by Lapin Agile
Winnie arrives in the Heart of Darkness for his first assignment. Its 1963.
|The cabin lights came on along with a rather matter of fact voice "Good evening ladies and gentlemen, this is First Officer Miller speaking from the cockpit we are beginning our descent to Uhuru National Airport where the temperature is 89 degrees with light rain. We have an estimated arrival time of 10:30 PM and we're looking to get you folks on the ground as quickly as we can. On behalf of Pan American Airways and your entire cabin crew we wish you a very pleasant journey. Please make sure your table trays are in a locked position and a stewardess will be coming by to pick your debarkation papers. Once again, it's been our pleasure flying with you. Bonsoir Mesdames et Monsieur nous allons attérire..."
Winston Harrison George III - better known by his friends as "Winnie" honestly felt he was ready for his first overseas post. As far as the company was concerned and more specifically, those on the Africa desk, he was fit for duty and that was good enough. All his fitness reports and performance evaluations spoke highly of him and clearly possed the skills to operate in the field. His orders were cut, he followed the check-list and met with Personnel on family issues, leave accumulation, direct deposit instructions, retirement accounts, travel plans, updated his Last Will and Testament, detail after detail after detail; and that didn't even include the intricate operational procedures that went with his new status as AgroLan International's Vice President for Marketing and Business Development. Agro was in fact a Midwest grain exporting company headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska with one other main office in New York City which handled a busy international exporting business with a number of countries in the developing world and was closely connected with the ballooning AID program to Africa. Philip Johns, a World War II veteran and graduate of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC had built the company from the ground up. He travelled regularly between his Upper East Side home in New York City and the sprawling corporate campus in Lincoln. Winnie had met with Philip once in New York City and it was over dinner. He had been pleased to find out they both had attended the same prep school in New Hampshire and both had been on the varsity crew team. He liked Philip immediately and felt in some way that a bond had been forged.
Over the last few months, Winnie had watched enough grainy footage of violent urban crowds unleashed in the streets; groups of young men throwing rocks and systematically ransacking businesses, firing guns in the air; footage of frightened and confused looking whites, Europeans, huddled together, some holding bloody handkerchiefs to their heads; local mobs chanting "death-death-death to colonialist" and "long live the revolution" or carrying banners with Marxist party slogans promising a brighter future for all citoyens. The scene was repeated almost daily along the now re-named Boulevard du Premier Mai, the main thoroughfare in the city. Grainy footage shot at the Aeroport Occidentale, now renamed Uhuru National Airport, in a fit of revolutionary fervor, showed a gauntlet of locals taunting, touching and pushing, trying to reach out and grab suitcases and any bags belonging to anxious passengers as they arrived. Winnie had read countless telex messages, cables and reports via Diplomatic Pouch from the station and the Embassy which read in some places like a horror story describing rather matter of factly, cars traveling on the airport road being indiscriminately stopped and pulled over with one or two occupants dragged out and beaten senseless. He had literally read reams of intelligence reports, political assessments on Sino-Soviet domination and influence, political and psychological profiles of the current leadership, economic analyses from various Washington think tanks and universities, even Congressional testimony from a panel of carefully selected experts along with just about any other piece of information he could lay his hands on, it was digested.
There was one undeniable fact: Winnie was just plain ready to leave Room 253-E. He was sick and tired and restless for an assignment. He felt as if his windowless office, his cell, was closing in on him by the minute. His office, located along the East wing of the complex was about as far removed from anything and about a mile away from the cafeteria or so it seemed. But this had been his home now for almost six months and as homes went, it was about the best a GS-9 could expect or possibly hope for. Sparsely furnished with a somber looking metal grey desk and chair placed squarely in the middle of the room, one authorized metal grey visitors chair and one round metal grey wastebasket. Departmental policies and procedures allowed him a metal grey bookcase with two adjustable shelves which held an internal departmental phone book with specific directions on dialing between bureaus and offices, a government phone book, the ever present GPO manual, a style guide to effective writing (condition like new) and a beat up DC - Maryland- Virginia phone book thoughtfully left by some previous tennant also looking to escape. His phone was a black rotary, with a white sticker in the middle of the dial with 253-E faintly typed on. When the phone rang, he answered "253-E" the way he was supposed to. By the door was also a metal coat hanger with a wooden hanger, Snow White Dry Cleaners Alexandria, Virginia stamped on it. Overhead the florescent light was missing two of the three lights but he had been assured his office was scheduled for a maintenance visit almost any day now. One standard desk lamp, goose-neck style, gave him the only real source of light to read and re-read and study. Some enterprising civil servant before him had dared to take the initiative and had hung a cork bulletin board now well worn in several places but which still held a few complimentary thumb tacks. On his desk, sandwiched between the "In-Out" trays was a small personal desk calendar, a picture of his wife looking shyly away that was taken last summer and one of the two children in their new Christmas outfits sitting and smiling for the Montgomery Wards photographer and a caption at the bottom, in gold lettering: Christmas 1961.
Winnie attended the St. Bernard's School on 4 East 98th Street in New York City until he was ready to prep at which time his parents dutifully placed him at The Phillips Exeter School in Exeter, New Hampshire. The very same school, his Grandfather and Father had proudly attended. By all accounts and judging by the Headmaster's comments, Winnie did well earning high marks in most if not all of his studies. He was team captain of the schools' crew team where he was the stroke on a four man shell, a member of the French Drama Club and the Chess Club. In 1957 Winnie received his Bachelor of Arts degree with High Honors from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Three months later Winnie was in England on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. He had been told that Saigon station was a most logical overseas career move given his strenght with the French language as well as his Asian studies while at Oxford. However everything had changed; now the Africa Desk in Washington, DC and station operations on the ground were ramping up as fast as possible, scrambling to "get up to speed" and duty station papers were being re-routed from one part of the world to a new flash point in the heart of Africa.
The Pan American Airways Jet Clipper, flight 156 from New York La Guardia touched down at Uhuru National Airport. Looking out his window, as the plane approached the terminal, Winnie noticed two Soviet Antonov An-12's and a Shaanxi Y-8 a Chinese version of an Antonov on the other side of the runway, refuelling. A crew stood near by. No one seemed to be particularly in a hurry. When Winnie, in his grey seersucker suit, tie shoes, white shirt and black knit tie and holding his hat and briefcase, stepped out into the African heat it was as if he had stepped into a sauna. The heat was more than oppressive, it was oven like, and the humidity grabbed him by the throat, clamped his chest and descended on him like a cloak, sapping what energy he had left from his eighteen hour flight. He had arrived. Already "back home"seemed like thousands of miles and another world away.
Once inside the badly ventilated terminal, Winnie went through customs showing his passport and World Health shot records and answering the perfunctory questions as to the purpose of his visit. He was looked at for a moment then compared to his photo, the official's yellowed-eyes carefully looking at him, he sighed then stamped Winnie's passport and gave him a big smile as if to say "I could have made things very uncomfortable for you but you lucked out." The crowd in the terminal was a mixture of Anglos, Indians, Orientals, Middle Eastern types, Portuguese and a number of African nationals from various other countries. All mixing together in the African heat. All amassing in front of a slowing conveyor belt, dragging their suitcases or their cardboard ones wrapped tightly with rope. It had the making of a hideous carnival or a very bad movie. Patrolling lazily through the passengers were paramilitary police teams made up of young men with over sized, over starched uniforms, their helmets pratically covering their eyes; an automatic machine gun loosely held and at the ready. They would not hesitate to use extreme force if necessary and not always with a good reason.
Winnie, jacket over one arm, shirt dripping wet, sleeves rolled up to the elbow and tie loosened at the neck, searched the crowd for a familiar face or the contact who would know him. At last he saw a large balding man wearing a short-sleeve plaid button down shirt, jeans and cowboy boots who he recognized as having attended briefings in Washington. Sam carried a sign: "Passenger George, AgroLan Company." Sam saw him and smiled, "welcome to your new home away from home; I dare say, Winnie, you may have just turned the corner into hell!" They both made their way out of the terminal, pushing through a crowd of stick-like children with bloated stomachs, threadbare shorts and shoeless, all with their hands out begging for anything. Sam threw the bags in the back his old UN Land Rover Jeep and tore away from the airport surprising the guards who were busy talking to a few local girls who were hanging around the entrance hopping to find a lonely customer. Once on the airport road, Sam reached into his boot and pulled out a pistol placing it between them and reached under his seat and brought out two bottles of lukewarm local beer. Cheers Mate!(to be continued)