Late November 1977
As my cohort Al drove his Toyota into the rear parking lot of the American Consulate General Karachi the cassette player left jet fumes from the Beatle’s opening song of the White album:
“Back in the U.S.S.R.”
Been away so long I hardly knew the place
Gee it’s good to be back home
Leave it till tomorrow to unpack my case
Honey disconnect the phone
I’m back in the U.S.S.R.
You don’t know how lucky you are boy
Back in the U.S.
Back in the U.S.
Back in the U.S.S.R.
<feature photo of The Beatles “Back in the U.S.S.R.” by genius.com
Al complained that RCO Roberson had sent him on a three-day boondoggle to Am Embassy Kabul, Afghanistan during my absence. He scoffed that he had a Russian tail when he wandered around the Kabul souk (the marketplace).
“Yeah, I could tell he was a Russkie,” he said. “His pants didn’t fit.”
My cohort never had anything good to say about the region.
As we passed through the Marine Security Guard station I felt like a visitor. The new guard asked me for my passport. Al laughed.
Billie Jean, the admin assistant, called out to me from inside the RCO office. I leaned in the doorway.
“Welcome back stranger… Bob wants to talk to you at nine sharp.”
“I’ll be there,” I said, and kept walking to the tech offices. Al had held the cypher lock door for me.
As usual, we were the first to show up in the technical support work areas of the Regional Communications Office. Everyone else was married. If I had to compare the different tech offices to the military it would go something like this:
- Al and I, the radio techs, were the equivalent of U.S. Army grunts.
- The telephone techs were comparable to the U.S. Air Force (they didn’t often get their hands dirty).
- The crypto techs were surrounded my metal (crypto machines) and were often up to their elbows in grease—the U.S. Navy engine room.
- The U.S. Marines at their station downstairs were ever vigilant.
- RCO Robert P Roberson presided over all the armed forces as the Commander-in-Chief.
Boxes were lined up in the radio room. Al said over my shoulder, “Did the best I could on the repairs.”
“Yeah, looks like we have a week or so of catch up time before Secretary of State Vance heads over to the Middle East.”
“Bob volunteered both of us for the Vance details. I think that’s what he wants to talk to you about.”
I set a cardboard box on the bench and grabbed an exacto-knife. “Let’s see what Am Embassy Kuwait has in store for us this Christmas.”
“Yeah, right,” Al said in a droll voice.
* * *
RCO Bob Roberson sat at his desk with telegrams strewn over it. He wore his signature blue oxford shirt with a loose tie. As soon as he saw me his eyes lit up and he said, “Welcome back, have a seat.”
I felt better already.
Bob reached for his mug and said, “You want a coffee?”
“No, I’m fine.”
He lifted some telegrams. “Atta boys. Good job on your trip. You put out a lot of fires.”
Bob was a very good administrator, but not a technical guy. Rumor had it that he had begun his Foreign Service career in the mail room at Am Embassy Paris. I think he likened his techs to firemen. You would get along fine with him as long as you kept the fire engine spotless and sprang to action at the sound of an alarm.
I said, “Thanks. Sorry about Beirut. I should have sat tight at the airport. It was late, I was tired…”
I shook my head.
“A word to the wise,” Bob said. “We’re ultimately responsible for your own actions out on the road. Just be aware of the risks and the dangers. If you’re unsure, choose the less risky option. Okay?”
“I will. By the way, I’ll hand off my trip reports to B. J. tomorrow morning.”
He nodded and pulled out a telegram. “I’ve approved your recommendation for the Maadi repeater in Cairo. Al has placed a priority order on it. The post has agreed to fund the P.O. [Purchase Order].”
“Great. Cairo’s terrain make it a tough city for radio coverage. The radio repeater will help. Next trip I’d like to perform a full coverage check.”
Bob again nodded in agreement. “How did you get along with RSO Childress?”
“He’s kind of rough around the edges, but we got a long okay.”
The RCO seemed surprised. I decided not to tell him about Childress helping me out with the base station antenna atop the chancery roof as the Khamsin dust storm approached.
Bob turned to me and said, “You and Al will support the Secretary’s Middle East visits from 9-15 December. I want you to go to Jerusalem. I’ve already told Al that he’s slated for Riyadh.”
He glanced at the schedule in front of him. “After New Year’s President Carter and Secretary Vance will visit the Middle East together for the peace initiative. You’ll need to arrive in Riyadh no later than January second and be prepared to leap frog to Cairo and possibly Alexandria.”
He paused to let me digest all that.
“Get your backlog up to date in the office before you head out. Your travel orders will be amended to include Kathmandu and Bangkok.” He lifted his hands and added, “Pay a visit to Am Embassy Bangkok and say hello to the CRO while you’re there to keep it official. Otherwise, you’re on comp time until after New Year’s.”
“I really appreciate the comp time,” I said.
He lifted his hand. “Hell, you deserve it.”
And that was the end of our conversation. I knew it went well because I didn’t hear too many “W’s” in Roberson’s sentences. For example, in a heated conversation in the hallway between Al and Bob before I left I had heard our fearless leader utter something like, “Why are we wasting wine on AM CWONSUL Lahore… That’s wishful winking.”
As I walked out of the RCO office I realized I had forgotten to ask Bob to send me out on the road at will. But, now that I thought about it, that wasn’t going to be an issue.