Someone said that the strength of the Foreign Service are its people. They come from all walks of life. Most follow the traditional path: a university degree with a major in political science, economics, and the like.
To prepare for a Foreign Service career they might become an intern in Washington D.C. They might contact their congressmen for help to gain entry. The have at least one foreign language that they speak fluently. They score well on the Foreign Service Entrance Exam. They appear well prepared, especially if assigned to Am Embassy Paris or similar “civilized” places. But, in third world countries they lack “street smarts,” (the 40% part of Norm Bates’s 60/40 hypothesis–see tags).
<feature photo by keywordsuggest.org
The OC Bandits didn’t necessarily have a college degree, but scored an A+ when it came to the 40% part of Bates’s 60/40 hypothesis, aka “street smarts.” One word clearly and succinctly described the bandits: audacity.
When I think of the OC Bandits one member stands out when it comes to “street smarts.” Martin V., aka Zoom Zoom (named by the OC Bandits), had created his own category of Foreign Service Officer: part technician, part secret agent… and pure audacity.
We hired on at about the same time. I liked Martin, but at the same time felt apprehension when around him. I later figured out that at his age—somewhere in the mid to late thirties—Martin had experienced more in life than I had. He laughed when he had taken me to a Vietnamese restaurant and discovered that I had no clue about nước mắm (Vietnamese fish sauce). He lowered his head when I confessed that I didn’t know the ingredients of a “Black Russian.”
From day one Martin played his Foreign Service gig to the max. He referred to himself as Special Agent Martin V. instead of an OC radio tech. His audacity astonished me and initially brought on ill will from some of the OC Bandits. This surprised me given that Zoom Zoom (a moniker never addressed to his face) exhibited traits that the bandits strove for—stealth, bullshit-ability, raw humor, and an urge to beat the system.
As previously mentioned, while the OC Bandits would hunt for metered parking spots outside the Department of State, Martin would boldly steer his Ford sedan into the underground DOS parking lot. He’d get out and toss the keys to an attendant, who with a begrudged gaze would nevertheless park it for him. Martin would claim, “The sign says Valet Service.”
I don’t know how he pulled it off. Did he pay off the parking attendants? Sheer audacity? The tacit understanding among State Department employees obliged that this valet service offered its eligibility only to high-level DOS officials.
Parking tickets were mere nuisances for Martin V. He would take up the issue with the police station or traffic office, claiming he had been on official business for the U.S. government. When the police asked what kind of official business he would pull out his black diplomatic passport and say, “It’s classified.” Martin would always get the ticket thrown out.
Keeping up with the Thin Man
I’m a big fan of classic black and white movies. Martin held a striking resemblance to old time Hollywood actor, William Powell who played the “Thin Man,” the main character in a series of movies in the 1930’s and ‘40’s about a high society private investigator with loads of panache. When Martin worked S.Y. protective details he wore a suit and sunglasses. He chatted with the S.Y. agents through the two-way radio in his inside jacket pocket connected to a surveillance kit, a hidden microphone and earpiece.
Over the grapevine. I heard the agents got a kick out of Zoom Zoom’s antics, but admitted he did good work. Martin wanted to carry a firearm, a Glock, too. The agents laughed it off. They never voiced any complaints. On the contrary, an S.Y. story circulated on how Martin had climbed an old rusted water tower outside Atlanta in the rain to pass on information between agents when the radio repeater went down (he could have gotten torched by lightning).
Although the OC Bandits at first didn’t accept Zoom Zoom, I got along with him okay. Perhaps that’s why the two of us were paired for a two-week training class at RCA Communications in Washington, Pennsylvania during my first winter. Upon arrival, he invited me to his hotel room where he opened his toolbox. My jaw dropped. He had converted it to a mini bar stocked with those small bottles that they serve on airlines. Martin showed me his business card—“Special Agent Martin V., U.S. Department of State.” I was impressed.
Martin had a way of looking at you, head tilted, with one eye open and the other nearly shut. I felt like I had unknowingly revealed the final part of a secret code. At first I thought he might be blind in one eye. But I vaguely remember one night in a bar between Washington, PA and Pittsburg when Martin ran the pool table on a couple of locals. This was after he had continually knocked the cue ball into the pockets. While the two bruising locals coughed up ten bucks and muttered their complaints, I snuck out to the parking lot to start up the car engine. We laughed all the way back to Washington (PA).
One evening at our hotel—the Holiday Inn—I overheard Martin at the bar trying to entice some girls into letting him photograph them (he had brought a nice SLR camera along). In class, Martin drank more coffee than I thought humanly possible. After lunch he liked to challenge the instructors on technical issues. By five p.m. he was ready to “zoom.”
Reunion at Am Embassy Nairobi
A few years later I ran into Martin V. at Am Embassy Nairobi during a conference. He had remained with OC/PE Programs in D.C. instead of going on assignment. He appeared more dignified with a tinge of gray hair on his sideburns. I think he had lost the Zoom Zoom moniker by that time and had forged a solid reputation at SECSTATE. Meeting Martin V. again made me realize that I had become less judgmental about people since coming on board with OC/PE. In an odd way Zoom Zoom had taught me a lesson about people being different because of their experiences. Ironically, I might be that person now that had intimidated me a few years before…
I smiled when I recounted Martin’s past antics. Deep down I harbored some envy for Zoom Zoom. Maybe once I fully comprehended Norm Bates’s 60/40 hypothesis I, too, would be… well, more audacious…