CANDOER Retirement Group|
Communicators AND Others Enjoying Retirement
by Dick Kalla
I recently retired from the Department of State after 33 years of continuous Foreign Service life that spanned 12 straight overseas posts. Just before it was time to retire, I started thinking about writing a little bit about each of these assignments so that I could share the experience with my immediate family. Then, a few months ago, I saw Bob Catlin's appeal for stories. Bob mentioned that he was running out of material for the monthly CANDOER Newsletter. This got me thinking that - maybe - some of the material I was planning to write might be suitable for Bob's needs. Most of the information for the family would not be about work but there were probably a couple of work-related incidents that I might be able to cull out of my story and send along to the CANDOER. What I've found since I started writing is that as soon as I remember one event it jogs my memory about something else. My problem has been not to make these articles too long - just the opposite of what I expected. I still don't think most of it will be of interest to anyone who is not a direct family member or who was not at that place at the time the incident occurred. That hasn't stopped me from writing about these experiences. Whether this is my final CANDOER article depends upon whether or not I can recall work related things that happened at any of my other postings. When I choose the next post to write about I'll determine if there is enough CANDOER material to send along. We'll see! The following events took place in Togo from 1973 to 1975. Seems like just yesterday but it has been more than 25 years.
I was obviously still in a European mode after three years in Bonn, Germany because, when a colleague handed me my new assignment notice, I assumed it had been received with a slight garble. Surely the "L" was meant to be an "R"! Moving to Rome would be great and would fit in with my request to stay in Europe. I was aware that there was a capitol city somewhere in West Africa called Lome but I certainly hadn't included any West African countries on my list of next post choices. Of course in those pre-Open Assignments days it was not necessary to send you where you wanted to go. There was very little negotiation at the lower levels and one went where one was sent. It didn't take long to discover that there was no garble and in a short time my family and I were on our way to Lome, Togo where, for the second time, I would be the lone communications person at post.
I'm sure that the Embassy in Lome has changed a great deal since that summer day in 1973 when my family and I first arrived. At that time, the chancery was located in an old villa a couple of blocks from the sea. The staff consisted of 10 U.S. Foreign Service employees and a goodly number of Foreign Service Nationals. The communications office was on the second and top floor on the sea side of the building. It consisted of three separate and connected rooms. The largest room had probably originally been a bedroom. It had two windows and was being used to store excess equipment. One of the windows looked out at the Atlantic Ocean (or more precisely the Gulf of Guniea) in the distance. The middle room appeared to have once been a small and narrow bathroom. The third room had been converted into a vault and contained the communications equipment. For some reason, my predecessor had his office located in the small middle room - probably because the service door looked directly into this space and it was a shorter walk to assist customers from this location. But wow - a chance for an office with a window. Not just a window, but one with a view. This just doesn't happen to a Foreign Service communicator. At least it had never happened to me before nor did it ever again. I wasted no time in changing my office and locating my desk so it looked out at the sea. From that idyllic location I spent every spare moment daydreaming and enjoying the view. I'm certain my two years in Togo would have been much less memorable without my window with a view.
As it turned out, the view was much better from afar. To the Togolese, the availability of a sandy beach at the perimeter of the city was heaven-sent and meant that a public restroom was always nearby. The beach was pretty to look at from a distance but, if you wanted to keep your feet or footwear clean, it surely wasn't a place you wanted to go for a casual stroll. Enjoyment from afar was pretty much how you wanted to enjoy this beach. Of course, there were plenty of other beaches outside the city that were reasonably clean and could be enjoyed up close and personal. These included the "ex-pat" beach where most of the foreign mission people went on weekends and the famous nude beach at the German hotel a few miles out of town that attracted planeloads of tourists (primarily German) looking for sun and fun. This beach also attracted its share of "gawkers" who weren't there to look at the sea. I suppose a few Embassy types were included in this group but I don't know anything about that.
As I had discovered two tours earlier in Benghazi, being the only communicator assigned doesn't allow much time to daydream - even if you have a window. For much of my two years in Togo, I worked seven days a week. Well not seven full days but at least a portion of every day. On Saturday, I came to the Embassy to clear the Friday night messages from Washington. This usually meant staying until at least 1400 (2:00 p.m.). On Sunday evening, it was off to the airport to meet the Diplomatic Courier. If an emergency arose or a vacation was needed there was always the back-up communicator (DCM's secretary in this case) to fill-in. But, as anyone who has ever been lucky enough to serve with a back-up communicator knows, this can often be an "iffy" proposition. Some back-ups take to the work like pros and enjoy the respite from their other work. Others view it as a necessary evil. To be fair, they are usually overworked in their primary duties and have bosses that aren't always understanding when they are away from their primary duties for long. But, somehow, the work always got done even if it meant that I had a huge backlog to contend with when I returned. Consequently, it was usually better to avoid absences. I believe the Department is now paying Office Managers extra when they have Information Management responsibilities. This should, I would imagine, improve interest in performing these duties.
During much of my tour in Lome the Diplomatic Courier arrived every Sunday evening. The flight was scheduled for arrival at 2000 (8:00 p.m.) but, of course, you never knew when it would actually arrive. Waiting for couriers at night in a boring airport is not one of the things I have become nostalgic over since retirement. Not unlike many places, the "AIR CHANCE" flight to Lome was always late and no one ever knew in advance when it would arrive. Consequently, it was always necessary to go at the expected time and wait for the flight to arrive. Late one Sunday night I was, as usual, sitting in the terminal waiting for the courier to arrive when I heard a large plane buzzing the airport. This went on for several minutes. The passengers waiting in the terminal and I moved quickly to the windows to see what was happening. We could clearly see the lights of a plane as it dove at the terminal building and then headed back up skyward. Some thought the pilot was drunk. Others guessed there was a mechanical malfunction of some kind. Checking with airport officials produced only shrugs. Finally, after some time, the plane landed and I headed out to the tarmac for the exchange. My first question to the courier was "what happened?". The courier, trying not to sound too flustered, told me that the plane was buzzing the tower because the employee or employees in the tower had fallen asleep and hadn't turned on the runway landing lights. The plane, scheduled to refuel in Lome, did not have enough fuel remaining to fly to an alternate field. Calls to the tower went unanswered so, unable to see where to land and becoming desperate, the pilot had begun diving at the tower until he was able to wake the tower guys up and get them to turn the lights back on, enabling the plane to land. Shortly after this incident the schedule was changed and the courier began arriving during the daytime. While I was in West Africa there was a saying that was prevalent and covered situations like this: "WAWA" (West Africa Wins Again).
Whatever the reason for the change to the courier schedule, the Diplomatic Courier now began spending two days in Lome before resuming the long West African run. To a small staff tired of looking at the same old faces day after day, this became a welcome visit. Vying for the right to host the courier became a weekly sport among mission members but, since I always met them first, my wife and I were guaranteed at least one night per week where we dined with the courier. Given the number of great restaurants in Lome during those days, we thoroughly enjoyed this privilege. Couriers spend many boring hours in planes and airports and always seem to have a number of great stories to tell and, in our experience, never passed up the opportunity to do so.
Oftentimes, when we long for those days long past when things were slower and simpler, we forget that maybe, just maybe, things weren't quite as good as they now seem. The Lome 30 words-per-minute (that's how it was described in those days - I'm not sure what that corresponds to in bit rate but not many) circuit is a good example of this axiom. In these days of nearly unlimited bandwidth it is hard to conceive of such slow circuit speeds. But, in the early 70's, we had to make do with what was available. In those days, the international carrier to most of French-speaking Africa was France Cable. France Cable, utilizing radio equipment, provided the Embassy a protected 30 word-per-minute data circuit working directly into the unclassified wireroom in the Embassy in Paris. Having a protected circuit meant that the circuit would operate only when the distortion rate was below a certain level. During periods of high distortion, the circuit remained idle. At night, long-haul radio propagation is less than ideal meaning that there were long periods when the circuit was not usable. Normally, this was not a problem because the circuit was not manned at night and no one cared what percentage of the time the circuit was operational. It was only important that the telegrams were received by the opening of business each day. This arrangement worked well except when high precedence messages were received that required the communications person (me) to come to the Embassy. In those days in Lome there were no Marine Guards. High precedence messages were formatted to ring a bell in the Embassy courtyard causing the local guard, who wandered around out there, to call me into the chancery. If the telegram was unclassified, it was usually easy to quickly determine what, if any, action to take and leave. Classified messages, however, were another kettle of fish. The messages were formatted to ring the bell at the beginning of the telegram but the entire message needed to be received before it could be decrypted. This went fairly rapidly, even at 30 words-per-minute, if the atmospherics were right and the telegram was short. But, when the atmospherics were not right, it became a nightmare. Imagine being awakened at 2:00 a.m. and watching a teletype machine located in the mailroom plink along one character at a time and then stop for long periods until the propagation was right before proceeding - maybe for just a couple of additional characters. Sometimes it would take 2 hours or more before the entire message was received. Since I had no idea how long the message was or if the circuit would clear up, I was forced to remain and watch the teletype go plink, plink, stop, plink, stop, etc. Sometimes I would doze off while staring at the teletype only to awake with a start thirty minutes later and discover that nothing had happened. If I ever had it in me to become an alcoholic that circuit would have taken me over the top. While I never did learn to "just lie back and enjoy it", I did finally learn to co-exist and live with it. Slower is not always better!
I guess this is as good a place as any to finish this tale of Togo. Left untold is my experience making the weekly CW call into the relay in Monrovia. Or, there was the time my family and I drove the length of Ghana, to Ouagadougo, to visit friends. These, and several other stories were brought to mind while writing the above. They are, however, left for another time and another forum.
by Dick Kalla
In my Foreign Service career I lived in 12 different countries in 33 years. This should have given me some experience with moving and adapting to a new country and culture. Not that my experience is unique - anyone who spends any time in the Foreign Service soon develops this trait or decides to do something else with his/her life. Normally, the bulk of my knowledge of a country was obtained after arrival. Santo Domingo was an exception. For some reason I found out that I would be moving to the Dominican Republic nearly a year before I was due to leave Togo. I also learned that I would be replacing Ron Large in Santo Domingo. I probably noticed Ron's name on my assignment notice but, since I'd never heard of him, it didn't register. But, before I arrived in Santo Domingo, he was often in my thoughts. I don't think a mail day ever went by during that final year in Lome without mail from Ron. He sent us newspapers, Embassy newsletters, tourist pamphlets, maps, etc. I'm positive that I knew as much about the Dominican Republic (DR) as most Dominicans did, even before I arrived. As many of you probably know, Ron switched to the courier service not long after leaving Santo Domingo. I thanked him every time he passed through a country where I was assigned. Though he modestly always denied remembering doing anything special, he greatly enhanced my Dominican tour. He also changed the way I dealt with future people who replaced me and those that I sponsored at other posts. Thanks Ron!
About the time I was assigned to Santo Domingo, there was a complete turnover in the communications office. Hugh Hudkins came in as the Communications Officer and Ed Wilson arrived to complete our 3-person office. We had every reason to assume our little group would be together for the next couple of years. It was not to be. About a year later the State Department decided to create the Sinai Field Mission to monitor relationships between the Arab world and Israel and a call went out for volunteers for the Sinai communications center. The chance to be a part of a unique experience in the Sinai precipitated a great deal of discussion amongst the communicators in Santo Domingo. With interest at a fever pitch, all 3 of us collectively volunteered for the U.S. Mission. I was told later that the entire communications group at one post volunteering for this assignment caused a bit of worry in the Department. Was there a morale problem in Santo Domingo that needed attention? Inquiries were quick in coming and only after assurances were received that there was nothing amiss did our request receive consideration. As a result, Hugh Hudkins was picked to lead the initial group of Sinai communicators. Ed and I were assured that we were also great candidates but there was no way that an entire communications group would be sent, leaving the Embassy without communications personnel. When I worked for Hugh years later in Seoul, his tales of those early months living in tents in the desert went far to assuage any feeling of disappointment that I may have had at not being a part of the original Sinai group.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest a dedicated sports fan. In those days Seattle had no major professional sports teams. Within a few years after I left home for the military and then the Foreign Service, pro football and basketball teams came to town. A major league baseball team came a bit later. During most of my formative years, college football was where most of my sports passion was spent. The entire Pacific Northwest lived and died with the fortunes of the Washington Huskies . The closest pro football teams to my area were the Rams and 49ers in California and I also enjoyed watching those teams play and followed them from afar. Because of the Los Angeles Lakers, and their many world championship teams, I had some interest in that sport. Baseball was a sport I tolerated but it came in a distant third in my interest. Santo Domingo changed that forever! The Dominicans were and are absolutely nuts over baseball and the winter baseball season is their nirvana. Not being a baseball aficionado, I was only vaguely aware that baseball in most of Latin America was king and that many countries in that part of the world had leagues that culminated in a "world series" between countries. In those days the American players on the two Santo Domingo teams visited the Embassy snack bar regularly during the week when they were in town. In particular big name Dodgers like Tommy Lasorda and Steve Garvey spent time in the DR. Eating lunch near big league players tweaked my interest and before long I began joining other Embassy baseball fans at the Santo Domingo stadium. During the winter, going to a ball game in the DR was a bit different than going to any other sporting event that I had ever attended. The first thing I noticed was the fans being patted down upon entry. I quickly learned why this was necessary and just how effective it was, shortly after I began to attend games regularly. Following our usual procedures, a group of us passed through the normal entry screening process and found our seats. We happened to glance to the right and noticed a fellow standing up in the aisle with his foot on the seat. He had one pant leg rolled up and was unwinding an ace bandage from around his calf. Under the bandage was a pistol, which he quickly put in his pocket. My self-preservation instincts quickly kicked-in and I moved to another part of the stadium in a rapid but unobtrusive manner. The others in the group were right on my heels and to say that we watched the remainder of the game with some discomfort would probably be an understatement. It was nothing to see team members come into the stands to retaliate against particularly insulting fans. Of course taunting gringos was great sport and I clearly remember the night a large first baseman (who's name escapes me but who was a first year major league player) came up into the stands swinging his bat and clearing a swath in front of him while chasing after his tormentors. It seems he had taken a mighty cut at a pitch and struck out. This was not usual for him. He swung from the heels and either launched the ball into orbit or screwed himself into the ground. Every time he struck out, the chorus of expletives rained down from the stands and this time he snapped. His teammates and team officials finally subdued him but it made for an exciting time at the old ball yard. As you might guess, the activities in the stands were nearly as interesting as what happened on the field and sometimes more so. Another memorable event at baseball games in Santo Domingo was ordering fried chicken, the "piece de resistiance" at the ballpark snack stand. When you were hungry, it sure smelled good and looked exactly like KFC, with one important exception. The claws were left on. At first, this was very disconcerting to me but my hunger soon overtook my squeamish stomach and I learned to overlook the toenails, probably helped in some small part by the number of beers that were consumed prior to ordering the chicken. In fact, I eventually came to see the practicality of leaving the claws attached. They made great toothpicks when the chicken had been consumed. Santo Domingo made me a baseball fan though I will never look at fried chicken the same way again.
Four years in the U.S. Navy gave me many opportunities to observe that the old axiom to "never volunteer" was usually the best policy. When I joined the Foreign Service I pretty much followed this rule but I did make an exception during VIP visits. I generally made it a point to quickly volunteer for the day shift thinking that there was more action during the day. However, the day that Kissinger came to town made me question whether this was always the correct course. Most CANDOER's will probably remember that Henry Kissinger liked to travel and did it a lot. As joint Secretary of State and NSC Chairman, he had a lot of irons in the fire and was a prolific correspondent who liked to be in constant contact with the power brokers in our Government and others. His stop in Santo Domingo, on this occasion, was to be a short one of just a few hours. Henry and a few key staff would come into town and the bulk of the party would remain on the plane parked at the airport. All communications, we were told, would be done from the plane. Hearing this, I quickly said I would remain in the office during the period of the visit while my two colleagues took other assignments. As luck would have it, a decision was made to give the plane staff a few hours off to go to a nearby beach. Before leaving the plane they gathered up the various correspondence that the Secretary and his staff had composed while flying and dropped it off at the Embassy for transmission. I'm sure that they weren't aware that they would be handing it off to a lone employee. Naturally everything was FLASH precedence, or at least it seemed that way. Sitting at my HW-28, fingers flying and surrounded by stacks of messages that needed to be sent out immediately, I had cause to question my choice of shifts. Luckily, I somehow managed to get it all sent out by the time the plane departed and a possible international incident or some other disaster was avoided. Because all the Embassy key players were intimately involved with THE VISIT, they never knew how close the Embassy came to being chastised for the slow transmission of important messages nor did they know that many of the key political decisions being made in the world at that time were sent out from the Santo Domingo Embassy. I remember marveling at some of the things I typed and sent out. Wow, what a day.
My family and I will always have a warm spot in our hearts for Santo Domingo. Sure, we went through a hurricane during our stay there which tested our faith for a short period but we thoroughly enjoyed our two-year stay in the DR. In later years when looking for our next assignment, we often gave thought to trying to return for a second time. With this in mind, any time an opening in Santo Domingo appeared on the Open Assignments list, I would faithfully bring home the Post Report for the family to check out. Our habit was to turn first to the section dealing with housing. Since we had lived there previously this probably wasn't necessary but we would look for any changes. Imagine our surprise on one such occasion when we sat down at the kitchen table and turned to the housing section and saw the old house where we had spent our Dominican tour. Not only was it our house but our daughters, who were about 4 and 6 at the time, were playing outside on the porch. I think they were teenagers at the time and didn't much appreciate the fact that they were topless in the picture. Never mind that back then, that was their preferred manner of dress in the Dominican heat. Over the many years we spent traveling overseas this is the only time that I can remember not requesting a post because our daughters believed everyone would know they had gone topless.
by Dick Kalla
My family and I were stationed in Seoul, Korea from 1977 to 1980. Writing about our experiences in Seoul should be easy. There were numerous events that were burned into my brain during those three years in Korea. Unfortunately, as I sit here and ponder what to write, I'm beginning to realize that many of these tales were about people who might not appreciate reading about their exploits. Boy, if I could only tell you about the time that . . . almost . . . or when . . . got so . . . that he . . . Yep, those were the days! Too bad I can't share everything but maybe I can think of a few things that won't get me strung up. Let's see, there was the time that . . .
Seoul received TERP-1 at the end of 1979. For those who don't know, TERP-1 was the first in a line of new Department of State hardware meant to provide an automated telegram processing system. It had a rudimentary processor, and storage was provided using cassette tapes. With today's proliferation of high-speed computers and nearly infinite hard-disk storage, it's hard to visualize such a low-tech system. TERP-1 was particularly bad when you asked it to do several things at a time. Waiting for it to assign Message Continuity Numbers (MCN's) to a telegram being sent to a bunch of posts starting with different letters of the alphabet gave you time to go out to dinner and return to find it still grinding away. Only when matched against what it replaced, did the TERP-1 look good. Compare it with the manual/mechanical HW-28 and it was a god. So it was with great expectation in 1979 that Seoul looked forward to joining ranks with other TERP-1 users. Because of priorities and emergencies, only a single technician (TECH) was sent from the regional office in Bangkok to complete our TERP-1 installation. The Christmas holidays were fast approaching and he was in a hurry to finish and get home to his family. Who could blame him? If the installation had gone exactly as planned and scheduled, he would have been home for the holidays with plenty of time to finish his shopping. New equipment installations, particularly those on tight schedules, seldom work out precisely the way they are planned. This one was no exception. Little things kept popping up that pushed the schedule back. Finally, with just a few days remaining before Christmas, the system was nearly up and running. Just two problems remained. The TECH had accidentally spilled his coke into the OCR and parts were needed before it could be repaired. These wouldn't arrive for several weeks so we would be hand typing all our outgoing telegrams. If you have ever done that on a TERP-1, you will understand how much fun we would have in the next few weeks. Finally, there was little or no time for formal training on the new system. We were forced to learn on the fly. This led to some interesting times in the Seoul Communications Center. We were extremely lucky that we were in the holiday slowdown period and that no real crisis was happening at the time. Maybe formal training would have made us TERP-1 experts. I don't know. I do know, however, that being forced to learn on our own made us aware of what not to do with the TERP-1. With training, we may never have discovered some of the system's zanier idiosyncrasies.
THE PUNCH, when it came, was loud, unexpected and scared the hell out of me. I was sitting in the back room sending out the latest batch of after-hours telegrams that had called CPO George McKinney and myself to the Embassy. Internal and external crises are a normal part of living in Seoul. They have been going on for decades. I don't remember the exact crisis that caused George and me to be there on that occasion - it could have been just another North Korean incursion or tunnel, or an internal South Korean matter that effected GOK/U.S. relations. Whatever the cause, there had been numerous call-ins to send out situation reports and people were tense. I do remember that the subject matter and importance of these particular telegrams didn't seem to fit the usual criteria for opening the commcenter after-hours. George was in the outer room discussing this very problem with the DCM when THE PUNCH came, followed by silence. I was intent on finishing my work so that I could return home and had only vaguely noticed that their conversation had become louder and louder. Jerked out of my reverie by the sound of THE PUNCH I could only think the worst - George had snapped and punched out the DCM! Those of you who know George will understand why I might have this concern. George was and is one of my favorite characters. In fact, it would probably be correct to say that George is a legend. I know of no one who has had more happen to him in his lifetime than George. Scary things - things that would have done in most mere mortals. It would also be fair to say that George is not easily intimidated and no DCM is going to get the best of him in a discussion when he thinks he is right. These thoughts and others raced through my mind as I carefully made my way to the outer room not sure what I would find but expecting the worst. What a relief! There stood George and the DCM enjoying the moment. As it turned out, George had merely punched his hand to emphasize his point. The loud smack that had gotten my instant attention had served to break the tension of their discussion and they were now calmly discussing the matter. I'm sure the look on my face was priceless because they both stared at me with a puzzled look as I hurried into their view. Maybe it was just a coincidence but after THE PUNCH, the Embassy leadership seemed much more conscientious about assigning the correct precedence and calling-in duty communicators. I also worked for the DCM at a later post where he was the Ambassador and noticed that he gave particular attention to high precedence telegrams and would only send them out when it was absolutely necessary. I'm not sure that THE PUNCH was responsible for his change of attitude but I couldn't help but think that maybe it helped him to reach a better understanding of when and why to call-in the duty communicator.
One of the bad things about the Foreign Service, for me, was missing American sporting events. Sure, living in Europe for several years, I got to know a lot more about soccer, but I spent many a weekend night chasing an elusive radio signal around my living quarters trying to listen to some football game. With satellite TV, things are much better today, depending of course upon where you are stationed. Twice over the years I was lucky enough to become involved with coaching football. Seoul was one of those places. In Korea, like most overseas schools there was no high school football program. But, with the proliferation of military people, it did have a Dependent Youth Association (DYA) that organized American sports for military dependents. One thing that DYA provided was tackle football for high school age kids. I was lucky enough to be able to coach DYA football all three years that I was in Seoul. The first two years were a lot of fun but it was the third and final year that stands out in my mind. Three of us from the Embassy coached together all three years. By the time the third year rolled around, we knew the ropes; and, most importantly, we knew the players. Every year there was a draft of players so each team started anew each season. On draft day that third year our coaching staff was well acquainted with most of the players and we were able to draft a squad that swept through the regular season undefeated. For this honor we were chosen to head an all-star team from Korea that would fly to Japan to play a high school team from one of the U.S. military bases. Unlike Korea, most G.I.'s in Japan were there with their families. This provided a large dependent school system with a full program of normal American sports. We brought a spirited group to Japan but they weren't big. The opponents, however, were huge. They were also good. We gave them a game for a while but they soon wore us down and the rout was on. I don't remember what the final score was, but it wasn't pretty. Our biggest player was about 210 pounds. In DYA Korea, he dominated. Compared to the players from Japan he was small. In this game, he faced a player who weighed about 260 and was 6' 7". I often think back to that game and wonder if we could have done anything different to change the outcome. Maybe if I had used that crazy defensive scheme that I had in the back of my mind it would have been different. Logic tells me it probably wouldn't have changed things much. We were simply out-manned that day. Sometime life's like that - you work hard and do your best, but someone else is bigger or smarter and they prevail. In the end, it was a good lesson for the coaches and players. We were rewarded for our success in the regular season with a trip to Japan, and we did our best in the game. It would have been nice to win, but we just weren't good enough that day. Next time, however . . .
Living in Korea in the late 70's was just another typical Foreign Service experience. There was a unique culture to observe. There were plenty of interesting places and things to visit and explore AND, then there were the North Koreans who were just a few miles up the road and were constantly massing troops on the border and rattling their sabers. There was a curfew that kept the streets clear each night beginning at midnight. Being called back to the Embassy after-hours usually involved some soldier sticking a gun in your face. There were the constant military exercises where South Korean military personnel closed down the city and played realistic war games. Ho hum - life in the Foreign Service!