The American Embassy Athens | A Home Cooked Meal Includes Spoiled Milk

April 1978

RCO Bob Roberson had offered for me to layover the weekend in Athens before returning to my home base at Amconsul Karachi. I accepted with the only caveat being that I attend a half-day security upgrade at Am Embassy Athens.

>photo Hellenikon Air force Base, Athens, Greece circa 1976 by forgottenairfields.com

I was finished with the security survey by noon on Friday. Am Embassy Athens had requested radio upgrades as part of the security upgrade. I sent their requests back to RCO Roberson in Karachi with a note that I would discuss with him upon my return. Basically, the embassy was asking for far more than it needed—what else was new? The CRO named Dick who I reported to at the embassy had invited me for dinner tonight. Dick’s wife, a Greek woman was baking mousaka. He said, other than our dinner date, I should get lost this weekend. I didn’t argue.

I had a rental car and was staying at the beach front city of Glyfada—in the flight path of Athens International airport and the US Air Force Base, Hellenikon. It was a beautiful sunshiny day. I was craving American food. The CRO said the chow at the AFB wasn’t bad.

Hellenikon Air Base–US Air Force Base, Athens

We called them mess halls or chow halls when I was in the US Army during 1969-1972. Here at the Hellenikon Air Force base in Athens they called it a dining facility. My diplomatic passport got me on the base and the use of all facilities. I was famished after living off of canned corn beef and occasional beef schwarmas in Baghdad for the past two weeks.

I grabbed a tray and filled the plate with fried chicken, mash potatoes and gravy, and two cornbread muffins. I selected a Greek salad and found a table to sit at. It felt a bit strange to be in an American setting and I was enjoying it. I saw the familiar milk dispenser. Yes, they had Nestles chocolate milk. I poured two glasses full.

This was the closest I would get to a home cooked American meal until I return on home leave to California later this year. I drank a half a glass of chocolate milk while I considered my around-the-world trip late this year. From Karachi I’d fly to Washington for a few days visit to talk to OC (Office of Communications) at SECSTATE (US Department of State) and later stop by the OC radio shop in Springfield, Northern Virginia. Then I’d fly to LAX where my parents would pick me up. After ten days at home I’d take off to Bangkok over the Pacific. I’d have a week in Thailand, this time with a side trip to the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Funny, I suddenly felt that I wasn’t worthy of such a fine meal. The chicken, and gravy dripped over mash potatoes…. It was fantastic. The cornbread had husks of corn in it along with pimentos.

I had almost forgotten dessert. I got in line for the apple pie… they had vanilla ice cream, too. I returned to my table and aimed a spoon into the ice cream, gathering up some crust of the pie.

Incredibly, a familiar face pulled the crank at the chocolate milk dispenser.

Norm Bates, my old boss in Springfield, Virginia, gazed around for a table. My wave caught his attention.

“I heard you were in town” he said, and sat his tray down accompanied with his version of a smile.

“Athens is part of RCO Karachi’s responsibility,” I replied. “What are you doing here Norm?”

He stared down at his food as if it had suddenly spoiled. I felt like I had been ambushed. Had RCO Roberson set up my stay over knowing that Norm Bates would be in town? Had the Athens CRO told Norm that I was on my way to the AFB? And why would they want me to me to meet with Bates? Maybe I had too many, ‘what if’s.’

Norm said, “I got roped into this USSR boondoggle. I’m headed to Moscow tonight. The Russians have been blasting the American embassy with RF microwave radiation. I’m sure you’ve heard about it.”

Sure, huh? The sour note in Norm’s voice added to my bad feeling. Did he think I should be the one heading to Moscow tonight? “Yeah, the last time I was in Cairo RSO Childress told me about it. He said he was heading up the detail… Wow, I’ve been really busy over here—non-stop travel.”

He nodded. “We’ve been getting good reports about your work over… Yeah, I heard Childress was involved in that SY (State Department Security) fiasco in Paris involving Pompidou’s wife a few years ago. I guess he’s an okay guy, but I hear he likes building his career on other FSO’s backs.”

He gazed at me and chuckled. “I’d like to get my hands on the guy that recommended me to him.”

I wasn’t going to mention that RSO Childress had asked me to support the Moscow detail. Or that I had brought up Norm’s name in casual conversation. And, I didn’t “recommend” Norm to RSO Childress as he probably suspected. “I just finished up helping out Joe P on the WATTS project in Baghdad.”

He chuckled. “There’s a photograph floating around OC of you guys in a Baghdad nightclub with your arms around a group of belly dancers.”

For some reason I shied away from telling Norm the Casablanca Nightclub war story. I had a feeling that he harbored ill will toward me because of the Moscow TDY assignment. In fact, we had very little to say because of it and that kind of ruined my day, maybe my entire month. I thought I might even cancel out of the mousaka dinner tonight. If Norm had a few beers it might manifest his angst.

Out of nowhere, Norm rose and said, “I’ll see you tonight at Dick’s place. My flight doesn’t leave until midnight.”

“Sure, you like mousaka?”

“That wife of his is a fantastic cook,” Norm said, like he ate there all the time. “Last time I was here she cooked lamb.” He smiled. “I wish my wife could cook lamb like that.”

I almost said, “Have a good trip to Moscow,” but instead said, “See you next time, Norm.”

No, I wasn’t going to attend the CRO’s dinner tonight. I was going to have a few beers in Glyfada and call in an excuse—I just felt lousy.

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