Once upon a time there was an online poetry course called ModPo. And inside of ModPo forums there came to exist a discussion group known as The Breakfast Club where some really cool and creative ModPo students hung out. And yes, I joined that group, attracted to its coolness.
In ModPo’s second year, remnants of The Breakfast Club took the course again and renamed themselves Second Breakfast. More coolness and more creativity. And there was spillover into social media, into ModPo Alumni groups, into Coursera Cafe, into affinity groups observing NaPoWriMo, NaHaiWriMo, Postcard Poetry Month, DiGiWriMo, and countless others. Some formed unstructured groups that followed each other on Twitter. Some formed more professional writing groups. And blogs. Many had blogs where they showcased their own poetry. Some even became teachers of poetry. All spillover from ModPo forums.
Many original members of The Breakfast Club and Second Breakfast became community teaching assistants. They hung out in a new forum group called Coffee and Tea.
In 2014-2015 I worked as a librarian and a teacher of library instruction to freshmen, sophomores, and business students. That was quite a scope-widening experience, I can say in retrospect. But it was my lowest participation year in ModPo and I really missed it.
By 2016, some groups took on a slightly political persuasion, mostly in support of the Democratic candidate. And a few went to the opposing end of the spectrum. Poetry is like that, you know.
It was in 2016 that I completed docent training at the Library of Congress. And it was in conducting tours of the Jefferson Building that I discovered what poetry really was/is. In explaining the gaps between the John White Alexander murals that make up the exhibit, The Evolution of the Book, I had the following epiphany: Poetry began as the first manifestation of the oral tradition, a by-product of the mixture of ritual, religious experience, and human brain evolution. It was carved or inscribed into walls of human habitations, just like Facebook or Twitter, then clay tablets, and finally, paper. But mainly, it was recited out loud, at parties and ceremonies and religious events. It was committed to memory and passed down through generations, each level adding value and depth and richness.
Extending the metaphor, poetry arose as the original transcript of the sacred conversation (Google that one!) and the meeting minutes of the Beloved Community (look that one up too!). At an even higher level, poetry is the language of the demarche, a conversation between princes that became the structure and the art of diplomacy (you can’t look that one up because I haven’t written the book yet!).
I have given you a lot of homework. It’s another election year in America, after all. Perhaps I’ve invited you into my echo chamber, my parallel universe. But ModPo is not a cult, it’s a way of thinking about life.
We are coming up on the 40th anniversary (2012) of the graduation of the first group of Anne C. Stouffer Foundation scholars. To mark that achievement, a bunch of us are holding monthly conference calls to plan a February 2016 reunion in Atlanta. Perhaps we’ll include some of the prominent luminaries, educators, politicians, etc., who were involved in the original experiment.
Here is my oral history submission from the archives:
It was an interesting, and maybe even a noble experiment.
Prelude. Lincoln Jr. High had never seen so many white people! John and Rosemary Ehle and a couple of other people working tape machines and taking notes took over the library (or was it the guidance counselor’s offices? One was across the hall from the other). I recall that once we were tested and selected, we had to submit a preference for schools. I thought Asheville, because it was closer, but my mother did some checking and discovered a whole bunch of Greensboro folks were already in the Woodberry family. My father was dead set against the whole enterprise, I remember, and he had his reasons, but my mother was all for it and all in for Woodberry Forest School.
We took a Greyhound bus up for the interview. It was winter and it was cold. Snow met us in the parking lot when we arrived by taxi from the bus stop in Orange, VA. But on the return trip we met some relatives in Richmond, where we spent the weekend before returning to Greensboro and Lincoln Jr. High. I finished out the semester, but learned before Spring that I would be Woodberry bound.
Ron Long, Terry Jones, and Art Gaines led the charge in 1969. They were the first generation, the pioneers. I think they had some interesting experiences, but I’ll leave that story to them to tell. In the second year, 1970, Ron Lipscomb, Kevin Miller, Wayne Booker and I arrived as boarding students, and Gary Mance and Wayne Williams came in as day students, tripling our numbers and making a significant addition to the number of variables in the social experiment. In 1971, Clifford Johnson and Robert Long, Ron’s younger brother, joined us, both as boarding students.
Of course, it didn’t take long for us to discover one another. Kevin and I both came from Greensboro and from Lincoln Jr. High. (Five Lincoln students went to Virginia prep schools that year under the Anne C. Stouffer Foundation. Veda Howell went to Foxcroft, another girl went to Chatham Hall whose name I can’t remember.). I don’t remember if we came together officially or if we just gravitated to a center. Gaines, Long and Jones were the big brothers we went to for advice. Ron Lipscomb and I had classes together. And we all played football that first fall: Ron, Art, Wayne and Gary on JV, Terry, Ronald, and I on Junior Orange, Kevin and Wayne Williams on Junior Black. In my second year I gravitated to cross country after showing some promise as a middle distance runner the previous spring. Several of us continued together in winter track, though Ronald Lipscomb early on distinguished himself in JV basketball in the winter, as did Ron Long in varsity baseball in the spring. Was I really the first African American in the history of the school to letter in cross-country? Damn, I guess I was.
We got into the habit of sitting together in the dining hall for Saturday and Sunday breakfasts, which were buffet and informal (no coat and tie, and no assigned seating). It is amusing looking back on it, and maybe even a bit contrived, but at the time it seemed the natural thing to do.
My favorite teachers. Dave Bloor tripled as my earth science teacher, track and cross country coach and assigned academic adviser. He was definitely one of my favorites. I learned so much from Mr. Bloor, in the classroom and on the track. I will never forget him. Bob Vasquez, my Spanish teacher, started me off on a language learning track (he was also my basketball coach, though his best efforts at converting me to basketball fell short). Wilfred Grenfell ranks right at the top; I lived for his history lectures, and he, more than any other, bears the blame for my insatiable curiosity about Middle East issues and about foreign affairs in general. Robin Breeden, our dorm guy, maybe we called him dorm master, would invite us into his apartment for tea and biscuits and tell us about the time he swam the English Channel. How I adored those “civilizing” chats. And the Bond couple, Tom and Vicki, with whom I studied both Spanish and French, fueled my thirst for foreign language skills that continues until today, with Portuguese and Arabic added along the way.
I have warm memories of running cross country. Those long autumnal runs, named Arrowpoint and Chicken Ridge, and the long 13 mile trek to Achsah and back, introduced me to and acquainted me with the beauty of Orange County. Those runs were the ambrosia that nourished my soul. The habit I formed, of finding wonders and magic in routine and mundane chores, like long distance runs, would later prove to be the source of personal and professional strength. But I digress. We had a great cross country team, eventually winning the Virginia Prep League championship. The camaraderie of that team filled a social and a personal void for me.
In retrospect, my most enduring thoughts about the Woodberry experience center around its well known and highly regarded honor system. I will make an addendum to discuss the honor system, how I internalized it, and how it informed and influenced me in later life.
Still, though, for reasons perhaps imagined and perhaps real, thoughts lingered and grew within me that I really didn’t “belong.” Those thoughts reached a height in the spring of my second year, a growing and gnawing loneliness that I couldn’t explain or even understand. At the end of my second year, I told myself I would not return. The loneliness and alienation I felt at Woodberry, I would later come to learn, had a lot less to do with Woodberry and a lot more to do with me and my emergence from adolescence and puberty. It would stay with me through college, where, like a ship without a rudder, without an anchor, and without a means of propulsion, I bounced around for three long, uncertain years, changing my major almost every semester, back and forth from electrical engineering to biology to economics. It was actually an interesting combination. Finally, midway through 1978, the year I should have graduated from college, I left school at mid term, degree-less, and enlisted in the Navy’s Nuclear Power program and the submarine force. It was there that I finally hit my stride, serving four years in engineering billets on the USS Hammerhead (SSN-63) and the USS Michigan (SSBN-727(B)).
In the intervening years, I lost track of everybody. I bumped into Ron Lipscomb on Duke’s campus, maybe in 1976. A girl I dated knew Wayne Williams, also at Duke. Kevin Miller (God rest his soul) and I had mutual friends in Greensboro. In 1985, I went back and finished college and upgraded my Navy status from enlisted to commissioned. My tenure as a commissioned officer was a pre-set duration; I finished my four-year obligation and transferred to State and the Foreign Service in 1992.
While serving the London Embassy, I completed an M.A. at the School of Oriental and African Studies. There I earned the credential “Africanist.” It would serve me well in subsequent assignments, focusing my studies on decolonization, resolution of border disputes, and transnational organization legal identity.
I stumbled on Ron Long’s name in the news in the late 90’s and got back in touch. Ron put me in touch with Art Gaines, who by that time was doing humanitarian relief work in East Africa. Following assignments in Guinea-Bissau, London, Angola and Ghana, I landed a Washington job also covering East Africa. I thought maybe our paths would cross on many trips I made to Khartoum, but it wasn’t to be.
Afterword. The integration experiment was not for our benefit exclusively. The purpose was to produce a slightly different environment for the white boys who would be entering a changed world, a multi-colored world. One might even say they (the white boys) would need to get an early start developing more nuanced negotiating skills to retain mastery in that new world.
We were funded by an external foundation that counted every penny they spent on us. There were always questions about whether there would be funding in outlying years and threats that our families might have to pay an increasing portion of our expenses. It wasn’t enough that we were being provided as subjects in an experiment. In retrospect, there were so many racial undertones to the constant hazing and the honor system provided no protection against a constant barrage of hate speech and racist microaggressions.
One night during study hall I reached my breaking point. Two known racists, twins no less, and one of their little whipping boys were outside my room talking about “nigger this” and “nigger that,” and “that little son of a bitch, Maxwell.” My mother had sent a pound cake and i took a table knife from the dining hall to my room to cut slices. Well, without much thought, I grabbed that table knife and went out into the hall to confront my enemies. No blood was spilt, but telephone calls to parents got me a meeting the following day with the campus disciplinarian, Jack Glascock. No disciplinary action was taken on either side, but for them, and for me, everything changed. From that point on there was no more shouting of racial epithets outside my door, but the whispering throughout campus made me feel totally guilty and unworthy. It was as if I had violated some unwritten code. Perhaps I had. When I packed at the end of that semester I knew I would not be returning. What I didn’t know at the time was that the pendulum had been set in motion and I was yet to experience the other side of its swing.
A response 50 years later to the whipping boy:
Thanks for your e-mail. The years have passed. I would not have expected to hear from you, even with the e-mail I sent out to the general alumni crowd. It took some courage, moral courage on your part to reach out like this, and I want to acknowledge that courage from the outset. There is far too little courage left in the world.
That small event between you and me with the cake knife was a part of my decision not to return to Woodberry Forest for that third year. But only a small part. We were both young and trying to figure out the worlds we were about to enter. Whether being rich or poor, spoiled or not, was, over the long haul, largely immaterial. I felt at some level the need to return to Greensboro to spend time with my parents, to get to know them better in the few years they had remaining. To hear my father recite poetry. To hear my mother’s hopes and dreams for her children. I would have missed that had I returned to WFS. Looking back, I am glad that I remained home. Everything else worked itself out in time, though there were plenty of bumps in the road. But it was those bumps that made me the person that I am, that I have become, so no complaints there.
That’s my story. Roller coaster ride through college, dropped out and joined the Navy, two submarines in five years, back to college, Navy commission, back to sea on an aging destroyer, foreign service assignments in Africa and the Middle East and that most foreign of countries, Washington, DC, wonderful wife, pages and pages of poetry I’ve written that I can share with good friends over aged scotch. Early retirement in a city apartment filled with books. Not too shabby for a poor boy from Greensboro.
I never disliked you and I bear no grudges. I stopped doing grudges a long time ago. I have wondered how those Peterson boys are doing, but I imagine they are functioning in their world, as I am in mine, in the world I have created for myself. That’s what we do over the years, isn’t it, create our world for ourselves and live in it.
I hope things are going well for you. There are bumps in every road. I have helped people navigate their bumps, and people have helped me navigate mine. It is a continuous process, one that keeps unfolding in front of you.
I have meandered. Forgive me for going on and on. It is my therapy and maybe it works for you too.
Let me know. We can continue.
p.s. Keep being courageous. The Portuguese say, “Coragem!” (Have courage!).
From September, 1973 until July, 1975 I lived in Washington, DC and for the majority of that period I worked at Shabazz Bakery. During the day I was finishing up my senior year in high school and taking university-level courses, I worked second shift, 4-12 midnight, at the bakery. It was tough going back and forth, catching one bus on Florida Avenue to 8th and I St, and a second one to Anacostia, but I was young and energetic and I pushed through it. I remember having to walk several blocks through a tough neighborhood after midnight when I got off the bus at the end of my shift. The brothers told me to walk fast and look straight ahead. That’s what I did and nobody ever bothered me. It would turn out to be a good lesson in life: Walk fast and look straight ahead.
In my first bakery position, I was apprenticed to the pastry maker. I made mistakes, God did I make mistakes! I let the donuts proof too long, and sometimes the icing came out either too thick or too watery. I figured it out quickly though. My boss was a funny guy. Often I could feel him staring at me from behind the cooling racks. He always went there to eat pastries we had prepared. Oh yeah. The bakery had a firm “no snacking” policy, which I was ok with, but those who broke the rules had to sneak while doing it. I’ll not mention my supervisor’s name because he died in ’75 and one should not speak ill of the dead. He came down with some sort of virus, got weaker and weaker, and his absences from work got longer and longer. Eventually he passed away. I had moved back home by that time, but was still in the area, on an engineering co-op at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. I hitchhiked back to DC for the funeral.
From pastries I went to pie crusts, replaced in pastries by a new FOI member, Linzell. I would prepare a predetermined number of large and small pie shells based on the orders from the front shop and the route salesmen, stack them up, and have them ready for the pie guy who came in at midnight. Brother George. Very patient guy, very even-tempered. Student minister. Occasionally I would stay and make the pies with him. Brother Richard also came in around midnight to wash the pots and pans stacked in the stainless steel sinks from the previous day’s production. He and I lived in the same FOI house in Northwest. Richard took me under his wing. Somewhere I have a poem I wrote about him and the church songs he used to sing while slinging the pots and mixing bowls. Richard had made two migrations in his life: from Mississippi to Chicago, and from Chicago to Washington. My only migration was from Greensboro to Washington.
High school graduation was held in February, 1974, and my mother and sister came up from Greensboro to celebrate the occasion. I was salutatorian! I fell asleep at my cousin’s house after dinner and they let me sleep through my bakery shift. George stepped up and covered for me. What a prince of a guy!
On those overnights I became buddies with the guys in shipping, Lawrence, Dayne, and Carl, whose main job was preparing the orders for outgoing distribution the next morning. There was bread to bag and label, pies to wrap, and cakes and cookies to box and/or wrap. And gingerbread, our famous gingerbread with raisins and chocolate icing to cut and wrap individually. We had three route salesman, Jeffrey, Darnell and James. James was from Martinsville, VA and had studied engineering at A&T. Jeffrey was the Mosque’s leading Muhammad Speaks salesman. I think at one point he was pushing 1000 copies per week. The day bakers were Ralph, Charles and Floyd. Michael came later. Ralph and Floyd both adopted me as their little brother and showed me the ropes. Charles had been a basketball player at Howard and was always very intellectual and sophisticated. We had long chats and conversations about life from time to time. He had been friends with Paula, a girl from Pichard Street who went to Howard. And the Bakery had two managers, James and Melvin. Melvin was from Greensboro. James from from New Jersey and had also been a student at Howard.
The folks in the Mosque referred to the bakery brothers as “the scientists.” It was a derogatory reference to conversations we had late at night, on the midnight shift, that leaked out perhaps, conversations questioning a lot of the fundamental tenets of the faith. No, we had concluded, for example, Fard Muhammad was not God in person and no, Elijah Muhammad was not infallible. No, twelve black scientists did not separate the moon mass from the Earth and send it hurtling into space. And yes, a lot of really bad shit went down in Detroit and Chicago in the 20’s and the 30’s, including murders and ritual sacrifices, all of which resulted in the founding of the Nation of Islam under a cloak of secrecy. But the Yacubthing, and the Tribe of Shabazz thing? Well, maybe? I still haven’t figured it out.
As an aside, for several months the DC Mosque (Mosque #4) was locked in a rivalry with the Philadelphia Mosque (#12) over the sale of Muhammad Speaks newspapers. When we went up to 60,000 (weekly circulation), Philadelphia increased to 75,000. When we went up to 90,000, Philadelphia went up to 100,000. We pushed past to 105,000 and Philadelphia went to 125,000. This was about the same time that the so-called Black Mafia in Philadelphia had completely infiltrated the Mosque and was using it as a front for criminal operations, mostly drugs, extortion and prostitution. Street gangs controlling turf would be forced to buy bundles and bundles of Muhammad Speaks newspapers whether they sold them or not. It was probably a good time to be in the newsprint recycling business! Washington had no such Black Mafia infiltration, though we probably had plenty of US Government agents in our ranks. Eventually we yielded to Philadelphia’s numerical superiority. There has always been a tale of two cities thing going on between Philadelphia and Washington, going back to the early days of the republic. We were just another manifestation of an age-old struggle. Shortly after Elijah Muhammad’s death, we all drove up to Philadelphia where his son and the organization’s new leader, Wallace D. Muhammad, would give a keynote address, “Remake the World.”
For a short while during the following summer months I shifted my hours to begin a bit later and work through the night making pies as demand for bean pies increased. We were doing something right. And for a short while, as demand for carrot cakes increased, I would get an early start before her arrival helping Charlotte out with cake decorating, which took some practice, but she needed the help and I was a quick study and the cakes were a high profit margin item. The cake decorating training was where I fell in love with a much older woman, or so it seemed at the time when I was 18 and she was 27. But it happened. It was a period of extreme mania for me. I wrote poems and convinced myself the sky was the limit. There was this song Valerie Robinson played on WHUR’s Quiet Storm program every night, the Spinners, I’m Glad You Came Into My Life. It was our song. So silly. I lost the poems she wrote. I still have mine. Eventually Robin was hired to help with cakes. One of the managers had a thing for the cake decorator who trained me and resented the attention she was giving me. So he pushed me out of that close proximity situation by bringing in a new hire. But by that time the die was cast.
Our eventual breakup marked the end of my manic period. WHUR’s Quiet Storm played a new song by that time whose lyrics I didn’t really understand but I knew it had some bearing on my situation, Love Don’t Love Nobody. Lucky for me the pendulum did not swing from manic to depressive, or if it did I never noticed.
At some point I moved from pies and cakes to front shop management, working for Nelson. Nelson was a cool guy who didn’t suffer fools gladly. And I was a bit of a fool. But I learned a lot from him. In fact, I’d say I grew up under Nelson’s tutelage. Nelson ended up getting married to Robin, the new cake decorator.
Somewhere along the way I decided that bakery management was a worthy career path. I was still studying, but I was wondering whether it was worthwhile. The bakery was expanding, soon we’d have shops in Alexandria, in Arlington, in Seat Pleasant, and we, the original crew, would all get our own shops to run. Every other Monday we had Bakery meeting at the Mosque. Dr. Shabazz, the minister of #4 who presided over the meetings (and who was also my calculus tutor, though I never became the mathematician he would have had me become) would remind us how important the bakery was to community economic development, and by extension, how important our individual contributions were to its success. And we would talk about these long-range plans for expansion. I was a true believer.
That was before the Russian wheat deal and the effects of the Arab Oil embargo sent our commodity prices sky high, and before our manager, James, spent way more money than he should have on some used equipment he bought from a New Jersey mob-looking guy to mechanize our processes. The combination of events and their effects on prices of our ingredients pushed us into an unsustainable financial position. Oh yeah, and the Mosque leadership changed and the new minister insisted on changing all our recipes from all whole wheat to mixed white and whole wheat and from all honey and brown sugar to a white sugar mixture. Said it had worked for him down in New Orleans. Things went crazy, very crazy, and I got an offer to work as a short order cook at a joint some FOI brothers I knew ran, also in southeast, Amir’s Oasis. That lasted for a couple of months, but when my mother died unexpectedly, I packed my stuff and returned to Greensboro. The bakery is now an Islamic museum.
There’s a lot more for this chapter. I will fill it in as memories return to me.
A number combination unlocks the secrets of the mysteries of the microcosm called mind.
The young man asked, “is there life after death?” The middle-aged man replied, “there is no life after death.” The elder replied, “there is no death.”
Shabazz Bakery poems and prayer-songs 1974-1975
Bakery Victory Song
Work on! O laborers of God! Our goals have already been set, Our eventual success is assured, So we have no need for regret, Since others through faith have endured.
Strive hard, O servants of God! The mission is a dead land to raise, And a new world to bring into being. We must learn to submit and give praise To the Lord of the Worlds, the All-seeing.
Fight on! O warriors of God! The battles are bloody and long, The trials are hard and severe, So be brave, be steadfast, be strong, We shall win if we just persevere.
Newspapers and M&M’s Coca-cola and a cigarette Happiness/sadness In its purest state – A devil sitting there Emotionless, expressionless, Temporarily permanent
“We remind you that federal regulations permit…” prostitution… poverty… ignorance… drug addiction… and every conceivable form of immorality….and “…cigarette smoking only in the rear of the bus.…” where black people are still forced to sit, “…in seats clearly marked for convenience.” …now loading at Gate 3… your schedule for: Danville… Lynchburg… Charlottesville… Washington… Freedom?
Dear Mr/Mrs Paternalistic White/Black Supremacist, how many men/women have you destroyed today with your lustful liberality with your calloused conceited charm with your sinister southern smile, How many of my people have you destroyed today? How many have you paralyzed: from the waist down? from the neck up? on either side? How many have you paralyzed? Did you reach your quota today?
Laundromat at NY and NJ Avenues
dirty puddles of Clorox and lemon–flavored Fab invade my nostrils pollution within and pollution without.
a child drops her candy on the filthy, flooded floor now she is picking it up and eating it and gasping for breath and dying – her bulging beautiful brown eyes wondering why
the washers are running over the dryers don’t work and the customers are satisfied because they have nothing
Left home In search of knowledge In search of that missing link That connects reality with mysticism And gives one a foundation From which to understand The whole as well as the sum of the parts
Conceived in frustration and hopelessness Born on the verge of a great eruption Raised in affluence, then poverty Bred on religious half-truths and misguided righteousness Educated by a cruel enemy I betrayed my teachers and accepted my own…
Prayer Song for Charlotte (1) – You Have Become the Object
You have become the object Of my affection, Of my devotion, Of my dedication.
From you I understand loyalty And patience And fidelity And love.
For you are loyal to your guide And I to you And I shall forever love you.
This is the extent of my love: Limitless and Practically undefinable.
Prayer Song for Charlotte (2) – Softly
Softly and more tenderly – Give us peace of mind and consolation, Pacify our urges and our passions, Put us in a state of earthly heaven.
Softly and exquisitely – Speak to us sweet words of inspiration, Warm our hearts, increase our dedication, Soothe away the aches and pains of hatred.
Softly and so daintily – So precise and so in tune with nature, So express, beyond anticipation, And yet so humble, so reserved in station.
Softly and submissively – Let us guide each other to perfection; Let us free ourselves from false subjection; Let us base our lives on true affection.
Softly but with certainty – Mould us from the clay of love and kindness, Fashion us with patience and sincerity, Breathe in us the breath of generosity.
Softly and with thankfulness – This is our prayer. Amen.
Prayer Song for Charlotte (3) – A Diamond in the Rough
a sweet and tender flower and a diamond in the rough
a perfect union…
gentility of strength nobility of character humility in wisdom subtlety in understanding
Help us, and be in us, and show us, and guide us, and enlighten us, and reveal to us… …the truth.
Prayer Song for Charlotte (4) – Discovery
God is free from imperfections and I am full of faults. Yet if I strive hard in His Way, They’ll dwindle down to naught.
So I am thankful to my Lord, Submissive to his will; For He delivered me from death And showed me what was real.
Praise be to God! The Lord of all the worlds.
Prayer Song for Charlotte (5) – The Moment of Creation
step by step day by day hour by hour minute by minute second by second transcending the immeasurable progression of time
until one reaches the understanding, the recognition, that there is no birth or death, no beginning or end, but all things come of God.
the mysterious qualities of space and time and their relativity, therefore, are reduced to simplistic roots of zero and unity.
so we travel through our lives thanking God for direction and guidance.
Prayer Song for Charlotte (6) – A Flower
A flower blooming in the winter out of tune with time out of touch with reality out of accord with unity
A flower blooming in the springtime blossoming into its fullest growth blossoming into its truest beauty leaning towards the sun
A flower blooming in the summer lives, thrives, and dies in a single season
A flower blooming in the autumn preparing for the cold wind preparing for the icy nights preparing for the coming of spring
Prayer Song for Charlotte (7) – The Will
The will, the unconquerable will – to come into existence, to survive the trauma of deliverance, to endure the loneliness of separation from security.
the will, the irrepressible will – to grow, to learn all, to comprehend the whole, to discover oneself and develop oneself to the fullest.
the will, the indomitable will – to repel evil, to resist weakness, to retain one’s inner discipline against a flood of promiscuity.
the will, the Divine will – to escape the bonds of slavery mentality, to transcend the limits of grafted knowledge, to break the chains of sin and immorality.
Prayer Song for Charlotte (8) – The Flight by Night
What was the meaning of the flight by night? Was it to escape the enemy’s oppression? Was it in search of a rare sunbeam? Or was it to recapture a nostalgic dream?
What was the meaning of the flight by night? Was it a stage in a gradual progression? Was it to retrieve the gifts of life and time? Or was it the revival of something more sublime?
What was the meaning of the flight by night? We must fight to overcome this frightening obsession. We must search until we find the answer to this question. Then, and only then, will we be free from past transgression.
Be still for a moment…! Watch the images emerge watch the ideas materialize into real life entities watch the thoughts become visible watch the truth made manifest.
Peace! …Let there be peace! Everything takes its natural order everything tends towards unity everything fades into darkness everything is seen in the light.
Slow down for just a second! Come back down to reality come back down to nature come back to your lost faith
Appreciate God’s handiwork, the morning glories, the honeysuckles, the sparrows singing, the calmness of dawn.
Welcome home So glad to have you back, to see you again. You’ve been gone so long. What did you do while you were gone?
You’ve grown so much. Not as skinny as you used to be. You’ve really grown.
Why don’t you take your coat off, make yourself at home. This is your home.
Sit down. Have a glass of water. Let me turn on the radio. What kind of music do you like.
You’ve changed a lot. You’re not like you used to be. Are you married yet?
Why did you change your name?
Scribbled on bathroom walls one is made consciously aware of the funky nature of the American spirit.
An adulterated spirit, the wasted semen of technological fornication, re-emerging in social incest and zero population growth
An international whore who just doesn’t give a good goddamn what she gives birth to: resulting in a tribe of illiterate bastards who are unisexed, polysexed, or no sex at all
Forty years ago, during a four year stint as a submarine diesel mechanic (among other things) I was exposed to pendulum motion. What, one might ask, does pendulum motion have to do with diesel operation? OK. So you have these cylinders (the Fairbanks Morse machines we ran had two opposing rows of twelve cylinders) that go up and down, hence reciprocating. Then there is this rocker arm assembly that connects and transfers the reciprocating action of the cylinders to rotating action of a main shaft, and it is that rotating action, inside a magnetic field that generates electricity. Still with me?
So what is the pendulum connection? Well, these cylinders are timed to fire sequentially in a way to smoothly turn the shaft, mimicking a pendulum in that the piston starts at the cylinder top (one extreme) pushes down to the bottom (opposite extreme) compression ignites the fuel, the piston is driven back to the top, passing an imaginary point in its travel called top dead center. Same as the swing of a pendulum, far to one side, midpoint, far opposite side, back to the mid point, and so forth, covering the whole range of the pendulum swing.
(It’s been forty years, mind you, so the experts can correct me if required, but that’s what I recall of the basic motion.)
So what? What does this have to do, say, with the price of tea in China? (A rather fitting analogy for another time, but demand and supply curves shift on an oscillating plane, setting the price, or as the old black preacher used to say, “da Sun do move.”)
This is becoming a longer status post than I originally intended.
Political “things,” movements, changes occur on a spectrum that is “pendulumatic,” i.e. from one extreme, past the middle, to the opposite extreme, back past the middle, and on and on. Social “things” move on the same pendulum, a sort of oscillation. Even businesses operate on a business cycle. It actually makes things predictable. And history can be viewed on the same alternating spectrum.
But in the political realm, you have to be careful. Entrenched interests seek to prevent the pendulum swing, to keep themselves or their party in power. But the pendulum is not just a nice thing to think about, it is actually physical law. We see a sort of contrived political alternation in the election of “opposite” parties for executive and legislative office, and correspondingly for judicial appointments. I say contrived because increasingly, in the two party system, the “opposing parties” begin to look so much alike as to become hardly indistinguishable, which basically means there is no pendulum motion at all. Ah, but as the old preacher, Rev John Jasper used to say, “da Sun do move,” and the pendulum action is in effect, sooner or later. Of course, folks ridiculed Rev. Jasper because they thought he was saying the Sun revolved around the earth in a geocentric way described by Ptolemy of Alexandria, debunked by Copernicus and Galileo long ago. Now we know that the Sun moves through the galaxy, orbiting around the center of the Milky Way. (Now that’s a poem begging to be written.)
Those on the bottom will someday swing to the top. “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” And those at the top will eventually descend to the bottom. In an analogy, yesterday’s slave will be tomorrow’s master, a frightening consideration for some but a necessary prospect for all parties. They used to say “be careful who you step on on your way up because you might see them again when you come back down.”
My life was two out of sync sine waves, maybe three, maybe four, actually, and my best efforts couldn’t pull them into sync. Ups and downs constantly, between my courses and campus activities, work and service at the mosque, family obligations, and balancing part-time jobs, constantly pushing and pulling energies, thoughts in various directions.
I was working on an A&T co-op job in Reidsville, NC, Farmer’s Home Administration, an agency of the Department of Agriculture. In my third year I changed my major (yet again, after switching back and forth between electrical engineering and biology) to economics. In this coop job I worked in rural communities in Rockingham County, making loans to farmers until their crops were harvested and doing collateral checks on the land and equipment that secured their loans (it was called “chattel checks,” a throwback to slavery, perhaps), and financing large rural housing developments and rural electrification projects. One of the librarians I worked with at Greensboro Public Library (where I had graduated from page to associate) lived in Reidsville and introduced me to Mr. and Mrs. Stockton, who rented me their basement apartment.
Walking back and forth to work everyday, I passed a Navy and an Air Force Recruiting office. Over time, they changed the posters in the window. When they put up a poster advertising the Navy’s Nuclear Power program it caught my eye and I went inside for a closer look. I was greeted by an Air Force recruiter who was very off-putting and stressed the standardized exam, called ASVAB. I had always done very well on standardized exams and took it very lightly when the recruiter stressed the overwhelming importance of the exam. The Navy recruiter, on the other hand, regaled me with sea stories, no doubt from his own experience on submarines, that I found quite charming.
One day I stopped by and he offered to let me take an abbreviated version of the Nuclear Power exam, a second exam after the ASVAB. It had some mathematics, some chemistry, and some physics questions. He checked my results when I finished and I had aced the thing! He asked me would I be willing to go to Greensboro to take the full Nuclear Power exam along with the ASVAB and I agreed to do it. He called me after a few days and told me my score on the ASVAB was the highest he had ever seen, plus I had qualifying scores on the Nuclear Power exam. So, he asked me, was I interested in signing up?
It was the summer and I was already registered for my classes in the fall, along with continuing work at Farmer’s Home Administration. He said I could sign up but not have to report until December. He called it the delayed enlistment program. I saw it as the solution to all my problems, balancing work, school, and life. So I signed up!
December came, I enjoyed Christmas with the family, said my farewells, and got on a plane to Orlando for Navy boot camp. I told folks at the Mosque, but I didn’t say anything to anybody at school.
Boot camp and training
Other than catching pneumonia and missing three days of training and returning to my training unit still weak from the illness, boot camp was fairly uneventful. Our sister unit had an interesting person who was headed for dental technician training. We corresponded for a couple of years and I even met her family in Hartford, but it wasn’t to be.
From Orlando I went to Great Lakes, IL for Machinist Mate A School. That was fun because on the weekends I could take the train into Chicago where I had friends and relatives, including the distant cousin my mother stayed with during her Chicago sojourn. Good food and happy times in the Windy City! The training was a self-paced study of equipment and systems in a propulsion plant where the toughest part was actually tracing pipes and systems and then drawing them from memory. It would be excellent practice for later submarine quals.
I finished ahead of schedule and had a four month delay before returning to Orlando for Nuclear Power School. I got TDY orders to an aircraft carrier in Mayport, the Saratoga, CV-60, also known as Sorry Sara. I was assigned to an auxiliary division, maintaining refrigeration and AC units, hydraulic power plants, and fire pump stations throughout the ship. Also did my share of painting out engineering spaces. I must have done something right because when it came time for my departure the Chief Engineer offered me immediate promotion to E-5 and my own shop in the propulsion plant. In retrospect, I should have taken it. There was a government shutdown and a resulting delay in getting my orders cut to Orlando but it all worked out in time.
Life at Nuke School was very regimented. Breakfast at 7, classes from 8 to noon, lunch, classes from 1-4, Star Trek in the barracks common area followed by Kung Fu, dinner at 6, and study hall from 7 to 10:30. Repressive would be putting it mildly. In the 19th week my father passed away and I went to Greensboro for a week, breaking the routine. When I returned I had four weeks to go and, still grieving my father’s passing, I basically pushed it through to the end. The beginning was straight forward math, physics, chemistry, basic engineering principles. But the end was electrical theory, material science, thermodynamics, reactor operations, rad/con chemistry. Anyway, I made it.
But at the next stage of training, Nuclear Prototype at D1G in Ballston Spa, New York, I sort of unravelled from the stress of it all. The rotating 12-hour shifts didn’t agree with me and as soon as I got a couple days off I was on the road to Albany to spend time with an old friend and love interest. That relationship was up and down for reasons I couldn’t fathom at the time. But hey, it is what it is, as they say. About two months in I went to the officials and threw the towel in the ring. I told them I just didn’t want to do it any more. Plus our whole class was headed to the USS Carl Vinson, the newest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. My days on the Sorry Sara convinced me I wanted nothing to do with no more aircraft carriers no more. They tried to convince me otherwise but I had already convinced myself that my mind was made up. They cut me orders to the nearest Navy base, Submarine Base Groton, in Connecticut, and sent me on my way.
Groton gave me a shit assignment checking people into the chow hall. Very boring but I worked with a cute girl from Reno whose name I can’t even recall. She was a bit of a tomboy and we spent our free weekends together smoking reefer at a house she shared with two guys she was probably fucking. I didn’t care. She had an interesting, sort of counter-culture, devil-may-care personality.She liked me because I wasn’t constantly trying to get into her pants. And we were both voracious readers. When the library at Connecticut College had a used book sale, we practically went crazy buying books. It’s a shame I can’t remember her name.
After a couple of months I was informed that I was getting orders to a submarine tender, unless I wanted to volunteer for submarine duty. Submarine duty involved three more months in rotten Groton that I could spend with my new friend, or immediate transfer to Norfolk. I volunteered for submarine duty. Once I started training our paths never crossed again. Maybe all it ever was was a mirage anyway.
Submarine basic training was uneventful. During follow-on auxiliary machinery training I reconnected with Jan, who by that time was in training at Ballston Spa. But we were star-crossed and we knew it. I was offered orders to a diesel boat in Subic Bay, but I saw The Phillippines as very far away and plenty others were dying to get a Subic Bay assignment. I really didn’t get it at the time and I’m glad I didn’t. Ultimately I got orders to a Fast Attack out of Norfolk, the Hammerhead (SSN-663).
End of Life Criteria (Notes from Reactor Theory class)
like a piano tune that starts and ends, so is life …
death cuts in: a toneless key; a nameless chord; a sharp discontinuity …
judgment occurs without a moment’s notice; and on the second half one regrets not doing what should have been done …
every second is judgment – and every opportunity affords one yet another to correct the incorrection – before the final hour … has passed.
Thoughts about judgment day (D1G)
the hour actively approaches while we, its victims, sit and wait, with folded arms, trying to appear comfortable and carefree, and mutually exclusive.
days pass quickly, and nights, like the blink of an eye… nay, the pupil’s dilation… time races to its destination while we, in our lethargy, approximate suspended animation.
there is no conclusion, only the vain pleadings for a fresh new start, another sequel, a couple more opportunities.
The rope by which we hang, is long, connecting us, tethering us to our past and future, but its knot is sure.
Mind is cluttered (D1G)
mind is cluttered… fragments of thoughts uncompleted dangling modifiers fill the lower heavens.
thunder would quiet the noisy confusion and clamor, lightning would illuminate the darkness and charge the atmosphere with order, raindrops would dampen the soil and give new seeds the chance to germinate and grow,
but there is none of neither.
deep in the inner chamber there is completion, and order, and noiselessness, and illumination, and freedom from famine and drought, if we could only find the entrance…
if we could only find the entrance, we would enter.
Morning glories (at D1G)
morning glories bloom along the fence. They are the prettiest flower in the vegetable garden. Second is the bloom of the yellow squash. mother used to like African violets the most. sister likes cacti and green plants that seldom bloom. daddy liked tobacco blossoms and jimpsom weed. I like the vegetable flowers.
A peculiar beauty, A gentle glow, A kindness and a caring –
an attractiveness, a radiance, a heart that tends toward sharing –
a pleasant smile, a friendliness, though hardship she is bearing –
a tender kiss, a warm caress, her love makes life endearing.
As you depart(to J)
As you depart It breaks my heart That you would leave my life
But leave you must And so I trust That soon you will return
These poems I write Reveal the plight Of one who loved and lost
So bear with me And soon you’ll see This life’s a short sojourn.
Inside me burns a fire
inside me burns a fire consuming and refining fueled by stone contained and self-sustained
it’s your love I desire to soothe and warm and please me but now I am alone and circumscribed by pain
tonight we shall conspire the stars in heaven to guide us to where our souls are one- the goal of love to attain
nothing survives the ordeal. friendships are forgotten, and associations, disassociated. ‘tis a tortuous path we travel, sharp curves and bends that baffle the mind, only the soul survives the ordeal.
conflicts go unresolved, obligations, unfulfilled, and there’s no time to stop and/or backtrack. The moratorium has ended and the battle is raging for the soul’s survival
after the migration, from the realm of nothingness into the new reality, the ordeal ends and the soul finds peace
I reported to the Hammerhead in early February, 1981. The boat evoked an image of awesomeness, long and black, sleek, moored at D&S piers at Norfolk Naval Station. In less than a month (or perhaps it was my newness) we would begin in earnest our workup for an extended deployment.
It was billed as a 9-month deployment that would include a port visit in Perth and a circumnavigation of the globe. Guys extended and re-enlisted for just the Perth part because of all these rumors about sailor fun down under. Some hung around for the circumnavigation part, crossing the Equator, rounding the Cape of Good Hope AND Cape Horn, or with any luck, navigating the Straits of Magellan, stuff that old salts live and breathe for.
We got underway in April. The water was still cold. It was very stormy and I got seasick for the first time. I ended up “hugging Ralph” a couple of times (that’s submarine talk for the only relief there is for seasickness, though it’s still no relief!). We hit the dive point by supper time – then it was smooth sailing.
Let me make a small confession here: I had never been underway for an Atlantic crossing and I was frankly terrified. A lot about submarine operations I only understood academically. But I really didn’t get how all the systems worked together to ensure survival of the boat and crew. I had no idea just how unforgiving the sea environment could be, nor how vicious some of my shipmates could become while shaking off the various addictions they were able to maintain while ashore. One lives and learns. Quickly. Within a couple of weeks the newness of it all wore off and I was able to settle into a routine – standing watch, keeping up my assigned PMS, doing whatever divisional work, drills, field-days, and working on submarine quals.
Getting qualified in submarines is every non-qual’s dream. Getting qualified includes drawing all the systems, bow to stern, understanding operations, sonar, navigation, and having a grasp of propulsion and power systems and being able to sketch them out. A lot of good things happen once you get qualified and wear the dolphins: you can watch movies after the evening meal without being hazed; you got an assigned rack instead of sleeping in the open bay of the submarine room. After getting the dolphins you were a made man, so to speak. Being in engineering got me an assigned rack, but I fell behind in my quals and the work load picked and I lost my rack to a qualified guy. I did my time bunking in the torpedo room. I got real good at the control stations, and even got appointed battle stations helmsman, a tremendous honor, but with progress on getting my quals done falling behind, I joined the ranks of the “delinquent,” also called “dinks.” I envied somewhat the non-rated guys who had limited division work requirements and could dedicate their off watch time exclusively to completing ship-wide qualifications.
Eventually, in the ultimate disgrace, as time wore on, all the non-rates either completed their quals or completed their 90 days of mandatory mess cooking. At that point, even engineers had to fill the gaps, leaving their divisions to work full time cleaning the mess decks, serving meals, and busting tables, every six hours around the clock. I was the first from engineering and the first petty officer so designated, though many followed in my wake. I took it all in stride and did what was required. I must have made an impression because the Chief of the Boat, himself a mess management specialist, made me an offer to change my rate from engineering to supply. I was totally invested in being engineering. He explained that although being a cook in the junior ranks, as you advance you get into contracting and with contracting there were lots of shore billets. I stuck to my guns, but in retrospect, I probably should have been more circumspect. (Didn’t mean to rhyme, I swear it!). Later when I joined State my first assignment overseas would be as general services officer and lead contracting officer.
My time on the mess decks came and went and I rejoined A division. We were scheduled for an upkeep in Mombassa to tide us over until a full maintenance period in Perth, but something happened and there was no submarine tender coverage in Mombassa. Cold War shit. Plus our operational tempo had picked up with reports of a certain adversary’s submarines operating in the area. More Cold War shit. So we remained on station. At one point, we had spent several weeks at periscope depth at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden and just when we thought we’d get some relief, we got repositioned for several weeks of the same duty at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman. With the change in schedule we were not able to pick up supplies from the tender that wasn’t in Mombassa and at some point we began running out of food. Except there was plenty of breaded veal, and plenty of canned vegetables. So that is what we ate, breakfast, lunch, supper and midrats.
The schedule shift set a bunch of changes in motion. We missed the tender in Perth, so that meant that leg of the trip would be cancelled. But there was a destroyer tender harbored in Diego Garcia and that would have to do. And since we wouldn’t be getting the full maintenance upkeep scheduled for Perth, we would be returning the way we came vice the originally planned circumnavigation. That change disappointed a lot of guys but at least we got some “down time” in Diego Garcia. There was no “pier” for us in Diego Garcia, so we had to anchor out, which meant engineering plant watchstanders had to keep on standing watches and that was a bit of a drag. But there was nothing to “do’ ashore, so most of us stayed on the ship. We did a bit of fishing and caught beautiful red snappers which the cooks prepared for meals. So there was that. I went ashore one time and found a rather poorly staffed Navy Exchange. I remember buying a John Lennon/Yoko Ono cassette that was popular at the time – Double Fantasy.
One other weird thing is worth mentioning. You could go onboard the tender to the comms shack and the duty radio guy could patch you through to a ham operator in or near your hometown and he could put you in a phone call with your family. There was a name for this procedure but I can’t remember it. Anyway, I “called” my aunt and my sister from Diego Garcia.
Finally, for folks who were expecting some sexual release in Perth, Diego Garcia was not so demographically endowed, the only women being those on the tender crew. That’s life!
As a slight nod to crew morale, on the way back we got a port visit in Rio de Janeiro. It was in Rio that I figured out I could dress down and blend in with the locals. My skin color was a definite advantage! I had some fun, but not too much! From Rio we headed home. It was a reasonably short transit. We were lucky, though, because when the diesel broke while anchored out in Rio, as the primary backup to the reactor, we probably shouldn’t have gotten underway without it being operational. We casrepped (a casualty report drafted for non-operational engineering equipment) the diesel pulling into post and Squadron was never the wiser.
as we descend into the depths I think about the things left loose:
the promises I should have kept; the yesterdays: they all reduce
to a fleeting moment of awe and dread; I offer no reason, I make no excuse–
The nightmare ends, I lay in bed. The journey is over: it was all in my head.
Hammerhead – Second Dive
begin in the affirmative I am, this is, we are
erase all doubt but allow for error
make no excuses and assign no blame remember yesterday while you yearn for tomorrow begin in the affirmative.
Endurance 81 (poem written for the 1981 cruise book)
We left home port. With tears and sobs we parted From our loved ones. A journey hard and arduous We knew we had ahead; Trials and calamities would befall us But we knew we would endure.
Sleepless nights and restless days, Drills to test us (they just pestered us); Never getting too much praise, But who complained? We knew we would endure.
Liberty port – The run almost complete; New places, new faces, A chance to wet our feet… Good times helped us to endure.
Homecoming! What joy! What happiness! Wives, children, loved ones, All waiting on the pier to receive us! Months and months of work and sweat Bear fruit, what a reward! We accomplished our mission, Achieved our goals, But most of all, We endured.
Norfolk, Summer 1981
Your voice is a blooming flower beckoning the bumblebee to alight and pollinate–
your charm is sweet like honey and warm like fresh milk in a wooden bucket—
your style is simple and easy but your demands are complex and difficult to fathom –
but the satisfaction you give is so complete, so absolute, so gratifying that heaven itself turns green with envy-
Your love is as the sunlight and the rain, free to all though each wants it for himself alone–
you were created for all the world to know, and sufficient it is for me to share your love with all.
Rio de Janeiro October 1981
Letters to Amantha
USS Hammerhead (SSN-663) October 7, 1981
I’m writing you in pencil ‘cause I’m not sure what I want to say to you And I want to allow for erasures should the need arise…
a margin for error – we do make mistakes, and sometimes, oftimes, overplay our hands…
except that our actions are not written with pencil on notebook paper but with permanent ink on a perfect, everlasting medium…
“forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
I’m questioning myself: what are my demands? what can I supply? do I have any right to desire your company as much as I do? the way that I do? I spoke with our friend tonight. She alone knows the degree to which I care for you… to the exclusion of all others.
none of the conventional rationalizations/justifications are valid with respect to this relationship. I know better than to try to feed you any bullshit; as Shelley wrote: “one word is too often profaned for me to profane it.” (He was talking about love.)
I digress… mere words fall short, far short of their intended meaning.
Torpedo Room USS Hammerhead SSN-663 October 12, 1981
I’ve had time to contemplate, to think things through… I’ve busted through the fallacies, the hypocritical rationalizations, the bullshit justifications that underlie the reasons why, we say, things are as they are…
I’ve built for myself, step by step, a new world view, tested it for structural strength for internal stability, and for resistance to extreme changes in temperature…
I’ve tested it at deep depths and at high altitudes… I’ve put it in a vacuum and I’ve pressurized it until it has become hard as diamond, clear as crystal, and pure as water in a mountain stream…
life in a monastery – ideology reaches perfection – works arrive at completion – material wants lose their significance, their urgency, their nearness to the heart…
Torpedo Room USS Hammerhead SSN-663 October 22, 1981
Thinking about you… out of stationery, writing on loose-leaf, college rule…
Loose-leaf… considering the possibility this heaven-made union may never exist on earth…
Nothing but our future together is at stake here… one more union will not change the course of human events, and one less union is one less division…
we can be happy without each other, we can be satisfied alone… we can reach fulfillment unaccompanied… we can…we are…we will…
we will into existence what most pleases us (again he is talking about love, what a bore…) we give rise to circumstances which produce a moment… we build around ourselves the environment most conducive to reaching the ends we seek… we determine our destiny ‘cause God, inside us, is always with us.
Talked to Lynne
talked to Lynne again today talked about my Georgy girl and how my head is in a twirl over that lady, who’s driving me crazy and haunting me night and day
talked to Lynne again last night told her how my soul was hurt how my mind has gone beserk over this woman, more ghost than a woman, who’s haunting me night and day
talked to Lynne again this morning talked to her ‘cross land and sea ‘cause I need her sympathy she knows my heart, she knows the part that haunts me night and day
talked to Lynne tonight, tomorrow share with her my joy, my sorrow, told her my love has found another; such is life, so ends the strife that’s been haunting me night and day
Fragments from a letter to LW
the more I think about you, the fonder of you I grow, albeit in an abstract kind of way.
I treasure and cherish the memories I hold of you and of the time we spent in each other’s presence,
however fleeting, and I hope, with all my heart, that the future holds in store some measure of time, again, that we can share.
I love my love (to J)
I love my love ’tis true I do with all my heart, my soul.
I care for her and long for her, and shall when I’ve grown old.
‘Tis true, ’tis true I must confess, She loves me not, no more, no less.
It grieves me so but I should know: that apparitions disappear; that summer passes every year; that tears are often insincere; that all the reasons are not clear why people love, why lovers fear; thus, I shall fill my cup with cheer and search ’til I have found the best.
MICHIGAN AND LUCE
Suffice it to say I wrote a lot of poetry during this period. I served on the Michigan from 1982 to 1985 and on the LUCE from 1988-1991.
But let’s finish up Hammerhead first.
We limped into homeport. As was my practice, I took duty the first night back to allow guys in the division with kids to go home. I didn’t have kids or a wife at the time. Heck, I didn’t even have a girlfriend!
One would think that perhaps we’d pause and catch our breath. No. That’s why they say of fast attacks, “Long and black and never comes back.” Our captain, folks said, hated home port, and we somehow got volunteered for every special project that came down the pike.And we got port stops out of it: GITMO, Port Everglades, Charleston, Groton. Nothing very exotic.
After completing my quals I did metrology training and took on a second subspecialty, gage calibration, which included thermometers, pressure gages, pressure switches, depth gages. One interesting thing I had to do was preventive maintenance on the deep depth alarm, which meant going to the depth and checking the mechanism. So we went there. And it was deep. So deep that if I told you, I’d have to kill you. Just joking!
I continued as battle stations helmsman. We rehearsed for underhull surveillance after getting a special fixture on our periscope that allowed the scope to look straight up. The rehearsal involved going underneath ships and taking photographs of the bottom of the surveilled ship. There is a lot of interesting stuff underneath a ship. It required maintaining a +/- six inch depth band between the bottom of the ship and the top of the periscope. Six inches because we needed to mask the sound of our ship within the operating sound of the ship being surveilled and any distance greater than six inches would have made us detectable by the ship’s sonar. I will only tell you here about the rehearsals, but you may imagine what use it may have been to intelligence gathering during the Cold War. Then we got a fixture attached to the periscope that gave us the ability to do a 360 degree panaromic rotation. It was called “dark eyes.” You can only imagine what we did with that.
At the one year mark onboard, I heard talk that the Navy was looking for experienced engineering guys to staff the new Trident-class submarines. I spoke to my COB (chief of the boat) who was also the command career counselor. He told me about a “deal” involving reenlistment, advanced training, automatic promotion, a reenlistment bonus, and immediate assignment to one fo the new Trident boats. The reenlistment was for six years, but if you had at least two years in already, they would drop the remaining years and sign you up for six more. I had three years left, plus the Trident boats each had two crews, so your time was rotated and deployments never exceeded 72 days. I thought about it for about a week (what was there really to think about?) and signed up. I got immediate orders to the Michigan, still in the shipyard, promotion to E5, and a fat check for the annual installment of one sixth of my $16,000 bonus. I bought a used, low mileage diesel Volkwagen Rabbit and packed it full for the trip to Groton CT.
(Note: this blog post will change as memories come back to me and i seek to fill the spaces. You may want to check back after a few days.)
Today’s American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) Daily Media Digest (July 8, 2020) is teasing us in a fascinating way. Scroll down, past the News and Articles and past Opinions and Blogs and there is a section called Odds and Ends. What’s this? Is my friend Diplopundit now editing the Daily Media Digest? She’s known for playing tricks like this from her hideaway at that consulate in Australia.
So what’s the trick? There is a very subtle juxtaposition of almost poetic dimensions there at the bottom of the page. The first submission, from the 25-Year Apprentice website, is an article/interview by/with T. Pickering, the Grand Old Man of the Department of State who has weathered storms and blasts, and yes, scandals, and lived to tell about it. The second submission, by T. Spears (note the parallelity! Is that a word? Yes!) is a missive and a blog post that should have been in the upper Blogs and Opinions section, a letter from a potential careerist drummed out of the service way too early. Wrong sex, wrong race, wrong state of mind to serve in this hallowed and highly sought after apprenticeship. You see where I’m going, so I really don’t even need to go into too much detail. It’s just another tautology. Like Black Lives Matter. (I know, but I couldn’t resist!)
OK, I’ll not spoil it for you. But there is obviously a higher intelligence and a creative design at work at AFSA Daily Media Digest. I follow it religiously.
Different plate. My series of blog posts on my career transition is crying out for a prologue, in the classic Greek drama Euripidean sense, and perhaps a witty piece of verse that serves as a scene setter, a note from the playwright. That would be me!
The prologue might include an account of the fourteen years of my life before I got shipped off for the integration experiment. Life in my village. Life in the tribe, among my kinsmen, a fitting prelude to the Section #10 Epilogue and beyond. We will see. Apparently time is on my side.
“Thou knowest my years entire, my life, (My long and crowded life of active work—not adoration merely;) Thou knowest the prayers and vigils of my youth; Thou knowest my manhood’s solemn and visionary meditations; Thou knowest how, before I commenced, I devoted all to come to Thee; Thou knowest I have in age ratified all those vows, and strictly kept them; Thou knowest I have not once lost nor faith nor ecstasy in Thee; (In shackles, prison’d, in disgrace, repining not, Accepting all from Thee—as duly come from Thee.)” — Walt Whitman, Prayer of Columbus
I’ll begin with this: I cannot remember a time in my life when I couldn’t read and write. There must’ve been a time, but I certainly do not remember it. I remember reading bible verses in Sunday school and writing letters to my aunts and cousins, all before first grade. Then I remember helping Mrs. Cooke, my first grade teacher at Bluford, with other students with their first reading lessons. See Dick run with Spot and all that.
I should also mention that everything described here took place in Greensboro, NC, mainly in the Dudley Heights community. On Sundays we’d take road trips to see my father’s family folks in the Jackson community of Brown Summit, NC, just a few miles up US 29, or to see my mom’s folks in Draper, NC, a few more miles up US 29. Our whole lives existed within that one hour radius.
I remember weekly trips with my Dad, my sister, Sheila, and I to Carnegie Library to check out books. I developed an early love for the library and for librarians. Then Daddy bought me the 24-in-1 electronics kit (Norelco) where you could build projects on a peg board. That was third grade. (Just checked and that kit is still available on Ebay in the original box. Amazing!) I fell in love with building electronics stuff, radios, musical keyboards, light and moisture detectors, etc., which was probably the point! Also in the third grade I began playing viola and did that right up through 8th grade jayvee football.
It was the 4th grade when I started reading whole books. I don’t mean kiddie books, but what would now be considered young adult fiction. There was the book about the puff snake, and the book about the time-traveling boy who came back for a baseball game. That year I also started with the classics: I, Juan de Pareja; A Wrinkle in Time; Shadow of a Bull; and my favorite, cover to cover, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In the fifth grade I discovered the black classics, no doubt assisted by my favorite teacher of all time, Mrs. Lillian Jeffries Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy and my father grew up together out in Brown Summit, just 16 miles away. I always suspected something had gone on between them back in the day. She brought me dog-eared copies of the Richard Wright novels, Black Boy and Native Son. I didn’t understand everything i read, but plowed through it nonetheless. Then she kept us for the 6th grade, she said she loved us so much, and graduated me to Ellison’s Invisible Man, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and all the James Baldwin paperbacks at the time, Go Tell It On the Mountain, Notes to a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time (the mother of a gal pal who was also a teacher would later introduce me to Giovanni’s Room and Blues for Mr. Charlie. I read though both with a more mature relish). And poetry. Mrs. Kennedy taught us poetry that we would memorize, and monologues from plays and famous speeches and writings like the Declaration of Independence. And there was viola twice a week and private lessons with Mr. Scott and practicing at home.
Meanwhile, on the weekends, I would go with Daddy on electrical jobs. I’d be the one to crawl into attics and underground crawl spaces and between walls and pull the wires. Daddy would say “Don’t be scared now,” but truth be told, I was often terrified in some of those dark and damp spaces. Terrified. But I told myself I could do it and I wanted to help my dad and be a real electrician’s helper! Then after we were done, he’d take me fishing out in the country (most of the jobs were in rural areas in Guilford County) and that made it all worthwhile.
At some point we, that is, the boys in our block, Kenny, Pete, Rodney, Larry and me discovered the wonder of riding our bikes down to Buffalo Creek to catch tadpoles and guppies and the occasional salamander. Then we’d transfer the tadpoles to a big tub in the backyard and watch everyday as they turned into little frogs and escaped. One day we discovered that the stream at the end of our street was just a runoff tributary to the real Buffalo Creek. As we walked along the side of the stream, all of a sudden the grass got higher and the water got deeper and we got scareder and scareder and begin to backtrack to safety. When I told my father about it, he drove me out to a bridge out Willow Road that crossed the real Buffalo Creek and showed me how water moccasins skimmed the surface and copperheads hung out on the shore. Never again would we “discover” Buffalo Creek tributaries!
It was also the 6th grade when I joined the Boy Scouts. It was Camp Wenasa every summer and sometimes twice a summer. (Note: Camp Wenasa had just integrated and black troops were allowed to participate. Occasionally, my troop alone, Troop #442 sponsored by Grace Lutheran Church, would go to Camp Carlson, an old abandoned camp where black troops could go on weekend camping trips before integration. End note.) I would lug books with me for reading between camping and hiking and campsite projects and merit badge meetings. Every merit badge dealing with nature and conservation, and every one related to electronics, radio and computers was on my sash, along with a few of the required ones. And Camp Wenasa had the best blueberry pancakes for breakfast in the dining hall.
I think this was the same summer that I got three yards to cut during the summer. Mr. Foster on Lincoln Street and Mr. Speight on Benbow Road had their own lawnmowers and I just had to show up and push. And there were always nice snacks. For Mrs. Whitehead on Lincoln Street I had to bring the lawnmower from home, but it was just a block away. And paid a bit better. And no snacks! It could have been an every summer gig had I stuck with it, but in the 7th grade I chose to go out and got a summer job with an outfit called the Neighborhood Youth Corp (or something like that) where I started out with library work at Gillespie School and finished the summer doing windows and janitorial work at UNC-G. This would have been around 1968, and the UNC-G counterculture was at its height – bookshops, used record stores, funky restaurants. I remember buying my first John Coltrane album, Sunship, and I discovered in a bookshop on Tate Street the Franz Fanon’s trio, The Wretched of the Earth, Black Skin White Masks, and A Dying Colonialism. Heady reading for a rising 8th grader.
I was headed to Eagle when time ran out. I quit Scouting and the viola in exchange for 8th grade football. Not sure why but at the time it was one or the other. I “went out” for Lincoln’s jayvee team and survived summer training. Coach Kanoy made me jayvee captain and I played offense and defense and every special team. We only had five games but we went undefeated and unscored upon. I knew I had a future in the NFL! We’ll come back to that in a subsequent post.
We learned all our sex education from the older girls and guys at weekly Jr. Usher Board meetings. They really should not have left us without adult supervision in that church! I often wondered if they had the same fun in the junior choir. I somehow doubt it.
And always, beginning in the fourth grade, fleeting little crushes. Marian, and Pearlita, and Linda, and Karen, and then in junior high, Denise, and Janice, and Sylvia. Innocent, fun, special.
The Carnegie Library moved from Bennett College to the new Southeast branch after integration. Hanging out with the big boys, Reggie, Skip, Rodney and Bobby, we biked downtown to get library cards when integration came. I didn’t tell my parents until we got back. I got in a bit of trouble for that. The librarians all transferred from the Carnegie Library to the Southeast branch of Greensboro Public Library so we already knew them and they knew us. We’d go every afternoon for homework and flirting with girls who went to different schools, evenings during football season.
Kenny and I took over the newspaper route in the summer between my 6th and 7th grade year. We had about 100 customers across Dudley Heights. Kenny did Pichard and Dunbar Streets and I covered Lincoln and Hook Streets. The 4 or 5 dollars a week we cleared after paying the weekly paper bill kept us in comic books, a summer that began with innocently enough with Superman and Batman and the Fantastic Four and ended with Daredevil, Spiderman, and, wait for it, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes (the Vietnam influence). And the occasional movie at the National Theatre (where blacks still had to sit in the balcony), and french fries from a downtown Greensboro bar where we should not have been going.
And the reading never stopped. Not that I understood everything I read, but a lot of it was beginning to make sense. I especially loved reading the steamy stuff in the coming of age books, Manchild in the Promised Land, Down These Mean Streets, and The Learning Tree. We passed that stuff around like it was pornography. For us it was pornography.
It was the summer between 8th and 9th grade when I met the Baha’i people and the Black Muslims, folks going door-to-door proselytizing. It was the same summer that I got my first summer reading list for Woodberry Forest and chose to read The Greening of America, Future Shock, Silent Spring, and Soul on Ice. Soul on Ice was, frankly, a tough read for a 14 year old! Thus armed, I packed my belongings in a trunk and made the trip to Woodberry Forest.
A “catching up” email on a similar subject:
It’s been a busy summer, even though the lockdown has us teleworking 99% at the memory factory (but I’ll get to that later).
50 years ago this summer I was girding up for what would become the signature experience of my life, the integration of Woodberry Forest School. Here’s the interesting story in a nutshell. Ex-Confederate Captain Robert Walker acquired a mansion and a large plot of land in central Virginia from President James Madison’s ne-er do well baby brother, Willey, designed and architected by Madison’s partner in crime, Thomas Jefferson (though we now forgive them all). Walker started a school to educate his sons, pulling his oldest son out of UVA law school and installing him as headmaster, a post he held until his death 50 years later. (p.s. James Madison was a leading proponent of Negro repatriation, and we have Liberia (Americans), Sierra Leone (British) and Nigeria (Brazilians) to show for that brain fart.)
In the 60’s, the great white fathers of Woodberry decided that their boys needed a more “multi-cultured” exposure because the world, she was a-changing. They called up an alum who ran a foundation in North Carolina to dispose of the fortune of another alum who had been huge in North Carolina textiles and said, “We need to integrate. Find us some worthy colored students.” But not yet. Wait until after the capital fund-raising project in 1968 so as not to scare off big donors. In 1969 the school also admitted their first Asian student, their first Jewish student, and their first known Native-American.
Greensboro, Durham, Fayetteville, Houston, and Washington, DC would provide that black human fodder. And off we marched.
This year we lost one of the original crew to ALS. That event has served to reconnect the remaining few. My re-entry to the Woodberry orbit came in 2013, when, you guessed it, one of my classmates made the connection between me and that guy involved in that Benghazi mess. Good guy, did a stint in the Marine Corps and returned home to run the family pipe business, found me and called me up. “Ray, are you that guy? What can we do to help?” Small world.
Impossible to make this all up, I am turning my hand to fiction-writing after penning a two-act play I buried and over a thousand pages of poetry my grand nephew has been instructed to publish posthumously.
And the memory factory. While on extended admin leave, I started taking classes in the Library and Information Science program at Catholic U. After finishing it i worked a series of librarian and archivist jobs, settling on archiving as my calling. While serving as town archivist in the tony Maryland suburb of Garrett Park, I got a call from Howard University’s famed Moorland Spingarn Research Center, where I have been for the past two years. Y’all would not believe the stuff they have. But I am fairly certain that after the vandals take down all the statues, they’ll be coming after the libraries, archives and museums next. America’s Cultural Revolution. So, as we speak, I’m planning my next caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis.
“It is not about funding. It has never been. It is about our professional capacity to help bring about the peaceful resolution of conflicts. It is about peace-making.”
(Note: This may be dated by history and things may have changed. This was my reflection returning home in early 2009 and suffering from insomnia and possible PTSD.)
My service in Iraq, from January 2008 to January 2009, was a complex sentence that had, for me, several significant punctuation marks. A semicolon marked the pause of my early transfer from the Office of Provincial Affairs to the Front Office; a series of exclamation marks accompanied the March and April bombings in the International Zone (IZ) and on the Palace grounds; tentative commas marked our move from the “hootches” to the NEC apartments starting in May and the intense heat of the June through August summer months; repetitious question marks from September through November caused us all to wonder whether the Iraqis would actually accept the terms of the Strategic Agreement and the Strategic Framework Agreement; the period, full stop, of December ended our occupation of the Republican Palace; and the exclamation mark of our January move to the new chancery coincided, altogether, with some measure of restoration of Iraqi sovereignty and the establishment a new US-Iraq bilateral relationship. Through it all, the exceptional courage and the tireless sacrifices of fellow foreign service officers, foreign service nationals, third country nationals, and contractors left me in a state of awe and with a deep sense of humility, of the privilege that was mine, to be there in service with them.
Service at extreme hardship mega posts, like Baghdad and Kabul, demands great courage and sacrifice, as does service in less heralded but equally demanding smaller hardship postings, such as Luanda, Monrovia, and Khartoum, to name a few (I betray here my AF background and professional lineage). The point, however, is that success in tough places requires personal courage and sacrifice, both of FSO’s and of their families. And the sacrifices are not equal – our families and loved ones pay far more, far more. Much of the human costs of our political success in Iraq, or in any of these places, such as it is, goes unpaid.
Shifting gears quickly, a great American diplomat once confided that perhaps we pay too much attention to direct compensation, such as hardship pay, danger pay, special differentials, etc., and not enough attention to the appeal to a sense of duty and the possible achievement of patriotic success so rarely experienced in a long career. It may be that we have lost faith in such intangibles, such outmoded values, and that we place more faith in the details of the Service Recognition Package. That loss of faith in our core values, quite frankly, identifies us less as diplomats and more as mercenaries, soldiers for hire, and we sell ourselves short, cheaply, at that.
And what is to become of our Foreign Service? That’s a question that came up often in Baghdad conversations where it was evident and obvious that traditionally diplomatic functions, once the province and the domain of the Department of State, were and are slowly being taken over by a far better resourced, better trained, and better equipped Department of Defense. Many studies have been and are being conducted on the militarization of diplomacy (just google the words and see what comes up) and the more euphemistic “civilian-military cooperation.”
Baghdad was a huge laboratory for such studies. Military units named Strategic Effects and Strategic Communications leveraged the massive resource imbalance between Defense and State to spring themselves into former State-dominated areas of political and economic reporting and public diplomacy efforts. Regional and combatant commanders became the equivalent of ambassadors and chiefs of mission, outside the traditional inter-agency setting, but with far more resources and more robust means of budget execution. The Country Team was just another joint interagency task force, among many. Fortunately for us, I guess, Defense showed no taste for administrative or consular work, State’s traditional and historic stepchildren, so State’s monopoly was safe there, for the time being.
Where did the Foreign Service lose its soul, its purpose, its identity? We allowed the lines separating foreign service professional service from military professional service to be blurred. But there are important differences between us, more than the false dichotomy espoused in the phrase “State is from Venus and Defense is from Mars.” We are both from Earth, but there are differences in the way we think, the way we approach problem solving.
Military professionals, in my view, and having been a naval officer, see things digitally, zero or one, all or nothing. Situations, problems to be solved, are black and white. For them, enough technology, be it smart bombs, smart tanks, or smart powerpoint presentations, can win any debate or resolve any difficulty. Military professional have little regard for or patience with the workings of international law or agreed upon conventions.
Foreign service professionals, by contrast, are trained to be analog, and to focus on problems between nations as a range of issues, with a range of solutions, some more appropriate than others, some less. Situations are shades of gray, not just black and white. For us, technology is useful, but might doesn’t mean right, right means right. Correspondingly, foreign service professionals are more inclined to support and promote abiding by international law and conventions.
In a different analogy, from my own military engineering training, Defense is a big gate valve in a system of large pipes. Closed gate valves are strong and hold well against incoming pressure. Open gate valves offer minimal resistance to fluid flow. But gate valves only work in the fully open or fully shut position. Measured flow is not an option. State is a needle valve that provides throttling where needed and can distinguish between, say, two gallon of flow per minute, and 35 gallons of flow per minute, by raising or lowering the valve stem. There are large needle valves for large applications, and there are microscopic needle valves for nanotechnology applications. But they all provide measuring capability.
In yet another analogy, Defense is like the stern planes on a submarine that provide for large depth excursions, say from the surface to four hundred feet. State is like the fairwater planes on a submarine that allow for precise depth changes, say from 200 to 150 feet, and enable a fast attack boat to do underhull surveillance of other ships and surfaced submarines, maintaining a six-inch depth excursion band. As an aside, I remember once studying a class of Russian submarines that did not even have fairwater planes. Up and down, only.
Finally, diplomacy — true diplomacy — can prevent war and all the attendant physical and human losses and has done so. But the the tools of diplomacy, falsely, inappropriately or unprofessionally applied, have a high probability of failure. Diplomacy has come to be seen in recent times as simply the prerequisite and prelude to war. The noted military historian, Geoffrey Blainey writes, “many historians, in explaining the outbreak of war, argue that ‘the breakdown in diplomacy led to war.’ This explanation is rather like the argument that the end of winter led to spring: it is a description masquerading as an explanation.” Where war, the noted historian Barbara Tuchman writes, is the unfolding of miscalculations, diplomacy is the precise calculation itself, and the accurate reporting of solutions to correct calculations that eliminates the need for war and all its corresponding horrors. State’s core competency is diplomacy to prevent war. Defense’s core competency is war itself.
Where do we go from here? We start by unequivocally defining ourselves and our core competencies. It is not about funding. It has never been. It is about our professional capacity to bring about the peaceful resolution of conflicts. It is about peace making. War has brought us a limited economic development, followed by financial disaster. Peace brings a much broader and more widespread prosperity. History is the judge. Blessed are the peace makers . . .
This point marks the end of the first twelve years, the nucleus and the core of my foreign service career. I was one year away from retirement eligibility, assuming 50 years old and taking my military time into consideration. But in fact there would be eight more years of service and a year, more or less, of administrative leave with pay before my retirement at the end.
The final eight years of my foreign service career were pretty stellar until the very end. We can compress it to a single paragraph. It began with assignment, in 2004, as special assistant to the Bureau of Administration Assistant Secretary and includes assignments as special assistant to the Under Secretary of Management, Arabic language training at FSI, deputy management counselor in Cairo, chief of staff in Baghdad, DCM and Charge d’affaires in Damascus, and NEA/RMA office director.
I summarized it all into this note I sent to a long lost prep school classmate:
I am one to talk. After Bissau, Luanda and Accra, I returned to DC to
work East Africa issues. Then I took a job in Cairo. Cairo morphed
into Baghdad. Baghdad morphed into Damascus. The Islamic
civilization trifecta. I started to wonder how I would survive
without hearing the call to prayer throughout the day! Finally I am
back in DC. There is no call to prayer in DC, only the low frequency
rumbling of the federal bureaucracy, grinding human souls into
It all ends with my last assignment, 2011-2012, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Maghreb (North Africa), a position from which I was unceremoniously but conveniently, shamefully, ingloriously and inaccurately removed on December 18, 2012 as part of an over-zealous Department response to unfounded fears of Congressional fallout from the Benghazi ARB report.
Here is a note I wrote to my poetry group, The Breakfast Club, at the time:
“Dear Breakfast Clubbers: I thought about you all as I poured the second cup of french-pressed goodness and decided to share in this forum some life reflections. I have had a lot of free time since my dismissal at State on December 18. Still on the payroll, but with no desk and no secretary to order my life, I have been free to take long morning walks, hit the DC think tanks after breakfast, and work on writing projects in the afternoon. The passage of time has given me a clearer understanding of the whole administrative process that envelops me. It (this administrative leave period) was only supposed to last for a few days until Clinton could testify before Congress. But she got sick and had to postpone so my release was delayed until after her testimony, now scheduled for January 24.
My actual piece is this whole Benghazi drama is actually quite small. I was responsible for North Africa, but because Libya was so sexy, several more senior folks carved parts out, including people VERY well connected to the Clinton machine. Of course, they couldn’t be fingered, so it rolled down to me, unconnected me, in a most undignified and uncollegial way.
In a letter to the senior politicos who made this decision, leaked my name to the press, and executed this decision, I told them the way they treated and were treating me was shabby, thuggish and third worldly, and that I actually held the third world in a higher regard, having spent most of my career there. They didn’t like that. But my, wasn’t it poetic!?
The whole thing is further complicated because my small part has become a chink in Clinton’s armor, and, consequently, in Obama’s armor, since they both “signed off” on the findings of the Benghazi ARB, whose official unclassified report, by the way, mentions neither my name nor my position as deputy assistant secretary for the Maghreb. Unfortunately for me, any effort to extract me from this mess, to exonerate me, to clear my name, risks exposing Clinton and Obama managerial weaknesses, not to mention policy flaws that the political opposition would love to exploit.
The Clinton machine is focused on 2016, already. The Obama machine, as it has for the past four years, lacks any true foreign policy focus. This is Washington, baby. The buck never stops; it never even slows down. I have decided to share with the Breakfast Club, and any ModPoers who lurk therein, this inside view of Washington policy making.
I will get through this: they use tough, resilient material to make the Maxwells and Hairstons down in piedmont North Carolina. There will be poems written, and memoirs, and maybe even a slick movie. Yeah, a Spielberg slick movie. “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.” –Omar Khayyam. p.s. Keep up with the latest by occasionally checking out my poetry blog: http://poemsbyray.blogspot.com
People have asked me if my demise were somehow racially determined. I have never “traded” on my race. I never had to. I grew up in a very nurturing community, an “African village” of sorts in Greensboro, NC. We lived less than an hour’s drive from the farming and rural communities where my parents, and their parents, and their parents, and their parents were raised. All the way back to Great Grandaddy Caswell Maxwell and Great Grandmama Emily Weatherly and 2nd Great Grandaddy Frank Pritchett and 2nd Great Grandmama Hannah Weatherly and Great Grandaddy Dick Rankin and Great Grandma Mary and 2nd Great Grandma Harriot on Daddy’s side, and Great Grandma Sallie and Great Grandpa Tom and 2nd Great Grandma (Big Mama) Rhodie and 2nd Great Grand Papa Nelson and 2nd Great Grandpa Sonny and 2nd Great Grandma Mariah on Mama’s side and everybody in between all lived their lives and died right there in Guilford County, NC and Pittsylvania County, VA. The farms and plantations where generations of my enslaved ancestors lived and labored are also inside that one-hour radius. One could say, from a spiritual level, that I grew up under the watchful eye of multiple generations of African ancestors. It feels sometimes they are still watching over me. May they all rest in peace.
(Note: I didn’t consciously think about it at the time I was writing the paragraph above, but this listing of or calling on the ancestors is a practice steeped in African spiritualism. It’s a recurrent theme in August Wilson’s plays, esp. Gem of the Ocean, The Piano Lesson, and King Hedley II. End note.)
For me, doing the work was always sufficient, beginning in my village, then on the track and in the classroom at Woodberry and extending over a succession of submarines and ships where I proudly served and institutions where I studied. I never claimed victimhood nor projected guilt onto others. I am of African descent and my affirmation of my Africanness and my Americanness have worked out more to my benefit than to my detriment over the course of my life and professional career. Uniting me with my ancestors, both heritages have given me confidence and strength and developed in me a well-built internal honor code. I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors. I stand – on holy ground. That’s my opinion and has been my guiding principle. I have always been “black and proud.” But race in and of itself is a merely a social construct, plain and simple. Don’t forget it.
In 2020, we live in an extreme racially-charged atmosphere. In most election years we watch evidence emerge of forces that display and give rise to divisive tendencies in society. Politics reign. Stir up and excite the masses to get their vote. It seems more intense this year but that is because of widespread opposition to the government in mainstream and social media. Information warfare is being waged in every town and hamlet, in every city, at every internet node.
For better or for worse, the State Department and the Foreign Service do not exist in a vacuum. The same ills that exist in broader American society are normally distributed across all USG agencies and institutions, including the Foreign Service. To believe otherwise is being naive, if not intentionally dishonest.
That’s it, y’all. That’s all she wrote.
The next and final part (bonus) highlights the twelve months I spent in Iraq in a thoughtful and perhaps philosophic way. Sit back, pop some popcorn, and enjoy!
Addendum #1: Benghazi Quartet
“Many others did go and there was a sacrifice, of what shall we, a sheep, a hen, a cock, a village, a ruin, and all that and then that having been blessed let us bless it.” – Gertrude Stein, Idem the Same – Let Us Describe
The Queen’s Henchmen request the pleasure of your company at a Lynching – to be held at 23rd and C Streets NW on Tuesday, December 18, 2012 – just past sunset.
Dress: Formal, Masks and Hoods – the four being lynched must never know the identities of their executioners, or what/ whose sin required their sacrifice.
A blood sacrifice – to divert the hounds, to appease the gods, to cleanse our filth and satisfy our guilty consciences.
Arrive promptly at sunset – injustice will be swift. There will be no trial, no review of evidence, no due process, and no accountability.
Dress warmly – a chilling effect will instantly envelop Foggy Bottom.
Extrajudicial. Total impunity at the top. A kangaroo court in a banana republic.
B.Y.O.B. Refreshments will not be served because of the continuing resolution.
And the ones being lynched? Who cares? They are pawns in a game. Our game. All suckers, all fools, all knaves who volunteered to serve – us. And the truth? The truth? What difference at this point does it make?
In case of inclement weather, or the Queen’s incapacitation, the Queen’s Henchmen will carry out this lynching – as ordered, as planned.
2. The Wizard of Oz
The wicked witch of the East? The old, decrepit, ancient East? She dead. House fell on her ass during the storm. Feet all shriveled up. That witch ain’t going nowhere! Ain’t gon bother nobody!
But the wicked witch of the West? The new, modern, amoral West? She’s alive and kicking. Causing all kinds of trouble. Done signed a deal with the Wizard – the lying Wizard. Dorothy has her hands full with those two. And the lion ain’t got no courage.
3. Trapped in a purgatory…
“The top of the pyramid – the organization is composed of Technologists who only pretend to have power, although they are only actors in the theater of mirrors. When the mirror is broken they die, because the internal drive of their actions vanishes.” – Svetislav Basara, The Cyclist Conspiracy
Trapped in a purgatory of their own conceit…
The web of lies they weave gets tighter and tighter in its deceit until it bottoms out – at a very low frequency – and implodes.
It may be just a matter of perception – they can’t undo their wrongs for fear it’d undermine their perceived authority – an authority they think they require to stay in charge.
Yet all the while, the more they talk, the more they lie, and the deeper down the hole they go.
There’s nothing I need to go back to – nothing to re-litigate – nothing to defend – and certainly nothing to prove to the unworthy.
Just wait….just wait and feed them rope.
4. Man and the expanding universe: art
moral courage dies and corruption’s stench prevails – lies erase the truth –
my LinkedIn friends keep endorsing me for Government. But me and Uncle Sam
are a shrinking universe. I’m leaving the troop that errs, the team that lies,
leaders who destroy lives for sport, as art – themselves a crime, a sin, a plague. Farewell.
Addendum #2: They got it all wrong on Benghazi
“You are taking this all too personally, Raymond. It is not about you, it is about Hillary Clinton and 2016.”
Those words were uttered by the State Department ombudsman in January 2013 in an apparently well-intentioned attempt to simultaneously admonish and console me. Her assessments probably were right, but when you are run over by the bus it is difficult to appreciate that it was swerving to avoid somebody else.
The attack on our diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 and the resulting deaths of four U. S. government representatives were horrific. The American people deserve a complete and accurate account of those events. However, the investigation conducted by the State Department’s Benghazi Accountability Review Board (ARB) into the events was woefully incomplete and consequently misleading. Perhaps most importantly, the ARB failed to interview a number of key officials who had a direct role in decisions regarding Libya. Among the officials not interviewed by the ARB were three high-level political appointees: Thomas Nides, Deputy Secretary of State and the official with overall responsibility for management of Department resources in Libya; Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs and the Department’s point person for ensuring (to the extent possible) appropriate employment of the thousands of US-provided shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles in Libya; and Ben Fishman, the National Security Council (NSC) Director for Libya.
Also limiting the ARB’s investigation was the fact that the Board, despite its claims to having unfettered access to documentation, experienced – perhaps unknowingly – the same problems gaining access to emails, memos and similar materials that Congressional committees later faced. The Board’s difficulty in gaining access to information was not accidental, it was by design. When the ARB issued its call for documents, the executive directorate of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) was placed in charge of collecting all emails and other relevant documents. However, once the documents were gathered and boxed, a select group of NEA staffers spent a weekend in a basement operations center pouring through the entire collection. I was not invited to that after-hours endeavor, but I heard about it and decided to check it out on a Sunday afternoon. There, one of the staffers from NEA’s Office of Maghreb Affairs explained the operation to me. “Ray,” she said, “we are to go through these stacks and pull out anything that might put anybody in the NEA Front Office (i.e., Assistant Secretary Beth Jones or Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) Elizabeth Dibble) or the 7th Floor (State Department short-hand for the Secretary of State and her principal advisors) in a bad light.”
A few minutes later, in walked Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to Secretary of State Clinton, and Jake Sullivan, another trusted Clinton advisor. When Cheryl saw me she snapped, “Who are you?” Jake explained, “That’s Ray Maxwell, an NEA DAS.” She conceded, “Well, OK.” A few minutes later I voted with my feet and returned home.
Despite its claims to being independent, the ARB was anything but. Sworn Congressional testimony revealed that ARB co-chair Admiral Michael Mullen made phone calls to Cheryl Mills to report on the fitness of a potential Congressional witness who had been interviewed by the ARB. When questioned about that September 2013 testimony, ARB co-chair Ambassador Thomas Pickering said he would not have “said that.” His response was carefully parsed diplo-speak. What he did not say was that he would not have “done that.” Because of the casualness of the remark that Admiral Mullen made and the oblique reference Ambassador Pickering made to it, we have every reason to believe that communications between the ARB and the Secretary’s staff was on-going during the ARB process. Even if contact occurred only that one time, that is NOT being independent.
Despite claims to impartiality, several officials involved in the Benghazi ARB, and in the overall damage control process following the events of September 2012, had possible tracks to cover from previous fatal attacks of U. S. diplomatic facilities, specifically the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998. In the 1998 East Africa bombings, 224 lives were lost, including those of twelve Americans. Susan Rice, currently President Obama’s National Security Advisor and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 2012, was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in 1998 and consequently in the direct chain of command that declined then-Ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnell’s request of additional security funding. ARB co-chair Thomas Pickering was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in 1998, also in that chain of command. Dick Shinnick, a member of the Benghazi ARB committee, in 1998 was then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s Executive Director. Current Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy was the acting Under Secretary for Management in 1998. I remember those officials and their positions in 1998 because I was a watch stander in the State Department’s Operations Center in 1998 and was on watch the night of the bombings. No-one was held accountable in 1998, which generated increased pressure to assign responsibility and name names after the Benghazi attack.
Lest we forget, our facility in Benghazi was not a consulate. That would have required Congressional approval and direct funding. In fact, the U. S. government presence in Benghazi was not primarily a State Department operation at all. It was, as has been reported widely in the media, a CIA operation. Did the ARB question why the CIA did not provide better security? Was anybody from the CIA held accountable? Was anybody from the CIA even interviewed by the ARB? No, no and no.
Finally, the ARB report completely let Congress off the hook, assigning no specific blame to Congress for the security funding decisions it had made. Almost certainly, this aspect of the ARB report was specifically designed to persuade members of Congress to find the report’s findings palatable. It worked. The chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the time of the report’s release focused solely on the status of the four people named in the classified section of the report. “Why can’t they be fired?” she asked. “What is being done to discipline them?” she demanded. Never did she ask, “Did they receive due process?” Or even, “Are we sure the findings are correct?” State Department political leadership played Congress like the hard-to-tune viola I played in my youth.
Let’s face facts and call the Benghazi ARB by its proper name. It was a disgrace. It perpetrated a disservice to the memory of the U.S. officials who lost their lives on September 11, 2012. The ARB inquiry was, at best, a shoddily executed attempt at damage control, both in Foggy Bottom and on Capitol Hill. I am confident that history ultimately will judge the ARB report to be a flawed product and will conclude that the entire ARB process, unfortunately, was little more than an exercise in misdirection and political theatrics.
Part 9. Mid-career domestic assignment: AF/EX Post Management Officer
We returned to Washington in the fall of 2002. As soon as our tenant vacated the apartment we embarked on a major refurbishment project, resurfacing the hardwood floors, painting throughout, and a complete renovation of the kitchen. Meanwhile, the DC sniper was terrorizing the District and we were wishing we were back in West Africa. I had developed a nasty little habit of smoking cigarettes over the past several years, about a pack a week, nothing too intense, and decided to use the DC sniper craziness as an excuse to quit once and for all. Cold turkey. Piece of cake.
That summer we moved back to Washington to a post management officer (PMO) job in AF/EX — Anglophone and Lusophone West Africa, as originally assigned. But upon arrival, the deputy executive director told me I would be covering countries in East Africa, which included Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar and Mauritius. My prior assignments, Bissau, Luanda, and Accra, had all been west, so this region would present a new, unexplored set of challenges. I rolled up my sleeves, little knowing that, later, in retrospect, I would consider it my favorite all-time assignment and the most productive period of my foreign service career.
At work, I sat out to master the ropes of the Washington bureaucracy. We had major projects underway: new embassy buildings under construction in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam; re-establishment of operations in Khartoum; and potential New Office Building (NOB) site search and selection projects for Djibouti, Asmara, and Antananarivo. In meeting after meeting, I came to understand and appreciate the thoughts and contributions of my counterparts in the Office of Building Operations (OBO), Information Resource Management (IRM) and Diplomatic Security (DS), and before long we were able to pick up the phone and unstick things, solving problems before they reached anybody’s notice. In the Spring I traveled with Under Secretary for Management Grant Green to Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam for the new embassy openings, then broke away for site visits to Khartoum, Addis Ababa and Asmara. I was scheduled for visits to Antananarivo, Kampala and Djibouti, but the Iraq war started when I got to Ethiopia and my boss phoned and told me to return home immediately.
We spent quite a bit of time back in the office on Khartoum. Early on the deputy director, John Sheely (a fabulous guy and a great boss, by the way. We were all lucky to have him as our immediate supervisor and mentor) directed me to organize a series of weekly meetings, cross-departmental, to come up with a strategy to restore full operations to Embassy Khartoum. Since evacuation and shutdown in the 90’s, American staff in Khartoum had been assigned to Nairobi and only made TDY visits to Khartoum, even though the local staff was still assigned. The situation worked very well for USAID, which was principally engaged in South Sudan (still part of Sudan at the time, though at war), a short flight from Nairobi.
During those weekly meetings, I managed to forge even stronger working relations with colleagues from DS, IRM, and OBO. The weekly meetings were always well attended, and I stayed late or came in early the next day to draft and send the meeting minutes and to-do items out to various offices. One of the weekly meetings was particularly rousing: we were coming close to closure on a way to restore unclassified and classified e-mail at the Khartoum chancery. Thanks to ideas from AF IT and logistics guru Steve Deutsch, we had a number of excellent ways forward to consider. Nonetheless, organizational lines were crossing and tempers were flaring. As host and erstwhile moderator, I lost control of the meeting due to all the bickering and turf defending between and across the various groups. Suddenly, without warning, I slammed my hand on the conference room table and said, in a firm but convincing voice, “We, here, today, in this conference room, must decide if Embassy Khartoum is going to be an Embassy of the United States of America, or a hole in the wall.” The room got silent. You could have heard a pin drop. And slowly, cooler heads prevailed and we found a way forward that satisfied the requirements of DS, OBO, IRM and AF/EX. There is nothing like bureaucratic success, or, as a Quaker friend always says, “the truth is in the room; you just have to allow it to emerge.”
That fall of 2003 we moved to 18th and G so our suite could be renovated. It would be the first ever renovation of AF/EX since the building was built in the 50’s. My boss, Jamie Agnew, masterminded the project from start to finish. I really came to admire Jamie and I enjoyed working for her. She remains one of my all-time favorite bosses, and being a PMO in AF/EX remains my favorite all-time jobs. I got a lot done for my posts and I learned a lot about the inner workings of the State machine, especially HR, OIG, OBO, and the A Bureau, bureaus whose operations affect people at post the most.
A few days into my second trip to the region, Ops found me to let me know about a death in the family, my aunt, Rebecca Hairston. Aunt Beck stepped in and became our mother figure when my mother died unexpectedly in 1975, so she had served as a mother figure for a longer time than did my actual mother. I was in Asmara when the call came, but luckily there was a flight to Europe the very next day. I changed my itinerary and returned home.
The second year in AF/EX was the year of evacuations. Abidjan, Bangui, Kinshasa, and Nairobi evacuations kept us all very busy. The Nairobi evacuation went on for almost six months! We nor any bureau had ever had an evacuation that lasted so long, and it created a number of complications for our office, for folks at post, for people assigned but evacuated, and for people “caught out.” Through our efforts we got changes made to the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) during and after the Nairobi evacuation to better accommodate evacuated families, their allowances, and their choices of safehaven. It was quite an accomplishment. The bureaucracy doesn’t like to change the FAM!
After the evacuation ended, we expended a lot of shoe leather on the Embassy Nairobi build-to-lease housing project, Rosalyn Ridge. OBO, Embassy Nairobi, and AF/EX were strong proponents. The AF Front Office was not on board, however. And DS waivered and for good reason – potential bad guys had line of sight access to the housing compound. Ultimately, a risk management regime was proposed and the project was approved and became the choice location for residential housing at Embassy Nairobi.
It was a very busy and eventful second year. But we had a great crew! My fellow PMO’s, Henry Kaminski, Doug Brown, and Barbara Gates were all just super people. Our deputy director, John Sheely, gave us all the guidance we needed, and lots of encouragement. And we got great support from the folks in the budget shop, in HR, the IT guys, and the GSO shop. I look back with fondness on my time in AF/EX; it was an extremely productive time in my career. Again, I will always maintain that being a post management officer was my all-time favorite job at State!
September 2000. I was at my desk doing some paperwork when the phone rang. “Hello, may I speak to Raymond Maxwell?” Not expecting any calls out of the ordinary, I responded in my normal manner, “This is.” “Please hold from the Ambassador.” I found it strange the ambassador’s OMS would be on the call and with so much formality. Ambassador Sullivan usually just picked up the phone and called. But it wasn’t Ambassador Sullivan, it was Ambassador Ledesma calling from Gabon, a somewhat neighboring country. He called to offer me a job as his admin officer. We were two weeks from packout and pretty much set on going to Accra. I very politely declined the offer. Lesson learned: if an ambassador calls with an offer, not the Bureau and not DC HR, you may want to give it very careful consideration. He (or she) has an interest in you and will very likely support you and “take care” of you. That support is nothing to take for granted, as I would soon enough discover.
November 2000. We left Luanda and moved to Accra where I took over the reins of the General Services section as supervisory general services officer (GSO). Prior to arriving at post, I bumped into my new boss at FSI. He told me “They say very good things about you in the AF Bureau.” He laughed, then said, “There is no way you can live up to your advanced billing.” He laughed again, then smiled. O my god, I thought, a psycho for a boss. Three years. OMG!
We arrived. Elections brought in the opposition just as we were settling in. The coup leader turned dictator turned democrat stepped down after nineteen years of rule. Western pundits called it the Ghana Miracle because Lt. Rawlings bowed out gracefully. But it was no miracle — just normal folks behaving like adults. To expect otherwise says more about the expector than the expected.
Accra was fine and we did some outstanding work in GSO, especially in contracting and residential leasing. Filomena returned to USAID, managing child health programs. But the level of collegiality and camaraderie at Embassy Accra was not the same as it was in Luanda — perhaps because Angola was a country at war, while Ghana was a country at peace.
Embassy operations were spread out in locations throughout the city and bad traffic made moving from location to location stressful. GSO itself was operated out of four separate facilities. As lead contracting and logistics officer I had a very diversified operational portfolio of responsibilities. I spent a lot of my time on the road, getting from location to location.
Mentors warned me it would be taking a backwards step going from administrative officer in Luanda to general services officer in Accra. They told me I might not even be invited to Country Team meetings. Their predictions came true, but I was willing to take that backwards step for the complex construction, services and security contracting opportunities the position would afford me. It turned out to be a bad trade, especially when I had my pick of administrative officer positions in the Africa Bureau and beyond from which to choose. It didn’t help that this was my boss’s first administrative officer position and he had no interest in my “big picture” previous experience.
There were tensions across agencies and even in the administrative section, lots of pettiness, lots of bickering. Having my own universe outside the main embassy did not make me immune from the seeds and sources of division.
On the other hand, being in Accra provided some very bright moments. Ghana was rich in pre-colonial, colonial and post colonial history. As an aside, It was Sierra Leone, I would learn, and not Ghana that the British had groomed for eventual independence. Historically, well-to-do folks in Ghana sent their children to Sierra Leone for civil service and teacher training.
(Side note. Three countries had somewhat interesting but unique and different recolonization pilot efforts for their freed and enslaved Africans. Brazilians sent their emancipated slaves back to Nigeria, from whence many of them came. By the end of the 19th century, colonial officials outlawed the speaking of Portuguese by repatriated Africans from Brazil, ultimately under penalty of death. The United States experimented with recolonizing freed and enslaved people to Liberia, even before blanket emancipation. President Madison, whose baby brother Willey had a house in central Virginia that eventually became the site of a prep school I would integrate in the early ’70’s (but that is a whole different kettle of worms) was a leading proponent of solving the Negro problem through massive “recolonization.” What a disaster that would have been. Great Britain found itself with a sizable population of freed slaves following the rebellion in the colonies and their offer of freedom to any slaves willing to escape and join their cause. Similarly during the War of 1812. They were first settled in Canada, then in England. Ultimately the British would experiment with resettling them and their dependents in Sierra Leone. End note.)
But that all changed in 1957 when the Ghanaians jumped the gun and declared their independence from colonial United Kingdom. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first leader, studied at Howard University (where I presently work) and a steady stream of African American leaders made pilgrimage to Accra and to the Ashanti Kingdom center, Kumasi over the 50’s and 60’s, including W.E.B. DuBois, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
It was Ghanaians who introduced me to yoga. The Fantes enstooled me and gave me the name “Nana Kweku Appiah.” The Ashantis embraced me and taught me their culture and philosophy. The Ewe and Ga protected me and kept me safe from harm. To quote an Emerson poem, “. . . give all to love . . . . when the half-gods go, the gods arrive.”
At the end of my tour, the local employees and I performed a traditional “blessing” of the land where we hoped the new embassy would be built, Bud Field, but not before making a convincing presentation to OBO and AF/EX that Embassy Accra needed a new Embassy compound as soon as possible. A powerpoint presentation I composed and delivered to OBO Director Williams and AF/EX Director Huggins provides a snapshot view of dispersed embassy operations at the time and made a strong case for a new unified embassy compound.
How did I leave out 9/11? Probably because it was all very abstract experiencing it overseas. I got a call on my cell from the facilities maintenance guy around noon. He heard that something had happened in the states. We arranged to meet at my house for a late lunch. A meeting had been called of the Emergency Action Committee but we weren’t members, just as we were not invited to Country Team, but information filtered through that there had been some sort of attack. When I got home I turned on the television and CNN was showing replays of those planes flying into those buildings in New York. I pulled out a bottle of single malt and we had a drink. Middle of the goddamn day. Things had suddenly changed forever. Some months later we got more directly involved when there was a threat that the diplomatic pouch had been contaminated by anthrax worldwide. We donned anti-c’s and cleaned the pouch room down to parade rest as part of our effort, along with embassies and consulates around the world. It was the dawning, for us, of the Age of Terrorism.
Also omitted in the first draft. I joined the African American Association of Ghana shortly after arriving. One of the activities I got personally involved in was forging a relationship between the association and the Embassy, or more specifically, actually, the Public Affairs section. During African American History Month we were able to borrow the 16mm copies (several reels) of Eyes On The Prize and a 16mm projector from the PAO section to screen over several weeks at the W.E.B. DuBois Center for association members and their guests.
The most memorable project I was involved in at Embassy Accra came at the very end of my tour. By a fortuitous turn of events, we needed at least a 200-year lease on a large piece of property for the construction of an embassy compound at the same time that the Ghanaian Ambassador in Washington needed to close a deal on property he was purchasing for his official residence out in Potomac, MD. The Ghanaian constitution did not allow foreigners to own land, but OBO assured us that a long-term lease of at least 200 years was as good as a title deed.
Fortunately for us, the new supervisory post management officer (PMO) in AF/EX in charge of the project, Stephanie Sullivan (presently the chief of mission in Ghana), had previously been political counselor in Accra and knew all the political players, including the Ghanaian Ambassador to the U.S., Alan Kyerematen. The management counselor was on leave, so it fell to me to handle the negotiations on the Accra side. We worked the phones, just like in Ops, Embassy Accra to AF/EX in Washington, Embassy Accra to the Ghanaian Embassy, Embassy Accra to the Foreign Ministry, Embassy Accra to the Presidential Palace, Embassy Accra to the members of Parliament, and every combination and permutation within and across all these elements. Stephanie steered me masterfully through the local and national Ghanaian government bureaucracy. Within mere days, we managed to execute an MOU with the Ghanaian government, in effect persuading legislators to amend their constitution to grant long tern lease rights to a foreign government, resulting in granting us the 200-year lease on Bud Field. Great work, by the way, from the DC Office of Foreign Missions pushing the reciprocity angle. A couple of years later, NOB construction commenced at that very site, blessed by all the local chieftains on the GSO staff. And in a few months I would be joining Stephanie’s PMO shop in Washington.
November 1998. Approaching Luanda by air, you see this beautiful city on the coast with tall buildings and winding avenues. Only as you get closer do you realize the tall buildings are empty shells of construction halted when the Portuguese left suddenly in 1975. And when you get real close, you can see bullet holes from Savimbi’s last stand in 1992. Not to be confused with Savimbi’s last stand of 2002. My oh my! Luanda! No place like it on earth.
Embassy Luanda was a trailer park, plain and simple. As admin officer I was the only American in the admin section, which meant I was also leasing officer, contracting officer, certifying officer, and HR adviser. I sort of saw this coming and managed to get enrolled in the the financial mgmt and HR courses before leaving Washington. I had time to take the overseas management officer course, but my brainless Career Development Officer (CDO) informed me that you had to be FS-02 to take that course. When I countered that I was going to fill an FS-02 job, she simply said, “but you’re an FS-04, No exceptions.” It was a big disappointment for me. I could have used that class. But that is spilt milk, no use crying over it.
One by one, we found residential properties outside, negotiated leases, and moved all remaining staffers off the compound and into newly rented houses and apartments as quickly as our guys could complete the make-ready preps. Of course, it was never quick enough, nor the make-ready good enough for the prospective tenant. We did our best. Then we started the arduous task of securing the permits and permissions from various government offices to begin the New Office Building (NOB) construction project.
After several meetings with several different ministries and regional and local government departments, we arrived at a stalemate regarding a “showstopper” for the prospective NOB, closing off the back street to enhance, no to secure setback requirements. In a final meeting I attended with the Provisional Governor (who was on our side) and representatives from the Interior Ministry (who were not on our side), the Interior Ministry folks drew a line in the sand. Their position was that to grant us permission to close off the back street “for security reasons” somehow suggested that they were not doing their job to provide adequate security for a foreign mission (which of course, in their estimation, they were. The Interior Ministry guys studied under the Russians, the East Germans, and the Cubans back during the good old days. They were the best at what they did in the world.). It was all in the wording.
One of the city traffic planners offered the following olive branch proposal: Close off the back street, not for security purposes, as stated, but to provide for temporary construction, knowing full well that once the traffic patterns were changed to close the road for the three years of the construction period, no one would bother to change them again afterwards. I phoned the DCM to get the go ahead. We cut the deal and shook on it. It was done. Ground was broken, and a few years later, after my departure, the New Office Building became a reality — the trailer park, a distant memory.
In retrospect, while I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, I would certainly come to miss the support DCM Jeff Hartley and Ambassador Joe Sullivan always extended to us. Telephones didn’t work half the time. There was no e-mail to the Admin annex where I worked, Casa Inglesa. But I could count on the support of upper management to do the work I had to do. I could take it to the bank. The support I enjoyed and took for granted in Luanda, the collegiality we shared, I would later learn, was rare in this outfit. I remain grateful for having experienced it there.
Addendum: Farewell to Luanda (10/2000)
Dear friends and colleagues,
We are packing out and already I am missing this sad, strange place. Luanda. No place like it. No place like it on Earth.
Coming down with malaria is a pain that I won’t miss. Nor will I miss that illness we get from time to time that fakes out the malaria test. The locals call it catolotolo, while I call it total physical misery. But I will miss the peaceful sunsets and late dinners out on the ilha, the hypnotizing popular music, dancing (more like watching them dance) the kizomba and the high-fives shared when one hits that out-of-sync step with rhythmic perfection.
I’ll miss the taste of zindungo (a spicy sauce made from peppers, garlic and whiskey), the smooth harshness of Angolan robusta coffee, the sweetness of overripe pineapple sold at inflated prices by the women on the street who swear it will last until tomorrow, and the bitter-sweetness of gimboa (a type of local greens) fried with onions and olive oil. More than anything else, though, I’ll miss the effusive, infectious enthusiasm of our local Foreign Service National (FSN) employees, their willingness to learn, their professional dedication and loyalty.
The war, which resumed in earnest two years ago, continues in earnest. The rebels continue to wreck havoc and random mayhem in the distant and not-so-distant provinces. The government continues to blame the rebels and, by extension, the war for all the ills of the kleptocratic society it leads. Luanda’s majority continues its struggle to survive and overcome desperate, oppressive poverty. Luanda’s privileged elite continues to revel in opulent, ostentatious wealth. International oil companies continue to discover and suck out black gold, Texas tea, like there’s no tomorrow. And then there are diamonds. Diamonds are forever. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Diamonds. Y’all know the rest of that story. The American Embassy continues its bifurcated operation in the Miramar trailer park and on top of the downtown garage known as Casa Inglesa. Continuity, for better or for worse, is Luanda’s most obvious constant. The strong get stronger, the weak go further off track. Or, if corruption empowers, then absolute corruption empowers absolutely.
Angola diz basta, Angola quer paz. Angola vai vencer. Or so says the steady flow of local media propaganda. Angola says enough. Angola wants peace. Angola shall win. An associate with party connections gave me the red, black and gold t-shirt that repeats the mantra. That makes it so.
The NOB didn’t start on time and may or may not start in the foreseeable future. While I am buoyed by our accomplishments of the past two years, I am a little disappointed over the NOB delays and the failed prospect of being personally involved in yet another building project in yet another former Portuguese colony. Never mind. A luta continua e vitoria é certa (translation: the struggle continues and victory is certain).
We are coming up on two years of official USG presence in Angola in the post-Cold War era (1992-2002). I am soliciting information, anecdotes, photographs, etc. from folks who have served in Luanda, and from PMO’s, FBO Area Managers and desk officers who have paid Angolan dues, so to speak. While talking with people in Luanda and in Washington, I’ve made interesting discoveries regarding the colonial-era Luanda consulate and its employees (1952-1975) and the Benguela and Luanda consulates that supported US Navy ships (the African Squadron) involved in slave trade interdiction efforts in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Keep those cards and letters coming and let’s all meet for a big birthday bash in Luanda in 2002!