I had arrived at Riyadh with a full tank of expectation for ’78. From what I heard the mysterious Saudi Arabia had always been a closed society. Visas were hard to come by and tourism didn’t exist here.
While In Bangkok I had talked to a guy that worked for the American ARAMCO oil company, which was situated along the coast of Saudi Arabia, near the city of Dhahran. He told me that they built American-like communities on compounds. Besides western houses, the compounds sported baseball fields, swimming pools, a supermarket, churches; everything the workers and their families needed was available. The single guy, a mechanical engineer, said ARAMCO provided a round trip ticket to Bangkok every three months and that the pay was phenomenal.
After four cups of strong coffee on the flight from Karachi (alcohol was not permitted on Saudi Arabian Airlines) the caffeine had cheated me into an artificial high. An embassy driver picked me up at arrivals in the airport built atop sand.
It turned out a fellow Foreign Service Officer had been on the same flight. Her name was Linda. She had changed planes at Karachi after leaving a temporary assignment in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We hit it off immediately.
Linda was a roving CRO (Communications & Records Officer) in Riyadh to manage the telegraphic traffic during the Cyrus Vance visit. She had her hair done up in a curly braided style that I suppose you would call an Afro. But Linda had paler skin than I did.
The hair made her look even taller than she was. I’d guess she was about five foot nine inches (sans the hair). Her inquisitive eyes supported by a pleasant smile impressed me.
We hit the ground running at the Riyadh Hilton hotel. After checking into my nicely appointed room I went up to the penthouse room Command Center. I ran into the Crypto tech Marconi, whom I knew from back in Virginia. His job was to install a temporary telegraphic message center that Linda and her two helpers would use to send and receive messages between SECSTATE at Washington, D.C. and here. Otherwise, the messages would have to be hand carried over to the American Embassy Riyadh common center. Needless to say, the Carter/Vance joint visit would generate a huge amount of telegraphic traffic.
President Jimmy Carter and Secretary Cyrus Vance, both arriving on Air force One from New Delhi (after spending New Year’s in Tehran), would only be in Riyadh for less than forty-eight hours. They would zoom over to Aswan, Egypt for a day before heading back to the U.S.
The S.Y. (State Department Security) Agent-in-Charge emphasized the short time window when he gathered us technical officers together in the command center. He laid out some unusual rules that caused Linda’s eyebrows to rise, too.
First, the AIC decried that since this was a joint detail S.Y. agents may have their plans changed on a moments notice (I had heard S.Y. agents complain that Carter’s Secret Service would run the show here). Vehicles would be limited so we would have to checkout vehicles through S.Y. for official business only. In other words, we were stuck in the hotel for the duration. The AIC smiled when he offered a carrot, “Because of these unique circumstances SECSTATE has received authorization from the Saudi government official for unlimited Hilton Hotel room service use by D.O.S. (Department of State) personnel.” He winked and added, “I understand they have some vintage grape juice on the menu that is outstanding.”
The AIC told everyone that there would be a designated shuttle van between the Hilton and the American embassy. When he asked if there were any questions Linda immediately said, “We wanted to go to the gold souk one night.”
“We’ll get you guys over there, he said.
I would definitely sign up for that side trip.
After the meeting I grabbed the AIC and said, “I may need to install a repeater. I’ll need transportation and someone familiar with the area.”
He shook his head. “It’s not going to happen. Your job will be to keep my guys supplied with handheld radios and surveillance kits. We’ll need a base station installed here in the command center ASAP. That’s it.”
The AIC flashed me a gaze like he didn’t have the time or wasn’t in the mood for any questions. Since he was running the show I said, “Okay, I’ll get on the base station.”
I took care of the agents first. Two of the RCA handheld radios had issues so I replaced them. I handed out spare surveillance kits that consisted of a concealed microphone and an ear piece. The impending arrival of both the President and the Secretary appeared to have the agents doubly tasked with a sense of urgency.
I had the RCA UHF base station (shipped from a previous detail in Europe) up and running before lunchtime. An S.Y. agent asked me what the radio call sign for the command center location should be and I said, “Sandcastle.” When he asked about the call sign for Secretary Cyrus Vance I responded with, “Aladdin.”
The agent smiled and added, “What about you?”
“Me? Oh, ah… I’m…ah… Thirsty Camel.”
The S.Y. agent chuckled before he barked into the two-way radio base station microphone, “This is SANDCASTLE, repeat SANDCASTLE radio check. Be advised that ALADDIN…”
While the agent notified his troops of the new call signs I saw Linda sitting alone in the dining room in the penthouse kitchen.
“What did you order for lunch?”
She lifted her head and said, “I haven’t decided yet. I suppose filet mignon would be overkill for lunch, huh?”
“Yeah, I was thinking the same. I think I’ll save the big ticket item for dinner tonight, along with the vintage grape juice. For lunch… Let’s see…”
I dialed room service and placed an order for a Reuben sandwich with French fries and French onion soup.
Linda took the telephone handset. “A cheeseburger, French fries, and a coke… with ice.”
I held up a “Me, too,” finger.
“Make that two cokes, both with ice.”
She listened for the man to repeat the order back to her and said, “That will be fine.”
I was starved.
“Linda said, “Gosh, I’m starved” and added, “Good thing I’m only here forty-eight hours. Otherwise, I’d gain a ton of weight.”
She looked just right to me. Her infectious smile advertised that this was going to be fun…
(To be continued)