American Embassy Cairo | Aftermath of the Khamsin

Early November 1977

After I got off the windswept Chancery roof I wrapped my face in linen à la T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and raced across the street to the guesthouse. To get to the upper floor I had to enter an ancient cage-like elevator, the type that I didn’t know still existed. I shut the wooden door, then a metal crosshatched gate, and waited for the light to indicate I could proceed. I pressed the floor button on the lit panel.

Snake-like cables danced beside the side of the cage, accompanied by a clickety-clack noise.

<feature photo by amazon.com

I had my own room. The showers were communal. I would learn to associate CRO Holman’s recommended guesthouse to lower priced lodging with small rooms. The price was very reasonable.

Soon after I got out of the refreshing shower my handheld radio squawked. CRO Holman said, “What did you do?”

My first thought was, Oh shit, I shorted the new RF connector when I installed it on the RF cable in the midst of the Khamsin. “What happened?”

“Sahara (the Marine Security Guard or MSG) was able to communicate with Ramses Two—the USAID Annex at Maadi—over the base station radio. That’s never happened before.”

With the defective connector the base station and antenna had been performing at less than fifty percent efficiency. The new connector had made a huge difference. “Roger, request you schedule post radio test soonest after Khamsin passes.”

“We’ve already got an emergency test on the calendar for tomorrow morning, the Egyptian god’s willing.”

“Copy that. Thanks for the update.”

“Thank you Visitor.”

The Khamsin blew all afternoon and into the evening. Although I yearned to get out and see some of Cairo the Egyptian god’s were against it. I ate dinner at the guesthouse dining table with the three other visitors to Am Embassy Cairo from SECSTATE. Of course, the main topic of conversation was the Khamsin. The three men and five women, all well dressed and well versed, lauded the guesthouse and the “charming elevator.” I would enquire to management regarding the possibility of taking take the stairs. The food at the cantina at lunch was better than the stuffed cabbage, although the economics officer named Ronald raved about it.

busted flush
<photo of Travis McGee’s “Busted Flush”

I stopped at the guesthouse library on the way back to my room. I picked out a mystery novel, “The Deep Blue Good-By,” by John D. MacDonald. In the future course of my travels around the Middle East I would read all of MacDonald’s mystery books. They featured salvage consultant/amateur detective Travis McGee who lived aboard the Busted Flush at Bahia Mar (Florida), slip #18. Travis and his economist sidekick Meyer would solve many a crime while I strove to put out fires at various American missions.

The next morning [Wed] there was no evidence of the Khamsin sandstorm except for fine granules of sand in my radio earpiece, my wallet, and my underwear. Now I understood the sand I had found in the speakers of the Cairo radios I had repaired back at Am Consul Karachi.

I grabbed a coffee and a croissant to go at the embassy café. Bill H. had already opened up the tech office when I arrived at eight a.m. I liked Bill. He got things done without taking them too seriously. He let it be known by his actions and conversation that he was desperately in need of female companionship. Bill joked that his favorite reading material was the J.C. Penney’s catalogue, the women’s lingerie section.

Bill pointed to the piled boxes gathering dust against the rear wall after I mentioned radio files. I asked if he knew my predecessor Charles A.

“I drove Charlie out to the airport. He didn’t tell me that he wasn’t coming back.”

Bill laughed. “Boy, that Charlie was a mover and a shaker. I had only been here a couple weeks when he got pissed and left.”

“What set him off?”

“I think he wanted to be reassigned here and your boss RCO Roberson wouldn’t allow it. Charlie fought with  Roberson to get more funds allocated for the radio program. Said Roberson was nickel and diming him.”

“Did the post kick in any money?” I asked.

“Wait, I’m getting to it… So Charlie goes out and hires this private radio firm who had been doing radio design work for oil companies in North Africa. Word was that Charlie hired them to do a radio survey of all of Cairo at a cost of like thirty thousand dollars.”

When Bill saw my expression he said, “It get’s better…”

“I’m listening.”

“Charlie had arranged some kind of deal with an unnamed economics officer at post. In exchange for funds (for the radio survey) Charlie set the econ officer up with an Egyptian agricultural minister who would help him get his foot in the door with a hot project in the Alexandria delta. They called it Project…”

Project Sandbag (from Charlie’s journal)?

“Project Sandbag, I think they called it… According to rumor the Egyptian minister’s involvement went far beyond agriculture. I mean way up the ladder to Anwar Sadat.”

Bill paused to let me take all of this in. Could the Egyptian minister have been the father of the dark eyed sultry Salma that Charlie wrote of in his journal? Could Charlie have arranged all this to curry favors for Salma? This was way out of the CEO/R’s job description.

“I said, “Are you kidding me?”

“Hey, I’m just telling you what I heard later over the grapevine.”

carter-vance
President Carter & Secretary Vance photo by bbc.co.uk

Bill continued, “Anyway, what I heard… and I swear this is no bullshit… Charlie brought the Egyptian minister and the unnamed econ officer together to meet up with Israeli agricultural experts, as part of the proposed Middle East peace agreement that President Jimmy Carter and Secretary Cyrus Vance are so hot to negotiate.”

This was way over my head. The tone of my reply was as incredulous as I knew how: “So our boy Charlie A. was involved in the Middle East peace agreement?”

“Yeah, I know… Something happened. It wasn’t clear, but the deal broke down. I heard that the Egyptian Minister’s daughter was somehow inplicated. There were also rumors of CIA involvement… That Charlie… I took him to the airport soon after he had returned from Alexandria. Haven’t seen nor heard from him since.”

“What a character,” I said.

Bill shook his head. “I bet right now Charlie is in some third world country negotiating a deal—arms for radios.”

“C.I.A.?” I blurted out.

Bill’s eyes grew the size of black olives. “C.I.A.? I was thinking private enterprise.”

The door flew open. The man stood tall, his face an argument for an argument. Then it came to me. I was facing the mad General Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. Yes, the Russians had polluted our precious bodily fluids…

RSO Childress did not appreciate my grin. “I hear you’re leaving post Friday morning. Mind joining me for a beer at the Shepheard’s Hotel bar tomorrow evening? Say, about bout eight o’clock?”

I hadn’t told anyone my plans except the girl in the travel office on post. “Sure, eight o’clock.”

Behind me, Bill was busy perusing the J.C. Penney’s catalogue.

I turned back as the door slammed.

RSO Childress was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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