Portrait of a Foreign Service Secretary | The Early Days

January 1978 | Am Consul Karachi (stuck in an elevator)

My cohort Al had said to me on day one: “Watch out for BJ. She’s paddled around the world in a boat with one oar for the past thirty years.”

When I got stuck in the Am Consul Karachi elevator with her I cursed myself for not bringing a handheld radio. My captive partner Billie Jean didn’t have a two-way radio either. We left our fates up to our capable RCO office team to figure out that our disappearance coincided with the second elevator going kaput. Otherwise, the Pakistani maintenance man would slap an out-of-order sign on the lobby door and report it to the local contractor. It could be hours before our rescue.

BJ heaved a long, lazy laugh and said, “For what it’s worth I have a large bag of M&M’s in my purse.

“You’re a life saver,” I replied.

Now that I look back on it, if I was going to hunker in the corner of an elevator while claustrophobia terrorized me then the queen of the office, RSO Secretary Billie Jean, was a fitting companion. Her drowsy, self-deprecating voice could cause Harry Houdini to forget how to unlock the handcuffs (my cohort Al would say that she would boor Houdini to death).

“You were going to tell me about LBJ,” I said, trying to keep my mind off the black void that had engulfed the world beyond the confines of the elevator box.

LBJ photo by johndenugent.com

“You might say that Lyndon Baines Johnson got me into the Foreign Service,” BJ said. “I graduated from Baylor University in Texas and took my political science degree straight to Washington D.C., but… Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.”

BJ reached into her purse and removed a big bag of already opened M&M’s. After pouring me a handful she did this thing where she raises both eyes up and gazes off to the right (to god knows where).

As I savored some M&M’s I was suddenly reminded of the popular song from Stealer’s Wheel. The lyrics clearly stated my current position in the elevator.

photo by discogs.com

“Stuck In The Middle With You”

Well, I don’t know why I came here tonight
I got the feeling that something ain’t right
I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair
And I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

BJ inhaled a breath of the stale elevator air and said, “Let me start in the beginning,” (as if we were here for the duration).

“I was born in Johnson City, Texas, which was the town between LBJ’s Stonewall, Texas and his political aspiration, the capitol at Austin. My family belonged to the Christadelphian Church, as did the Johnson family.”

She gave me a brief gaze and said, “You’ve probably never heard of Christadelphians. The major difference between them and Christians is that the Christadelphians don’t believe in the immortality of the soul, although I suspect LBJ might have changed his position on that after becoming our 36th President in ‘63.”

The walls began to move in. “Go ahead and continue BJ.”

Hurry wasn’t a word in BJ’s vocabulary, but being aware of the malady named claustrophobia that haunted me in the stuck elevator she continued: “My mom likes to tell the story that began one bright Sunday morning at the Johnson City church. I was a feisty eight-year old, and I believe LBJ was in his late teens. Mom had instructed me to sit down in the third row of the pew and to hold the aisle seats for her and dad.”

She gazed at me and said with serious intent, “Nobody accused me of being a math whiz. I sat down in the second row of the pew, all the while searching around for mom and dad. The odd noise along with the squish beneath my posterior caused me jump up and when I did there stood LBJ.”

‘“Pardon me little girl,’ he said, and nodded. ‘My hat.’ I moved aside real quick-like and eyed the flattened ten-gallon hat.”

I wasn’t sure whether BJ intended to laugh or cry. She looked so forlorn, like Oliver Hardy when he realized that Stan Laurel had botched their plans again. “You okay, BJ?”

She laughed and said, “The teenager LBJ stood there with his face the color of fresh strawberries. My mom and dad arrived then. Mom, perturbed, said, ‘Billie Jean, I told you to wait in the third row pew, not the second row.’” She glanced at LBJ and said, ‘Good morning young man,’ before she saw the flattened ten-gallon hat lying there on the wooden bench.”

“The gentleman that he was, LBJ said, ‘Don’t worry about the hat ma’am. I have another one just like it back at the ranch.’”

I had the feeling this was turning into a tall tale, but I was enjoying it.

“I don’t remember too well, but mom said that I had said to LBJ, ‘Why don’t you wear your hat ‘stead of laying it around?’”

“Mom apologized to LBJ for me [said somebody had an appointment in the woodshed that same afternoon]. The color returned to LBJ’s face. He flashed me a smile–I remember that clearly–as he turned and walked off to join his family.”

The sad, syrupy expression on BJ’s face melted all over her cornbread LBJ story, causing me to laugh out loud.

“You don’t believe me?”

I wasn’t sure what to believe about BJ. “Sure I do.”

“Hey, what happened to your nemesis, the claustrophobia?” she said with a wry smile.

She would have to remind me. “Why don’t you just go ahead and continue with your memoires?”

(To be continued)

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