Portrait of a Foreign Service Secretary | The End of a Career

January 1977 | Karachi, Pakistan

The Saudi Air flight from Riyadh touched down at Karachi International Airport at close to eleven p.m. The Pakistani embassy driver smiled and took my luggage. It was too bad that I hadn’t stayed here long enough to meet more Pakistani people, but I enjoyed traveling. From what I had seen and heard (excluding my cohort Al) the Pakistanis were a bright people, and made good dentists, surgeons, and technicians. I did think their religion in many ways held them back.

<feature photo by ep.yimg.com

As always, Bashir was downstairs when I arrived at my apartment in Clifton. He delivered the familiar, “Sahib (but sounded like Saab),” while he grabbed my luggage.

Besides Bashir, my apartment never felt welcoming. When the General Services Officer had offered to redecorate the apartment I said, “Why not?” I changed the previous tenant’s (fellow radio tech Charles A.) all white theme to a mixture of blues (sofa) and (drapes). That didn’t alter the dank smell or the absolute quiet. I asked Bashir to fix some coffee while I reacquainted myself with the place. I don’t think Bashir slept a lot. He would have cooked a complete dinner right now if I asked. It was his nature.

As usual, I caught a ride to Am Consul Karachi the next morning with my cohort Al. He updated me on what had been going on in the RCO office since I had left before Christmas. I knew he wanted to hear about my Thailand trip, but that would wait for beers one night this week at his apartment downstairs.

The sad news was that our RCO secretary Billie Jean had taken ill right after Christmas. She had been medivac’d back to a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Al said they thought it was her heart. Meanwhile, her replacement was a white-haired lady named Mary Lou, and like B.J., just shy of retirement.

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RCO Bob Roberson formally introduced me to Mary Lou, a veteran of numerous Africa postings. She wore no heart on her sleeve, said little about herself, and did not interject any of the humorous repartees that caused Al to cringe (which I enjoyed).

“We’re hoping B.J. will get back on her feet soon,” Bob said in private, adding some extra W’s in the sentence due to a French accent that never left him after a career starter in the mail room at Am Embassy Paris decades ago..

I gave him a short briefing about my visits to Kathmandu and Riyadh, ending with a amorous  comment about Bangkok that brought a smile to his face. He took the opportunity to inform me that I had received an unexpected pay-grade step increase, which meant a raise. I suspected that if I had been an upper level FSO, Bob would have removed the bottle of Johnny Walker scotch from his bottom drawer.

Bob handed me a folder and said, “As always, good work. Kudos are enclosed. By the way, your accomplishments have not gone unnoticed by OC/PE-R back at SECSTATE.”

I wasn’t sure what accomplishments he was speaking since I hadn’t done anything spectacular. Bob further informed me that I would be supporting the Cairo and Athens Secretary Vance details from January 20-22. I had about ten days to get my act together in the radio shop here. Al and I had already discussed it. He would travel to Jerusalem for the January 16-20 Vance detail. I would brief him on what was required since I had supported the last visit there.

“Thanks, Bob,” I said as I left his office.

After I said my hellos and deflected the raw Bangkok slurs from the crypto and telephone techs I proceeded to the radio bench where I could be most effective during my brief return. Al handed me another folder of the posts I had been working on and said, “Dig in.”

While I organized the radio room I wondered about Billy Jean. B.J. had become somewhat of a mystery to me because despite all the personal vignettes she had admitted to me during my brief stays at Am Consul Karachi, I didn’t know how much of it was true. The sixty-something FSO veteran had worked for RCO Robert P. Roberson for the past nine years. Prior to joining RPR’s bandwagon her career seemed to languish in darkest Africa fending off wild animals and other male nemeses.

Al had warned me on day one. Any conversation lasting for more than thirty seconds with B.J. would invariably lead into an update of her woes. B.J. had confessed to me of her battles against heart problems, the gout (a Foreign Service nemesis?), a bad back, and the remnants of malaria from her first posting in Africa.

Married to the Foreign Service, B.J.’s twenty-seven year career had been etched in her wrinkled face. Tussled gray hair, an “oh-my-gosh” expression, and a kind of latch-on conversational technique derived from eye contact completed the veteran FSO’s resume. Ironically, Al told me he had never seen her miss a day of work since he had arrived over a year ago.

And so it must have been fate that the day before I had left to Kathmandu last month. B.J. and I alone stepped into the American Consulate General Karachi elevator on a busy Friday morning.

When the elevator jerked to a stop half way between the third and fourth floor, my pulse quickened. If claustrophobia was on B.J.’s list of ills, too, then we were in heap of trouble.

As the walls moved in B.J. said, “Darn, I told Bob I’d sub for him at the weekly Con Gen meeting,” as if she just stubbed her toe on a sidewalk.

The elevator wasn’t going anyplace. Should we start pounding on the door? I was sweating it already. I pressed the “red button,” but, of course, nothing happened.

“They’ll figure out we’re stuck in here,” she said. “But it might be a while. I hope you brought a book to read.”

I had no comment.

She looked at me and must have noticed the sweat. “Have you been taking malaria pills?”

“Yes,” I said, a lie. The pills gave me stomach cramps.

She turned and glanced at me. “You all right?”

“I’ve got claustrophobia. The best way to combat it is to take my mind off of it. It’s hard.”

“Chelsea, my partner in crime in Ouagadougou, Chad had claustrophobia, too. She told me that during her posting in Mogadishu she had gotten stuck in an elevator with two three hundred pound Arab men who hadn’t taken a bath in weeks. Two hours later they took her out of the elevator on a stretcher.”

jim beam
photo by jimbeam.com

She caught my eye and said, “I shouldn’t have said that. You know, these elevators should be equipped with an ‘In case of fire’ compartment. But instead of a fire extinguisher it should contain a bottle of Jim Beam.”

“Yeah, you can bring it up during the next weekly Con Gen meeting.”

Her wheezy laugh didn’t help.

“Keep going,” I said. “Tell me about your career, B.J.”

She offered me an awkward glance as if no one had ever actually asked her.

“Okay, where do I begin?”

“You mentioned LBJ.”

“That was a long time ago. Let me see…”

(To be continued)

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