Some Errant Wednesday Thoughts
It’s Wednesday, which means I’ll spend
the afternoon at work at the reference desk.
But I’d much rather stay comfortably at home,
sip poured-through coffee in my pajamas,
and read poems my friends post on Facebook.
And what will they say of my verses when
I am gone, done? It’s fair to be circumspect about
the other side, the end of now. Do you think
they’ll call my verses amateur (that’s what I call myself,
I’ll never make any money off non-rhyming poetry!)?
Will they criticize my work as shallow,
superficial, a bit naive? Or maybe dark,
troubled, complex (only out of a sense of charity,
of course). It won’t matter that much to me –
I’ll be resting peacefully, with the poets, by the river.
Subway poem #7
There are no spirits lurking in the aisles
and corners. Just cartons of documents,
details of lives. Whether well-lived or ill,
these papers tell the story – marriage, birth,
land acquired, taxes. Death. It’s all there.
No need for the rattling sound of zombies –
ghosts of events yet to come – in graveyards.
Might this be the judgement we fear? The words
and deeds, archived records we leave behind
won’t deliver souls to any heaven –
or hell. It’s just a mirage, this image
of hereafter we’ve been trained to accept
as truth, the certain object of our faith:
dried, folded, faded, in a dusty box.
If I should die before I wake —
Oh, never mind. My soul will know
exactly what to do when darkness
envelops me and she is freed and free.
Stuff my mortal remains, whatever’s left
of me, in a weighted wooden coffin
like the ones we kept in stock overseas
in abandoned embassy warehouses.
Put me on a Navy warship – bury me
at sea just beyond the 12-mile limit –
in international waters – let me sink
silently, peacefully to the bottom,
where lost shipmates are still on patrol,
and my ancestors await my return.
You lose some things you cherish as you pass
Through life’s transitions. Letters you received
May not survive a flood — first drafts of poems
You wrote get lost in shipments — coffee mugs
Disappear, book collections may not stay
Intact when divorce or death part the waves
Of time. Friendships and associations
You thought would be there in your grayer years
May only survive a season, or not —
And reasons for a friendship come and go
Like tides that flood and ebb and flood again.
The things that last a lifetime, then, are rare
And few, and even random….so enjoy
The fleeting now, breathe deeply, smile freely.
at the end of time
sunset will seem to last
a thin red strip
on the horizon,
in its futile attempt
to stay, to widen
to reverse time –
but we all know
that time only reverses
itself in poetry –
and in Superman movies
when Lois Lane dies
and the Man of Steel
reverses Earth’s rotation
to forestall, reverse
her death’s circumstance.
At the end one might
even be persuaded
that that sunset is itself
a beginning –
a dawn, not a dusk –
but that would be
I’ve dodged some bullets
in this life. Cigarettes
won’t take me out,
nor alcohol or drugs
though I may get run over
by a car in the crosswalks
in this town. And there’s poison
all around, in the food,
in the water and air
that might just be the cause
of my eventual demise.
But it won’t be sudden death
or overtime. No, this game
will end in regulation time.
some days I think my poetry making
is done. I try to turn a verse or two
and it all falls flat – no rhythm, no rhymes,
no magic, just words and punctuation.
I need some time at sea to stir things up
a bit. A trans-Atlantic crossing would
be optimum – a paddleboat up the river
will suffice. I’ll always and forever
be a man of simple pleasure. But the air
we breathe is full of negativity.
All the canaries are dead, heaven-bound
in this brave new world where skepticism
is not allowed. A heavy fog surrounds us.
Which sentinel species is next in line?
my ideal still life painting would contain
a non-microwave safe cup and saucer,
a piece of ripened fruit, a wind up watch
with a leather band, and a book, hardbound,
with several bookmarks and tabs. On a desk.
And maybe reading glasses, depending
on the reader’s (and the painter’s) needs.
I’d stare at that canvas, and wonder
if he (or she) drank tea or coffee, hot
or lukewarm like I like it. I’d wonder
does the book have poetry inside it,
the bookmarks and tabs for his (her) favorite
passages. I’d hang it beside my wife’s
painting of the river ferry crossing.
20 years in the Foreign Service – First twelve years
Disclaimer: The events in this narrative are all true and in many cases, names have not been changed to protect the innocent or the guilty. If you enjoy reading this blog, please consider leaving a comment. And please re-visit. The narrative will grow from day to day as details come back to me. Thanks!
Prelude: How I came to take the Foreign Service Exam and my pre-dawn arrival in Atlanta for the Oral Assessment.
Life had become nearly impossible together. We were clearly headed in two different directions. So I moved to a small apartment around the corner from the Jacksonville Art Museum where I could focus on my new vocation, writing sonnets. Shortly thereafter, Colleen moved to Madison, Wisconsin and we closed out the apartment we had shared. In the meantime, I was taking a mathematics course at night at Jacksonville Community College and had filled out one of those bulletin board cards to take the Foreign Service Exam (FSE). But when the package came, it wasn’t forwarded to Art Museum Drive, where I was, but to Colleen’s new address in Madison. Luckily, she forwarded the package back to me, I filled in all the forms and met all the deadlines to take the exam.
The LUCE was scheduled to do law enforcement ops with a Coast Guard detachment in the Caribbean during the period when the Foreign Service Exam (FSE) was scheduled. I talked with my Executive Officer and together worked it out with the ship’s education officer to receive the test and administer it to me underway. At least that was what they promised me. They lied. So when I checked with the XO a week before deploying, he offered me the following deal: I could stay in port and TDY to the civil engineering detachment for the six weeks deployment period, freeing up a spot on the watchbill for one of the newer officers. Sounded like a good idea to me, since I had already completed all my quals. Knowing the XO, it was probably a trick. But it served my needs, so I took him up on it.
I spent a month working up a database of Mayport Naval Base contracts and warranties on emergency sprinkler systems (a bit boring, but it saved the government a ton of money to get systems repaired on existing warranties, vice re-contracting and paying each time something broke. It would be excellent training for my GSO future). Then, the second month, I inventoried each emergency hurricane kit (and there were hundreds of them on base, all of which were missing key pieces of equipment). And I had a study program. At night, I read Economist, cover to cover. I read Scientific American. I read the Atlantic Monthly. And I took sample GRE exams under time, all in preparation for the FSE. On the appointed Saturday, I took the foreign service exam. It seemed easy. I actually left early.
The LUCE returned, and the crew had had a lot of fun in the Caribbean. Life and work returned to normal. A few months later, I heard from State that I had passed the written exam and should make an appointment for the Oral Assessment. I chose to take it in Atlanta, a four hour drive from Jacksonville. My ship only allowed me one day off: we were working up for some type of inspection. So when I got off at 6pm, I headed home, showered, and hit the road. I stopped outside Savannah en route, to say hello to old ROTC buddies at Fort Gordon, then, around 10pm, hit the road for Atlanta.
I ran into a heavy thunderstorm, and of all times, my windshield wipers broke, so I had to pull over to the side of the highway to wait out the storm. I resumed the trip around 1am, arriving at the hotel, way out on one of the the Atlanta beltways, around 2:30am, totally exhausted. I set the alarm for 5am, and left at a quarter to 6 to find the assessment site in downtown Atlanta.
I made it through the Oral Assessment. I passed. They told me they really liked my biographic statement. I’ve always enjoyed biographies, since Governor’s School. Why not make mine special and authentic?
A year passed. Two months at Stanford in the summer AEA program, ten months at Washington University in St. Louis doing graduate work and one month on Naval Reserve duty in Guam.
A bit of a blur. We were 32, 16 men and 16 women. Some fresh out of college, some fresh out of graduate school, some, like me, in their mid-30’s and starting a second career. All very interesting people. Through the boring lectures, and through the regular nightly happy hours, we bonded and we avoided becoming alcoholics!
postscript. I later learned, through reading autobiographies and oral histories of diplomats, that A-100, the orientation course for new foreign service officers is named for the room, in the Old Executive Office Building, where the course was held. This predates the re-location of the State Department to its present location at 2201 C St NW.
postscript #2. I made a big mistake not negotiating my initial salary. I accepted the FS-06 step 1 they offered me, but I should have made a strong case for additional steps to reflect the four years I spent, post-graduation, gaining critical management and supervisory skills as a sea-going naval officer. The experience certainly aided and informed my foreign service career and added value to the contribution I was able to make at every grade level. It is a cautionary tale for any new FSO’s just joining the service, especially those with prior military service. The HR system is not equipped to automatically recognize the value of prior military, and a few extra steps at the beginning can make a big difference over the course of a 20-year career.
Between ConGen Rosalyn and the start of language training I had a six-week gap. My career assignment officer (CAO) found me a job “running clearances” in what was then IO/HW, Human Rights and Women’s Issues. In the pre-e-mail days, you actually had to carry drafts to various offices and wait while a responsible officer read it and made edits. It was a crazy time to be running clearances in the Department, what with the transition and all. And it was an interesting time to draft position papers for new political appointees and to put together the briefing book for delegates to the UN Human Rights Conference in Geneva. The Bush folks had packed up and the Democrats were taking over all the front offices after twelve years out of power. The Human Rights Conference delegation was still Republican-led, Amb. Ken Blackwell, a holdover from the Bush Administration. After completing the routine of getting clearances from the functional and geographical bureaus involved, I went to the various “front offices” for their approval and clearance. The new appointees and their new staff assistants would say stuff like “And what am I supposed to do with this?” I wondered what manner of organization I had joined. It turned out to be good practice, however. I would see two more transitions of comparable magnitude in foreign countries, the U.K and Ghana, over the coming years.
Language training was fun. Dona Gloria was stern and tough but she was an excellent Portuguese instructor. Drill Sergeant Gloria. And she knew everything about the place I had been assigned to, Bissau.
August 1993. Off we went to Bissau. The first sign of the culture shock I was to experience came at the airport in Lisbon. On Sunday evenings at the Lisbon airport, flights depart to all the former colonies, Praia, Bissau, Maputo, and Luanda. My God! I had never seen so many Africans all together in one enclosed place. And the boxes. And the crates. And the colors. And the long lines. It all made me dizzy.
We arrived in Bissau around midnight. My new boss and his wife met us on the tarmac. It was raining cats and dogs — the middle of August and the height of the rainy season. They gave our passports to some strangers called expeditors and whisked us away. What about our luggage, we asked? “Oh don’t worry, it’ll come later with your passports.” Right. We arrived at the Embassy residential compound. It was quaint, in a word — four American-looking houses on the side and two colonial mansions in the middle. Cute. Quaint. The next morning the culture shock continued. My boss drove me to work and as I looked to the right and the left going down the Bissau’s main avenue all I could think of was Dodge City. You know, the one with Sheriff Dillon and Festus and Doc. We arrived at the “Embassy.” What a dump! What a dump! I kept shaking my head and blinking my eyes and looking again, thinking that perhaps, what I thought I was seeing would change.
Bissau had its first parliamentary elections and its first ever presidential election on our watch. The coup leader/dictator resigned from the military and ran as a candidate. Our embassy sponsored (staged may be more appropriate) a pre-election mixed doubles tennis tournament. President Vieira, paired with the wife of the leading European retail expat, won the tournament, proving that he was virile and healthy. The first round of the election was inconclusive; a formidable Kuumba Yala candidacy shifted the balance of the first round by capturing the Balanta vote. Ambassador McGuire encouraged President Vieira to stay the course and let the full democratic process play out. He listened and eventually won the election in the second round. Observers said the election was free and fair.
Conditions got better. We built a new, prefabricated chancery, State Department’s first, just across the street from the housing compound, and in a record time of nine months. My first assignment was to remove the squatters from the land the local government had given us across the street from the housing compound. Getting the people to re-locate was easy; getting rid of the snakes, especially the black mambas, was much more difficult. I found a tiny, abandoned kitten on the site and took it home and nursed it back to health. We named her Manuela, after one of the maids in the compound. Manuela bore two litters with one of the he-cats at the next door “Chinese compound.” I caught her sneaking out the bathroom window. We provided kittens to Peace Corps volunteers throughout the country.
In Bissau, the rainy season is followed by the cricket season. During the cricket season, there are crickets everywhere, almost like a biblical plague. After some complaints by compound residents, we had the gardeners apply a local product to “neutralize” the screaming crickets. One day, Manuela got a hold of a cricket that had already been treated. She acted a little strange the rest of the evening. We found her the next morning, stiff and cold. We buried Manuela in the words at the back of the compound.
I hired casual laborers to “harvest” the bat dropping out of the attic of the old chancery as we were moving out. I saw it on one of my inspections of the building, and had heard somewhere that bat droppings make excellent fertilizer. Bats are true herbivores, after all. We ended up with enough of the stuff (boxes and boxes of it) to fertilize the whole of the new embassy compound grounds with some left over. The gardeners, God bless them all, planted new grass, one stem at a time, under a hot summer sun. In a few weeks the newly planted embassy lawn was a rich and luscious carpet of green.
Negotiating the closeout of the old chancery building was fraught with coincidences. I started in earnest negotiations with the landlord, Carlos Gomes, Sr., the richest man in the country who was in the middle of a Ross Perot-type campaign for the presidency. For weeks he baffled me with stories about the Bissau’s former colonial grandeur, about his ancestors and the role they played in the country’s development, and about his own role both in the independence struggle against the Portuguese and in the struggle for free enterprise against the first communist government after independence. I listened and learned. At length, we got down to brass tacks. He pulled out the original lease from 1975 and pointed to the sentence that read words to the effect that if the US Government ever departed from his building, it would restore the building to whatever specifications the landlord required. I gasped, not believing that a foreign service contracting officer would sign such a lease. We won’t mention his name. He went on to have an illustrious career, including several ambassadorships
After some wrangling and horse-trading, we agreed that each party would hire an architect to cost out the restoration work, then use the two figures provided as initial offers. Then, in a stroke of pure luck, the TDY Admin Officer and I stumbled upon the landlord’s architect, at a bar, crying in his beer because the mean old man refused to pay him for his work in estimating restoration costs (the landlord was too busy running for president to focus on such a mundane issue). We hired him, had him work up for us a counter proposal, and, to make a long story short, it ended up saving the USG about half a million dollars in restoration costs. We paid the architect his fee.
About the same time, the warehouse landlord (a different landlord altogether) asked for $150,000 in restoration costs (same type lease. What were they thinking about in 1975?). Fortunately for us, we learned that Coca-Cola of Spain was moving into town and looking for a warehouse. They bought out the lease, restoration costs and all. The gods were with us.
Other conditions got worse. Mefloquine didn’t agree with me and I stopped taking it. I caught malaria. I caught malaria twice. The sudden curtailment of the admin officer pushed me into his position. I doubled up on my one-a-day vitamins for a while as the work wore me down. After acquiring a taste for the local food and the local intestinal parasites, I lost about 30 pounds in a way I had not anticipated Nevertheless, this cloud had some silver linings. Friday poker night on the compound was always enjoyable. I met the Cuban cigar, Cohiba, in Bissau and we became lifelong friends. I learned to dance a modified kizomba. Going fishing with the USAID Director Mike Lukomski introduced me to Guinea-Bissau’s inland rivers, knowledge that would come in handy sooner than I expected and in ways I could not have imagined. Weekend-long bicycling treks through the backroads of the coastal region with Fulbright scholar Walter Hawthorne gave me a deep appreciation for the “terra” and the “povo.” Day trips to see the “Homem Grande” in Caliquisse exposed me to a different, a hidden knowledge. The FSN’s were troopers who always came through in the clutch.
A chapter is required on my journeys to Caliquisse and meetings with the Homem Grande. “Homem Grande” in Portuguese means great man. But in Guinea-Bissau, Homem Grande means the big voodoo/spiritual/mystic guy, and Caliquisse is the capital of the spirit world. Now I was not particularly a believer in this stuff, though I did read a book on Santeria as an undergraduate that led me to make a pilgrimage the above ground crypt of Marie Laveau in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Glad I made that pilgrimage then, because I doubt those sites still exist! Anyway, returning to the original subject, a warehouse theft that we couldn’t solve resulted in my boss’s decision to consult with the Homem Grande to find out who was ripping us off. My boss was a very religion guy, very observant, but he had this obsession with, how can I say it, “local culture.” So one Saturday, five or six of us piled into two vans and headed to Caliquisse to visit with the local oracle.
After a huge midday feast at the home of a local merchant, Silvestre was his name, I think, we picked up gifts for the Homem Grande, rice, live chickens, a baby pig (leitao), and several bottles of cana (a Cape Verdean sugar cane liquor) and started on a trek into the bush. When the road ended, we continued driving until we reached a clearing, then the guide took us by foot several hundred yards to a wooded area where we found a large tree with a hollowed out base, one of those ugly trees that grows the delicious cabaceira, a white tangy powder in a large green pod. There, we awaited the arrival of the spirit man.
The spirit man greeted us and offered us a sip of cana, a distilled spirit made from sugar cane, from what appeared to me to be a very questionable container. I very politely declined. Through a translator, we explained that we needed to know who was robbing our warehouse. My boss believed our warehouse employees were guilty, but I maintained they were innocent and that it was clearly an “outside” job. The spirit man nodded, took another sip of cana and pulled a long rusted knife from a sheath. I thought to myself, “Oh shit, he’s gonna kill us!” But the knife wasn’t for us, it was for the hen we brought, the galinha de terra, the reading of whose entrails were to provide the answers we traveled to Caliquisse to seek.
With a quick snap of the wrist, he decapitated the chicken, while holding its still twitching body in his left hand. Then, with a smaller knife, he cut open the chicken’s underside. Here, he began the close reading. Looking carefully at the chicken’s ovaries (I found that out later), he revealed to us that bandits were entering the warehouse through the roof, and that it was definitely an outside job. I took a deep breath of relief; my staff was not involved at all! Then he asked us if we wanted to know anything else! My boss and the OBO project director asked if they would have sons. He said yes, sons for both. But in exchange, both would be required to bring their sons back to Caliquisse for a visit. He looked my way, but I kept my mouth shut! (I had attended a lecture earlier given by a lady named Crowley (can’t remember her first name) on the practice of making deals with the Spirit world. To break a promise is very bad ju-ju. Better not to make it.) The translator advised us that once we uncovered the plot and learned the truth of the robberies, we would be required to return to the Homem Grande and bring more rice, more cana, and more chickens. Satisfied, we piled into the vehicles and returned to Bissau. Little did I know, this would not be my final encounter with the Guinea-Bissau spirit world! Here is a link to a poem I wrote about Bissau: http://poemsbyray.blogspot.com/2011/08/my-return-to-mother-africa.html
The locals, employees and contacts, adopted me as one of their own. They exposed me, through weddings, funerals, and late night parties, to the full cultural panorama of life in Guinea-Bissau. My favorites were the baby-naming ceremonies and the end of Ramadan Eid al-Fitra celebrations. The Peace Corps volunteers who came around on weekends from the interior of the country became lifelong friends as, after their service in Bissau, they navigated their way through life transitions, careers, family, etc.
We transitioned from the horrid location downtown to the new Embassy compound in Bairro de Penha. We managed to preserve the cashew trees on the compound, guaranteeing a supply of delicious cashew fruit and nuts. We also managed to preserve a supply of poisonous black mambas on the compound lawn.
In July, 1994, shortly after the move to the new embassy compound, we got a call about trouble in a neighboring country. Well, sort of “neighboring.” When Gambian troops returned home to Banjul, Gambia, after a peacekeeping stint in Liberia, the troops, led by a then unknown Lt Jammeh, ran into a bit of “disrespect” from airport officials. In response to the airport slight, Jammeh and his crew plotted and carried out a coup d’etat. The Wikipedia article says “In July 1994, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) seized power in a military coup d’etat, deposing the government of Sir Dawda Jawara. Lieutenant Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, chairman of the AFPRC, became head of state.” When the coup occurred, the deposed president was out taking a maiden voyage on a navy patrol craft the USD provided to the Gambians. We maintained VHF radio contact with the president’s party from Bissau. Sir Dawda Jawara didn’t return to Banjul until several years later, when a more enlightened President Jammeh decreed that all former presidents would be maintained and taken care of by the State for life.
When the time came, my CAO, Nick Williams, asked me where I wanted to go next. His predecessor, Kathy Peterson, who suggested I consider bidding Bissau in A-100, promised me a good follow-on assignment if I did well in Bissau. I thought, “Go for it now! It’s your only chance.” I asked for the London, CON/POL rotation. My second choice was GSO in Nassau. He said he would work on it. I got the London assignment.
Add a bit here about the reunion during this period with Jan. We met in Nuke School in the late 70’s and first reunited at the Submarine Base in Bangor, Washington in ’82. It was a short-lived romance and we broke up. We reunited for the second time in ’91 when I was in grad school in St. Louis and she was in law school in Seattle. Jan traveled with me to Bissau in 1992, but left on two separate occasions to return to law school. She eventually completed law school and landed a job back in Seattle. We parted amicably. Here is another Bissau poem: http://poemsbyray.blogspot.com/2009/12/natural-forces-or-notes-to-former-lover.html
London, United Kingdon
October 1995. The consular year in London was uneventful. The Government shut down for a few weeks and the section bosses all took free leave. Junior officers were, of course, declared “essential personnel.” In my spare time I started a mystery novel about odd third-country national visa applications, strange travel patterns and a vice-consul who took his work home with him one time too many. The novel never saw the light of day, but the draft still lives on my hard drive! I continued doing NIV interviews in the morning and eventually took over the Volume Visa Unit in the afternoon. Toward the end of my consular “sentence” I headed the E Visa section in the afternoon. My boss warned me I was spending too much time on NIV interviews and wrote in my EER a backhand slap that I would make a fine political officer. My excuse about gathering information for my mystery novel obviously neither amused nor impressed him. Luckily I got an early release and transition to the political section as scheduled.
Work in the political section was a blast. A great team: Jim Young covered Africa and Labour, Matt Tueller covered the Middle East and the Lib Dems, Charlie Peacock did PolMil, Blair Hall covered Northern Ireland and the Tories, and as the junior officer in the shop, I had Latin America, Scottish and Welsh national parties, international organizations, and global issues. We had outstanding leadership in deputy Marcie Ries and Mike Habib. I went to the Foreign Office each week to explain why the USG chose not to pay its annual UN dues. On alternate days I went to the Foreign Office to explain why the USG had a right to refuse visas to influential British subjects who invested in expropriated properties in Cuba. My boss Marcie called it carrying dirty water. And I got to write the annual Human Rights Report. Gathering the material and writing it was fun, but the clearance process was a real killer, no pun intended — I found it curiously strange that so many people of color were dying in custody in UK jails and prisons. Even more curious was the contorted criteria required for reporting those deaths in our annual Human Rights report.
Going by overnight train to Inverness, Scotland for the Scottish National Party (SNP) conference was a joy. Surprisingly enough, at the conference in Scotland I met descendants of my Maxwell (paternal) and Hairston (maternal) ancestor lines. Cousins. Distant cousins. White cousins.
SNP members, at the time, were a curious blend comprised of KKK-types at one end of the spectrum and Weathermen at the other and everything in between. What a bunch! I remember writing a cable describing my meeting with the SNP leader, Alex Salmond. He reminded me of a Southern Baptist preacher I had grown up knowing, one hand thrusting the Bible into space, the other holding a white handkerchief to wipe his sweaty forehead — one foot planted in the muck and mire of our temporal abode, the other foot already in Zion.
But back to real politics. I covered Scottish and Welsh devolution issues back in London and spent some time chatting with the then Shadow Secretary for Scotland and Wales, George Robertson. He later became Defense Minister in the first Blair administration and was later tapped to be NATO Secretary-General. Wow! How fortunes change! When New Labour won the election, after 18 years in opposition, we scrambled. I mean, it wasn’t like we didn’t know Blair and company would make a clean sweep. I drafted a cable detailing what would happen in the event of a tie in the parliamentary elections. The Queen gets to choose if there is a tie; but in fact, it wasn’t even close. As the junior officer of the section, I drew the straw to draft the Tory condolence note. “The US Government is so sorry you lost, buster. See ya, but I wouldn’t want to be ya.” What a chore.
Along the way, I was coned Admin (this was the “unconed” era. For a short span of years, FSOs entered without a conal designation and bid their cone in their second tour. Coming into the service directly from the first year in a PhD program in Economics, I assumed I would go for Econ. But the fun I had doing GSO work in Bissau, coupled with the lack of fun I saw econ officers having in London conspired to persuade me to bid Admin), and I thought it made sense to chat with the Admin folks at post. The Admin Counselor, Lyn Dent, took me under his wing and remained a mentor throughout my career. He walked pass my office one day and said something about bidding on jobs in the Ops Center. I took him up on it and while in Washington that fall, stopped by the Ops Center for an interview. The rest is history.
A word is in order here about meeting Filomena, our courtship and marriage. Filomena and I met a month or so after I arrived in London, November 1995. We started dating the following February and shared most of our weekends together thereafter. It was fun, we shared similar interests, liked the same music, and enjoyed browsing London bookstores and art galleries together. Cupid’s arrow struck. We got married in July, 1997, just before the London tour ended. Happily ever after. We packed up and moved back to Washington together.
I enrolled in a graduate program at SOAS in my last year in London. International Studies and Diplomacy was in its second year and reaching out to folks who worked in the hundreds of embassies in London. I had classes three nights a week and spent evenings and weekends studying and writing papers for class. It wasn’t really kosher for the junior guy in the political section to dash out at 5:30 three nights a week to make it to class by 6pm, but I did it and suffered the consequences. The schedule was hectic, but it all worked out and I completed the courses and my MA dissertation on time.
Domestic assignment: Washington, DC
August 1997. I arrived at Ops. George Kent, Lisa Johnson and Mike Keller had already reported for duty. Julie Adams, Lara Friedman and Mari Dieterich were ending their tours. Scott Boswell came the following year. It was a 63rd class reunion. We had a swell time and I got good material for my mystery novel. Who dunnit? Nobody knows. The buck never stops. It never even slows down in this city.
A highlight of my Ops Center tour, without a doubt, was working the Bissau evacuation. It was one of those rare and incredible moments of being in the right place at the right time with the right information. Listening in on a Task Force conversation (as was our jobs to do), I heard then A Assistant Secretary Pat Kennedy talking with then CA Assistant Secretary Mary Ryan about sending a small boat up a particular river to extract the embassy staff. I interrupted, with some initial reluctance if not trepidation, to tell them that the river was a tidal river and that when the tide ebbs the river turns to little more trickle through the muddy bottom. Fishing those inland rivers in Guinea-Bissau endowed me with a special knowledge that we were able to put to good use in the embassy staff evacuation. And coming from London where I occasionally “hung out” with my Navy brothers, I knew who to call at the Navy Base across the street from the embassy to get local tide charts for any location on the Atlantic (We learned to do tide charts manually in Naval ROTC. I imagine it all is done with computer programs now). Some folks say we saved people’s lives. Another height was working the overnight of the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings, a sad event where many lives were lost, an event I would revisit often in a future PMO assignment.
Bidding time came again. I should mention here that I gave some thought to leaving the Foreign Service during that Washington year. prepared a resume, contacted two search firms, and attended preliminary meetings with counselors. An old guy I trusted convinced me to stay with the Government to “cash in” on the time I spent in the military. It wasn’t the last time I would think about leaving.
Most of my Ops colleagues were bidding on desk officer jobs. I looked at some as well, and inquired about a PMO job in the Africa Bureau, but the bureau deputy director Nancy Serpa told me I would need to manage a post overseas before I could be a good post management officer in the AF Bureau. (Such standards, unfortunately, no longer exist). I took the bait and submitted a bid for the FS-02 admin officer job in Luanda, a two-grade stretch, knowing full well that if I put it on my bid list, there was a very strong possibility I’d get it. What the heck, I figured, they had already taught me Portuguese. Why not use it again? After delivering a cryptic handwritten note from SS/EX Director Dick Shinnick (a friend at the time who would later betray me) to the AF/EX Director Steve Browning and enduring long interviews in AF/EX the morning after a long night shift on the watch, AF accepted my double stretch bid and assigned me to Luanda as administrative officer. Filomena said she would go with me, but I’d owe her for the rest of my life. I signed her promissory note, and we packed out and got underway.
November 1998. Approaching Luanda by air, you see this beautiful city on the coast with tall buildings and winding avenues. Only as you get closer do you realize the tall buildings are empty shells of construction halted when the Portuguese left suddenly in 1975. And when you get real close, you can see bullet holes from Savimbi’s last stand in 1992. Not to be confused with Savimbi’s last stand of 2002. My oh my! Luanda! No place like it on earth.
Embassy Luanda was a trailer park, plain and simple. As admin officer I was the only American in the admin section, which meant I was also leasing officer, contracting officer, certifying officer, and HR adviser. I sort of saw this coming and managed to get enrolled in the the financial mgmt and HR courses before leaving Washington. I had time to take the overseas management officer course, but my brainless CDO informed me that you had to be FS-02 to take that course. When I countered that I was going to fill an FS-02 job, she simply said, “but you re an FS-04, No exceptions.” It was a big disappointment for me. I could have used that class. But that is spilt milk.
One by one, we found properties outside, negotiated leases, and moved all remaining staffers off the compound and into newly rented houses and apartments as quickly as our guys could complete the make-ready preps. Of course, it was never quick enough, nor the make-ready good enough for the prospective tenant. We did our best. Then we started the arduous task of securing the permits and permissions from various government offices to begin the New Office Building construction project.
After several meetings with several different ministries and regional and local government departments, we arrived at a stalemate regarding a “showstopper” for the prospective NOB, closing off the back street to enhance, no to secure setback requirements. In a final meeting I attended with the Provisional Governor (who was on our side) and representatives from the Interior Ministry (who were not on our side), the Interior Ministry folks drew a line in the sand. Their position was that to grant us permission to close off the back street “for security reasons” somehow suggested that they were not doing their job to provide adequate security (which of course, in their estimation, they were. The Interior Ministry guys studied under the Russians, the East Germans, and the Cubans back during the good old days. They were the best at what they did in the world.).
One of the city traffic planners offered the following olive branch proposal: Close off the back street, not for security purposes, as stated, but to provide for temporary construction, knowing full well that once the traffic patterns were changed to close the road for the three years of the construction period, no one would bother to change them again afterwards. I phoned my boss to get the go ahead. We cut the deal and shook on it. It was done. Ground was broken, and a few years later, after my departure, the New Office Building was a reality — the trailer park, a distant memory.
In retrospect, I would come to miss the great time we had in Luanda. I would miss the music, sunset on the Ilha, dancing the kizomba. I would miss the taste of zindungo (a hot, spicy sauce you put on everything). I’d miss the smooth harshness of freshly roasted Angolan coffee. I’d miss the syrupy sweetness of overripe pineapple sold at inflated prices by the women on the street who swear it will last until tomorrow. I’d miss the soft bitterness of gimboa fried with onions and olive oil. More than anything else, though, I’d miss the effusive enthusiasm of our local staff, their willingness to learn, their dedication and commitment, their loyalty. Finally, while I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, I would certainly come to miss the support DCM Jeff Hartley and Ambassador Joe Sullivan always extended to us. Telephones didn’t work half the time. There was no e-mail to the Admin annex where I worked, Casa Inglesa. But I could count on the support of upper management to do the work I had to do. I could take it to the bank. The support I enjoyed and took for granted in Luanda, the collegiality we shared, I would later learn, was rare in this outfit. I remain grateful for having experienced it there.
Dr. Filomena managed HIV/AIDS, polio prevention and child health programs at USAID Luanda. She loved her work and her work bore fruit, in the successful polio campaign she took a leading part in organizing across all of Angola, in her efforts to raise HIV/AIDS awareness in the country, and in general improvements she contributed to the running of the Angolan Health Ministry.
November 2000. We left Luanda and moved to Accra where I took over the reins of the GSO section as supervisory GSO. Prior to arriving at post, I bumped into my new boss at FSI. He told me “They say very good things about you in the AF Bureau.” He laughed, then said, “There is no way you can live up to your advanced billing.” He laughed again, then smiled. O my god, I thought, a psycho for a boss. Three years. OMG!
We arrived. Elections brought in the opposition just as we were settling in. The coup leader turned dictator turned democrat stepped down after nineteen years of rule. Western pundits called it the Ghana Miracle because Lt. Rawlings bowed out gracefully. But it was no miracle — just normal folks behaving like adults. To expect otherwise says more about the expecter than the expected.
Accra was fine and we did some outstanding work in GSO, especially in contracting and residential leasing. Filomena returned to USAID, managing child health programs. But the level of collegiality and camaraderie at Embassy Accra was not the same as it was in Luanda — perhaps because Angola was a country at war, while Ghana was a country at peace. There was tension in the administrative section, lots of pettiness, lots of bickering.
On the other hand, being in Accra provided some very bright moments. Ghanaians introduced me to yoga. The Fantes enstooled me. The Ashantis embraced me and taught me their culture. The Ewe and Ga protected me and kept me safe from harm. To quote an Emerson poem, “. . . give all to love . . . . when the half-gods go, the gods arrive.” At the end of my tour, the local employees and I performed a traditional “blessing” of the land where we hoped the new embassy would be built, Bud Field, but not before making a convincing presentation to OBO and AF/EX that Embassy Accra needed a new Embassy compound as soon as possible: The powerpoint presentation I composed and delivered to OBO Director Williams and AF/EX Director Huggins provides a snapshot view of embassy operations at the time.
The most memorable project I was involved in at Embassy Accra came at the very end of my tour. By a fortuitous turn of events, we needed at least a 200-year lease on a large piece of property for the construction of an embassy compound at the same time that the Ghanaian Ambassador in Washington needed to close a deal on property he was purchasing for his official residence out in Potomac, MD. The Ghanaian constitution did not allow foreigners to own land, but OBO assured us that a long-term lease of at least 200 years was as good as a title deed. Fortunately for us, the new supervisory GSO in AF/EX in charge of the project, Stephanie Sullivan, had previously been political counselor in Accra and knew all the political players, as well as the Ghanaian Ambassador, Alan Kyerematen. The management counselor was on leave, so I had to handle the negotiations on the Accra side. We worked the phones, just like in Ops, Embassy Accra to AF/EX in Washington, Embassy Accra to the Ghanaian Embassy, Embassy Accra to the Foreign Ministry, Embassy Accra to the Presidential Palace, Embassy Accra to the members of Parliament, and every combination and permutation within and across all these elements. Stephanie steered me masterfully through the local and national Ghanaian government bureaucracy. Within mere days, we managed to execute an MOU with the Ghanaian government granting us the 200-year lease on Bud Field. A couple of years later, NOB construction commenced at that very site.Washington, DC
The second ten years starts with my assignment, in 2002 as post management officer for East Africa and ends with my last assignment, in 2012, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Maghreb (North Africa), a position from which I was unceremoniously but shamefully, ingloriously and inaccurately removed on December 18, 2012 as part of an over-zealous Department response to unfounded fears of Congressional fallout from the Benghazi ARB report.
Domestic assignment: Washington.
We returned to Washington in the fall of 2002. As soon as our tenant vacated the apartment, we embarked on a major refurbishment project, resurfacing the hardwood floors, painting throughout, and, much to Filomena’s delight, a complete renovation of the kitchen. Meanwhile, the DC sniper was terrorizing the District and we were wishing we were back in West Africa.
That summer we moved back to Washington to a PMO job in AF/EX — Anglophone and Lusophone West Africa, as originally assigned. But upon arrival, the deputy executive director told me I would be covering countries in East Africa. My prior assignments, Bissau, Luanda, and Accra, had all been west, so this region would present a new, unexplored set of challenges. I rolled up my sleeves, little knowing that, later, in retrospect, I would consider it my favorite all-time assignment and the most productive period of my foreign service career.
AF/EX Post Management Officer
At work, I sat out to master the ropes of the Washington bureaucracy as PMO for East Africa. We had major projects underway: new embassy buildings under construction for Nairobi and Dar es Salaam; re-establishment of operations in Khartoum; and potential Embassy site search and selection for Djibouti, Asmara, and Antananarivo. In meeting after meeting, I came to understand and appreciate the thoughts and contributions of my counterparts in OBO, IRM and DS, and before long we were able to pick up the phone and unstick things, solving problems before they reached anybody’s notice. I could give you a number of examples, but then I’d have to kill you! LOL! In the Spring I traveled with the Under Secretary for Management, Grant Green, to Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam for the new embassy openings, then broke away for site visits to Khartoum, Addis Ababa and Asmara. I was scheduled for visits to Antananarivo, Kampala and Djibouti, but the Iraq war started when I got to Ethiopia and my boss directed me to return home.
We spent quite a bit of time back in the office on Khartoum. Early on the deputy director, John Sheely (a fabulous guy and a great boss, by the way. We were all lucky to have him as our immediate supervisor and mentor) directed me to organize a series of weekly meetings, cross-departmental, to come up with a strategy to restore full operations at Embassy Khartoum. Since an evacuation and shutdown in the 90’s, American Khartoum staff had been assigned to Nairobi and only made TDY visits to Khartoum, even though the local staff was still assigned. The situation worked very well for USAID, who was principally engaged in South Sudan (still part of Sudan at the time, though at war), a short flight from Nairobi.
During those weekly meetings, I managed to forge strong working relations with colleagues from DS (Diplomatic Security), from IRM (Information Resource Management, and from OBO (Office of Overseas Building Operations). The weekly meetings were always well attended, and I stayed late or came in early to draft and send out the meeting minutes and to-do items out to various offices the very next day. One of the weekly meetings was particularly rousing: we were coming close to closure on a way to restore unclassified and classified e-mail at the chancery. Thanks to ideas from AF IT and logistics guru Steve Deutsch, we had a number of excellent ways forward to consider. Nonetheless, organizational lines were crossing and tempers were flaring. I lost control of the meeting due to all the bickering and turf defending between and across the various groups. Suddenly, without warning, I slammed my hand on the conference room table and said, in a firm but convincing voice, “We, here, today, in this conference room, have to decide if Embassy Khartoum is going to be an embassy of the United States of America, or a hole in the wall.” The room got silent. You could have heard a pin drop. And slowly, cooler heads prevailed and we found a way forward that satisfied the requirements of DS, OBO, IRM and AF/EX. There is nothing like bureaucratic success, or, as a Quaker friend always says, “the truth is in the room; you just have to allow it to emerge.”
That fall of 2003 we moved to 18th and G so our suite could be renovated. It would be the first ever renovation of AF/EX since the building was built in the 50’s. My boss, Jamie Agnew, masterminded the project from start to finish. I really came to admire Jamie and I enjoyed working for her. She remains one of my all-time favorite bosses, and being a PMO in AF/EX remains my favorite all-time jobs. I got a lot done for my posts and I learned a lot about the inner workings of the State machine, especially HR, OIG, OBO, and the A Bureau, bureaus whose operations affect people at post the most.
A few days into my second trip to the region, Ops found me to let me know about a death in the family, my aunt, Rebecca Hairston. Aunt Beck stepped in and became our mother figure when my mother died in 1975, so she had served as a mother figure for a longer time than did my actual mother. I was in Asmara when the call came, but luckily there was a flight to Europe the very next day. I changed my itinerary and returned home.
The second year in AF/EX was the year of evacuations. Abidjan, Bangui, Kinshasa, and Nairobi kept us all very busy. The Nairobi evacuation went on for almost six months! We had never had an evacuation that lasted so long, and it created a number of complications for our office, for folks at post, for people assigned, and for people “caught out.” Through our efforts we got changes made to the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) after the Nairobi evacuation to better accommodate evacuated families and their choice of safehaven.
After the evacuation ended, we spent a lot of shoe leather on the Embassy Nairobi build-to-lease housing project, Rosalyn Ridge. OBO, Embassy Nairobi, and AF/EX were strong proponents. The AF Front Office was not on board, however. DS waivered. Ultimately, the project was approved and became the choice location for residential housing at Embassy Nairobi. It was a very busy and eventful second year. But we had a great crew! My fellow PMO’s, Henry Kaminski, Doug Brown, and Barbara Gates were all just super people. Our deputy director, John Sheely, gave us all the guidance we needed, and lots of encouragement. And we got great support from the folks in the budget shop, in HR, the IT guys, and the GSO shop. I look back with fondness on my time in AF/EX; it was an extremely productive time in my career. Again, I will always maintain that being a post management officer was my all-time favorite job at State!