Late October 1977
Prior to leaving SECSTATE in Washington D.C. to Pakistan, I had attended a mandatory “in-country” security briefing, and an anti-terrorism symposium. The experts had stressed that Foreign Service Officers abroad should always change daily routes—never repeat. They instructed how to recognize when you’re being followed and what actions to take
<feature photo by tribune.com.pk
“Beware of your surroundings at all times,” was the expression voiced often at the seminar. They recommended that Foreign Service Officers learn the regional language (the Pakistanis spoke Urdu). After a guest speaker had discussed the Pakistani culture and the Islamic religion I felt like I had a basic understanding. But, not once did I hear that fateful word, “Inshallah…”
The Clifton Bridge in Karachi | Inshallah
As the Con Gen vehicle sped up the ramp way to cross the bridge I realized Clifton, in the Southern part of Karachi, was a kind of island. To get from my apartment to the American Consulate general I would have to cross the Clifton Bridge daily (so much for never taking the same route).
When the Pakistani driver failed to lower his speed up the bridge, my warning sign lit. As he neared the top of the single lane two-way thoroughfare, my red flag went up.
Suddenly, a vehicle appeared over the top of the bridge. In our lane, he rushed at us at high speed.
My driver jumped on the brakes.
In the rear seat, I glanced behind. Fortunately, at this time of day no one sped behind us. Otherwise we might have gotten smacked in the rear end.
We were a sitting duck, though. The oncoming vehicle’s excessive speed didn’t allow him sufficient time to stop.
At the last moment the oncoming vehicle somehow returned to his lane. He veered in between two vehicles on the opposite side of the thoroughfare.
I continued breathing.
My driver muttered, “Inshallah” as he glanced at the rear view and swiveled his head at my questioning gaze. I would later learn that Inshallah meant, “Allah wills it,” and would be the standard reply from witnesses after Pakistanis drivers would lose their lives atop the Clifton Bridge.
“Inshallah” would form the basis of my first Middle East lesson: avoid being put in circumstances where my fate was dependent on the action and behavior of local nationals… In this case I should have demanded that my driver slow down when he got on the bridge.
The American Consulate General Karachi
The American Consulate General was near the Karachi Marriott Hotel, also on Abdullaha Haroon Road. The driver pulled into the long four-story structure shaped like a shoebox. He let me out at the rear entrance.
I walked into the Con Gen and showed the Marine Security Guard, the MSG, my black passport. The MSG were a special U.S. Marine detachment whose sole responsibility was to protect American personnel at U.S. missions worldwide.
I told the Corporal behind the bulletproof glass booth that I would be working in the RCO office on the third floor. He called the RCO upstairs. They were expecting me.
The Admin Secretary named Billie Joe Cooper met me at the elevator. She told me that RCO Robert P. Roberson wanted to talk to me first. By the time we arrived at the RCO office not fifty steps down the hall I had discovered that Billie Jean, a Texan, had known LBJ in her younger years. Karachi would be her last Foreign Service posting as she would be retiring to New Mexico. This had been her third assignment working for RCO Roberson. She too had a fondness for the RCO’s favorite, American bourbon. I said I only drank beer and an occasional wine.
RCO Roberson shook my hand and asked me if I had gotten situated at the Clifton apartment. I replied that the accommodations were fine. Roberson (I wasn’t sure how to address him) oversaw the radio, telephone, and crypto groups, a total of six techs. The offices were located adjacent to each other on this floor across from the RCO office. Roberson gave me a thirty-minute introduction to the region. He emphasized that financing was a juggling act and that I would need approval from him regarding any procurements. I did a lot of nodding and agreeing. At the end of his spiel he dressed me down and said, “You’ve got your work cut out here.” His mannerism spoke, “I hope you’ve got it in you.”
There was no doubt that Roberson possessed savior faire (I bet he could tell a heck of a war story). Robert, “Bob” (as he was called by Billie Joe), looked to be in his late fifties. Thinning orange red hair topped a long face that seemed permanently red. His beige suit had succumbed to the tropics. It wasn’t wrinkled, it was experienced, a fitting ensemble for the veteran Foreign Service Officer.
Roberson gazed at me sideways. “Al has been by himself in the radio shop for about a year. Like you, he’s new to the Foreign Service. He’s had a tough learning curve. We really need your help.”
It sounded like Al was halfway through a prison sentence. I told Roberson I’d do the best I could. The RCO, who had a French accent that seemed to slur some of his dialogue, was cordial in a business manner. It was clear to me we wouldn’t be socializing together other than office activities.
“If there are any problems, if there’s anything you need, let B.J. and I know about it.”
B.J. was short for Billie Jean. I concurred and with that the RCO gave me the nickel tour of the facilities. The main door leading into the tech offices had a cypher lock on it. Roberson showed me the code as he clicked four buttons.
“Got it?” he asked.
It was my birthday year. “Roger,” I replied.
He introduced me to the telephone and crypto techs. We made small talk for a few minutes before he handed me off to Al in the radio room. Before leaving Roberson said we’d all go to lunch at one p.m.
Al, a tall, lanky guy losing his hair in his late twenties/early thirties, told me he was living in the apartment two floors below me at the Clifton Arms. He had brought his Thai girlfriend with him to this assignment. We talked until lunchtime. Al was really snowed under. Radio equipment lie scattered on the floor in need of repair. Field trips were backlogged. The radio shop needed good old fashioned elbow grease.
If Al and I couldn’t work together we were doomed…
The RCO office took me out for chicken tikka as promised. It was a hole in the wall not far from the Con Gen. Robert, BJ, my co-worker Al, telephone lead Joe and the crypto tech lead, a black man named Ulysses, accompanied us. The spicy barbecued chicken served with a crispy flatbread called chapatis was okay. Our leader raved about it. Like the Brits of yore, Robert seemed to have a genuine fondness for this part of the world. I remained noncommittal.
Robert entertained us with a war story about his experience at the private Pakistani club he belonged to not far from the Con Gen. The guy was really good. At SECSTATE I had heard Roberson’s resume, about how he starting his career in the mailroom at Am Embassy Paris (before radio was invented).
BJ asked if I had gotten my shots, especially for malaria. After I replied in the affirmative, she went on about a USIS secretary who contacted malaria a few weeks ago and had to be medevac’d back to the states.
As BJ handed me a vial of diarrhea pills she wore a smile so sad it made me feel lonely.
When we got returned to the radio room I asked Al what he thought of “this place.” He chuckled, not in a positive way, as if to say, “You’ll see.”
I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d be spending a lot of time on the road…