American Embassy Cairo | The Many Shades of Beige

Early November 1977

Bill the crypto tech was a breath of fresh air within Am Embassy Cairo’s clouded atmosphere. He took me to lunch at the very small embassy café that out of necessity featured outdoor seating. I had “The Special,” some kind of kebabs with a salad and hummus. It wasn’t bad.

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With a hamburger at his chin Bill said, “Where are you staying?”

I had forgotten all about it. “A guesthouse across the street.”

“I’ll get somebody to take your luggage over if you like.”

“I’d appreciate the help,” I said.

CRO Holman showed up as promised and heaped praise on me for the repair job on the ambassador’s vehicle radio. I didn’t deserve the accolade (but, I didn’t resist it). Holman ordered the special, too. We discussed the Cairo radio program. Holman said the major beef was that some key personnel couldn’t reach the MSG (Marine Security Guard) at the Chancery from their residences during weekly radio tests. He handed me a map with the areas circled. I asked him about the VHF radio survey performed by RCL Communications earlier this year. He said he didn’t know anything about it, which I found odd. The test results could be an important tool in solving radio coverage problems in Cairo.

After my drive test in the ambassador’s vehicle this morning I was convinced that radio coverage should have extended further. I told Holman I needed access to the VHF base station at the chancery and the antenna on the roof this afternoon. He seemed taken back by my initiative. Bill smiled.

Holman treated me for the lunch. Afterwards, he took me to the chancery and introduced me to the MSG Gunnery Sargent (Gunny) who would arrange access to the roof. A brief test of the G.E. base station radio had isolated a problem to either the coaxial transmission cable or the rooftop VHF antenna.

VHF antenna photo by global

Up on the roof, the twenty-some foot long VHF Omni-directional antenna had been mounted on a ten foot three inch diameter steel pole. If the antenna was defective then I had a major problem. It would require a crane to replace it.

Using my handheld radio I instructed the Gunny downstairs at the MSG in the chancery to cease transmission on the base station until I gave the “all clear.” My life was literally in his hands. If one of the MSG personnel keyed up the base station it could fry my hands and other vital organs.

It took five minutes to unravel the mushy black tape that had been haphazardly wrapped around the RF connector attached to the VHF antenna. I unscrewed the connector and reattached it to a Bird Wattmeter with an RF dummy load that simulated a perfect antenna load.

“Sheriff (call-sign for the Gunny), this is Visitor One, over.”

“Roger, Visitor, go ahead.”

“Please key the device now for about ten seconds.”

“Visitor, this is Sheriff. I copied your request to key the device now for ten seconds.”

“Roger, that’s an affirmative.”

Wattmeter photo by chuck

The Bird Wattmeter/Antenna Load indicated the same problem without the antenna connected. I sighed a relief as I wiggled the cable where it connected to the test device. Sure enough, the reflected power on the meter fluctuated—a bad connector.

“Sheriff, this is Visitor. I will need thirty minutes to replace a connector up here. The base station will be inoperable during the thirty minutes. Can I do this now?”

“Visitor, this is Sheriff. Please wait.”


The Khamsin

I looked up and saw a blanket of beige against the blue sky due west of me. It kind of reminded me of the Southern California beach area in the afternoon when the marine layer would roll in and everything turned dark. But, instead of water in the air it was sand.

“Visitor, this is Sheriff. Be advised there is a Khamsin—a sandstorm—headed toward the city. Request you install connector soonest.”

I caught the urgent tone of the Gunny’s voice.

Behind me a voice called out, “What are you doing up here?”

I turned around. The Phantom, Regional Security Officer Childress, stood above me with arms folded like the principal who had caught the student smoking in the toilet.

“Sheriff,” I barked into the handheld radio, “please ensure none of the personnel keys the device until I give the okay.”

“Roger, Visitor. Thirty minutes max.”

Roger that.”

RF connector photo by radio

I nodded to RSO Childress and while eyeing the approaching Khamsin I held up the defective connector and said, “I’ve got to replace this before that arrives.”

Childress gazed at the beige blanket unfolding on the westward horizon.

“Can you help me out and drag that electric extension cable over here?”

I opened my tool case while Childress retrieved the extension cord.

The soldering iron would take a few minutes to get hot. I pulled out a new RF connector.

“Oh, shit,” I said.

The wind velocity had increased.

“Can I do anything?” Childress said.

“I saw an old table laid out near the hatch where we came up. Could you bring it over here?”

RSO Childress, energized with a sense of urgency, raced off.

We had a mechanical tool in the RCO office that could install connectors without using a soldering iron. I forgot to bring it.

Childress returned. He placed the collapsible table on its side to create a windbreak. While he leaned on it I removed a thin windbreaker out of the tool case and had Childress hold it over my head.

Soldering irons are like cast iron skillets. Before you begin cooking you need to prime them with proper heat and oil. This iron lacked that priming and did not transfer heat as well as it should. I needed another hand but Childress used both of his to keep the wind out.

I grabbed black tape out of the tool case. I taped the RF cable with the new connector hanging off the end to the side of the tool case. That freed up a hand.

“The wind’s picking up,” Childress didn’t have to inform me.

“I need another five to ten minutes.” I said. “That should do it.”

He didn’t reply.

I saturated the connector sleeve with solder flux and finally the solder melted over the wire sheath to become part of the sleeve. Next I soldered the inner conductor wire into the tip of the RF connector.

“Dammit,” Childress complained as his knee went out from under him.

“I’m almost there,” I said, as I screwed the connector tight onto the RF cable.

I wrapped black tape carefully around the sleeve of the connector and where it connected onto the RF cable. Lastly, I screwed the connector from the cable onto the mating cable from the antenna while fighting the fierce wind.

I added additional tape around the cable to the three inch steel conduit until the tape ran out. It would suffice.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Darkness surrounded us. I grabbed my tool case and battled the sand filled wind for entrance to the egress leading down to the next floor. Childress held the door open for me and secured it behind him.

I dropped into a chair at the bottom of the spiral staircase and let out a resounding, “Woo.”

RSO Childress, maintaining his stoic expression, said, “You think that did any good?”

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