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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Testing Days

Just a silly reminisce. No great plot or moral. No daring do. No bulls, no guns, no terrorists.

I was recalling when I took the test for the Foreign Service. I was a grad student in Massachusetts at a small predominantly Jewish university in Waltham--Can you guess the name?--and doing what grad students do best, mooch off the system. I had a full-paid scholarship and a TA gig which left me with sufficient disposable income to live quite well. I could see, however, that the life of academia was not for me. Writing unreadable papers, and dealing with nineteen-year olds and Volvo-driving leftist Ivory Tower sorts forever and ever, well, that struck me as living like Prometheus, chained to a rock and having my liver eaten every day by a giant bird of prey.

I had just been notified that I had gotten a grant to study in Spain for a year or two to work on my never-finished PhD (note: I recently found a couple of chapters of it; it was horrible! The world of letters lost nothing when I abandoned the effort.) Walking by an office, I saw an advert with the very clever and attention-grabbing slogan, "Join the Foreign Service!" There was one mail-in card left and to qualify for the next test, December 4, 1976 (I think) it had to be postmarked that very day. I mailed it, and returned to my dissolute grad student ways.

Lo and Behold! A few weeks later I got my ticket for the exam. It would occur in downtown Boston at a prominent university. I put it aside and didn't think about it much. The date, however, rolled around, as dates are prone to do. The exam was at 8 am and all test takers had to be there early. The night before, as it is wont to do in Massachusetts, it had snowed a lot. The morning temperature was in the single digits. My 1970 Dodge Challenger was buried in the white stuff. I almost blew off the whole thing, but, in the end, dragged myself out of bed, grabbed a shovel, and dug away. The drive into Boston was slow and slick; I hate driving in snow! I eventually made it with thirty minutes to spare. I parked, and slipped and slid my way over to the auditorium to join several hundred nervous hopefuls, some babbling away about how this was their 900th time or so taking the test, and that it was impossible to pass, and was so unfair, etc. I was too groggy to be nervous, and only half-listened to the pompous exam monitor list all the things that would get us thrown out, e.g., talking, sharing, using a calculator, having hidden notes, etc. He added, for spite, I guess, that no more than ten percent of some 30,000 exam-takers nationwide would pass. The test got handed out: it was an SAT-type wherein you use your number 2 pencil to fill the little oval next to the letter of your answer.

The history section, I thought, was a breeze: a lot on the US which I knew well, and a good amount on post-WWII Europe and Asia, which I also knew well. The culture stuff was not hard; if you read Twain, Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, etc., it was pretty easy. The geography portion, which my fellow test-takers had said was the toughest part, proved the easiest for me. That year it focussed on the geography of the Pacific and Asia. As an avid reader on the Pacific and Korean wars, I knew where those places were! The math part was mostly charts and interpreting stats, and not hard. I had taken lots of math and science as an undergrad. I left the test with a blah feeling, not worried, not enthused, just blah. Put it all out of my mind as I prepared to go to Spain.

About three or four months later, a short letter arrived telling me I had passed the written exam and needed to report for the second portion, the much-feared oral exam in which, again, at most only ten percent of those examined would pass. If I recall correctly the exam was in May of 1977; it was at the Boston Customs Tower. I arrived early, and got my first lesson in how government works. The examiners were late, very late. After some three hours, I got called into a large room. I was the last person they examined. I took a chair and faced a table with five tired FSOs.

These inquisitors began firing a barrage of what I considered weird questions: If you were an RSO, how would you keep the Ambassador's route unknown? RSO? What the hell is that? As an admin officer facing a budget . . . Admin officer? What's that? How would you solve the Middle East crisis? I mumbled and rambled. I was choking. My ground proximity warning system had begun screeching, "Terrain! Terrain!" I had no parachute! The flames licked at my oh-so-stylish Frye boots! Then the econ specialist asked me, "Describe a non-tariff trade barrier." Hark! A glimmer of hope? The night before I had read a long article in "Business Week" on how France kept US wines out of its market with labeling restrictions. I have a near photographic memory for those kinds of nerdy articles. I spit back the BW piece almost word for word. I started to regain control. The stick was responding! I began to see blue sky! The flames were subsiding! My questioner's jaw dropped: he was taking notes on my answer! Victory barrel roll over the airfield!

The Chairman asked me to wait in the hallway while the panel discussed my fate.

I sat in a folding chair in the hall near the door, a door which I had left slightly ajar--my first incursion into espionage! I could hear them discussing me. The Chairman, more on him later, announced, "I don't like him. He's not very good." A couple of the others mumbled some indistinct mutterings, and then my champion, the econ expert, intervened with a stirring endorsement, "Hell, it's late. He's no worse than anybody else. Might as well take him." I got called in. The Chairman sourly told me, "Well, you got in. The vote was 3-2. I voted against you. I don't think you're very good. We'll let you know when there is an opening." It took until August 1978 to get a job offer.

One penultimate note: that Chairman later got drummed out of the service for, essentially, cowardice and dereliction of duty when he abandoned his post in the middle of a major crisis. So the great wheel does turn and, some times, some times, it grinds the bones of your enemies into dust.

One really last note, the test now, I understand, is completely different as the old test was held to favor white males.



  1. Dip, your story is interesting and amusing and reminds me somewhat of my experience in the 80s.

    As I drew near to completing my undergrad degree, I signed up to take the test (I was in Germany at the time). Wasn't really sure what to expect.

    Trying to remember, but I think we took it in downtown Stuttgart at the US Consul building. The test administrators were pompous, so that much seems to have remained the same up through the 80s.

    Took the test. I have a liberal arts background (history and Poly Sci, that is the sort of poly sci that was taught before numerology became all the rage).

    History and geography were fine, though there were some loaded questions involving 3d world "revolutionaries" and the answer choices included "terrorist" and "freedom fighter." Can't remember who it was--some African activist type.

    I struggled a bit in the math parts; the econ section had stuff like "You're an FSO and you have to paint the embassy..."

    I recall leaving, not really sure how I did. I got a letter sometime later saying I'd missed the orals by a handful of points. I had concluded DOS was not for me, by that time and went on for the MA/PhD, which is another story.

  2. I took the FS exam in 1966 at the consulate in Madras, India at the urging of an FSO I had worked with briefly in another part of India. The room was full of people who had taken it before and were full of stories of how hard it was.

    The oral was more daunting, although it was only three panelists. I was told beforehand that only 5% would pass.

    So when my letter arrived saying I had passed the oral I started a career that had only barely been on my radar. To my surprise, the class of 49 included at least half a dozen who had no clue at all of what the FS does or their role in it as an officer. Several of those were gone before the end of the course, having learned that it was not for them.

    It was a good 28 years. Hard on the family, but the kids still look back fondly on their time in Africa and Peru. Only the oldest had been born before we went to Laos, and she does not remember any of that.

    The transition during my time was interesting: wives were originally graded on their ability to entertain as part of the "team", and were routinely called on by the ambassador's (or DCM's) wife to make canapes. Women FSOs who married had to resign their commission. And of course there were no non-matrixed husbands then. Some of the changes have been for the good in that they better reflect American culture and society. Some of the changes have been for the bad in that they better reflect American culture and society.

    I retired in 1997 and am still happy to have had the experience.

    1. F: 60's, a lot of ghosts from those days. Lumumba, Nkruma, Bader-Meinhof, Nehru, Hammarskoldt, and of course the T shirt man from Cuba.

  3. "One really last note, the test now, I understand, is completely different as the old test was held to favor white males."

    What's the test now? 50 yard sprint?

    1. Plus the geography segment.
      "Name three foreign countries".
      "Spell their names."
      "Tell which language(s)they speak."
      (Two out of three correct answers required, unless sprint time is sub-Olympic qualifying).

  4. Reading your blog made me wonder how a person becomes a FSO. Well, now I know.

  5. had a short and not-so-glorious career myself. Six years, but it got me some knowledge of the Thai language, a firsthand look at how Communism gloriously liberated Laos, Viet Nam, and Mainland China, and getting to meet some colleagues who were truly among the best and brightest America had to offer, and others who were intelligent but simply full of themselves. It also gave me some of P.J. O'Rourke's age and guile when I went back to get my Ph.D.

    I recall that the exam I took had a question about the countries with which the USA shares borders (correct answer: Canada, Mexico, and Russia--then USSR). I found out later that I was one of the few who got it right (thank you, 7th and 8th grade geography teachers Mrs. Bell and Mrs. Mobley). Well, years later, when everyone inside the Beltway and between the Hudson and Lung Guyland laughed Sarah Palin to scorn for thinking she lived right next door to Russia, I was deeply ashamed to be an East Coast person. It all proves that so many who decry "Eurocentricity" are themselves hopelessly Eurocentric.

    Oh, yes. I also got a fairly decent knowledge of immigration and nationality law--although my education in that actually started when I was teaching English in Taiwan, met my wife, and our first son was born. I also got to see how our immigration system works or fails to work.

    Also, as much as I think our old shop is sometimes very aptly named Foggy Bottom, I never fail to shill for the possibility of a Foreign Service career when I teach my high schoolers.

    1. As our host has so often proved, when done right and when the national political system is functioning normally, it can be a rewarding and fulfilling career. But when the government begins to rot from the inside it can become overwhelmingly embarrassing.

  6. I was 40 when I took the test, and was coming off a 17 year career in law enforcement. I knew little to nothing about the FS until I went to Iraq in 2004 as a police advisor on the INL contract. It wasn't until a few years later, after marrying my love and having a daughter that I decided to take the test (several FSOs in Baghdad had previously encouraged me to do this). I was invited to the orals on my first try. I remember in 2008 in DC seeing all the young faces in the waiting area around me, thinking that those people are probably going to be quick on their feet and I am going to sound like an old codger in comparison. The group exercise was a wash- I managed to get a slight smile out of an examiner as I worked a joke into my spiel. The inbox exercise was a disaster. Where I think I saved myself was in the personal interview. I drew heavily on my experiences in Iraq and as a police officer, and as the interview went on I began to realize that real world experience was a trump card over Ivy degrees and time on sabbatical from college.

  7. This blog appears to be one of the few places on the web where FS insiders with a conservative outlook can discuss issues without a lot of uninformed snipers chiming in. What advice would any of the retired folks have for a specialist on the downside of full career to effect change from the inside (or at least keep one's self-respect for a few more years)?

    Sitting in an embassy cafeteria nowadays, anyone who does not agree with Rachel Maddow lock, stock and barrel is either shouted down or shunned. Everyone is expected to promote the green, Islamist, and LGBT agendas, even when they are in conflict with one another. If one really wants to be a pariah, s/he could ask what really happened in Benghazi and where are the survivors. It doesn't seem like the organization can even be honest with itself.

  8. As far as I am concerned, the Foreign Service died (or rather, started dying) the day they stopped having a demarche as part of the oral round sometime in the 2000s. I guess they don't care how the new recruits handle adversity. Now I imagine they just sit around talking about their feelings and their changing bodies...


  9. My late FSO father told me how much working FSOs hated being examiners. He had to do it once when he was Deputy PolAd to CINCPAC and told me about a candidate who came to the exam only to show the examiners a picture of a blonde buxom woman whom he identified as his wife. He begged the examiners that if he were not passed, she would leave him.
    Needless to say, he was not passed.

  10. I love this blog! Thanks for all the insight. I look forward to the book you must write. I think your info on the UN after the tsunami was fantastic!!