He came from a dirt-poor country family (Tennessee? Kentucky? I only know he was born in Arkansas), & was probably the first to go to college – who knows if there were any high school graduates in his family? They drafted him out of his senior year at the tail end of World War II – not the Pacific Theater, but the occupation forces in Austria – and the GI bill sent him to the university to study art. Which he abandoned, as he would abandon a number of pursuits over the years, taking degrees & graduate degrees (a master's in education, another in history, & yet another in English), reënlisting in the service when things didn't pan out & then going back to school.
Eventually, he settled down for the long haul, enduring assignment after assignment to a dreary listening post on the East German border (he was a Russian linguist – some of my earliest memories are of military housing at the army language institute in Monterey) before he retired. The military paid the bills, gave the family direction, kept us in healthcare (filled my mouth with second-rate fillings, which I'm now replacing one by one). But he hated the discipline, he hated the interminable paperwork & bureaucracy, & he hated the the pointless wastage of our Vietnam adventure.
I wouldn't quite call him an autodidact, but he filled cases & cases with books, the books he wanted to read & the books he thought he ought to read. And read them, probably more assiduously than I have (underlinings & marginal notes, notecards filled with references to look up, notebooks filled with reading notes). He came from the generation that believed in literary "greatness" – no library should be without sets of Kafka, of Proust, of Mann, of Joyce. He read them, & nodded to their majesty, & returned to what he really loved – Dickens & Tolstoy. During his last summer, in between bouts of his illness, he was working his way through War & Peace in Russian (again); when it became clear that his fall relapse would be his last, he turned to an English translation. I bought him a clutch of Ian Flemings at a library sale during that last stretch of illness. He turned them over, read some pages, & decided that he'd rather have another go at Great Expectations, for which I can't blame him.