An Alternative Foreign Service Orientation

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photo by hotel-dir.com

Our tech supervisor Norm Bates, a Foreign Service veteran notified me that I would accompany him on a road trip to Philadelphia and Boston. Little did I know the trip would be an alternative Foreign Service “orientation.” Bates (whose last name wasn’t Bates) had serious goiter problems that were exacerbated by his beer drinking. Nevertheless, Norm bit the bullet and heeded his responsibilities.

With the Help of Idi Amin and Paul Revere

After work, Norm Bates took me to the seediest bar he could find in the back alleys of Philly, most of which were not frequented by Caucasians. Norm’s ability to bullshit kept us out of trouble. He wowed the locals with his story about getting drunk with Idi Amin before the brute became president of Uganda back in 1971. I didn’t think any of the bar flies even knew who the tyrant Amin was, but with Bates’ inebriated oratorical pontifications that became a moot point.

In Boston I followed Norm across the rooftops of tall buildings. His lesson one was to never walk backwards on a rooftop. “Yeah, you just might have replaced a tech we had in Abidjan, West Africa,” Norm said. “He was doing an antenna survey on a twenty-story building with no protection along the edge. He walked backwards right over the edge to his death.”

Bates instructed me how to maintain RCA’s sophisticated voting receiver radio system used by the S.Y. agents who had offices in the JFK Federal building. We stayed at an ancient hotel where the doormen, I suppose, were dressed like Paul Revere. Later, in the spiffy bar, Norm the history buff told everyone within listening range that Revere’s real name was Apollo Rivoire and he wasn’t even American—he was French. When Norm coiled up and boasted that Revere had sixteen kids by two wives, it raised some eyebrows. “No wonder Paul Revere was riding around at midnight on a horse,” Norm said with gusto. “He was probably trying to get away from all those screaming kids.”

Afterwards, Norm told the rest of the story, praising Paul Revere. The locals appreciated Revere’s reprieve before we set off for a baseball game at Fenway Park to warn the Red Sox that the dangerous New York Yankees had invaded Boston. An L.A. Dodger fan; still, I was in baseball heaven.

Norm Bates’s 60/40 Ratio

One night in the hotel bar Norm B. fought off his goiter problem with another beer and gave me a serious glance before he confessed that knowledge and technical ability made up at best about 60% of one’s job performance in the Foreign Service overseas. I didn’t question how Norm arrived at this figure, but in this stage of my Foreign Service career Norm was a sage. Truthfully, I didn’t fully grasp what Norm meant by the 60/40 ratio until my first posting at the American Consulate General Karachi a year later (more to come).

Looking back, my alternative Foreign Service orientation was another step to an overseas posting. None of the “OC Bandits” were fully prepared for our Foreign Service assignments that lie ahead. I didn’t realize it at the time but the ability to tell a good “war story” was a valuable element of the 60/40 rule. A.K.A. “Bullshit-ability, the skill came naturally for OC Bandits Zoom-Zoom, Playboy Byron, New Jersey John, and our fearless leader, Norm Bates. I needed to work on it. What about our real combatant, international terrorism? It was like heart disease; we were too young to get struck by it, but some of us would find out later that terrorism knew no age limitations.

Footnote: Updated goal at FOREIGN SERVICE MESSAGES

My goal is to chronicle the mishaps, Atta boys, close calls, and the everyday bullshit that mostly fall within the 40% part of Norm Bates’s 60/40 ratio. During my tenure, I would discover the Foreign Service family to be dysfunctional but caring, slightly alcoholic, but sobering in nature, and serious in a comical way (much more to come). This conduct, I believe, is somewhat applicable to the behavior of military personnel and globetrotting field engineers who have possibly experienced too many assignments overseas.

Stay tuned as I fall down, pick myself up, say the wrong thing, come up with a great one-liner, break the rules, draw the red line, and learn how to shave in the dark on my way to becoming a Foreign Service Officer…

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