The Consulate General | Chili Beans in Karachi

The American Consulate General | Late October 1977

I worked at the consulate of the highest rank, the American Consulate General in the largest city of Pakistan, the port city of Karachi. Consulate Generals normally served large cities in terms of bilateral relations with the United States (commerce, travel, etc.).

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My job at Am Consul Karachi was not to issue visas or improve bilateral relations. As a technician in the Regional Communications Office, I designed, repaired, implemented and operated two-way radio systems in support of forty-two American missions between Karachi and Athens, Greece. Why? Because terrorism was spreading across the Middle East like a wildfire. During these turbulent times the two-way handheld radio was a Foreign Service Officer’s lifeline to the mission.

The American Embassy was located in the north of Pakistan, in the capital city of Islamabad. It didn’t make sense to have the RCO Office up in Islamabad. Nearly all international air travel from Islamabad went through Karachi.

Am Consul Karachi—The Cone of Silence
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As was his tradition, RCO Roberson took all his new techs to the weekly Con Gen meeting on the top floor. The techs affectionately called the room “the cone of silence,” from the T.V. spy series, “Get Smart.” RF or microwave radiation could not penetrate inside and it could not be “bugged.” Robert introduced me around the large table where perhaps twenty officials sat. The Consulate General personally welcomed me to his post.

For the next hour and a half I listened to the issues put forth by the ECON, CRO, DAO, DEA, GSO, and other officials. Robert, in concert with the PSO, the Post Security Officer, reviewed the Con Gen radio and telephone status. The Public Affairs Officer reported that his residential radio did not reach the MSG, the Marine Security Guard, during the weekly radio check. I made note of it on my yellow legal pad. Robert nodded at me.

The Gunny Sargent, the leader of the marine guard detachment, glanced at Robert and me and asked about the status of the new mobile radio package for the Con Gen’s vehicle. Robert looked surprised. I said to the Gunny, “I’ll let you know the status by close-of business today.”

The Gunny nodded. Robert gave a wry smile.

When the meeting adjourned Robert reminded me to visit the PAO residence after lunch today to look at his residential radio. He added, almost as an after thought, “The Con Gen has invited you to lunch today at one p.m. A vehicle will take you to the residence.”

Lunch with the Consulate General

The same Pakistani driver who had taken me on the joy ride over the Clifton Bridge took me to lunch at the Con Gen’s residence. I had the company of an older lady named Sheila from U.S.I.A. She must be the replacement for the U.S.I.A. secretary who had contacted malaria a few weeks ago and had to be medevac’d back to the states.

U.S.I.A. stood for United States Information Agency, but other than that I knew little about it or Sheila. She knew all about me, though. After defining my role here she told me about a coworker in Ouagadougou, Upper Volta, in West Africa. The two-way radio had saved the woman’s life. The Marine Security Guard troops had responded to the woman’s call in time to ward off local bandits overtaking her villa.

The Con Gen’s resident was old and stately. He and his wife met us at the door and shook our hands. Sheila looked right at home in this situation. In the parlor we met three members of the Canadian Consulate who would join us for lunch. Although they held the highest positions there I sensed nothing uppity about them. The same held true for the Con Gen and his wife.

The Con Gen’s wife sat everyone at one end of a dining room table that spanned about the same length as the table in the cone-of-silence, but much more ornate. The thick glass top had been dropped into a carved teak wood frame with brass inlay.

I sat next to Sheila, whose five-course meal expression had come to grips with a lone, large soup bowl sitting on a plate before her. A single soupspoon was wrapped in luxurious linen. The woman who I believed was used to the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe and Washington D.C., absently turned down her lower lip. She probably had as little control over that action as with the selection of this, her latest assignment.

The Con Gen, a gentleman in his late thirties or early forties, gave Sheila and I a brief welcome along with good luck on our new assignments. He promised that there was much more than meets the eye in Karachi, but I don’t think Sheila bought into it.

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I had been expecting more Pakistani cuisine. Imagine my surprise (and delight!) when the servant ladled a huge scoop of home made chili and beans in my bowl. Two cisterns of steamed rice were place strategically on the table, followed by bowls of grated cheddar cheese, diced green onions, sour cream, and saltine crackers. Tall glasses of iced tea completed the perfect lunch.

When the Con Gen unraveled his linen napkin it caused a chain reaction counterclockwise around the table. Except for Sheila. She paused before unfolding the napkin the proper way.

I loved chili and to prove it I cracked a handful of crackers over it.

The silence that ensued was deafening. My fellow luncheoneers paused. Sheila raised her eyes at my apparent faux pas.

The Con Gen smiled. As he broke crackers over his chili he said, “There’s a man who knows how to eat chili.”

The Canadians crushed crackers over their chili, too. It helped relieve my embarrassment, but I said, “Sir, can I ask where you got the pinto beans?”

He glanced at his wife, smiled, and said, almost apologetically, “Our air freight allowance included twenty pounds of chili ingredients.”

The Con Gen rambled on about his family recipe from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Out of nowhere I imagined one of the OC Bandits, my cohort Gil, from our Northern Virginia office sitting across from me. Gil, who had gastro-intestinal problems, would react to chili like an engine backfiring.

My brief chuckle erupted at the end of the Con Gen’s story. After swallowing a large spoonful he gazed at me and said, “Do you have a chili tale to tell?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I was thinking… about my mom. She too made great chili, in a large pot on the stove. But she worried about our dog, Sam.”

Everyone copied the Con Gen’s quizzical look, even Sheila.

“There were six of us in the family. My older brother would routinely eat three bowls of chili. We would consume an entire box of saltine crackers.”

Sheila, who obviously came from a small family, saw us as over indulgent. Except for her, I witnessed a glimmer of empathy around the table.

“Mom would always scrape the bottom of the pot before our chili supper ended. But, her pride always gave way to a short frown…”

I borrowed from a chapter out of my mentor Norm Bates’s “war story” playbook as I left them on the precipice while I took a sip of iced tea.

“You see, there were never any leftovers for the dog…”

My chili anecdote caused quiet smiles around the table. The Con Gen offered me a sincere and understanding nod that I wouldn’t soon forget.

After lunch the vehicle was eerily quiet as the driver returned to the Con Gen to drop off the mysterious Sheila. Could she be CIA? Al said they had a presence on the top floor.

Before she shut the car door Sheila gazed at me and said, “I’m sure I’ll run into you on the road.”


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