American Embassy Damascus | The Effect of Nilsson Schmilsson on African Violets

March 1978

The Foreign Service brochure had actually been correct on this one. The FS was a melting pot of people from all walks of life and all regions of the United States (and sometime overseas). It shouldn’t have been a surprise given that the government advertised that it represented all of the people. No, what surprised me were the extreme and diverse personalities that walked through the entrance of the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., only to head out to parts unknown armed with a suitcase, a black passport, and knowledge.

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Case in point: Wanda H., Communications & Records Officer, Am Embassy Damascus. She had exited the State Department doors nearly twenty years ago and had never returned (and according to Wanda she didn’t plan to return to SECSTATE until retirement). She had said matter-of-factly, “By then this warhorse will be ready for the glue factory.”

At her Damascus apartment, after several Heineken beers Wanda admitted, “I’m forty-four,” answering the question on my mind.

“Wow, I would have guessed mid-thirties,” I said.

“You’re just being nice.”

The High Precedence 32” Sony Trinitron TV

photo Sony Trinitron TV source:

So, Wanda, why was I called out here on an immediate precedence message?”

She looked surprised. “Oh that. The ambassador’s E&E HF radio stopped working. I couldn’t get you access to his residence until tomorrow morning. Say, could you look at my Sony Trinitron TV? The sound doesn’t work. Marconi [a crypto tech] told me you were really good at fixing stuff.”

Wanda had invited three other guests, including the guy named Leslie who I believed was a CIA agent. They had not arrived yet. Now I knew why Wanda had asked me to show up early.

After an hour I screwed the rear cover back on the Sony Trinitron and shook my head.

“How’s the patient doing?” she said.

“It looks like a defective integrated circuit on the mother board. I can’t fix that.”

“Damn,” she said, as her eyes found the ceiling.

I gazed at the rows of VHS movie tapes in the shelves above the TV. The Sony TV must be a major source of entertainment for her.

“Well, heck, let’s play some music then,” she said.


Wanda inserted a cassette into the tape player of the Technics stereo system and said, “The Nilsson Schmilsson album. Do you like Harry Nilsson?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Excuse me, but I cry every time I hear this song. It reminds me of a heartbreak I experienced in Ouagadougou [Ooh-wa-ga-doo-goo] in ‘72.”

Harry Nilsson sang,“Without You.”

No, I can’t forget this evening

Or your face as you were leaving

But I guess that’s just the way the story goes

You always smile but in your eyes your sorrow shows

Yes, it shows

Wanda said absently, “Am Embassy Ouagadougou is the capital of Upper Volta,” like the embassy was the capital.

No, I can’t forget tomorrow

When I think of all my sorrow

When I had you there, but then I let you go

And now it’s only fair that I should let you know

What you should know

I waited patiently for the war story about to unfold, but she suddenly came out of her melancholy, rose and said, “Follow me.”

I can’t live if living is without you

I can’t live, I can’t give anymore

I can’t live if living is without you

I can’t give, I can’t give anymore

With an ear into the music she led me beyond the small kitchen to what she called her “back porch.”

I gasped at her Garden of Eden that occupied a space of perhaps six by eight feet. Pots hung from a ceiling of moss. Below them planters were filled with tropical plants and flowers the names of which I had no clue. Plastic drapes hung like operating room fixtures.

She stroked a purple flower like it was a baby kitten. “It’s an African violet. They’re so beautiful. They thrive anywhere as long as you provide love and humidity.”

I thought she said humility at first.

“Most people kill their violets with too much kindness—they water them too much.”

I thought maybe she had been in Africa too long. I had heard she had spent over a dozen years, mostly in central Africa with her violets at various posts.

“These African violets particularly like Nilsson’s song, and, The Beatles slow stuff. Harry (Nilsson) is known as the fifth Beatle, you know.”

“You sound like you know a lot about Nilsson,” I said. “I like his stuff, too.”

Wanda had this way about her. Whenever she spoke her eye contact was resolute. That was how she commanded conversation. She said, “With the possible exception of Paul McCartney there is not a better singer in the music industry. Did you know Nilsson started out working at a bank? And get this, his job was in the computer department.”

“I didn’t know banks had computer departments.”

She lifted her hands. “Neither did I.”

My curiosity got to me. “What about Ouagadougou?”

(To be continued)


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