thinking that Gordon Gekko was the hero! Boy, did I want to make money. We all did. Looking back, it was kind of scary.
Anyway, I finally had the grades to get the coveted interviews on Wall Street. I remember flying up to New York for my interview with First Boston. I’d shelled out thirty bucks for a haircut and bought a new navy suit. As I walked down the carpeted hallways, I marveled at the models of Yankee schooners lining the walls and the shiny Quaker furniture, guessing which office would be mine. We ended up in a conference room and the First Boston partner sat me down and said, “Mr. Reich, there’s one thing we need to discuss before we begin.”
I sat up straighter wondering if the subject was the size of my signing bonus or my first year’s expense account. “Yes?”
“Actually,” he said, “I’m sorry to say that we have no intention of hiring you. You see, we’ve decided to cut our hiring class in half, and we just don’t have any room for a marginal graduate from the University of Texas.”
Before I go on, I forgot to tell you something. This interview took place the week after the crash of 1987. The white shoe firms were sticking with the tried and true grads out of Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, and Northwestern. I argued that my grades were nearly perfect and that I had written an award-winning thesis about the deregulation of the London banking establishment. He replied that while my grades at UT were in fact outstanding, my marks at Georgetown (a mere 3.5) were clearly subpar and left much to be desired.
Remember, Tom Cruise in Risky Business slipping on those Ray Ban sunglasses after he flunked the interview for Princeton? “Looks like it’s University of Illinois!” That was me as I left the office in New York City. Slipping on my black aviators, I headed up Park Avenue saying, “Looks like it’s Geneva, Switzerland!”
You see, like every smart grad, I had a back up offer all set up. Mine was with the Union Bank of Switzerland. The salary wasn’t the $80,000 plus bonus I’d been expecting. More like $33,000 in a city that was even more expensive than New York. It was there in Geneva on my second day at work that I got the inspiration for my first novel, Numbered Account.
It was the best move I ever made.
If you want to learn more about why I became a writer, you can read my little piece about “Writing Numbered Account.”