CANDOER Retirement Group|
Communicators AND Others Enjoying Retirement
Copenhagen - The Beginning
Here I am at the beginning! When I began writing about my twelve Foreign Service posts for the CANDOER, I wasn't sure I would be able to write anything about my first assignment. That's why I saved it for last. Well, the other eleven are in the can, so it's time to deal with Copenhagen. Don't get me wrong; those of you who have been there know that Copenhagen is/was a great place. It is especially nice for a single guy. That's the problem. I fondly recall my nearly two years in Denmark but a lot of what I remember doesn't belong in a "G" rated article. Suffice it to say that Copenhagen, in 1966-68 when I was there, was a single-man's paradise. But, what the heck, let's give it a try, maybe enough family rated material will emerge, as I write this, to make it worth the effort. After all, Copenhagen is where I met my wife Pat, and where we got married, so it is obviously a very special place.
After completing my OC training in the spring of 1966, I boarded a plane for Copenhagen full of excitement and with some apprehension at the idea of going to a foreign country where they didn't even speak English. When I had been hired, I was told my first assignment would be London, where the locals spoke an approximation of the same language I did. Except for family vacations in Canada and a few trips to Tijuana when I was in the Navy, I had never before left the U.S. Half way through training, I was selected to fill an open slot in Copenhagen where, because of the size of the office, they could ill afford to be short-handed. London, on the other hand, had a lot of communicators assigned in those days and one less would not cause a serious disruption. At least that's what I was told. Copenhagen was to be my first experience with a foreign land and culture. What if nobody met me at the airport? How would I be able to cope with the language barrier? These were just a few of the thoughts that swam through my mind as the airplane began its decent into the Copenhagen airport, a place that I would know like the back of my hand before I departed nearly two years later. As it turned out my supervisor met me at the airport; the Danes all spoke English better than I did (albeit with a slight British accent) and learning the new culture and job was fun. In fact it was so much fun that I kept asking for more for 33 years before hanging it all up a couple of years ago to try this retirement thing.
In 1966 and 1967 when I was there, the Marine Security Guards (MSG's) were required to spend a tour in Vietnam before they could apply for MSG duty. Consequently, they were typically a little older than the normal MSG's stationed at Embassies today. In Copenhagen, most of them were about my age. This gave me a ready-made support group to pal around with and meant that I spent at least some of my spare time pursuing the same interests as the MSG's. This probably accounts for some of my R-rated (or higher) memories. It also meant that I was a regular at the Marine House and rarely missed any of the functions that were held there. In fact, I met Pat at a Marine House party. The story of how a girl from Southern California, who didn't work for the U.S. (or any) government, came to be living and working in Copenhagen and met and married someone from the American Embassy is a long one. I won't attempt to take you through all the twists and turns of the tale but it all started when Pat accompanied her sister Nita to Germany. Nita's husband was in the U.S. army and stationed in Schweinfert. While in Germany, Pat traveled to Copenhagen to visit a girl friend from her hometown. This friend had come to Denmark to marry a Danish fellow she met in California when he was working as a salesman hosting pots and pans parties (he first came to the U.S. to work in a Danish food booth at the New York Worlds Fair). The marriage never took place but the girl friend decided to stay a while and was able to get a job in Copenhagen. Pat decided to do the same thing and had been there more than a month when we met. As I said, it's a long and complicated tale and I won't bore anyone with any more details. But, since we decided to get married in Copenhagen just prior to departing, my days in single-guy heaven ended abruptly. Being married has its own rewards and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I was indeed blessed to have found the right person with whom to share the rest of my life. Still, those two years in Copenhagen, when I was single, left me with a lot of great memories.
Copenhagen is also where I personally found out about the cold war. In fact, unbeknownst to me, I became entangled in an attempt by the Soviet Union to recruit me as a spy. At least that's what the Embassy believed. I haven't told this story to anyone but very close friends and family before but I imagine that time and the breakup of the Soviet Union makes it acceptable to do so now. It all started one day in October of 1967 when I was getting in my car to go to work. I lived in a large apartment complex that had a spacious carport arrangement for the tenants. Parked next to me in the carport that day was a man who had his hood up and was looking forlornly at his engine. I asked if I could do anything for him, and he asked if I knew anything about cars. I told him I wasn't an expert but knew a little. He commented that I sounded like an American and asked if I would take a look at his engine. I replied that I worked at the American Embassy and peered intently at his engine. Seeing nothing obviously wrong, I asked him a few routine questions about his car's symptoms, to cover the fact that I had no idea what was wrong. Finally, we agreed that he would be better off taking it to a garage. We made small talk for a while and, before parting, he gave me his card that said he worked at the Soviet Embassy. A little nervous that he was a Soviet, I said I had to hurry to work but I told him my name when he asked.
I quickly forgot about the incident until a couple of weeks later when I, once again, went down to my car to go to work. Just as I was getting in, he drove up with his family in the car and asked if I remembered him. I said I did and he quickly introduced his family members before driving off. To date, there had been but two chance encounters with a Soviet Embassy staff member who lived nearby. A few weeks later he pulled up when I was arriving home from work, again with his family and, after some small talk, he mentioned that his family was going away for a week and he wondered if I had any books in English he could read while they were away. He wanted, he said, to improve his English skills and this was a good time to do it, he thought. I had a book in my car and lent it to him. This was starting to get a little uncomfortable but all three meetings had (apparently) been chance and I had always managed to get away after just a few words of harmless conversation. The next time I saw him was one week later but I was walking with the Embassy Personnel Officer, who lived in my building and he only waved and kept walking when he saw us. That's four, "chance" meetings and from here the plot thickens.
On a Saturday afternoon in late November, my doorbell rang and, when I answered it, there stood "my Russian" with the book he had borrowed. Having been raised not to be rude, I let him in and he asked if he could borrow another book. Our relationship was now beginning to feel a great deal more uncomfortable but still nothing untoward had happened and I could think of no easy way to get rid of him, so I let him look through my books. As he did so, he asked me a series of casual questions concerning books, my family in the States and my life as an employee of the Embassy, etc., etc. During our conversation he found out that I was engaged, and, in fact, that the wedding ceremony was only a week away. He congratulated me and chose his book and departed, spending approximately 20 minutes in my apartment. This was starting to get a little more serious but, to date, nothing compromising had happened and I had a wedding in the immediate future that consumed most of my waking thoughts. Three days later the escalation continued. My downstairs door rang and I discovered "my Russian" on the intercom asking me to come down to the lobby. Dutifully, I went down to find him with a bottle of scotch and a bottle of cognac, which he thrust upon me as a wedding gift. Try as I might to refuse the gift, I was unable to make him take them back. He departed quickly after telling me that the gifts were to be our little secret.
I had finally reached a place where I knew I had to tell someone at the Embassy what was happening. As much as I had tried to avoid "my Russian," I now knew it wouldn't be possible. I had received the security briefings about this sort of thing during my training and could see that our "chance" encounters were becoming more frequent. So, I went to see the Embassy Security Officer. This is when the real fun began. After telling my tale, I was told to return the booze and, under no circumstances, have contact with him again. That sounded like a good trick (now that I think back, it seems like a rather silly way to handle things but what did I know then). To comply with this "catch-22" directive, I enlisted the aid of my brand new bride-to-be and we snuck up to his apartment (which he had pointed out during one of our "chance" encounters) and, after placing the two bottles on his doormat, we rang the bell and ran like hell out of the building. Not a great way to handle it but it accomplished the two requirements of the security office. I never saw "my Russian" again. Right after that, Pat and I were married and left on our honeymoon. After our return, someone decided that it was too great a risk in those "cold wars" days to leave a prospective target in Copenhagen and I received orders for my next post a couple of months early. During my debriefing in the Department, I was told that the Department had no problem with me finishing out my tour but "certain Embassy people" were paranoid that I might be compromised and had insisted that I leave early. They also told me that "my Russian" was a known KGB agent who specialized in compromising people.
Over the last 35+ years, I haven't thought of this incident very often. Only when I run across my sworn statement dictated to the Embassy Security Officer does it ever cross my mind. That statement is also how I know that the events that I have described above are fairly accurate and not merely how I remember them after the passage of time. I have the statement to back up my memory. Playing a part in an apparent KGB recruitment attempt - what a way to start a career. This was going to be exciting!
My next Copenhagen experience involves something a bit more mundane - no "international intrigue" here. Not too long after I arrived in Denmark, the Ambassador had a reception and dinner at the residence. I don't remember what the occasion was, probably a visiting delegation or maybe just some routine Embassy function. Whatever the reason, there were probably 20-30 Americans and Danes invited for a full sit-down dinner. After the usual drinks and conversation, we all sat down for dinner. I don't remember exactly what was served, but I do vividly remember three particular dishes. There was some type of meat; there were peas and there were blood sausages. The significance of these three items will become clear shortly. I suppose I had heard of blood sausage prior to this dinner but I had never tasted it before. I have also not tasted it since, once was enough. As the smoked meat and sausage tray came by, I took what looked like a very tasty sausage and added it to my plate. I suppose it looked a little redder than the normal sausages that I enjoyed but this was the Ambassador's residence and everyone was dressed to the nines. With all this scrumptious food, who would imagine that anything I took wouldn't be wonderful? Blood sausage is obviously an acquired taste. All I remember is taking a nice healthy bite of that disgusting lump and beginning to chew. The chewing was followed immediately by urgent signals from my brain telling me to get that mess out of my mouth. How do you do this seated at a table full of diplomats and other important people? You don't, you find a way to swallow the worst thing that you have ever tasted, ignoring your brain telling you, in no uncertain terms, to spit it out. Somehow it went down and I didn't gag in the process, but what effort.
Now for the meat and peas. As I said, everyone was seated at a large table and dressed in their best finery. The talk was genteel and official. Politeness and diplomacy reigned. Finally, nearly recovered from my bout with the blood sausage, I joined in and, keeping an eye on what the others were doing (no faux pas or bad table manners for me), I resumed eating my dinner while holding a conversation with those nearest to where I was seated. All went well until I tried to cut my meat. Somehow, just as I bore down to cut off a piece, the knife slipped off the meat and cut a swath through the nice pile of peas directly behind. As the knife slid through, the peas scattered to the four corners of the table and even onto the laps of those lucky enough to be sitting directly across from me. As the peas rolled around, the conversations, which had been going on all around the table, ceased and everything became quiet. As I looked for a hole to crawl into, people began scraping peas out of their laps and servants scurried around cleaning off the table and floor. I don't remember much of what happened next but it was certainly one of the most embarrassing moments in my life. I do remember that some people tried to console me and said that similar things had happened to them. I often wonder if this incident had anything to do with the fact that the Ambassador never again invited me back for dinner.
When writing articles for the CANDOER, I have always tried to concentrate primarily upon job-related topics. What do I remember about working in Copenhagen? The CPU was down in the basement when I first arrived and we moved upstairs into a brand new facility shortly thereafter. The new office had frosted windows that opened partially to provide a glimpse (if one twisted ones head a certain way) of the cemetery located directly behind the chancery. With the new office came the change from a one-time-tape environment to a pass-slot operation that greatly enhanced our ability to serve our customers. There were the long waits on the airport tarmac during freezing weather where I learned that airports are some of the coldest and (maybe not in Copenhagen but at later tours) the warmest spots on earth. Of course there were also those nice summer days when we would leave the Embassy early so the driver could take us past the topless beach on our way to the airport to meet the courier. But reporting on that is negated by my aim to include only "G"-rated material. Finally, there were my co-workers who, from time-to-time, provided interesting material that might make enjoyable reading but I still like them and don't want to risk having them retaliate with some of my escapades. So, I'm sorry to say, this is the best I can do. Though, I wasn't able to recall much in the way of work-related material, the incidents above are my most vivid memories of Denmark.
By Dick Kalla
After 33 years in the Foreign Service, all of which were spent overseas, I have many great memories to keep me entertained in my retirement. One of my more vivid recollections is of my family's experience (at least the parts that I still remember) during the Qadhafi led revolution in Libya beginning on Labor Day of 1969. Any errors in any of the events below are strictly due to my faulty memory and the passage of time and not any attempt on my part to change history.
Oh impetuous youth! After a cushy and fun-filled first assignment in Copenhagen, Denmark as a Department of State communicator I was newly married and (I believed) ready for adventure. So, with little understanding of what I was doing, I requested a one-communicator "hardship" tour where I could be my own boss and experience life in a more exotic setting. Sitting comfortably at my computer 34 years later, I can only imagine the glee on the face of the OC placements person as he or she acted quickly on my request (before I could change my mind) and sent me on my way.
Libya, when I was assigned in 1968, had three Foreign Service posts. There was the main Embassy in Tripoli, the Embassy Office in Benghazi with seven or eight assigned Americans, and the Embassy Office in Baida with three permanent American positions. Benghazi, at that time, was a sleepy outpost on the Mediterranean Sea. Periodically, King Idris, the Libyan monarch, would travel from his primary capital in Tripoli and set up shop in Benghazi or Baida; and, rather like the current arrangement in South Africa, the seat of the government would be shifted to one of those locations for the length of his stay. When this happened, a part of the Tripoli U.S. Embassy staff would travel with the Ambassador to be available at the new capital.
Life for foreigners in Benghazi in those pre-Qadhafi days was good. The Libyans were friendly and there was a large ex-pat community of oil workers who were fun to be around. King Idris, despite being a devout Muslim, had a fairly relaxed attitude toward foreigners and allowed them quite a bit of latitude as long as they didn't meddle in the religious tenants of his Islamic countrymen (and women). For example, there were bars at all the major hotels that served alcoholic beverages to westerners and even liquor stores where, if you showed your passport, you could buy liquor by the bottle for outlandish prices. The Libyan people were fairly content with their "simple" life. The king demanded that the oil companies drill a water well for each oil well and the edges of the desert were beginning to flourish because of this newfound abundance of water.
It was against this backdrop of quiet contentment that Qadhafi chose to overthrow the king while he was taking his annual vacation in Egypt. The details of this military coup led by a young 28-year old army lieutenant are well known so my story will concentrate on how the events of the day related to those of us at the U.S. Embassy Office and, in particular, how my family and I coped.
On March 24, 1969, our family had grown by one when our first child, Karen, was born in Wiesbaden, Germany. Returning to post after the birth, we spent a quiet and uneventful summer enjoying being new parents. Then, at the end of the summer on Labor Day morning, prior to leaving for a long scheduled vacation to Malta, we were enjoying a rare chance to sleep late when a series of popping noises woke us up. At first I thought it was simply a car backfiring close to our apartment building but, at my wife's insistence, I reluctantly got out of bed to discover that the soldiers she said were shooting in the air from the roof of the apartment building across the street and level with our bedroom window were not merely a figment of her imagination. About the same time, the Embassy radio began bleating at us. This was not an uncommon occurrence because the single-channel radio network was also used by the relay station in Athens to call in Fred Rich, the lone TCU communicator, for high precedence traffic. Normally it took Fred 15-30 minutes to get into the Chancery and clear the channel. Until that time, it was impossible to use the radio. When more than 30 minutes passed without the cell-call being de-activated, we decided that something was happening and that the small arms fire we were observing was not the Libyan army treating us to a personal Labor Day show. The fact that the telephones were not working properly was not particularly alarming since this was not unusual.
My memory of what we did next, aside from watching the events unfold outside our windows (while trying not to be seen), have been dimmed by the passage of time; but I do know that it wasn't too long before a military convoy, which included at least two tanks, stopped in front of our apartment building and principal officer George Lane (escorted by military personnel) got out of one of the staff cars and came up to our apartment to take me to work - where I would remain, pretty much full time, for the next month. That month, and probably the remainder of my time in Libya, became the most exciting period of my Foreign Service life. As I think back on this time, many years later, three things stand out in my memory. Oh sure, there were other highlights that I remember like sleeping on a couch in the office for a month; eating C-rations; drafting freehand any and all Administrative and Counselor cables while sitting at the keyboard (there was no time to do anything formally and we were working with a reduced staff) and burning everything that was classified in the entire building. But. for me, these are the three things I think of most when thoughts of those exciting days in Libya creep into my mind.
The Big Scare
At the time of the coup, there were three American employees who lived in downtown, Benghazi --- two single secretaries and my family and I. We all lived in the same apartment building across the street from the Grand Hotel (which later became famous for hosting several high level VIPs of the ousted government). On Labor Day of 1969, the Principal Officer's secretary (Ida Beer) was on vacation in Morocco and out of harm's way. The other 5 employees and their families lived outside of town in the same community where the oil people and their families lived and far removed from much of the coup activity. The downtown area, where the three of us were housed, was ground central and nearly all the coup activities that did not take place at one of the military bases happened near our apartment building. In the early days of the overthrow, this caused me a great deal of worry because my wife and child were stuck in their apartment located in the danger zone. This fear came to a head during the end of the first week of the coup. My wife and I were in regular contact on the radio and we checked in at pre-set times. On this day, I heard that there was a mob of demonstrators coming down the street towards our apartment and they were smashing windows and anything else in their way. I immediately tried to call my apartment but there was no answer. Then, when our regularly scheduled call went unanswered, I really began to worry. Unable to think of anything else, I left the Embassy office before anyone could stop me and headed straight for our apartment. Aside from the danger, this was even more foolhardy because the Libyan Army contingent ringing the Embassy office had orders to let people leave but to keep people from getting into the chancery. Because of the many military checkpoints and the need to keep away from the mobs, the usual 5-minute walk took at least fifteen. Upon arrival, imagine my surprise when I saw my wife and Priscilla Neher (the other single secretary) out on our balcony watching the goings on. Not really realizing the potential danger they were in, they were having a gay time watching the proceedings. They had been unable to hear the radio because of the noise of the crowds. Seeing that the danger had passed and everyone was fine, I retraced my steps back to the Chancery where I encountered a young Libyan soldier guarding the front door who, of course, spoke no English. My Arabic capabilities were equally impressive and we got nowhere fast. Finally, an English-speaking officer approached and asked my business at the Embassy. I explained that I was an employee and was returning to work. He was, at first, adamant that I not enter the building but, after much discussion, he let me enter with the promise that I wouldn't stay more than 5 minutes. I can't recall what I told him to allow me to enter for this short period but, needless to say, I didn't come out again for several weeks when our guards were removed from in front of the chancery. Immediately following this incident, my family was moved out of town to stay with friends and, for me, the worry went away.
To preclude reprisals and stop any counter-coup attempts, the Qadhafi regime immediately clamped down on all military camps and the large metropolitan areas of Tripoli and Benghazi. In the cities, this meant a 23-hour curfew in the early days. As the chances of the coup succeeding became greater, the curfew was gradually lessened until it was in effect only during the nighttime hours. As a result of the acceptance of the new government by the Libyan people, efforts to legitimize the new regime in the eyes of the rest of the world became the next order of business. We at the Embassy Office in Benghazi were to take a large part in this process since Qadhafi and his fellow coupsters were located in our fair city.
I don't claim to have any insight or direct knowledge of what thought process brought the U.S. Government to finally recognize the Qadhafi government. I was, however, heavily involved in the events that led up to the notification of this legitimacy. For my part, it all started late one morning when Principal Officer George Lane informed me that the new Libyan leader was on his way to the office prior to going to the airport to meet a Soviet delegation that would be recognizing the new regime. It was understood that the U.S. would be embarrassed if the Soviets recognized the Qadhafi Government first. In retrospect this seems a bit silly in view of future U.S.-Libyan relations. Nevertheless, in those cold war days it was perceived that the first to recognize the new government would, somehow, be the victor. Therefore, it was thought to be imminently important that we recognize before the Soviets. George asked me to inform him the moment the notification, either pro or con, arrived. Knowing the narrow timeframe, TCU chief Fred Rich and I requested and received a direct teleconference line into the circuit at the main Embassy in Tripoli where the notification would first be received. We told Tripoli what we were up against and said we didn't need formal notification, just a simple yes or no followed later by an official cable would be acceptable. While our urgent preparations were going on, Qadhafi had arrived at the chancery and was sitting with George Lane awaiting approval. Looking back, I'm not sure why it was so important to Qadhafi that we recognize his regime before the Soviets but he certainly gave us every chance to be first. He waited in George's office until the very last moment. During this tense period, Fred and I were constantly bugging and keeping the Tripoli Embassy updated of the time remaining. Finally, just as time was running out, the teletype started chattering and we received a "YES" reply from Tripoli. I snatched it from the printer and ran to the front office. Since we were without secretaries and any Embassy protocol and formalities had long been forgotten, I barged into George's office just as he was shaking Qadhafi's hand prior to his departure. Handing George the approval I made a quick departure. Never before or again have I been so close to any event that shaped world history. Even though I was an insignificant clerk in the whole chain of events, I have vivid memories of the part I played in this little drama and of standing alongside Qadhafi holding the notification.
The Closing of Baida
The Embassy Office in Baida was located in a small, sleepy village that had only one thing going for it (aside from being located near the magnificent ancient Greek and Roman ruins of Cyrene)--it was the former home of King Idris. The king was determined to move the seat of government to his boyhood home and had built miles of empty apartments and office buildings to house the government staff that had been ordered to move there. In the fall of 1969, only a few ministries had actually made the move from Tripoli; but, seeing no alternative, others were scheduled to follow in the coming months.
With the fall of the Idris regime, Baida was no longer deemed to be a viable seat of government, and all foreign missions located there were ordered closed. An Embassy official from Tripoli was designated to travel to Baida to assist with the removal of the communications gear and other classified material and to accompany it by truck to Benghazi where it would be pouched to another location. The officer and the driver were on their way to Benghazi (a three to four hour drive) when a fire broke out in the back of the truck. As they were trying to put out the fire, members of the Libyan Army arrived and drug the officer off to jail upon finding a couple of thermite grenades (used in those days for destroying safes and their contents) which they thought were weapons. Before leaving, our officer insisted upon remaining on the scene until all of the classified material was destroyed. He remained incarcerated while the Embassy scrambled to have him released. Finally, Principal Office George Lane was able to convince the authorities that this was not an international incident and that the Embassy Official had Diplomatic Immunity and he was released and quickly flown back to Tripoli. Some of you may remember that this version of the incident was reported fully in the old NEWSLETTER (now STATE magazine).
Upon hearing the official version of what went on that day, the Embassy driver who had been there told me that at least one little detail had been left out of the story-the fire started when the officer threw his cigar butt out the window and it landed in the back of the truck. There was also a question about how much of the classified material was actually destroyed since he swore he saw people carting away documents and other material. I saw our friend several times over the years before he passed away. We talked about his famous adventure, but he was very reluctant to discuss anything about a cigar butt. We'll never know which version of the story is true; but in the end, I guess it really doesn't matter.
With the coming of the Qadhafi era, there were many immediate changes to our life in Libya. Many of the oil people, particularly the families, left quickly. All signs, which had previously been written in Arabic and English, were changed to Arabic only. Alcoholic beverages were no longer permitted or available. The Peace Corps and Military Advisory Group were no longer welcome and soon left the country. Soon thereafter, my family and I departed for our new assignment and then the Embassy Office in Benghazi was closed. Not long after that, the Embassy in Tripoli was over-run and closed. To date, it is still closed and likely to remain in that state for a while longer. Needless to say, my family and I never made it to Malta for our vacation but several years later we were assigned to that interesting island country for 2 years. That, however, is another story for another time.
by Dick Kalla
Maybe I should have seen it as an omen of things to come! Here we were at the Cologne airport holding a crying infant, after a long flight, and nobody from the Embassy in Bonn was here to greet us. When my wife Pat and I had discussed our next assignment, we had agreed that surviving the Libyan revolution had provided sufficient excitement for a while. An assignment to a more civilized part of the world was definitely in order. It also crossed our minds that if we went to Europe we were likely to have plenty of relatives visit. Particularly since Karen, our first child, had arrived on the scene less than a year before and was sure to draw plenty of adoring relatives. Bonn had seemed the perfect assignment. Even in the backwater that was Benghazi I had heard that something special was happening in Bonn. A group of "SUPERCOMMUNICATORS" had been chosen to open the new automated communications relay facility (BAX). The fact that I wasn't one of those picked was due only, I was convinced, to the fact that word hadn't yet gotten out about the fantastic job I had done during the recent Libyan revolution. An assignment to the Bonn Embassy would surely be the next best thing to being at BAX and my talents would be on display for all to see and admire. After all, the Embassy was just a couple of miles from BAX, close enough for them to see my shining star.
Back at the Cologne airport, we were quickly learning that Cologne was located some distance from the Embassy in Bonn. We also learned that in order to call the Embassy, we needed German coins and a basic understanding of how to use a German pay phone. In the end, we were finally able to make our call because the airport officials got tired of the two lunatic Americans and their crying child. In order to facilitate our departure they became very helpful and I was soon on the line talking with the Marine Guard at the Embassy. As it turned out, my sponsor had gotten the date of our arrival wrong and we were, he thought, due in the next night. That's why no one had come to meet us. After a couple of calls, it was arranged that we would come by taxi to the Embassy where they were holding keys to a transient apartment where we would be housed before we moved into our permanent apartment. The Marine Guard was able to dispatch a taxicab to the airport to pick us up and we were soon on our way. Unfortunately, the taxi driver was not told where to take us and it soon became apparent that things were still not completely under control. German is a language where the word for "Embassy" is not even close to the English word. In almost any other world language you can play around with the pronunciation of "Embassy" and eventually be understood. Embajada, Embasada, etc. etc. will almost always get you to your destination most places in the world, but not Germany. As we left the Cologne Airport on the Autobahn towards Bonn, the taxi driver asked us, in German, where we wanted to go. Actually, we didn't know this for sure since we couldn't understand what he said but we assumed that is what he said since that is what taxi drivers need to know. This is when we began playing around with the word "Embassy" to tell him our destination. It was quickly evident that none of the usual derivatives of "Embassy" were going to work. Finally, the taxi driver, tired of the dopes in his back seat, mumbling on and on, called his dispatcher on the radio and was given someone who spoke English to translate our ramblings. With our driver finally understanding where to take us, the rest of the journey was uneventful.
After a peaceful night in our new apartment it was off to the office to meet my co-workers and see where I would be working for the next couple of years. As I said above, concurrent with my arrival, the new Bonn Automated Exchange (BAX) was being built in a warehouse near the housing area. BAX was a new regional State Department facility for relaying telegrams electronically, untouched by human hands, between Europe and the rest of the world. It was to replace the old mechanical switchgear located at the Embassy that required an actual person to intervene with each message. With the new automated exchange, the assigned communicators could sit back and drink coffee while the computers sent telegrams where they were supposed to go. Of course, it wasn't nearly that simple. It worked that way if everything was prepared and sent perfectly. As you can imagine, this didn't always happen. In addition, equipment failed and needed constant attention and re-programming. The BAX relay center was closed shortly after I retired in 1999 and much was written at that time in Department of State periodicals about those nostalgic days when BAX was new. It was surely a large milestone on the still ongoing road to upgrading the Foreign Service to a fully automated state-of-the-art communications operation. For those of us that stayed behind at the Embassy to convert that facility from a torn-tape relay to just another European terminal, there are fewer wonderful memories. Instead, there was just a lot of hard work - at least in the beginning. But on that first day of my arrival, there was no premonition of what was to come. I was in awe, staring at the seemingly miles of crypto devices, torn tape machines, HW-28's and other assorted and yet to be understood equipment. There was noise and clutter and flashing lights. What a place of wonder and excitement. I supposed I should have been a little suspicious when I was quickly told that as a newcomer I would be working exclusively in the back room with the relay. The more senior members of the staff, it was explained to me, had earned the right to work in the outer office sending and receiving the Embassy's telegrams. But what the heck, that's where the action appeared to be and that's where I wanted to be. I had done that other stuff at my last post as was ready for something new.
I have seen numerous testimonials and tributes dedicated to the 30 years that BAX was in operation. BAX replaced the Bonn Torn-Tape relay facility, which had been located at the Embassy. I remember few, if any, testimonials to its passing. I arrived on the scene in Bonn a few short months before the grand opening of the new state-of-the-art automated relay. The torn-tape relay it replaced was barely limping along at that time. Preventive maintenance had become a thing of the past and old, antiquated equipment was being held together by spit and bailing wire. Understandably so, with brand-new shiny computer based stuff to be installed and learned at BAX, who wanted to work on the old mechanical switchgear. Likewise, there was very little interest in remaining proficient in a dying art - torn-tape relay work.
When fully staffed, it was easy to man both the torn-tape relay facility and the Embassy processing section. When I first arrived, each shift had a full complement of communicators and things ran smoothly. Unfortunately, this complement included the BAX guys and as the date for the activation of BAX approached, there was an ever-increasing need for them to assist with installation needs and receive training at the new relay site. To say that this put a strain on the manpower situation at the Embassy is a large understatement. Lose half of your staff at any large Embassy and you will be very busy. Trying to run a large torn-tape relay with one or two people on a busy evening shift goes way beyond busy. Today, many years later, I only remember snatches of what it was like. I remember the 50 gallon drum (or so it seemed) that we used to throw rolled up tapes containing messages that were to be transmitted to other European posts as time permitted. IMMEDIATES, PRIORITIES and ROUTINES were thrown in indiscriminately because there was no time to segregate or send them - hopefully the mid-shift would have time. I remember trying to do 20 things at once. Replacing a roll of tape here, changing a crypto setting there, trying to send a collective message to 10 posts with one tape and hoping to be able to notice when the first one finished so the tape wouldn't get hung up necessitating that you start over again. I should mention here that there was a "ZVA" machine that would allow you to make several tapes out of one which was designed to eliminate the hung tape problem but who had time to use that. I remember hand logging all the incoming and outgoing messages and trying to keep it all straight. Asleep, in my bed dreaming of work, the tapes always stuck - over and over again!
Of course, nothing lasts forever, and the long delayed BAX relay site was finally opened in a warehouse near the Embassy housing area in Plittersdorf. There was a fine ceremony with dignitaries coming from all over. I was able to attend that ceremony where I heard the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Communications tell the assembled multitude that "This is but the first of many". In all the final BAX epitaphs that I have heard, I don't remember any of the reporters mentioning this statement. I guess because, as it turned out, it was the first and only Department of State major overseas relay. One that served its purpose at the time but that had finally become obsolete because of a changing environment. It did, however, usher in the golden age of the Department of State "communicator". No more pass slots - we could do it all ourselves now.
With the final push to open BAX came a TDY team from the Department to assist at the Embassy while the two facilities worked concurrently. It was necessary to keep the torn-tape relay operational until it was certain that BAX worked as advertised. With the team's arrival things got back to normal, at least near normal. We at the Embassy were extremely grateful for their help. They provided us with expertise and even added a little levity. In particular, there was one instance where one member of the group was having trouble finding her niche. No matter where she was assigned, she had trouble performing the assigned task. This was not really her fault. Her previous experience did not include working at a torn-tape relay. Finally, someone had an inspiration and decided that she could work the desk where incoming telegrams were logged, torn off the printer and hand cut and taped to a pre-printed form before sent outside for reproduction and distribution. This was a job that was tedious but easy to grasp with little or no training. It only required hard work. At first, all seemed to be fine. She kept up with the never-ending flow of telegrams and prepared them properly. Then it was noticed that whenever the person who relieved her checked their log, they were missing large blocks of incoming telegrams. What was happening? Everything was connected properly and there seemed no way that many telegrams would not be received - particularly grouped in consecutive blocks. Finally, someone was selected to silently observe what this person was doing. It soon became clear! Whenever it got busy, she would reach over and unplug the printer. Then, when she was caught up, she would plug it back in and begin fresh. When questioned, she said she thought the messages would stop in the wires until re-connected and resume from that point. When it was explained to her that it would be better to let the messages continue to flow and not worry about a backlog, she became a very useful member of the team.
The worst part of working in Bonn for me were the rotational shifts and, especially, the dreaded Mid-Shift. I never did get the hang of sleeping in the daytime and spent many tired nights trying to stay awake on just a few hours (usually in the evening) sleep. It didn't help that I lived near the "Pied Piper of Plittersdorf". At least that is how I thought about him. The Piper lived in an apartment complex near ours and always returned home early in the afternoon, about the same time the kids in our complex came home from school. I think he was in the Army and worked on the Main Battle Tank project the U.S. was developing and selling to Germany. Anyway, as soon as he got home he gathered all the kids he could find and they played baseball, etc. directly under my bedroom window. Boy did they have fun; boy did they make a lot of noise; boy did they keep me awake. Aside from my sleeping problems and the early over-work, Bonn was a wonderful place to be assigned in the early 1970's.
The Embassy housing area in Plittersdorf was pretty much self-contained. It had a grocery store, small PX, movie theatre, barbershop, hairdresser, church, etc, etc. The buildings were mostly 3-story with 6 apartments in each. The Embassy school was also on the spacious grounds and there was an Embassy Restaurant/Club and a snack bar. Best of all, it was located on the banks of the Rhine River. There was a wide sidewalk along the Rhine that led to the Embassy, a couple of miles away. On good weather days it was nice to ride bicycles to work and enjoy the boat traffic on the river or watch the Germans as they strolled along or stopped at one of the many restaurants for refreshments.
Bonn was centrally located in Europe and travel to the rest of the continent was very easy by road or train, or even plane if you could afford it and were in a hurry. Nearby in Germany there were numerous old castles and ruins full of history to enjoy and heading South from Bonn were Frankfurt and Weisbaden just a couple of hours away where we went to enjoy shopping at the American military bases. We had purchased our first, of many, VW buses at the beginning of our assignment and this proved to be a great vehicle to take to the bases. Pat could enjoy the wonders of shopping and I could sleep in the back after working all night. Our bus had a camper arrangement and made into a bed for times like that. We also used it on some of our excursions to other parts of Germany and Western Europe. Bonn was a perfect assignment for that time in our lives.