1990-1992. Pre-Foreign Service

Introduction: In the blog posts that follow, I serialize some highlights of my 1992-2013 foreign service career. Post by post and assignment by assignment I cover some of the memorable events. Names are not changed to protect the innocent or the guilty. It is written exactly as it happened, more or less. At the bottom of each post I provide links to all succeeding sections. There are even a few photos thrown in for those who like visual prompts. I hope you enjoy my chronicle.

(Note: these blog posts are growing a bit each day as I come across old stuff to add and weave in. I read an old African proverb to the effect that the smith forges the Word, the weaver weaves it, and the leather worker beats it smooth. Yeah, that’s what’s going on!)

Before State. Excerpted from my Oral Assessment Biographical statement.

In this autobiographical statement for the FSOA, I outlined the general milestones of my life and discussed that chronology from the perspective of the influences, the persons, the places, and the ideas that guided me, steered me and propelled me through life.

First, and most significantly, as influences are my parents, Raymond Robert Maxwell and Sallye Anne Hairston Maxwell, both of whom are deceased, yet both of whom continue to exert a tremendous influence on my life, my daily decisions, my hopes and my aspirations.

My mother was the socializer of the pair. She enjoyed parties and balls and relished giving teas on Saturday evenings and dinner parties after Church on Sunday. She worked as a secretary but she found special satisfaction in volunteer work, carrying my sister and I out with her as she canvassed the neighborhood annually for Easter Seal, Muscular Dystrophy, the March of Dimes, NAACP membership drives and voter registration. Her dream for me was to become a lawyer, and she saw law as the loftiest, noblest, and most lucrative profession.

My father was not a grand socializer, church being the extent of his social life. But in some respects my father was just as much a people person as was my mother, concerned with improving the lot of those less fortunate by direct action and on an individual basis. He was an electrician by trade, and he brought many families into the twentieth century, wiring, at low cost, old houses for electricity for the first time, which meant heat during the winter and light at night and television and access to the use of modern appliances. He wanted me to become a preacher and a teacher. The most enduring lesson I learned from him was that one can’t help large groups of people collectively to bring about a change in their condition, but small groups and individuals can be shown how to help themselves, and many small groups become a large one.

I was born in Greensboro, North Carolina and attended public schools through junior high. My elementary school teachers were all friends of my parents, either through prior association or from my parents’ involvement in PTA and civic activities, and they all took a special interest in our academic and intellectual development. Supplementing our public education was the weekly pilgrimage to the Carnegie Negro Library with my father, where I developed a love for books and acquiring information while he developed his lecture for the adult Sunday School class which he taught. At one point, I decided I would become a librarian, and eventually, my first real job was as a library assistant at that library.

At age 11 I joined the Boy Scouts. George Herring, my scoutmaster, was a boyhood friend of my father’s, but he showed me no favoritism. I learned under his supervision hiking, camping, map-reading, Morse Code, and self-reliance. But more importantly, I learned from Mr. Herring that nature and the environment can be very unforgiving, and that there are no substitutes for gains and achievements that are hard-earned though diligence, persistence, and directed efforts. (Here I was thinking about the campfire incident at the Snowflake Camporee at Camp Wenasa, December, 1968. It was snowing and the wind was blowing and all we wanted to do was get a little flame going so we could warm our hands. As we were “hand warming,” Mr. Herring came out of his tent with a bucket of water and doused our little fire out, shouting that we needed a strong fire that could resist the wind, lest the wind spread the flame and burn our little campsite down). The parallels between my experiences as a Boy Scout and years later as a naval officer, as I reflect back, are amazing. Troop #442 presented me with my first exposure to a relatively heterogeneous group, where I began to develop the ability to deal with a variety of people with varied interests, from varied backgrounds, and with varied personalities.

I discontinued my involvement with the Boy Scouts when, in the eighth grade and after making Star rank, my parents gave me permission to go out for the junior varsity football team. I made the team as defensive and offensive end, playing both ways, and I was appointed team captain. Our JV team went undefeated and unscored upon. We were ecstatic, and I was certain that I was on the fast track to a career with the NFL.

After the eighth grade, I was awarded a scholarship to a prep school in Virginia, Woodberry Forest, not necessarily to play football. There my football career floundered, giving rise instead to a promising future as a middle distance runner. But other things also happened at Woodberry Forest.

Woodberry Forest exposed me to society’s upper crust and a whole new world of perception and expectation. I had a Spanish teacher from Spain, a history teacher descended from British nobility, and a track coach who told me that blacks could not run long distances competitively. After a disappointing first quarter academically, I made the necessary adjustments to my studying habits and my grades improves substantially. Athletically, track and cross-country practice provide me the opportunity to measure personal improvement, and the long afternoon runs enabled me to do the deep introspective thinking that, daily, nourished my soul. I despised mandatory chapel on Wednesdays and Sundays, and I resented the conspicuousness of my absence which insured my punishment (there were only eight of us that first year, so the prefects only needed to count black heads and issue demerits to the ones not counted…). I utilized extensively the school library, which was extremely well-stocked, better stocked that any library I had previously visited, and I especially cherished those long-distance runs, where my thoughts would take wings and fly.

After two years, I returned home and enrolled at Dudley Senior High. The adjustment to public school was difficult, and I never made the adjustment. Unfortunately, my track career ended at Dudley; I worked during the afternoons, evenings and weekends to help out with family expenses. Those part-time jobs, at a library and a bakery, reading books and baking pies, convinced me that my future was in the understanding of economic theory and development.

(Note. Missing in most accounts are two very seminal sets of experiences in my life. The first set of experiences I have not written about centers on my father’s worsening alcoholism and how it affected our family. The second set of experiences is my extended flirtation with black nationalist organizations, including the Nation of Islam. Both these experience sets, somewhat related, interestingly enough, should be carefully and appropriately examined.)

The following summer, I was selected to attend the Governor’s School of North Carolina, a summer enrichment program for the state’s top performing high school juniors. There I learned more about economics, the economic impact of current and international events, and the interrelationship of various disciplines of knowledge. We also watched daily telecasts of the Watergate hearings. At Governor’s School I met and studied with the brightest and best high school students in the state, some of whom I have kept in touch with over the years.

Going back to Dudley in the fall was analogous to a college basketball player who, in the summer between his junior and senior year, made the Olympic Team, traveled to Munich, and overcame great odds to win the gold medal, only to return to a mediocre team in the fall, or so I imagined. Impatient, adolescently immature and foolish, and against my parents wishes, I left Greensboro and moved to Washington, DC. There I got a job at a larger bakery, and spent my offhours at a larger library, the Library of Congress.

Washington provided me my first exposure to an international city, and I took full advantage of that opportunity, visiting embassies and consulates and talking with people from foreign countries and cultures. The Arab oil embargo was in full swing at the time, and I was especially interested in Arab cultures and cultures. Being of African descent, I also spent a lot of time reading about and talking with African nationals. Shortly, however, the price of sugar skyrocketed due to the embarge, and a huge Russian wheat deal drove the prices of bakery ingredients sky high, driving our bakery operation into bankruptcy.

We tried several remedies, such as decreasing sugar content in our products, substituting honey for sugar, and concentrating on bread sales (low profit margin) as opposed to cakes and pies which required large amounts of sugar (high profit margin). But none of these measures were successful. I found a part-time job at a restaurant, and started looking into enrolling in school, concentrating my efforts on American University. A young local politician and operator named Marion Barry was spearheading a scholarship program there. Shortly after applying, though, my mother’s unexpected death resulted in my return to Greensboro, where I enrolled in electrical engineering at North Carolina A&T State University.

Grief-stricken and perplexed, I made several false starts over the next two years, my performance roller-coastering between excellence and failure. I worked for a year as a coop student at Farmer’s Home Administration in Reidsville, NC, and, everyday, walking back and forth to work, I passed a navy recruiting office. One day I stopped in to check things out, and the rest is history: I enlisted the Navy Nuclear Power Program.

After many months of intensive training, I reported to my first sea-going command, the USS Hammerhead (SSN-663), a fast-attack submarine. My greatest achievement there was in becoming battlestations and special evolutions helmsman, where I became known for my ability to sense changes in the depth and course of the ship before those changes showed up on the indicators, and applying the proper correction. That gift, in abstraction, of finding and solving potential problems before they became actual problems, has been a tremendous asset for me in life.

After fifteen months, the chief of the boat encouraged me to re-enlist for reassignment to the commissioning crew of one of the new Trident submarines, the USS Michigan (SSBN-727 (B)). The next three years passed quickly; I made several deterrent patrols and maintained my equipment in top-notch working condition. As I approached rotation to shore duty, my supervisors encouraged me to apply for a program that would enable me to return to college to complete my undergraduate degree in preparation for a naval commission. I applied and was selected to attend Naval Science Institute in Newport, Rhode Island and Florida A&M University (FAMU) in Tallahassee.

At FAMU, I majored in economics and took course in international studies, mathematics, and ROTC courses in naval science. I did very well there, graduating at the top of my class. Two of my professors became best friends and confidants. Upon graduation, I returned to the fleet as an Ensign, to the destroyer USS LUCE (DDG-38) in Mayport, FL.

Within a month of reporting aboard, we deployed to the Mediterranean, conducted operations with NATO navies, and visited ports in Spain, France, Italy, Turkey and Israel. The remainder of my time aboard LUCE was spent in shipyards and maintenance periods, on short underway periods in the Caribbean, and managing a large number of inspections, examinations and assist visits.

Pt. 1b of 10. Prelude: How I came to take the Foreign Service Exam, my pre-dawn arrival in Atlanta for the Oral Assessment.

We were clearly headed in two different directions. So I moved to a small apartment around the corner from the Jacksonville Art Museum where I could focus on my new vocation, working on my ship by day, and writing sonnets at night. She (who will remain unnamed) moved to Madison, Wisconsin (I helped with the driving) and we closed out the apartment we had shared. Shortly thereafter, I enrolled in a linear algebra course at night at Jacksonville Community College to beef up (a friend told me I needed a course in linear algebra for graduate school economics) and on a lark had filled out one of those bulletin board postcards to take the Foreign Service Exam (FSE). But when the package came to the former address at Belle Rive, it wasn’t forwarded to Art Museum Drive, where I was, but to her new address in Madison. Luckily, without even knowing what it was, she forwarded the package back to me. I filled in all the forms and met the submission deadline to take the exam.

The LUCE was scheduled to do a two-month law enforcement ops with a Coast Guard detachment in the Caribbean during the period when the Foreign Service Exam (FSE) was scheduled. I talked with my Executive Officer and together worked it out with the ship’s education officer to receive the test and administer it to me underway. At least that was what they promised me. They lied. So when I checked with the XO a week before deploying, he offered me the following deal: I could stay in port and TDY to the civil engineering detachment for the six weeks deployment period, freeing up a spot on the watchbill for one of the newer officers. Sounded like a good idea to me, since I had already completed all my quals. Knowing the XO, it was probably a trick. He was a tricky guy. But it served my needs, so I took him up on it.

I spent a month working up a database of Mayport Naval Base contracts and warranties on emergency sprinkler systems (a bit boring, but it saved the government a ton of money to get systems repaired on existing warranties, vice re-contracting and paying each time something broke. It would be excellent training for my GSO future). Then, the second month, I inventoried each emergency hurricane kit (and there were hundreds of them on base, all of which were missing key pieces of equipment).

And I had a study program for the FSE. At night, I read Economist, cover to cover. I read Scientific American. I read the Atlantic Monthly. And I took sample GRE exams under time, all in preparation for the FSE. On the appointed Saturday, I took the foreign service exam. It seemed easy. I actually left early.

The LUCE returned. The crew had had a lot of fun in the Caribbean. I missed out. Life and work returned to normal. A few months later, I heard from State that I had passed the written exam and should make an appointment for the Oral Assessment. I chose to take it in Atlanta, a four hour drive from Jacksonville. My ship only allowed me one day off: we were working up for some type of inspection. I got off at 6pm, headed home, showered, packed a small bag, and hit the road. I stopped outside Savannah en route, to say hello to old ROTC buddies at Fort Gordon, then, around 10pm, hit the road for Atlanta.

I ran into a heavy thunderstorm en route, and of all times, my windshield wipers broke, so I had to pull over to the side of the highway to wait out the storm. I resumed the trip around midnight, arriving at the hotel, way out on one of the the Atlanta beltways, around 2:30am, totally exhausted. I set the alarm for 5am, and left at a quarter to 6 to find the assessment site in downtown Atlanta.

I made it through the Oral Assessment. The interviewers called me in and told me they had one more question for me. I had a sense that everything would be riding on the response. They told me that I had a critical piece of information in the group discussion that I failed to reveal. Why had I not revealed it? I told them the whole story. My windshield wiper broke. I got to the hotel at 2:30 am. I was operating on 2.5 hours of sleep. Sorry if I screwed it up. I passed. One of seven. They told me they really liked my biographic statement. It was much more than a resume, they told me. I’ve always enjoyed biographies, since Governor’s School. Why not make mine special and authentic? I still have that statement buried in a blog somewhere. That’ll be grist for another mill, as they say.

A year passed. My ship decommissioned. I moved to St. Louis and put my stuff in storage in anticipation of the fall semester at Wash U. Then it was two months in Palo Alto at Stanford for the summer AEA program and ten months back at Washington University in St. Louis doing graduate work in economics. Washington University’s program was heavy on quantitative, and calculus was the language of both micro and macro theory courses. I must confess here that, four years removed from any mathematics coursework, the mathematics was all Greek to me. I struggled. I became depressed. Writing poetry was my only salvation. Small wonder then that when State called with an alternate career path I was all ears. One of my professors, only one, suggested I examine less quantitative-based programs, and the MBA program reached out to me. Perhaps someone told them. Perhaps I should have listened. At the end of the spring term I spent one month on Naval Reserve duty in Guam where we planned logistics for providing drought relief and medical assistance to people in the islands that made up Micronesia. I bid farewell to St. Louis after returning from Guam and drove to Washington, DC to begin a new adventure.

Next: Part 2 – A-100 and FSI training.

The final wardroom of the USS Luce (DDG-38)

Some poems from this period.

Prayer Song to Grandma Lena Rankin Maxwell

Early, early in the morning
just before the break of day,
I arise, and count my blessings,
and fall to my knees to pray.

And I thank the Gracious Master
and I praise His name so sweet,
and I pour out all my troubles,
and I leave them at His feet.

“Prayer is better,” said the wise man
“than another hour’s snooze,
it will pick you up much higher
than some other stuff you use.”

Late at evening after dealing
With the problems of the day,
All bewildered and disheartened
I fall to my knees and pray.

And I thank the Gracious Master
for his grace in helping me
through another day of passage
on life’s cold and stormy sea.

“Prayer is better,” said the wise man
“than that wine or weed or dope.
It will soothe away your heartache,
it will fill you up with hope.”

St. Louis, October 1991
like a seed that in dying

like a seed that in dying
sends forth a tender shoot,
my death now arms me with the will
to overcome the dark and mired soil
that seals me in.

“Save me, 0 God, for the waters are come in into my soul.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing:
I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.”
Psalm 69:1

my spirit must break through!
there’s light and warmth and fresh air just beyond
a world of growth, fruition soon awaits,
stands by to greet a new emergence.

“The waters compassed me about, even to the soul:
the depth closed me round about,
the weeds were wrapped about my head.
I went down to the bottoms of the mountains;
the earth with her bars was about me forever;
yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God. –Jonah 2: 5,6

It’s cold, it’s dark, I cannot see the light.
I grope so slow, my steps so short,
my progress through the clay
cannot be metered, has no measure.

“Sing unto the Lord, O ye saints of his, and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.
For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favor is life:
weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” -Psalms 30:4,5

St. Louis, November 1991

rivers of forgotten thoughts

rivers of forgotten thoughts roar and crash
inside of me and flood my empty soul

destructive rivers
terrain carving rivers
melting glaciers rushing down from
mountain-tops, seeking their own level

I walk a torturous path
I live a balancing act,
maintaining equilibrium between
completed actions and unfinished aspirations

around a curve momentum shifts,
pulling me towards the outer edge:
I stumble, I fall, my center disappears …
I taste the death of dreams …

rivers of unspoken thoughts
swiftly, smoothly, silently emerge
like springs, bubbling forth from secret sources,
and softly, slowly soothe my hidden wounds.

St. Louis, December 1991

Sonnet #25

I fight with all my waning strength
distrustfulness and self-suspicious fear
that seeks free rent. The night’s uncertainty
envelops me and whispers in my ear:
“Take arms, retreat; resist, cooperate.”
The will, the faith to overcome escapes
my grasp each moment I attempt to make
it mine. At times it seizes me, this fear,
engulfing like a parasite my source.
I cannot let it win! My soul must hold
its ground! Though wounded, bloodied, battered,
I must be…. justified.
The sword of victory and peace is drawn.
The darkest part of night precedes the dawn.

St. Louis, MO December 1991

Sonnet #26

Sweet peace, spring love was never meant to last.
But we’ve been blessed by chance and fate to taste
Its bittersweetness, to feel its incandescence…
Sweet peace, I tremble at the thought of touching you,
I stumble, hesitatingly, over-anxiously
As we touch, as our lips meet,
As our heartbeats synchronize.

Our paths may never cross again as in
this random moment, our lips may never meet,
complete, again, and spring, sweet peace,
for you and I, may never reappear …
This word is all that I possess to give,
and all is all my fragile soul can bear.
Sweet dreams, sweet peace, I hear your angels’ wings.

St. Louis, MO March 1992

Sonnet #27

Sweet peace, spring love was never meant to last:
Its budding branches bear a tempting fruit,
Whose taste is bittersweet and innocence
That glows with incandescent subtlety.
Acknowledging spring’s temporariness,
I tremble at the thought of touching you:
I fear your petals may unfold too soon,
And, falling to the ground, disintegrate.
I stumble as our lips approach, then meet,
Our heartstrings and our heartbeats synchronized.
Spring love intoxicates us: spirits fuse,
Revealing in each other secret worlds.
Sweet dreams, sweet peace, I hear your angels’ wings.
My winter-weary soul awaits next spring.

St. Louis, MO March 1992

Sonnet #28

Sweet peace, spring love was never meant to last:
It’s just a stint, a pause, a brief delay
In what is otherwise a boring, gray
Sojourn we call our lives. Today her buds
And blossoms tantalize our eyes; in haste
We contemplate the taste of spring romance.
Sweet peace, spring’s bittersweetness gives us cause
To recollect and circumspect love’s laws;
And yet, spring love commands her subtle dues,
And moves our thawing thoughts to feel her views.
Spring love intoxicates us: drunkenly
We stumble, stagger, tremble, wild and free.
Sweet dreams, sweet peace, I hear your angels’ wings,
My drifting, weathered soul awaits next spring.

St. Louis, MO March 1992

Sonnet #29

A lynch mob forms and dissipates each day
Conversing and rehearsing how they plan
To seal the fate of those they’ve chose to slay.
The eager group, polite despite, is dressed
To kill, to maim, to burn some flesh, to swing
A body from a tree until it’s gasped
Its last. Horrendous though it seems, they cheer
And celebrate this morbid mass of death.
The bulging eyeballs slime through charred remains
That were his head, while children poke with sticks,
Investigate the flesh that’s left, the parts
That didn’t burn, that wouldn’t yield to flames . . .

St. Louis, MO April 1992

Part 1 – Foreign Service Exam and Oral Assessment
Part 2 – A-100 and reassignment training
Part 3 – Embassy Bissau – the first year
Part 4 – Embassy Bissau – the second year
Part 5 – The London Embassy
Part 6 – The Ops Center
Part 7 – Embassy Luanda, Angola
Part 8 – Embassy Accra, Ghana
Part 9 – Domestic Assignment – AF/EX
Part 10 – Epilogue: the final eight years
Part 11 – Bonus: Reflections on War and Peace in Iraq

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