One of the joys of the old Foreign Service was the relatively loose attitude by officialdom towards personal weapons. State had no set rules. Each embassy had its own policy. In general, we had to obey local laws, but other than that, whatever the Ambassador did not prohibit we could have.
Before bidding on an assignment, I would check post policy towards firearms, refusing to bid on any overseas position that required me to surrender my second amendment rights. I, therefore, never served in Europe, and spent my life in much more interesting places. One such was Bolivia, where I served three years as political counselor. When assigned, I notified the embassy that I would ship my arsenal. Neither the Ambassador nor the security officer (RSO) objected. I received instructions on how to send the guns; they got to Bolivia several days before I did, and awaited me in boxes in the living room of our La Paz residence. Christmas in July!
About La Paz. This grim and dusty city sits in a deep bowl in the Andes. The altitude ranges from just over 13,000 to just below 10,000 feet above sea level. The rich people tend to gather towards the bottom of the bowl, and the poor dwell in shabby shacks along the sides. Our house was at about the 10,000-foot level. It took some people a long and difficult time to adapt to existence at that altitude--and some never did. We never knew who would do well. We had very fit people get violently ill and have to leave, and had total slobs do well. I fell somewhere in the middle, most of the time.
Before I get to today's breathless tale of breathless adventure in the breathless Far Abroad, let me relate a macabre little vignette that tells you something about life in breathless La Paz. While duty officer one night, I got a call from the front desk clerk of a major downtown hotel. He had an angry cab driver who wanted to get paid for taking an American Embassy official from El Alto airport to the hotel. I asked why the official hadn't paid the cabbie. The clerk said, "He's dead." As it turned out, the "official" was a contractor for USAID. He had gotten into the cab at El Alto, over 13,000 feet altitude, and headed down to La Paz. He had died in the back seat of the cab from a heart attack brought on by the altitude. His did not prove the only altitude-related death I had to handle during my tour in Bolivia--one was almost mine.
I had been in country not quite two days when a couple of my new colleagues invited me on a duck hunt. It was cold, July is winter in Bolivia, and I was far from acclimatized to the weather or the altitude, but could never pass up a duck hunting trip. I unpacked my beautiful, custom-made, Spanish over-under 12 gauge, and got my ammo, jacket, boots, water, food, etc. After a long sleepless night, the cold and lack of oxygen made sleep impossible, very early next morning, shivering, I waited in my driveway to get picked up.
We drove to about 13,000 feet, maybe higher, and got out of the Jeep at the foot of an earthen dam. One of my fellow hunters said, "Sorry, I didn't mention it before. We have to climb to the top. There's a lake up there. Are you up for that?" I really don't know how high the dam was, but to me it looked like the Hoover Dam. Being a red blooded American male, however, I could not let on that I would have a problem scampering up that steep wall of dirt and rocks. Off we went. It was very cold, the air was thin, the sun at that altitude doesn't warm but pricks the skin, I had been in country for maybe 48 hours, had way too much gear, and, and . . . and, well, you guessed it. I was soon a mess. I barely got to the top of the dam when my legs buckled, leaving me on my knees, gasping like a landed fish. My friends got very concerned about me, which, of course, as a red blooded American male, made me feel worse and somewhat angry. I told them to go ahead; I would rest a bit and join them later. They helped me to some shade to get me out of that harsh irritating sunlight. I kept insisting that they should go, that I would be fine, that I wasn't really seeing the Angel of Death . . . so they left to look for ducks along the lakeshore.
I have never been as sick in my life. I won't get too graphic but suffice it to say that I spewed from everywhere one can spew. I thought for sure that my "brilliant" career would end in a puddle of bodily fluids on an earthen dam in Bolivia. "Death from stupidity." Not an uplifting tombstone inscription.
After what seemed a lengthy visit, the Angel of Death left my side to call on others. I began to feel a little better. Drank some Gatorade, took slow deep breaths, cleaned up with water from the lake . . . and, of course, lit a cigar. That Honduran Macanudo sent another invitation to the Angel of Death, who returned in eager anticipation of making his quota for the day. Another round of sickness and thoughts of suicide. All that, too, eventually passed, and while weak, I felt better. I made a pillow of my backpack, lay my shotgun across my chest, and dozed off.
Some time passed, and I awoke. My vision cleared. I gradually remembered where I was, and then . . . I saw them. There, right there: two of them, two of the biggest ducks I ever saw, not more than ten feet away! They had not seen me since I lay in the shade and they sat in the bright noon sun. I very slowly, inch by inch, slid my shotgun down to my waist, pointed it in their general direction, and fired both barrels in rapid succession, almost losing control of the gun as it recoiled. Success! Both ducks got knocked some distance, and lay dead at the water's edge. I turned onto my stomach, and using the gun as a crutch got to my feet. I wobbled over to the lifeless birds, collected them, put them in a game bag, and returned to my shady patch where I lay down again and slept the sleep of the victor.
My two friends returned near sundown sin patos, I would note. They were stunned when I showed them my two battered beauties.
Those proved the worst tasting ducks--the most foul fowl?--I ever ate: tough muscular beasts with the smell and the taste of mud. Bolivian ducks, of course, live at high altitude and feed off some sort of semi-arctic grass. My honor, nevertheless, was restored, so what's a little mud down the gullet compared to that. Being a red blooded American male has requirements.