June 1978—The United Arab Emirates
I was serving the U.A.E. missions on the way to Cairo and Athens. I had begun at Muscat, Oman. It might have been Abu Dhabi or Dubai (memories fail) where I ran into CRO Wojakowski. Wojo, short and non-descript, was in his mid-thirties. A short man, he owned a bald spot on the back of his head. His voice held a slight whine. The techs that worked for him in the American embassy’s Communications & Records Unit made fun of it in a good-natured way.
Since I would only be at post a couple days Wojo offered to put me up in his spare bedroom. He had an older but well kept apartment off post about a mile from the embassy.
My duties at post were to upgrade the embassy security radio program and to evaluate the ambassador’s vehicle mobile radio alarm system. Wojo swore that he checked the system weekly. I tested the alarms and the radio coverage of the ambassador’s vehicle. Overall the radio coverage was good—I signed off on it. Wojo was happy when I recommended six additional handheld radios and was able to get approval for the OC funded radios from RCO Roberson in Karachi via telegraphic messages. U.S. Mission’s loved it when they didn’t have to pay for something.
An hour after I arrived at Wojo’s apartment I learned that he was a Polish American of Jewish faith. His parents took a passenger ship from Lisbon, Portugal to New York right before WWII began. Wojo was born the day before D-Day, June 5th1944 in Brooklyn. He related this to me over a glass of “prohibition” red wine. He had distilled it himself over a six-month period in a small storage room off the kitchen. His wine collection consisted of about two-dozen bottles, all sporting home made labels. A row of five-gallon jugs “percolated” in the corner.
I found it odd that while he told his story a turntable played old Broadway and Hollywood musical records in the background. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like the classical musicals like My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and South Pacific. But here we were in a Muslim nation surrounded by sand and asphalt, so it just seemed odd.
Wojo didn’t employ a servant, or a cook. I would soon discover why. He was a good cook, but more importantly he didn’t want anyone nosing around his master bedroom. Wojo didn’t sleep in the bedroom; he favored the couch. It was none of my business so I didn’t ask questions, but on the second day of my visit I learned the mystery behind the locked bedroom door. We had imbibed two glasses of wine along with lamb shawarmas (pita sandwiches) we had picked in the souk (the local market place).
“Let me show you something,” Wojo said, as if I was one of the chosen few.
Singin’ in the Rain
He opened the bedroom door into an artist’s studio, the floor covered with a huge tarp. There were oil paintings lined along the walls. The king-sized bed had been taken apart and the components leaned against the far wall. Two easels stood in the center of the room, each showing a partially finished painting of a Broadway musical. I saw images of Broadway’s My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Showboat in his work.
“These are fantastic,” I said.
Wojo’s eyes lit up. “I play the soundtracks while I paint. They inspire me.”
“How did you get interested in musicals?” I said.
“My dad performed in the theatre for years before the war. He taught me music. I play the piano and am learning guitar.”
“Do you sell these?” I gazed at Gene Kelly in An American in Paris. Next to it he had caught the energy of Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain.
“I’ll pouch them back to Washington when I PCS back to SECSTATE in December. But, no, I’ve never sold one of my paintings yet… Never tried to, actually.”
“I think they would sell if you wanted to,” I said.
Gene Kelly’s voice rang out of the speakers as Wojo picked up his brush:
I’m singin’ in the rain
Just singin’ in the rain
What a glorious feeling
I’m happy again
While Wojo’s brushes worked their magic on the canvasses I reflected on the ways Foreign Service Officers dealt with the rigor and stress of various assignments around the world. Most of my contact was with the CRO’s (Communications & Records Officers) at various Middle East posts. CRO Byron thrived on the cloak and dagger environment at Am Embassy Beirut. The CRO in Al Doha specialized in cooking various Indian curries. CRO Wanda at Am Embassy Damascus raised African violets and had her rich memories to stir those great war stories. Our RCO secretary BJ at Karachi had known President Lyndon B Johnson and had survived several high-risk posts. She confronted stress with a flask of bourbon accompanied by rich stories of her career in remote African posts.
Wojo took a break and pulled out another bottle of six-month old wine. I sipped from the glass and said, “Hey Wojo, I’ve had had worse wine from the grocery stores in California.”
He laughed as the image of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady slowly emerged on the canvas.