My Foreign Service beginnings commenced on a Monday morning. My first day on the job with the State Department I zoomed down the I-395 from my Arlington motel to Springfield. When I saw a Denny’s off to the right I stopped for a “Grand Slam” that the restaurant chain had been advertising since my arrival in Northern Virginia four days ago. I lost a battle with a bottle of Heinz Ketchup, spilling the red ooze on my white dress shirt.
The Office of Communications, OC’s Springfield technical depot, occupied unassuming buildings that housed the three technical branches—Radio, Telephone, and Crypto Teletype. FYI: Crypto had nothing to do with Superman…
<feature photo by hotrod.com
My initial contact with OC/Radio began on an ominous note. On the inside of the door leading into the radio room someone had stuck up a sign that read, TOP SECRET EXPERIMENTS! LAB RATS NEEDED!
I had worn my one-and-only suit. Bloodstains smeared the shirt collar after I sliced my neck shaving. The ketchup only exacerbated the situation. The OC/Radio crew—about half a half dozen guys dressed in jeans and T-shirts—eyed me like an Internal Revenue Service agent had surprised them at work.
Note: the OC/Radio crew’s names have been change to protect the innocent (and the guilty).
“Somebody must have gotten in a fight over a Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast,” a guy called out. Unlike the others, he wore slacks and an old cardigan sweater over an old Oxford shirt. I had already had him pegged when he introduced himself as Norm, the tech lead.
Was this guy clairvoyant? How’d he know I ate the Grand Slam at Denny’s? “I cut myself eating… I mean shaving.”
Norm walked me along the two long bench areas strewn with electronic test gear. He introduced me to a fellow technician named Lance who said, “Oh, fuck… Norm, they sent my radio repeater to Prague instead of Paris.” Lance turned to me and said, “Nice to meet you… Can’t those guys spell?”
As if I had the answer. We shook hands. Lance, who resembled George Harrison (with the same hair), shook his head and added, “What the hell are those clowns at the OC mail room doing, anyway?”
Norm wore this permanent expression like the building had collapsed and he alone held up the girder that separated life and death for those around him. His demeanor certainly answered Lance’s question.
Marking my Territory
The first few weeks on the job required some adjustment. I shed my suit and tie in favor of jeans and knit shirts. Norm told me that although shop attire was casual, I should wear slacks and a tie on business trips. He also said I needed to be patient (not a word to be bandied about at OC/R) if I wanted to get assigned in the Foreign Service at a mission abroad. A few techs had already been here and quit during the past six months.
I staked out an empty position at one of the benches and worked patiently at repairing radios for those in need overseas. Lance and a tech named John cranked out radio repairs at a pretty good clip. I went to one of them, or Norm, when I had a problem.
Most of the dozen or so radio techs, like myself, were single, eager for adventure… and perhaps, a little whacky. Spurred by the enormously popular movie Smokey and the Bandit, like me they wore mustaches, and imagined driving Burt Reynolds’s Pontiac Trans Am featured in the movie, which I hadn’t seen.
One day after work fellow tech Byron challenged me to a road race down the I-495 toward Alexandria (his old Pontiac—no Trans Am—easily left my old Fiat in the dust). He put me in touch with a telephone tech at the Landmark Oakwood Apartments. Edgar had signed a six months lease. We agreed to split everything and I moved in the two bedroom furnished apartment the next day. Sadly, about three months later my roommate had to pack his bags. OC found out that Edgar had lied on his medical record. He had been receiving treatment for leukemia in Arizona prior to coming on board with OC.
Smokey and the OC Bandits
On a Friday night after work, the OC/Radio gang (minus OC/R leadership) invaded a Springfield theatre to watch Smokey and the Bandit. On the far left, Playboy Byron tried to put the make on a blond in the seat in front of him. On the far right, retired Air Force tech Dunleavy (he gave no first name), sulked at the disrespect being given to “Smokey” and our nation’s law enforcement agencies. In between, sat four other techs, including me, who howled with laughter at Sheriff Buford T. Justice’s antics. I thought we were going to be asked to leave by the management.
Afterwards at a bar (nourished by three beers), the radio crew crystalized in my mind as the OC Bandits. A new chapter had entered my Foreign service beginnings. Our manager, Kevin, already nicknamed “the Leprechaun,” (who rarely came out of his office) reminded of Little Enos played by Paul Williams in the Smokey and the Bandit movie. Kevin, who often used the phrase, “You can’t do that,” was generally disliked. Our leader Norm Bates, a family man, although pretty low key, sufficed as the Burt Reynolds “Bandit” character. It wasn’t clear why the OC Bandits bestowed that particular fictitious surname of Bates on Normal. He was no psycho.
Ron, another Foreign Service veteran working in OC/PE Programs, visited the radio shop frequently. One day Norm Bates said, “I gotta stop chewing on those Tootsie Pops,” when complaining about a toothache. Ron called out, “That’s what she said,” his standard response to any offhand comment. Ron immediately became a solid candidate for Bandit’s partner, Cledus “Snowman” Snow from the movie. I gave him an A- for war stories, too.
To follow through with the “Smokey & the Bandit” characterizations, “Smokey” would be represented by the threat of international terrorism that lingered on the horizon. Smokey and the OC Bandits would play major roles in upcoming messages…