American Embassy Damascus | The Effect of Nilsson Schmilsson on African Violets (part II)

Late March 1978

A full day had passed at the American Embassy Damascus and I had yet to deal with the technical problem at the Ambassador’s residence that required my immediate attention. So far I had learned that CRO Wanda H. owned a pocketbook made out of the finest African elephant foreskin, that her African violets liked Harry Nilsson’s music, and that her Sony Trinitron thirty-two inch TV had an audio problem that only a skilled TV shop repairman could fix.

<feature photo by gettyimages at

After I pressed Wanda on her earlier comment about Ouagadougou, she gave me a you-asked-for-it look and said, “Gil Farrow was a photographer. He came to Ouagadougou for a National Geographic project. We met at a get together at the Admin Counselor’s residence.”

Wanda and I stood in a room of plants off the kitchen. The “back porch” looked like a slice of Central Africa (according to Wanda’s description). Call me Bwana, but Wanda’s recent aberrant humor had me on the lookout for deadly black momba snakes that might slither out of the lush plants at any time.

The Nilsson Schmilsson song played on…

Well, 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 gazed at her precious African violet, and with melancholy eyes she said, “Have you ever experienced love at first sight?”

She had surprised me again. I shook my head.

“I don’t mean to get all syrupy, but…”

Tears flowed down her cheeks. I tried to comfort her by patting her on the back.

“Gil and I  were soul mates during his six week visit… and then he got on a plane headed for Bamako, that’s in Mali, and I never saw him again.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“The plane crashed near the Mali border. Killed the pilot, Gil and two others. Turned out Gil was married and had an eight year old son.”

The conversation had turned very awkward.

“I’m sorry,” she said, wiping away the tears. “I shouldn’t have piled all that on you.”

“That’s all right. What a tragedy. You must have had a hard time getting over it.”

“Time heals. Six months later I transferred to Abidjan on the Ivory Coast. It was probably my nicest posting in Africa… A lot of fond memories… You ready for another beer?”


She returned, handed me the cold Heineken. splayed her hands out and said, “Anyway, this is my sanctuary. To survive this circus we call the Foreign Service I think everybody needs a place to go on those bad days. Some people call them the ‘blues.’ Fred Bingston, our Admin Officer in Abidjan could close his eyes for half and hour during lunch time and run all the negatives through his mental shredder. He was lucky.”

She looked at me as if to say, “Where is your sanctuary?” But she didn’t say anything. As she lowered her gaze I conjured up an image where I stood holding a watering can while a garden of African violets sang, “But I guess that’s just the way the story goes.”

So far, all I had to curb the blues was my John D. MacDonald mystery books and my steadfast adherence to my mentor Norm Bates’ 60/40 Hypothesis, which stated that my Foreign Service job was 60% technical and 40% FS stuff (although the ratio was debatable). I didn’t mention them to Wanda, instead replying that I’d work on my garden.

I followed her back to the kitchen where the odor of curry filled the air.

“I mustn’t forget to make rice,” she said to herself. She glanced at me and added. “I can’t eat the stuff anymore.”

It hit me like running into an elephant racing at me on a narrow trail in Ouagadougou. Why had I not made the connection earlier? “Did you ever run into Norm Bates?”

“Norm Bates. The name sounds familiar.”

“He was a radio tech in West Africa,” I said. “He told me about some of his adventures in West Africa years ago. Norm mentioned about drinking rum and cokes with a blond Foreign Service lady in some place called… Niamey?”

Wanda remembered. “I suppose he told you about the ‘monkey brain’ story.”

I smiled.

“I thought that war story had been dead and buried years ago,” She said and laughed. “I can’t eat rice to this day.”

Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut. Wanda eyed me with a sad expression like my mom when she had bought me a shirt for my birthday that didn’t fit well. “Why did you join up with this crazy outfit?” She laughed. “Certainly wasn’t the money. I hear civilian outfits pay a lot more.”

“It was either join the Foreign Service or the traveling circus,” I said, “and I have no talent.” Her laughter was a bit subdued with just the two of us present. “I’m really enjoying traveling around the Middle East,” I said.

Wanda’s response was a rueful smile. Her “Road to Damascus” moment was near or at least that was the vibe I was getting.

“Gosh, I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I received a message from SECSTATE. The OC personnel office asked me if I would consider an assignment back there. Are you kidding me? I haven’t lived in the U.S. since the early ‘50’s. I wouldn’t know how to act around… such normalcy. I’d probably have a nervous breakdown.”

“What did you tell them?”

“Nothing yet.”

“You could start up a pretty nice garden back there.”

She laughed in a way that showed disbelief (or was she mocking my misunderstanding of her role in the Foreign Service?).

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