January 1978 | At the American Embassy Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
From my point of view as a radio tech the Carter/Vance S.Y. protective detail was all about the arrival and the departure. What happened in the hours in between were the harmonic byproducts of the constant chatter coming out of the base station’s speaker mixed with the background interference of the HW-28 Teletype machines in the room behind me. My singular task had been to monitor the garble and upon request, immediately respond verbally to provide a radio talk-link when S.Y. agents lost contact with one another while protecting Secretary Vance. Since I had only one two opportunities to provide this function (while the team was inside the King’s palace) then I’d give myself a B+ (and an A+ for listening ability) on a radio support report card.
<feature photo of Air Force One departing Riyadh by businessinsider.com
Unlike the previous Jerusalem Vance detail there wasn’t a lot of press conference activity (President Carter was the main event). Even the embassy scuttlebutt had lulled on this detail. The feeling “around town” was that the Saudi’s were very concerned about their own defense considering the threat of the Yemenis to the south and the various radical Muslim sects to the north. I heard that the U.S.S. Constellation aircraft carrier, capable of destroying the military aspirations of any Middle East country, was cruising somewhere in the gulf to allay their fears.
Late at night on this the detail’s second day the S.Y. Agent-in-Charge offered me kudos after Air Force One had departed to Aswan in Egypt a few hours earlier. The AIC released me to go ahead and wrap up my equipment. I had some time to spare since the flight to my home base at Am Consul Karachi didn’t leave until tomorrow afternoon.
As the American embassy shuttle van sped down the well-lit highway enroute to the Riyadh Hilton, sand hill shadows loomed outside my window. It reminded of the latest John D MacDonald’s crime novel, A Tan and Sandy Silence. The plot begins when Harry Broll, husband of hero Travis McGee’s longtime friend Mary, shows up at his houseboat, “The Busted Flush.” The real estate tycoon Broll wounds McGee with a gunshot, after accusing him of hiding Mary aboard. The rest of the novel involves McGee’s search for Mary, despite her husband’s jealous outburst.
I imagined my own “Tan and Sandy Silence,” a story of epic proportions unveiled across the sweeping sands of Saudi Arabia (called “The Sandbox” by the S.Y. agents). Instead of Mary, I had been searching for Linda, who has been locked away in a Riyadh Hilton penthouse bedroom (the Comm Center) by the demands of U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (not by French murdering con artists on the island of Grenada as in the book).
The Riyadh Hilton S.Y. Command Center bustled with post-detail activity when I arrived at close to midnight. I saw smiling S.Y. agents (well, not quite, but there were glints of satisfaction in their eyes at a job well done). I hurried into the bedroom/Comm Center to find an ominous quiet. Crypto tech Marconi was coiled up on a divan in the corner asleep. The Teletype machines had stopped chattering.
“Where’s Linda?” I asked one of the familiar, tired C&R officers already breaking down the Teletype equipment for shipment back to SECSTATE.
“She was beat. Said she was going to go up to her room and hit the hay. A six a.m. flight to Istanbul.”
The gal with over twenty years experience in the Foreign Service caught the disappointment in my eyes and said, “Hey, it was nice working with you. That trip to the gold souk was a blast, huh?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Are you going to support the Secretary’s visit to Jerusalem and Cairo?”
“No, I just got a message for a TDY to Taiwan to replace the CRO there for two weeks. I love Chinese food.”
I said, “I was in Bangkok for a week. Thai food is out of this world.”
“Tell me about it,” she said, and gave me a wry smile. “I bet you noticed that the girls are pretty cute, too, huh?”
“Oh, yeah.” I beamed a smile to the Foreign Service CRO with over twenty years experience at dozens of U.S. missions abroad. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that many Foreign Service Officers had lived most of their adult lives in foreign countries. Perhaps they should be called “Internationalists,” citizens of the world.
As I gave my fellow gold souk adventurer a hug I thought of our RCO secretary in Karachi and said, “You ever run into Billie Jean, a.k.a. B.J.?”
“Yeah, I hear she’s been working for Bob [RCO Robert Roberson] for his past three assignments. B.J. and I were posted at Dar es Salaam together many moons ago. Say hi to her for me.”
“I will. She’s retiring to New Mexico when Bob PCS’s from Karachi next year.”
“Geesh, what’s she gonna do? They still have Indians over there?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know, but B.J. said they won’t let her return to Texas after she cussed out LBJ way back when.”
“Yeah, I heard that war story.”
I remembered an FSO at Am Embassy Paris telling me he had plans to retire there. Were sacred burial grounds in the New Mexico wilderness meant for Foreign Service Officers, too?
Good luck in Taiwan, huh.”
“Hang in there,” she replied, took a deep breath and gazed around at the scattered equipment. “It only gets better.”