The Send Off | Haitian War Story

In October of 1977, the “OC Bandits” (inspired by the movie “Smokey and the Bandits”) gave me a send off regarding my impending assignment at Am Consul Karachi, Pakistan. The radio group chose the pizza restaurant near Springfield, Virginia to allow our boss Norm Bates to call his wife when his gout flared up. I could make a graph over the last twelve months depicting Norm’s beer consumption versus the time of his wife’s pickups.

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Norm ordered four large pitchers of beer and two large pizzas. I wondered if during his younger years (Norm had been a Navy man) had he been so guarded, with such need to be in control? Was that a byproduct of the Foreign Service?

We were technicians. Before the beer loosened everyone up, we engaged in shoptalk. Norm Bates accepted New Jersey John’s challenge on why Norm thought that G.E. had a superior line of two-way radio equipment over RCA. After an hour of discussing signal-to-noise ratios and comparing receiver sensitivity, Bates said, “It all comes down to reliability. G.E. wins hands down.”

Norm Bates’ Haitian War Story
Port-au-Prince, Haiti photo by

Bates, who instinctively took over conversation of his peers, got no argument. He transitioned into a war story from his mysterious trip to the voodoo capital of the world—Port Au Prince, Haiti.

“SY  (Department of State Security) Agent Leslie Albright helped me install an RCA radio repeater atop a rusted out water tower along a main road in Port au Prince. We paid a Haitian guy (and his wife and kid) to stay up on the tower and watch over the portable generator. The weather report called for rain. I gave the family ponchos. The detail lasted thirty-six hours. The repeater was crucial. Afterwards, I brought the family a leftover pizza from the SY wrap. I gave the guy a bonus equivalent to three months Haitian salary.”

We all wondered: Why the big bonus to the Haitian? New Jersey John, with pizza in hand and furrowed brow, cut-in, “Was your SY detail last June?”

“Yeah,” Norm said.

Jersey John tilted his head. “I was involved in Secretary Vance’s visits to Grenada and Trinidad & Tobago. I don’t remember the secretary visiting Haiti.”

Norm smiled. “I wasn’t there to support Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.”

Everyone’s head rose. New Jersey John said, “Who was it then?”

Norm squinted, like when the weight on his shoulders had grown too heavy (or was it the gout?). “I’m not at liberty to say.”

That initiated a series of shits and grins.

Then Gil farted.

“Jesus, Gil,” Playboy Byron said. “You sure know how to spoil a war story.”

The retired U.S. Army tech from New York, shrugged in self-defense and said, “You guys are well aware that I’ve got a gastro intestinal problem,” like it was from a written statement.

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Norm, the trooper, forged on, “Yeah,” he said to himself, “when you got thirsty for a drink in West Africa you’d search for a Coca-Cola sign.  Haiti was no different; Les and I found the Coca-Cola sign in Port-au-Prince. Not only that but they had a local beer just introduced last year, believe-it-or-not called Prestige.”

He shook his head. “Nothing in Port-au-Prince is prestigious.”

A cold Prestige beer on the southern Hatian coast near Port Salut.
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Quiet chuckles.

He continued, “I held the bottle up to the dim light and couldn’t find any foreign particles in it. That’s a good sign.”

He nodded his head, accompanied by a far off gaze, for a long few seconds. The OC Bandits were by now used to Norm’s gazes. Our leader suddenly winced (the revenge of the gout?).

“We sat at this homemade bench underneath a rusty tin roof,” Norm said. “Les and I knocked off three or four beers along with rice and beans they offered us. It reminded me of West Africa except the Haitians seemed more curious.”

Norm leaned in close to the table and gathered all eyes. “It began raining like hell… The deluge pounded so hard on the tin roof that we couldn’t hear each other. Les was trying to tell me something…”

Norm’s cartoon wide-open eyes accentuated the pause.

“So Les vomits all over his plate of rice and beans… Then he tries to get up, but stumbles off the porch.”

Bates pleaded to us with sunken shoulders and raised palms. “It all happened so fast…”

Norm took a sip of beer and counted the cracks in the ceiling before proceeding.

“Les landed in a pool of running water… A river rushed along below where before I saw only a footpath… The raging water carried Les with it…”

The OC Bandits gazed on, stunned.

“By the time I got up Les had been swept down stream… Until…”

He caught a breath of air.

“Two Haitians working at the bar dove into the water. They grabbed Les. I went down and helped them fish him out.”

When Norm told a war story he liked to pause near the end with jaw agape and expression of wonder.

“I glanced over at our rental sedan. It was under two feet of water. I pulled out the two-way and called the SY Agent-in-Charge. Two agents arrived in a Chevy Tahoe within twenty minutes. We rushed Les to the local hospital… SY had to medivac the guy back to the States the next day.”

Heads bowed in funereal respect. Someone asked if Les pulled through.

“Yeah, I saw him a few weeks ago at SECSTATE (the Department of State). He fully recovered.”

Norm quietly rose and said, “SY bought the Haitian bar a new refrigerator out of their budget for the two guys who fished Les out.”

He started to head to the pay phone, but stopped. Norm glanced at Gil and said, “The diagnosis was some kind of intestinal virus.”

Gil wore an expression as if he had knowledge of such afflictions (we were thankful that he didn’t fart on such a solemn note).

During Norm’s short absence the group pondered Norm’s message from the war story.

Zoom Zoom, our secret agent tech chuckled and said, “Shit, I thought Norm was going to wow us with a voodoo story.”

Playboy Byron added, “Stay away from the rice and beans.”

Jersey John ignored their remarks. “That Haitian guy and his family deserved a medal for staying up on the tower during the storm.”

I understood John’s comment. If Norm hadn’t hired the Haitian family to look after the radio repeater on the rusty tower, then the repeater might have gone off the air during the deluge. Norm wouldn’t have been able to call the agent-in-charge, and Agent Leslie might not have survived the ordeal.

After Norm returned from calling his wife to pick him up the veteran Foreign Service Officer gave me a short “good luck on your Karachi assignment” in front of the other “new guys.” I thanked him and asked everyone to keep in touch.

We all knew that sooner or later we would meet at an international airport, an American embassy, or under some rusted out Coca-Cola sign in a third world country.

The question was: How much would we have changed by then?

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