The Belgium Interest, Baghdad | WATTS Up?

May 1978

TDY (temporary duty), Baghdad: The U.S. government was starting up an “interest” at the Belgium embassy. I was part of a team of OC (Office of Communication) technicians tasked with installing an HF (High-Frequency) radio system called WATTS (West Africa Telecommunication and Teletype Systems) there that had the capability to handle classified telegrams. 

I woke up the next morning after my very entertaining visit to the Casablanca Nightclub last night, feeling great. An elderly Belgian secretary brought us fresh croissants from a local bakery. I cooked fried eggs and sausages (small frankfurters) to go along with the still warm bread. When everyone was seated I recanted my adventures from last night. When the OC techs, including our leader Joe M. gazed at me in disbelief I laid down the gauntlet…

“I propose a celebration,” I said. “When WATTS goes on-air I’m taking you all out on a night on the town in Baghdad, to the Casablanca Nightclub.”

The air was filled with uncertainty with expectations rising toward our leader, Joe M who agreed that it might be fun, but he reiterated that we still had a lot of work to do first. Ron, the other radio tech said, “What up with WATTS.”

Joe laughed and said, “WATTS up?” (It would be our catch phrase for the rest of stay). Joe said, “I’ll tell ya WATTS up… A Collin’s engineer [Collins Manufactured the WATTS system] is due in after lunch to lend us a hand.”

We all raised our coffee mugs. “To Collins!”

That generated more hope in the eyes of my cohorts than my weak incantation of the Casablanca Nightclub adventure. I hoped we weren’t counting too much on the Collin’s guy. Although he had as much skin in the game as OC (the Office of Communications) the engineer had no obligation to help out other than perform the test & acceptance after the WATTS system was on-air.

“The Collin’s engineer is bringing a dozen diamond-tipped drill bits specifically engineered for these rebar impregnated walls,” Joe said, wryly.

That got everybody in good spirits. We wolfed down the breakfast including the dozen croissants before the rock group Boney M began singing our theme song, “By the Rivers of Babylon…”

The Baghdad Blues | Arrival of Reinforcements

Joe borrowed a Belgium embassy motor pool vehicle and picked up the Collins Radio Company engineer at the airport without incident. I was expecting a tall Texan wearing a ten-gallon hat. Jerry was a good natured Irishman, a red-faced short individual with a reddish brown beard who let it be known that after Collins, women and beer held second and third positions. That said, he told us that he was here to help out in anyway possible and had done several of these type of installations. Furthermore, Jerry considered himself expert on the installation of the three-phase electrical panel that would interface with the local power.

I think we all gave a collective sigh of relief. After all, we were radio techs, not electrical power engineers. I wondered if the other techs had the same feeling as I did that Jerry was either our savior or an ace BS’er who could make things worse. We’d find out pretty quick.

When Jerry brought out the dozen diamond-tipped drill bits it was like Ali Baba had uttered, “Open sesame,” and revealed the treasure. “These bitches will bore through anything,” he said. To prove his point the Collin’s engineer inserted one into a drill and proceeded to bore through one of the walls in about fifteen minutes.

“Shit,” Joe said with glee. “We’ve been wasted our time with these bastards.” He chucked one the worthless dull bits at a distant wall. It didn’t make a dent in it.

Over the next two days we finished all the drilling and began installing conduits. Jerry fit in and became one of the guys. But when he wasn’t working the Collin’s engineer would disappear for long periods of time. Last night he didn’t return until after two a.m.

I asked him the next day if he had been to the Casablanca Nightclub. He shook his head, smiled and said, “I’ve got a girlfriend. She lives down the street.”

Now, I wasn’t the only one who heard Jerry’s reply. To continue the drama I said: “Is she an Iraqi?”

“Oh, yeah. Black hair, brown eyes and… Oh, man…”

Wasn’t it supposed to be taboo to fraternize with Muslim women? While the rest of us conjectured about the “Oh, man” comment, Jerry said that Nadia reminded him of Maria Muldaur. Jerry claimed to have met the sultry songstress who popularized the song, “Midnight at the Oasis.”

“Midnight at the oasis

Send your camel to bed

Shadows painting our faces

Traces of romance in our heads

Heaven’s holding a half-moon

Shining just for us

Let’s slip off to a sand dune, real soon

And kick up a little dust.”

 Jerry left us techs in a dither. Besides Joe and Ken, who were married, the four of us single guys could only fantacize about Jerry’s romantic conquests… He casually rose up and went to work on the electrical panel…

Three days later, we had finished the installation (in record time). Jerry completed test & acceptance with a resounding thumbs-up. OC sent an “attaboy” message to Joe, which he shared all around. We invited Jerry along on our Casablanca Nightclub adventure that night. I asked him to bring his Iraqi girlfriend but he said a nightclub wouldn’t be appropriate for her (he surprised us and said she was a Christian girl).

The Casablanca Nightclub Revisited

We were lucky. It was the last night of the “Star Wars Extravaganza” at the Casablanca Nightclub. The self-proclaimed ‘Magnificent Seven’ (we OC techs and Jerry, the Collins engineer) walked in like we owned the place. I had leaked an unfounded rumor to the guys that strongman Sadam Hussein frequented the nightclub.

My belly dancer, Shakira, met us with bright eyes. I asked her to find a good table for us. Since it was the last night of Star Wars the place was already getting packed. I noticed my guys looked slack-jawed around the Vegas-like venue. “What do you think?” I said.

“WATTS, up?” somebody said, and we all laughed.

Shakira returned with two other belly dancers and lead us to a table close in to the stage. She sat between Joe and me. The other two well-endowed damsels sat down, one cozied up to the grinning Jerry. Before I could say, “Alacazam,” a guy who looked like he must be the manager (wearing, of course, a black mustache) nodded for his waiter to plop down a bottle of Jack Daniels on the table.

I glanced at Joe and he gave me a “don’t worry about it” smile.

The manager said, “Welcome to the Casablanca Club, enjoy the show., gentlemen.” We all grinned and said our thank you’s. Joe said to the waiter, “I’d like a glass of ice and a Coca- Cola.” We all seconded that.

“OC’s paying for this,” Joe said. “They’ve been sweating bullets over us getting the WATTS on-the-air, a first in the Middle-East. I don’t have to tell you what would happen if DOS (US Department of State) sent personnel over here and the telecoms didn’t work.

We were pretty loose (thanks to Jack Daniels and the belly dancers) when the show began. Needless to say we were the most vocal supporters when the American troupe, The Fantastics, went on stage. Jerry said he was in love with the lead singer (whom I called Joy, from New Jersey).

When the show ended we joined the standing ovation. Our bill, a stack of Dinar, came out to about fifty US dollars apiece (Joe wouldn’t let our guest Jerry pay). Meanwhile, Jerry had brought a camera and had the waiter take a group photo (including Shakira and the other belly dancers). He promised to send us all copies.

Boy, what a war story this would turn out to be…

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