Middle East Travel | The Road to Damascus Ends at the Emerald City

March 1978 (Aboard a Jet Airliner 33,000 feet above Syria)

 In biblical scripture the “Road to Damascus” referred to the sudden turning point in the life of the apostle Paul (when God shined the light on him) while literally on the road to Damascus from Jerusalem. Prior to that moment, he had been called Saul, and was a Pharisee who persecuted followers of Jesus.

<feature photo by pinterest.com

I don’t think Paul’s epiphany (or whatever you want to call it) was a spur of the moment type thing. I’m sure his change of heart to become a disciple of Jesus must have followed several gut wrenching incidents that came to a head (with God’s help) to change his mind.

We’ve all had our “Road to Damascus” moment—that sudden turning point in one’s life. My moment—secular rather than religious—occurred on a jet airplane thirty-some thousand feet above the area known in biblical times as Aram, where John had changed his name from Saul.

Less than six months into my assignment at the American Consulate General Karachi and it felt like two years had passed. Shouldn’t I be listening to the Bee Gee’s or Fleetwood Mac, drinking beer, and attending L.A. Dodger games instead of fighting customs people who barely speak English?

I suddenly felt alone, which surprised me. Since my arrival at RCO Karachi I had not thought about where I was headed. Suddenly, at thirty-three thousand feet in altitude the thought overwhelmed me. The few metrics didn’t give me a sense of how I was doing in the Foreign Service. In my case the job well done was in the form of an “Atta boy,” a message sent from the post CRO (Communications & Records Officer) after the completion of my visit. RCO Bob Roberson would forward these to OC/PE at SECSTATE. Roberson would generate a “performance report” later this year.

The realization blanketed me like an Egyptian Khamsin sand storm. Norm Bates was mistaken, or more likely, his error was intentional (lest how would SECSTATE entice the OC Bandits1who prided their technical expertise above all else?).


Bandits1 (see tags below): refers to my radio tech cohorts at SECSTATE (US Department of State). Before a CEO (Communications Electronic Officer) can get assigned overseas in the Foreign Service he must work an indeterminate time at the OC/PE Radio Shop in Northern Virginia.

 The “Bandits” was my term for the OC radio techs (CEO’s). It best described the diverse personalities who shared common traits such as a fierce independence, a curiosity to seek out the root of any problem, and a comradery based on shared experience. The idea came from the wildly popular film, “Smokey & the Bandit, starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields.”


Yes, it made perfect sense now… Norm Bates’ 60/40 Hypothesis was backasswards. It was actually the 40/60 Hypothesis!

The emphasis of my job wasn’t primarily technical. My true task, contrary to what I had been hired to do, was basically to support the Foreign Service on all fronts. While I pondered this epiphany the Pakistani Airlines pilot began his descent into Damascus. The lights turned as did my idea lamp.

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

I finished the last sip before the stewardess collected my coffee, and chuckled. A single line from a movie summed it all up. The Wizard of Oz offered a great metaphor—the Foreign Service was the Emerald City in the classic film. And, like the Wizard, SECSTATE was not called upon by a name. The Wizard’s job was to project his wizened, fearless image as a sage who knew all.

Yes, Oz explained things perfectly. My job, and the thousands of American diplomats at missions around the world, was to keep the projector running through the use of carefully chosen words, impressive flag-shrouded chanceries, the magic of radio signal technology, and dedication. SECSTATE accomplished all of this by asking for our brain, our heart, and our courage in exchange for pronouncing us loyal citizens of the Emerald City.

How would the Wizard of Oz metaphor shape my future?… Time would tell, but when the big hot air balloon (from the end of the story) began to take off I would have to decide whether I would be on-board or not.

We prepared for landing at Damascus International Airport. I was anxious to explore the Emerald City (a.k.a. American Embassy Damascus) and partake of the magic elixir from the emerald colored bottles (Heineken Beer).

As the wheels touched down I saw Dorothy’s image flash accompanied by the roar of jet engines. She said, “There’s no place like home.”

Was the Foreign Service really my home?

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