Baghdad | By the Rivers of Babylon

April 1978

The ’57 Chevy driven by a black-mustached Iraqi rumbled (the shocks were all gone) down the highway from the airport into Baghdad. I bet the tires (probably retreads) had little tread wear left.

Boney M album cover courtesy

We passed a billboard that advertised the Iraqi leader Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. The old man looked like someone was creeping up behind him wielding a knife. Crypto tech and headman in charge Joe said that the weak and elderly al-Bakr’s reign was in serious trouble thanks to his Vice President Saddam Hussein. The VP/General/Strongman Hussein had been gradually taking over the government. Was this one reason why the US government was establishing a communications link between Baghdad and SECSTATE (the US Department of State) in Washington, DC? I didn’t ask Joe.

As a youth I had always pictured Baghdad as this mysterious oriental kingdom of white castles amidst sand dunes with a shadowy interior Kasbah patrolled by dark skinned turban topped Arabs yielding sharp swords. The real world version had old Chevy’s driven by olive uniformed Arabs (all with mustaches) patrolling the streets of Baghdad that quite frankly the Baghdad that I had seen so far resembled East Los Angeles (in 1959) more than the Kasbah.

I’d never seen so many men with black mustaches. They must have all watched “Cannonball Run” with the mustachioed Burt Reynolds (who could easily pass as an Arab). However, a kind of transformation must have taken place at old age here as the mustache was given over to a gray beard. I figured the old guys considered the beard wiser. Al-Bakr was shown beardless though.

The Belgium Embassy/ U.S. Interest

Joe M and I were let off at the Belgium Embassy. Although the Belgian personnel were civil they didn’t greet us with open arms. I had the feeling the leaders in Brussels had made an agreement with SECSTATE to support a US Interest, but the personnel here didn’t get the memo (or weren’t agreeable with it). We were given the aid of a local national and led to the very rear of the chancery to where four OC techs sat at an old bench eating lunch.

I didn’t know any of the techs. Besides our leader Joe, there were two another Crypto techs and a radio tech. The radio guy named Ron offered us a sandwich made of canned corn beef from Argentina. I washed it down with a local coke that tasted syrupy while listening to small talk mostly from the three crypto techs, led by Joe. He spun a decent war story that brought plenty of laughs about our escapade out at Baghdad Airport (see previous message).

After lunch Joe held a short meeting. He said we had up to two weeks to complete the installation, but OC was expecting ten days to end-of-mission. Our job was to install and test the WATTS (West Africa Teletype and Telecommunications System) here at the Belgium Embassy. The system comprised four racks nineteen inches wide each and six feet tall. When complete US CRO personnel attached here soon would be able to trade classified telegraphic messages with SECSTATE and other missions in the region.

Regarding installation, the issues were twofold: the available electric power source was about twenty yards from where the Belgians allowed us to install the radio gear. Besides that roof access would be required for the rooftop HF (high frequency) antenna installation.

Joe said the first week all personnel would be dedicated to drilling and laying cables in conduits through several walls and the ceiling. After that we’d break up into our skill set tasks–radio, crypto, telecommunications. I had the feeling this was a “jump through a hoop” for an RCO promotion for Joe.

The single story sprawling Belgium embassy used to be a residence in this upscale suburban neighborhood. It had probably six bedrooms with a corridor connecting to rear quarters. We had cots back in the two bedroom rear quarters along with a small kitchen and two bathrooms. I hoped the embassy might have stowed some good Belgian beer in the fridge, but not so. Ironically, they had installed a TV with a VHS player. A stack of old American movies included “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Peyton Place,” and “How the West was Won.”

We changed into old clothes and began drilling into two different walls until around seven at night. Joe gave the crew a nervous gaze and headed off to the Belgium embassy communications center to send a message back to OC. We had gone threw three drill bits already and were barely half way through the two walls. Apparently, Joe had been given drill bits that weren’t the special diamond-studded type that he had requested. At this rate it would take us two weeks just to complete the drilling.

Open Sesame | The Search for the Diamond Bits

Two days later we were still drilling. One of the crypto techs named Bill had brought a boom box. Our theme song became the rock group Boney M’s, “By the Rivers of Babylon.” We had no idea what the lyrics meant besides the fact that they referenced to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (about a mile away from us). It was a catchy song to listen to while working.

Joe heard back from OC in Washington, DC. They intimated that this installation had top priority due to unspecified political agreements (even Joe wouldn’t discuss it). A Collins Radio Company engineer would arrive in two days hand carrying the drill bits. OC had a contractual agreement with Collins Radio Company that they test & accept the WATTS system before it went on-air. Meanwhile, we ate canned food and watched old movies when not attacking those rock-hard walls with dull bits (“Open Sesame” didn’t work) while the treasure lie on the other side.

On the third night the cabin fever had gotten to me. After Joe started up “Mutiny on the Bounty,” I got up and said, “I’m going for a walk.”

“Don’t get lost,” somebody said as Clark Gable eyed an island beauty in the black & white flick.

(To be continued)


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