November 1977–Beirut, Lebanon
I was surprised to learn that the Intercontinental Hotel was near the American Embassy in Beirut. I kept my mouth shut while the marines negotiated the streets in the Chevy Suburban.
<Rescue worker aids wounded woman during Lebanese civil war in 1976 (apimages.com)
When we arrived I was even more surprised that the embassy sat right in the downtown area, near the Mediterranean Sea.
As expected, embassy security at the point of entry was tight. A frontal attack with a car bomb would land a devastating blow to this mission that didn’t occupy a huge amount of land space. The older complex of seven or eight floors with faces jutting out in oblique directions was colored an odd light orangish hue.
When I got out of the vehicle I could see the scared buildings not that far distant down the street. One of the marines pointed at a hollowed out twenty-some story building and said, “That used to be the Holiday Inn before the civil war.”
After the marines took me through the lobby security a bearded fellow in his thirties stuck out his hand and said, “Hey, you made it Cowboy. Roberson and the RCO crew were worried that you might have joined up with the P.L.O. last night.”
We shook hands and I replied, “You must be CRO Ryan. Al warned me about you.”
“How’s Al doing?” he said, and added as an afterthought, “If you don’t develop a sense of humor here in heartbreak city you’ll go out of your mind.”
“Al’s doing fine,” I said, and smiled. We were going to get along fine.
“I’ve got some really bad coffee brewing upstairs. You want to go up to the CPU and send off a message to Robby that you’re okay. I sent him a quick note when I heard you were at the Intercon.”
Ryan had me stow my suitcase in the MSG locker. He called the marines “horn toads” and they laughed.
We headed for the stairs when a middle-aged fellow in a black leather jacket came up and said to me, “You made it.”
The duty officer I had talked to on the phone earlier introduced himself as George. I apologized again for my poor decision while we shook hands. He said, “What, are you trying to forge a reputation or something?”
He said it with a crooked smile. I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not.
Ryan forged a wry smile and began to say something, but stopped short.
George patted me on the back and said, “Thanks for coming. We need all the help we can get here in hell’s last outpost.”
“George, join us for lunch?” Ryan said. “We need to talk radio.”
As we walked up the stairs Ryan said, “George and I run the radio program here. The phones don’t work half the time. Without radios we’d be in deep Kim chi.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” I said.
The Communications Programs Unit (CPU) had been decorated like none that I had seen in my brief tenure in the Foreign Service. Ryan’s Playboy centerfolds adorned the length of one of the walls. On another wall he had hung what looked like movie posters of all the James Bond films, including some other spy movies.
“Did you major in Interior Decorating in college?” I said.
“Nah, the talent just comes natural. Miss July of ’76 is my favorite.”
I laughed. This was a far cry from Bill H. ogling the women’s lingerie section of the J.C. Penney’s catalog in Cairo.
There was a cot in the corner surrounded by tables piled with books. Small red and white boxes were piled high on another table. “What’s that?”
“I’m a big fan of Cracker Jacks. Part of the deal with me coming over here to Beirut was that I got hazardous duty pay and all the Cracker Jacks I wanted. The guys in the Middle East bureau were speechless. Grab a couple boxes to take back to the hotel if you want.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Where’s your staff?”
“I’m it,” he replied. “A limited number of personnel returned in February after the civil war cooled. George helps out a lot. I get part time help from one of the secretaries.”
I wouldn’t bring up the NIACT IMMEDIATE message that Nicosia had sent last night. “Did you receive the repaired radios I sent?”
“Yeah, and they all actually worked. Oh, the reason you were summoned over here is that the Ambassador’s Lincoln blew an engine. The replacement vehicle doesn’t have a mobile radio in it. You’ll have to remove the old radio and reinstall it in the new vehicle.”
“No problem, I’ll get you straightened out. Can we line up the vehicle this morning?”
“All right Cowboy, ‘Keep them doggies movin’. You want a coffee first?”
“I polluted mine with Coffee Mate and a touch of sugar. Ryan, admitting that no amount of additives would help this brew, drank it black. I sent a quick message to RCO Roberson explaining what had happened last night.
Ryan was right about the coffee.
We went down to the motor pool. I had the mechanic line up both official vehicles side-by-side. Ryan didn’t have a spare mobile radio set. So I would have to remove the unit from the old vehicle and reinstall it in the new one. The lead plated armor in the doors and behind the rear seat could be a problem when snaking cables from the trunk up to the driver console. Luckily, the Navy Seabees had notched out for the cables.
Two hours later I installed the microphone in the liner above the rear passenger seat where the ambassador sat. The radio checked out good. As a final check I called the MSG and tested the ambassador’s alarm package. I could hear the loud bell ring in the background.
“Hello, test,” I said to the MSG guard over the mobile radio in the vehicle. “This is a test of the chief’s alarm. One-two-three-four-fiver… Five-four-three-two-one… How copy?”
“Roger Visitor,” the MSG guard on duty said. “The test was fivers.”
“Great. Visitor out.”
Ryan returned just as I had completed the job.
“Let’s get some lunch, Cowboy,” he said. “I thought it would take all day to tackle this one.”
The embassy operated a small lunchroom with a Lebanese fellow behind the counter. The special was a thin baguette sandwich with cheese and deli. I ordered two.
“George,” Ryan called out as his cohort sat down.
George looked at me and said, “I heard you installed a radio in Parker’s new vehicle. You better watch out. We’ll keep you here.”
“As much as I’d love to stay, Roberson might object.”
Ryan said, “Robby loved it here.”
“He couldn’t get over the Lebanese cuisine,” George added.
Ryan, wearing a big smile, said, “He wants to move the RCO office here.”
They were putting me on and we all knew it. “That would be exciting.”
The baguettes were delicious. The cook had added the tastiest fried potatoes (flavored with herbs) that I have ever had on the side. George and Ryan seemed amused by my amazement.
Between bites Ryan said, “Ambassador Parker’s part time residence is up on a hill above Beirut called Mount Lebanon. We are in dire need of secure voice radio communications from there to here. Our radio net coverage around Beirut and the airport is actually pretty good. The good news is the secure voice radio arrived in the pouch yesterday along with two Star Wars-like antennas.”
We had ordered two special high-gain directional antennas specifically for this application.
“I’ve arranged for you to go up to the residence tomorrow morning. George will be your chauffer.”
“There’s a fabulous French Lebanese restaurant near the residence,” George said.
“You’re going to the French restaurant to see that Lebanese cashier, not for the food.”
George gazed at me defensively. “She’s very well educated, besides, the food is spectacular, too.”
My smile when I muttered, “Will we have an escort up to the residence?”
George glanced at Ryan and said to me, “It’s really not necessary.”
“The Chief goes up there all the time,” Ryan said, like Agent 86 Maxwell Smart from Get Smart.
“Cut out the frivolity Ryan,” George said dryly. “You’re going to send the cowboy off into the purple sage.
Ryan, who seemed to have a nickname for everyone, needed one himself. The OC Bandits already had a “Playboy” (Playboy Byron). It suddenly became obvious… Cracker Jack.
“Let’s do it tomorrow then,” I said firmly, although that anxiousness in my gut that I experienced last night at the checkpoint resurfaced.