By W. Lewis Amselem
Thursday, June 16, 2011
ACROSS THE RIVER
At last! After more than a third of a century of unremarkable diplomatic duty, Frank W. Jones had a plum assignment: his last before retirement and some 30 additional years of regaling glassy-eyed neighbors with tales of life abroad. Working without complaint in countries of no interest to Washington, he endured hepatitis, hair loss, weight gain, parasites, stupid bosses, lazy subordinates, and a messy divorce. Now, however, he would become DCM, Deputy Chief of Mission, Mr. Number Two, at the large U.S. Embassy in Gambora, a “tropical paradise,” or so read the State Department's never-updated 15-year-old “Gambora Country Report.”
Disgusted and unable to stomach the Ambassador's nocturnal escapades, and with impeccably bad timing, the prior DCM quit Gambora just days before some unfortunate photos surfaced on the internet and drove the offending Ambassador, himself, out of office. State Department Human Resources was desperately seeking to fill the DCM vacancy, just as Jones in Washington, unassigned, contemplating retirement, and looking for a men’s room, walked past HR’s offices. Steve “I Can Staff Hell” White, a rising HR star, spotted and cornered him. In a faded green hallway, under a flickering neon tube, he poured the sales pitch on a fidgety Jones.
"Two years, three tops. Who knows if the President will name another Ambassador? Frank, you wouldn’t be just DCM. You'd be Chargé! It can’t get better’n that!"
Why, thought Jones, when no modern country speaks it, does State use French to make the simple complex? “Chargé” just means "almost Ambassador" but it does carry an extra ounce of prestige, and after taxes maybe another $400 a month. With that and the 30% “hardship differential” I could cover the divorce settlement and a down payment on a Miami condo.
On a bright hot morning like all the others in his eighteen months in Gambora, Chargé Jones sat behind a messy desk in his office on the Embassy’s fifth floor. He held and stared at an “IMMEDIATE” telegram. A few feet away, Glenda, his fifty-something, gum-chewing secretary stood near the large window, watching the gray ocean vomit up and play with driftwood, plastic bags, and other trash on the rocky brown beach below. Impatient for a cigarette, she glanced at her watch and sighed loudly. Before handing it to Jones, she, of course, had read the one paragraph message. It announced that just-confirmed “Ambassador to Gambora Richard Riley has decided for personal reasons not to take up his assignment.” Citing “sources close to Riley,” CNN already had reported that this Powerful Friend of the President had concluded that the joy and honor of serving as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America, the World's Only Superpower, did not make it worth risking His Exalted Wealthy Rump – not even in “paradise.”
One snake can ruin “paradise.” Gambora’s snake had hatched and grown in the verdant but impoverished hill country. Inspired by ancient ethnic grievances against the coastal elite, led by a charismatic, beret-wearing, pipe-smoking, Sartre-spouting, Sorbonne-educated lunatic, and flush with old Soviet-bloc weapons, the rebellion had slid from the hills into the lowlands, inflicting a string of defeats on Gamboran security forces. Soon, a smothering, swallowing violence slithered into the capital. Car bombs, assassinations, disappearances, and kidnappings came as daily fare -- and not just for the poor brown people normally seen dead and dying on easy-to-ignore dinnertime CNN.
Past months had seen the senile President, along with cops, soldiers, journalists, businessmen, tourists, and passers-by peppered with bullets or vaporized in city-rocking blasts. The French Ambassador barely escaped death when gunmen mistook her red Peugeot for the Interior Minister's silver Mercedes and shot the vehicle nearly to pieces. The next day, Madame Ambassador of the Fifth Republic grabbed her three cats and her vegetarian cook and boarded the last Air France flight out of Gambora. The sweaty-palmed Gamboran elite also began heading out: first, their money; then, the wives, kids, and mistresses; and, finally, the men, slipping away on vague “business trips” or “vacations.”
The sad-faced foreign prostitutes disappeared from the casinos and the hotel lobbies. Shuttered stores, empty restaurants, silent discotheques, and half-finished construction projects defined the cityscape. The snarling, acrid traffic jams vanished. The chirping of birds replaced the blaring of klaxons. Rivers ran clear of the effluent once emitted by now-defunct paper mills. Drained of smoke and neon, the night sky revealed Heaven’s majesty. Gambora had become an ecologist’s dream and, thus, of course, not fit for human life.
"He's not coming," said Jones, holding the telegram up. Glenda flew to Frank’s desk, crumpled the sheet in her fist, and lowered her face to within inches of his. Through tobacco-laced breath and clenched teeth she hissed, "That miserable chicken! He won’t come but we stay? I went through this in Liberia! Air France has bailed! KLM and BA will, too! Even Ethiopia Airlines is worried! The Ethi-o-pi-ans are worried! Damn it, order an evacuation!"
Looking down at his desk, fumbling with a pen, Jones muttered, "You know I can’t.”
Glenda straightened up, "Yeah, yeah. I’m going outside for a smoke. See if I can shake this damn nicotine gum!"
Six in the evening, heading home, slouched in the back seat of the armored Suburban SUV Jones peered through the distorting bulletproof glass at a dying country. OK, another ten months as Chargé, and I can buy the condo. Damn divorce ripped me off! Stupid ex-wife Alice! Sleeping with a janitor! That Glenda’s another Alice. Gives me no respect! Evacuation? End my career like a chicken? Right! Jeez, this is a butt-ugly city! These people deserve what's happening.
Ringing car phone. “Yeah,” Jones sighed quietly into the receiver.
"Sir, this is the Marine guard, post one. Car bomb went off at the main gate!”
For the next 80 blurry hours, Jones floated on a river of adrenaline and reheated coffee. Calls and telegrams to and from Washington; calls to the Gambora government asking for protection; calls from the Gambora government asking for protection; meetings, discussions. Was the bomb meant for us? Maybe they confused us with an ex-colonial power? Does it really matter? More news: the new President badly wounded; the garish, Soviet-style "Heroes of Independence” monument blown to pieces; an explosion rips through the last commuter ferry, sinking it in the bay; Ethiopia Air cancels operations; British Airways and KLM "suspend service." The capital goes dark for hours at a time. Looting. Gunfire. Arson. The Defense Minister flees. Military units dissolve. Gambora TV runs one episode of "Magnum P.I." over and over. Time to go! Shred documents! Pack gear! Pay off the staff in worthless local scrip; avert their eyes, and mumble, “Don’t worry. We’ll be back.”
The U.S Marines, God’s gift to beleaguered expatriates, arrive.
Three in the morning; temperature in the mid-80s; a 50-vehicle convoy coils in the misty, halogen-lit parking lot, nervously awaiting the long airport run. The Marines’ turtle-like HUMVEES put out a smoky, diesel growl. Jones wearily climbs into his Suburban, pulls shut the heavy armored door and slumps into the rear seat. Darkness. Eyes closed. Soothing throb of the V-8 engine. Hiss of cooling air-conditioning.
“Hmmm? Jones here.”
"Me, Glenda. I’m with the Air Force guys out at the airport tower, or what’s left of it. A Ms. Wilson’s here, from an animal rights group. Wants to talk to you. I’ll put you on speaker."
"Huh? Wait! How the hell did she get here? Human rights? No time for that! I've got over three hundred Americans to evacuate. We're leaving for the airport! The city's coming apart!" Jones, leaning forward, tells the driver, "Let’s move!"
Shepherded by the HUMVEES, the convoy snakes out of the compound into the dark and gathers speed.
Glenda's raspy voice, "You’re not listening, Frank. Not HUMAN rights! ANIMAL rights! She’s from ‘NOAH'S ARK.’ They saw a BBC piece on abandoned pets in Gambora and she wants to know what you're going to do. Euro-TV is praising the French Ambassador for saving her cats. Ms. Wilson says nobody will feed or neuter abandoned pets. What's your plan? She’ll ask you herself. Her dad’s the . . ."
"I don’t care about her father! Screw her idiot father! Put her on!"
"Mr. Jones? Sally Wilson from ‘NOAH'S ARK.’"
"You want to know if I have a plan for cats and dogs on the streets? Yeah, I have a plan you stupid fruitcake! Going to open a thousand Chinese restaurants! They'll provide employment AND take care of the cats and dogs! Sweet-and-sour Siamese cat is my favorite! I also like Great Dane spare ribs! Now get back on your broom, you freakin' moron, and get out of here!"
Jones flung the phone on the seat. No sleep for days! Don't know if I'll live to see tomorrow and some ding-dong wants me to worry about pets! Who let her in? Damn it all! No condo, now. No Chargé pay in Washington.
The Suburban’s Motorola crackles: Marines report gunfire coming from roadside shanties. The gunners on the escorting HUMVEES come alive: tracer rounds stitch the snipers' positions. Cobra gunships whir overhead. God bless the Marines! If only everything worked like they do! High above the Cobras, pulled by muffled turboprops, a blacked-out AC-130 "Spectre" gunship bores wide circles in the night sky, its high-tech Gattling gun system tracking every move on the ground. The convoy tears on.
Barely visible, squatting on the darkened tarmac four huge cargo jets, screaming engines gulping in wet air and spiting out glassy beams of exhaust. God bless the U.S. taxpayer! God bless the U.S. Air Force! I'll never criticize our military!
Vehicles spew passengers. HUMVEES and Marines fan out across the runway. CNN’s here? How do they do it? If only everything worked as well as CNN! Don't screw up! Millions watching. Earn your last day of Chargé pay.
Jones steps out into the humid night. Young, breathless, sweat-soaked Embassy junior officer, Mr. Charon, meets him. "Frank, Mr. Jones, Air Force won't let us load the brown and black bags over there! Not cleared. Whew! It’s hot! Guess I, uh, we screwed up, and didn't report’em. They say you have to give the OK to the, uh, loadmaster or they only take the cleared white duffel bags!" Jet engines whine higher; in the middle distance, the dull thud of mortar rounds, the sharp crack of AKs. The “Spectre” splits the dark with a white bolt of hot lead. Cobras roar overhead, low and fast into the gloom to administer doses of "Made in USA" firepower to the encroaching rebels. Taking the megaphone from the panting Charon, Jones clambers onto the Suburban’s hot hood. Aglow in CNN’s glare, Jones blares, "This is United States Chargé Frank W. Jones. All get on the planes, not just the white ones; black and brown go with us, too. We don't leave any behind! Black, brown and white all go together! Got it?"
Where? Ah, Marriott Hotel, D.C. Fumbling with the ringing phone, Jones croaks, "Yes?"
"Don't hang up, although God knows I deserve it."
"Glenda gave me your number. I’m proud of you. Wonderful speech! It's all over TV. Never thought you'd be like that. You were always, so, well, Republican, right wingy, and all.”
"What? What do you want? The janitor dump you?"
"Yes, I see that your bitterness gives you strength, something to cling to.” Oh God! New Age psychobabble! “I’m sorry if I hurt you, but I had to be true to myself. If you must know, those fascists in Immigration deported Raúl. But, I have a great therapist. I’ll come out a better person. He says you should want that for me out of respect for our years together. If I’d seen the side you showed at the airport, I might not have left. Oh, could you send next month’s alimony early? I need it for my tummy tuck. Bye!"
What’s she yapping about? 11 am! Asleep 12 hours! Let’s see what's on CNN.
" . . . inquiry into the behavior of Air Force personnel in the Gambora evacuation . . ."
" . . . as Secretary of Defense, I will turn no stone uncovered, er, to leave, uh, determine, yes, how in the 21st century such attitude and behavior could exist. We have no room for Crim Tow, Jim Crow! I've ordered the suspension of the Gambora operation commander Major General Jake Gaines pending investigation, and ordered a stand-down day for our armed forces for reflection, thought, and sensitivity seminars. Our troops have no more important function than to be sensitive to all groups and individuals!”
That's me on the car! Jones bolts upright in bed as his image replaces that of the nervous, tongue-tied Secretary.
"This is United States Chargé Frank W. Jones. All get on the planes, not just the white ones; black and brown go with us, too. We don't leave any behind! Black, brown and white all go together! Got it?"
CNN cuts to a smiling Secretary of State, "We're proud of Mr. Jones. He is a true American diplomat."
Phone rings. "Ye-Yes?"
"Frank? Steve White in HR. You're hard to find! Thank goodness for Glenda. Just wanted to give you a heads-up. You're getting a call in 30 seconds from the White House. Oh and come see the Deputy Secretary tomorrow morning at 9 sharp. Bye!"
White House? Deputy Secretary? Jones puts down the receiver. The phone rings immediately.
"Is this Fred Johnson? I’m Peggy Blaine-Hewitt, Director, White House Personnel.”
“Uh, no, I’m Frank, Frank Jones.”
“Ah, oh, of course, yes, you are right, right you are, Frank, Frank Jones. I want to pass along the President's congratulations for what you did in Gambi, Gonzo, you know, the airport thing."
"Gambora, yes. I'm deeply honored."
"Frank, right? I don’t have much time. You did a great job with the Air Force. Damn racist Southerners still run the military! We're going to nail those rednecks! The President appreciates what you did. It'll help in the election. He wants to offer you New Delhi."
The big leagues at last! "DCM in New Delhi?”
"T-C-N? No, Ambassador. Is TCN better?"
Ambassador! Oh God! "D-C-M. Yes! No! Ambassador’s fine." Lame! "I'd love to be Ambassador and serve President Lawrence." Good recovery!
"Ambassador Jones it is. Call me Peggy. We'll start the paperwork for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman. He'll gavel you right through. President wants you there fast. That’s in China, right?
“I can never keep all those little African countries straight. Anyhow, I'll call State, tell’em you're it. Of course, the President expects you to testify on the attempt to exclude minorities from the evacuation at, uh, Gambona."
"'We don't leave any behind! Black, brown and white, all go together!' We want it as our campaign slogan. It was beautiful. Got to go!"
"Peggy, listen. Luggage, they . . . "
"Huh? Right! Those military dopes treat people like luggage! Nice talking to you, Ambassador Johnson, Jones. Ciao!"
The phone kept ringing. Glenda apparently had revealed his whereabouts to the nation: reporters, talk show producers, book promoters, and lawyers, lawyers, lawyers. Now nearly 6 pm and Jones had not showered, changed or had a meal. The room spun. Head hurt; heart pounded. Sick to his stomach, Jones feared a long, sleepless night.
By next day, Jones had reconsidered. Ambassador? I'll get a job afterwards as a talking head or at some university. Eat your heart out, Alice! You could've been Mrs. Ambassador! Instead, you got a Lysol-smelling janitor! I won't say anything to damage the General's career. Hell, he's probably due to retire. He's already got two stars; I deserve recognition for leading the convoy. I've got to offer something to that weird junior officer Charon. Almost 7:30! The Deputy wants to see me at 9!
Walking through State, Jones knew everybody was looking. Friends greeted him, the congratulations on their lips betrayed by the envy in their eyes. He strolled content through the mahogany-lined corridor on the seventh floor. I have arrived!
"Good morning, Mr. Ambassador," the receptionist said. "I recognize you from TV. Have a seat. The Deputy is talking with the White House,” she smiled, “about you." Jones chuckled and sat. Picking up a “Washington Post," he saw Chargé Jones, megaphone in hand, "RACISM DOESN'T STOP AT THE WATER'S EDGE: An American Diplomat Faces the Ugly Truth."
Intercom buzz. "He's here. OK." The receptionist hangs up and stares at Jones. I am cooked! They know it was luggage! No, no, she’s smiling. "Ms. Blaine-Hewitt from the White House wants to talk to you. Please take it in that empty office." Jones smiled, putting down the newspaper, slowly rising -- important people move slowly -- and strolled to the desk in the adjoining office. He sat, paused, slowly picked up the phone, paused, and pushed the flashing light.
"Peggy, how are you?”
"See any journalists today? Seen, read or heard the news?""
Not "Ambassador" or "Frank?" "No, slept in."
"Ah, of course, the sleep of the righteous, eh? Let’s see, you know, of course, that as a favor to the President Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Wilson endorsed you last night, sight unseen. As a further favor to the President he got your name sent to the full Senate without a hearing. Do you know how unusual that is?"
"Wow! I certainly know who Senator Wilson is!"
"Good, I am so very glad . . . and, of course, you know his daughter, too. Right?"
"No, never heard of her.”
"Really? So, I suppose, you have never heard THIS! (Click) ‘Screw her idiot father! Put her on!’ ‘Mr. Jones? Sally Wilson from NOAH'S ARK, and . . ..’ ‘You want to know if I have a plan for cats and dogs on the streets? Yeah, I have a plan you stupid fruitcake! Going to open a thousand Chinese restaurants! They'll provide employment AND take care of the cats and dogs! Sweet-and-sour Siamese cat is my favorite! I also like Great Dane spare ribs! Now get back on your broom, you freakin' moron, and get out of here!’ (Click) That doesn’t ring a bell?"
Spinning room, icy stomach. "P-Peggy, I didn't know who she was! Wilson’s daughter! I was running an evacuation to save people, Americans. She wanted me to save pets!”
"Ever hear of California, Mr. I-Know-Where-New-Delhi-Is? I’ll spell it for you! C-a-l-o-f-r, whatever! Wilson’s in a tight race there! He endorses you, forwards your name to the damn Senate, and then hears you insulted him and called his daughter a moron, a fruitcake, and a witch over the only working speakerphone in Gonad next to a Fox News reporter with a tape recorder! I’m gonna puke!”
"Gambora. I . . . "
"But, but, Frankie, here comes the good part! You insult him and his only child, and, get ready for this, she didn’t fly to GAMBORA on a broom! Nope! No, sir! She went on a C-17 with the President’s personal OK! And then you, you make fun of animal rights, and insult the Chinese! It’s on the morning shows! The blogs are going nuts! Fox is having a field day! We’re already flooded with calls, emails and faxes from women’s groups, Asians, Chinese restaurant owners, and those smelly, crazy animal people, and it's not even 6 o’clock in California! When it hits there, Wilson loses re-election and we lose California! We’re already going to lose Florida with all those military jerks and their absentee ballots! Am I getting through? Your ‘black, brown, white’ crap is our campaign slogan! We’ve got pins, bumper stickers, TV ads! The Republicans will laugh all the way to the White House!"
"Yeah, look, uh, a DCM job in Africa would be fine.”
"TCN? Fruitcake! You can’t be cage-cleaner at the zoo! Get on your broom! Fly out of here!"
"Mr. Jones, your party hung up several minutes ago. Please put down the phone. The Deputy can’t see you, now. He says you should go home."
Jones retired to run a casino on an Arizona Indian reservation and prevented it from opening a Chinese restaurant.
General Gaines retired and got elected to Congress advocating eliminating the State Department.
President Lawrence lost Florida, California, and the White House. He made a career of TV cameos as "The President." Peggy Blaine-Hewitt became his agent.
Senator Wilson retired to Homer, Alaska.
Sally devoted herself to pet birth control. Bitten by a rabid cat, she refused "profit-and-chemical-dominated" treatment and died.
Glenda promotes cigarettes as a cure for nicotine gum addiction.
Suffering PETS (Post Evacuation Traumatic Stress), Charon could not recall ever meeting Jones.
The French Ambassador fired her vegetarian cook when he claimed that cats are legumes.
Alice married her therapist.
Steve White parlayed his knowledge of foreign affairs into a job as a delivery boy for a Vietnamese convenience store. With tips, he makes what a Chargé does, and bought a foreclosed condo on Brickell Avenue.
With French support, China sponsored a UN resolution condemning “American slights against Chinese culture." The new President pulled the U.S. out of the UN. War erupted among China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. One million people died.
By W. Lewis Amselem
By W. Lewis Amselem