Early November 1977
It was Thursday, the day before my departure to Athens. CRO Holman called early and put the kibosh on my visit to the pyramids in Giza. He requested that I return to the residence of Cleopatra (the call sign for a gorgeous USAID worker named Miss Lewis).
A driver and an Egyptian construction guy accompanied me to Maadi to install a rooftop antenna routed to Cleopatra’s apartment below. We didn’t finish until after four p.m. I didn’t get to meet Miss Lewis, but I saw what must have been a photograph of her dressed as—who else, but Cleopatra. On the bedroom dresser the copper colored hair, green-eyed Miss Lewis gave the Nile queen a run for her money as she posed next to the Great Pyramid.
The crypto tech Bill H. took me to a late afternoon lunch at a large round cafe in the Marriott Hotel on Zamalek island. Close to the embassy in Garden City, it wasn’t far from where he lived. I ordered the same–a cheeseburger plate (Bill was 100% American), while my cohort ogled the Egyptian waitress like a steer left out in the pasture all winter.
Afterwards, I returned to the guesthouse, showered and prepared for my rendezvous with RSO Childress or, as I liked to think of him–Brigadier General Jack Ripper (from Dr. Strangelove).
Shepheard’s Hotel Bar
The nostalgic Shepheard’s Hotel bar served as a watering hole for westerners (the British accents were unmistakable). A few well-dressed Egyptians (I assumed) sat at the rich wood and polished steel bar at close to eight p.m. I thought it must be tough for the Brits defending the “Empire” here in the land of the Pharaohs. The Egyptians had bragging rights: “We built the pyramids.”
Regional Security Officer Childress waved me over from the far end of the oval bar. A flagon of beer kept him company. He looked so like a lone wolf. I bet he didn’t have much good to say about the Brits.
“You ever try Stella beer?” he said, before I got on the stool.
“I’m game,” I said with spirit although I felt like Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove) when Jack Ripper informed him that the planes carrying nuclear bombs weren’t going to be recalled.
I didn’t see any communication between Childress and the bartender but lo and behold the mustached fellow behind the bar poured pale lager into a tall flagon in front of me. Oddly, soap bubble like orbs floated atop the final product.
“Cheers,” Childress said, raising his flagon. “Locally brewed by Al-Ahram, an Egyptian government conglomerate.”
It didn’t taste soapy. Not bad, but I’m not one of those people with discerning taste buds when it came to drink. I would have a hard time telling the difference between an average wine and very fine wine. My personal opinion is that if there was no alcohol in it then nobody would drink the stuff.
Childress surveyed the room like the headmaster counting attendance. He pinched his chin and said, “The original Shepheard’s Hotel was built in the mid-1800’s under the name “Hotel des Anglais,” The English Hotel. They later changed the name to Shepheard’s Hotel. A magnificent tribute to the Brits, unfortunately it burnt down during the Egyptian Revolution—civil unrest against the Brits—in 1952.”
With beer and chin lifted, he slowly turned toward me until his eyes caught mine. The ball was in my court. I was supposed to lend a historical perspective. “Would have been nice to have been around to see the original hotel, huh?”
That kindled a small spark that grew in his eyes.
Childress actually smiled before he said, “Not many people know it but the founder Samuel Shepheard was nothing more than a pastry chef. Sam was a born entrepreneur though. He partnered with a man named Hill who was the head coachman (driver) for Mohammed Ali Pasha. An Ottoman military man, Pasha is considered the founder of modern Egypt.”
Samuel Shepheard reminded me of Charles A. I wondered if Ali Pasha had sired a sultry daughter that Sam had pined for.
“Shepheard’s Hotel was famed for its grandeur,” Childress continued. “It featured opulent stained glass, Persian carpets, gardens, terraces, and great granite pillars resembling those of the Ancient Egyptian temples. Its guests included royalty, state dignitaries, and famous actors. Oddly enough, it was originally a base for the military.”
Childress was beginning to sound like Frommer’s Travel Guide, although I must admit I found it interesting.
He chuckled to himself. “Its ‘American Bar’ was frequented not only by Americans but also by French and British officers. The hotel held nightly dances where men appeared in military uniform and women in evening gowns.”
I had the feeling that Childress would have preferred to live during those times. I was also beginning to think that maybe Childress didn’t deserve the bad wrap that RCO Roberson and others had tagged him with.
“The current rebuilt hotel/bar is owned by E.G.O.T.H., the Egyptian General Company for Tourism & Hotels. Obviously, it doesn’t have the stature of the Brits’ original gem.”
It looked pretty nice to me.
A young nattily dressed Arab man (an Egyptian?) sat down at the bar three seats away from us. RSO Childress looked on at the encroachment with raised eyebrows.
Childress glanced at his watch and said, “Something’s come up. I’ve got to get going soon.”
A clandestine meeting beneath The Sphinx with foreign agents?
“My wife called,” he added. “I’ve got to meet her at the international school. Our daughter’s in a play tonight.”
So much for my lone wolf theory.
With a wrinkled brow, Childress gazed at me, eyes as serious as classified documents going through a shredder and said, “Have you been approached by anyone since your arrival at Am Embassy Cairo?”
I had to lean forward to process his speech that had been lowered a few decibels. Dumbfounded by his question, I said, “What are you talking about?”
The gears turned in the RSO’s attic. “We experienced two incidences recently. A Foreign Service Officer was approached by an Eastern Bloc agent regarding embassy security…”
He paused to read my expression. “A word to the wise: Be careful when conversing about the status of the ongoing peace talks between our nation and Israel and Egypt. Particularly regarding dates and times of the movements of dignitaries.”
The RSO’s latter statement, of course, made me think of Charlie A.’s involvement with the Egyptian minister. But I wouldn’t open that can of worms. Besides, Childress must already know the whole story.
“What is it?” he said, when I didn’t answer quickly enough.
“Nothing… no one has approached me. I’ll let you know if any strangers contact me.”
“They could be anyone,” he said, his voice even lower.
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. Another long pause and despite myself I said, “No one seems to know anything about my predecessor Charles A.?”
A large bubble perched on the lip of the Stella beer bottle as Childress cringed like Jack Ripper (the enemy—our own troops—had breached the base perimeter). He gazed at me like I had brought up the dead.
“The man was a great B.S.’er and I understand he was technically competent… But his ego got in the way of his duties. I’m glad he got on that plane.”
Like a small town gossiper, I anxiously waited for more.
“Charlie’s world revolved around Charlie.”
He captured my eyes and said, “I’m not at liberty to say, but Charles had a cavalier attitude about matters of security. He got involved in things he shouldn’t have.”
I caught the not so subtle message.
RSO Childress rose and told the bartender to put our drinks on his tab along with my dinner of choice. He gave me that General Jack Ripper steely-eyed gaze and said, “Forget about Charles… And, see you soon. By the way, I owe you one for expediting the repair of the chief’s vehicle.”
I was going to thank him but RSO Childress ambled off before I had a chance.
I thought… I’d cash in all my Cairo “I-O-U’s” for a date with USAID’s Miss Lewis, alias Cleopatra.