Foreign Service Appointment | An Accident Waiting to Happen?

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On a Saturday morning in September of 1976, an official letter arrived at my parent’s house in Southern California. I was staying the weekend and answered the door. The mailman handed me the envelope. The old guy (he was well over forty) had been delivering to our mailbox for years. I had waved to him occasionally but had never talked to him…

A Letter of Importance

“U.S. Department of State,” huh. “Must be important,” the mailman said.

“Yeah, I’m applying for a job,” I replied. “In the Foreign Service.”

“The Foreign Service? Wow, you must be a smart guy.”

It had been an accident ready to happen. “Just lucky.”

He frowned. “My son worked for Uncle Sam… in Viet Nam…”

“What’s he doing now?”

He gazed at me solemnly and said, “Billy didn’t make it back.”

“I’m sorry sir,” I said.

“It’s been eight years… we lost him during the Tet Offensive, near Da Lat. We’ll never forget.”

I reached my hand out. We shook hands and exchanged names. The summer after high school graduation I had studied Viet Nam. The Tet Offensive consisted of several battles beginning in January of 1968. One of the largest campaigns of the war, it scarred the U.S. forces.

“Your son must have been a brave guy.”

“Yeah, he was,” the mailman said as he turned to continue on his route.

He stopped and turned halfway down our walkway. “If you get that job in the Foreign Service, you make sure and do right by your country.”

“I will, sir.”

Instead of ripping the Department of State envelope I borrowed mom’s scissors and carefully cut a slit in the end of it. The contents slid out easily.

The U.S. State Department Requests Your Presence…

From the Office of Communications/Personnel, it simply stated that as a result of a recent security clearance my presence was requested at the U.S. Department of State in Washington D.C. two weeks from yesterday. A travel order was included. My travel costs would be paid by State Department per diem rates.

The State Department’s travel authorization to fly to Washington, D.C. gave me wings. I landed at National Airport in Virginia and took a taxi across the Potomac River on the Arlington Memorial Bridge right past the Lincoln Memorial and The Mall.

The monuments of Washington D.C. in and around The Mall, like the Parthenon at Athens, couldn’t have been build by mere mortals. Surely Zeus authorized travel expenses and per diem for his Olympian construction minions to perform these miracles of architecture wonder.

OC Personnel put me up at a downtown District of Columbia hotel. After checking in, I changed into my one-and-only suit. The bellhop instructed me on the short bus ride to the State Department.

The U.S. State Department, though on the fringes of the Mall, and less pretentious, would stand for centuries. Outside the fabled building that managed all the American embassies, consulates—U.S. missions worldwide—I took a big breath. This was for real.

Inside, I was met by a veteran Foreign Service Officer named Glen M. We shook hands. As we walked along the lobby I noticed a plaque on the wall. I read the inscription:

Erected by the American Foreign Service Association in honor of those Americans who have lost their lives abroad under heroic or other inspirational circumstances while serving the country abroad in foreign affairs.

Warning! Travel at your own risk!

About thirty minutes later, somewhere in the bowels of the State Department in D.C., veteran Foreign Service Officer Glen M. gazed at me with serious intent. This must be the moment when he was going to bombard me with technical questions about radio theory.

“You may be asked to travel into some dangerous areas,” he said. “You sure you’re up for that?”

The thought of George Kennedy’s Dragline character brought a smile (like Cool Hand Luke, play by Paul Newman, had just consumed fifty hard boiled eggs on a bet). “Yes sir, my military experience in Asmara, Ethiopia prepared me for such situations. The shifta terrorists were quite active during my tour of duty.”

Glen M. asked me a few questions about my current job as he perused my resume. I answered honestly that my current job was great, but I wanted to see more of the world. He said, “You’ve worked on VHF/ UHF two-way and Microwave radio. OC is looking for technical people who’ll cover the whole nine yards—repair, installation, implementation and management. It’s actually OC/PE: Office of Communications/Programs Engineering.”

My feeling all along had been that an appointment in the Foreign Service was an accident ready to happen. I said I was okay with that and gave him a few examples of my past experiences.

After a long pause he lifted my resume and ran a finger down another page on the clipboard. “I’m going to concur with your appointment. You’ll swear in during the latter part of October. We’ll mail your official letter and personnel notification.”

His abruptness stunned me. The outstretched hand was a confirmation. Our handshake was short but hard, the military way.

At a nearby bar George Kennedy’s smile formed in the golden glow of my raised glass of Pilsner beer. With the help of his spirit—and our mailman’s faith in America—my accident ready to happen–had happened!

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