Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: January 1978
On the evening of “Day One,” S.Y. (State Department security) had completed their advance work. I had installed and tested the UHF radio network the S.Y. agents would utilize, centered around their RCA handheld radios. S.Y. was generally satisfied with the radio coverage provided by equipment flown in from a previous SECSTATE detail in Europe.
Just when I thought my job was complete the S.Y. Agent-in-Charge had requested better radio coverage in and around the American embassy for the upcoming Cyrus Vance visit. I subsequently got approval from the American embassy CRO (Communications & Records Officer) for the installation of a secondary UHF radio base station (the primary base station for the Vance detail had been installed at the command post in the Hilton Hotel).
The UHF base station along with the radio equipment in place that I had installed earlier utilized special frequencies reserved for the S.Y. details in support of Secretary Vance. There remained one problem: Who was going to operate the new base station installed up in the CRU (Communications & Records Unit) at the embassy?
While I sat in the break room hoping our telegraphic operations Diva named Linda would emerge from the master bedroom that had been converted to a Comm Center, the S.Y. Agent-in-Charge sat down and said, “I’m going to need your help during the VISIT [of the President and the Secretary].”
I could see it coming, but I played along. “How so?”
“The embassy CRO told me he’s strapped for personnel. Meanwhile, my guys don’t have the crypto security clearance required to man the base station in the CRU. Can you help us out?”
It meant no unlimited room service, and no chance to flirt with the Communications & Records poster girl Linda. “So, what do you want me to do?”
“Man the UHF embassy base station during the visit. Pass on information. The usual stuff to support the mission and my guys.”
He shoved a paper toward me and added, “You need to check in with Agent Dixon soonest. He’ll be your S.Y. contact regarding any radio matters.”
He patted me on the shoulder and said, “I’ll send a kudos message to your RCO [my boss, the Regional Communications Officer in Karachi] upon completion of the mission.”
He gazed at me with a questioning expression, but I had no comment.
The A-I-C rose and said, “Be on the 0700 shuttle to the embassy tomorrow morning. And make sure to call Agent Dixon today.”
Right when the A-I-C exited the penthouse the door to the penthouse bedroom/Comm Center, opened. Linda came rushing out.
“Wow, it’s a madhouse in there,” she said, while pouring coffee. “You coming to the gold souk with us this evening?”
“I wouldn’t miss it.”
“We’re leaving around eight p.m.”
She smiled and added, “I heard you’re supporting the detail at the embassy.”
News traveled fast on these details. “The mission first.”
“Yeah… See ya later.”
I watched her prance back into the comm center. When the the door slammed shut I grabbed the phone and ordered my favorite, apple pie topped with ice cream–on the house.
* * *
The Vance detail support contingent of me, Linda, and two Communications & Records Officers, stopped at an outdoor marketplace that sold clothes. Linda and the others had not come prepared for the cold Riyadh January nights. I wore my leather jacket that accompanied me around the Middle East. It was amusing to watch Linda and her three cohorts haggle over the price of sweaters with an Saudi Arabian man who spoke no English.
Linda made eye contact with me when the old Arab refused her counteroffer with the palm of a heavy leathered hand. I suspected that he knew by the frigid looks on the Americans’ faces that Linda would give in. I nodded at her as if I knew that she was getting a bargain.
The apparel, like the kind of sweaters your mom would give you for Christmas—colorful and odd—would nevertheless keep the chill off this evening. I commented, “No one’s going to mistake you guys for tourists now.”
They all three glanced at me with an expression that said, “When in Rome…” and laughed.
The Riyadh gold souk lit up the night, accompanied by stars that peaked through fleeting clouds. A crescent moon formed a tilted but contented mouth that called out, “Be yourself.”
I had spent all my money on vacation in Thailand, but the gazes of Linda and her cohorts told me they were dedicated to spending their unused per diem money here at the Riyadh gold souk.
“S.Y. has me penciled in for the Cairo Vance detail coming up in two weeks,” Linda told me. “I can’t wait to buy a cartouche in the gold souk there. They engrave your name in hieroglyphics.”
“I might join you,” I said. “My RCO said I was on tap to support the detail, too.”
“That’s great.” Her eyes grew the size of the golden rings and she said, “Oh, look at that solid gold bracelet. It’s precious. How much is it?”
The gold souk shop we were at had been recommended by the embassy. The proprietor spoke English. The mid-thirties handsome Arab man immediately put the charm on Linda. She blushed at his selling price, but agreed to buy the bracelet with very little haggling. I saw her cohorts shake their heads.
We ate shawarma pita sandwiches at the night bazaar. Our embassy driver, a Pakistani [I would learn that most of the work force in Saudi Arabia was from nearby Arab or Muslim countries], said that pieces of lamb were stacked together with layers of butter and fat in between. The shawarma meat was roasted on the spit for several hours to develop the great taste. The shawarma sandwich I ordered even had my favorite French fried potatoes stuffed in the pita bread.
We returned to the Riyadh Hilton Hotel happy campers around midnight. I thought I might try to arrange some quiet time with Linda, but as soon as we arrived their leader said, “We better get some sleep. Tomorrow President Carter and Secretary Vance will arrive on Air Force One and things will start hopping…”
(to be continued)