As I have reported previously, my family was assigned to a CIA post in West Africa in the late 1970s. Just getting there was a trying experience… see # 60 in these Rants and Yarns. [http://www.muleorations.com/blog/-60-hitch-um-up-move-um-out]
We had stumbling-bumbling crazy British neighbors, who even to this day give us great laughs… as you’ll see at # 121. [http://www.muleorations.com/blog/-121-the-brits]
I entertained spy friends who came in from other CIA posts in central Africa for some memorable weekend adventures … # 88. [http://www.muleorations.com/blog/-88-lost-week-end]
And I joined Bob Kessler at his home on week-ends for story telling sessions: # 36 [http://www.muleorations.com/blog/-36-story-telling-in-africa]
Our home was half way between an international airport and the capital city, hard up against a Bossa village of native West Africans… more about our neighborhood at # 136 [http://www.muleorations.com/blog/-136-bossa
From the summer of 1977 to the summer of 1979 my day to day life was working CIA ops in West Africa. My limited free time – and that of my family – was half civilized and tolerable, half savage and wary… altogether an eyes wide open experience.
We were not forewarned on leaving the CIA Hqs in Langley, Virginia that our neighborhood in West Africa was among the most primitive in the world. Well maybe someone did, I just wasn’t paying attention.
I remember clearly the day I left headquarters for this assignment… but it wasn’t like the James Bond movies. As I was leaving the CIA building what I remember most was a secretary running after me down the halls, saying I hadn’t turned in my parking placard.
This after my futile fight to get appropriate passports in a timely manner. Where was Ms Pennymaker or whatever the movie secretary’s name was, handing me stuff when I went out the door?
Ah, but Africa. There was a rich natural smell to the place. Vibrant colors.
Although there was a complete absence of Americo-European culture out in Bossa-land where we were deposited when we arrived.
Fun in a starling sort of way for about a day… then when we realized that a two year tour was something over 700 of these days… we realized to survive, we had to develop some new life skills.
Adapting like this was not new. As a family, we had lived in a combat zone before. This was different… in many ways more dangerous.
There were killer snakes and germs and disease everywhere… you didn’t drink the water and you avoided eating on the economy.
Wild, sometimes rabid mangy ugly animals roamed nearby the house… you could hear their hungry howls at night.
You ever see a hyena?
Unsmiling natives sat in the shade by the road to our house.
Crazy vehicle traffic on the pitied and potholed West African streets and highways.
People walking right out into on-coming traffic. And animals seeking the warmth of the pavement at night to sleep on, often in areas where traffic zoomed along at 45/50 miles an hour.
And empty plastic containers and bags. Who ever invented this stuff certainly had no idea how ugly it would look along any Africa street. How it trashed the scene.
Though for us one of the most unsettling things in our new-to-Africa acclimation was the constantly threat of home invasions and strong-arm robbery. The annual income for West African natives averaged nickels and dimes a day and more and more people were coming in from the bush to live near what they considered the bright lights of the capital. They had no skills and no income and usually they migrated with other mouths to feed. Robberies by those people were not sophisticated. They would steal clothes off the line, kid’s toys left outside, pets for food.
Problems caused by homeless natives from the interior were irritating, but the real danger came from professional groups of Africans who stole for a living. West African authorities we knew said these thieves were Nigerians and Ghanaians, but who knows.
A tactic they used to get around pesky outside barking dogs was to go by the target resident several days in advance and throw chunks of meat over the fence. Then the day they were to make their night entry, they’d throw over chunks of meat laced with cyanide, killing the guard dogs or making them too sick to bark or challenge intruders.
And once inside the wall, the West African crooks would go beneath the air conditioner units that serviced the master bedroom and throw ground up valium into the intakes. Americans in particular would sleep with the air conditioner blowing directly on them and the Valium dust put people into a deep, deep sleep. One couple woke up from an induced hard sleep to find that everything of value in their house had been taken and placed in both family vehicles which had been driven away. They never heard the first sound.
The Military Attaché, my ol’ buddy, Colonel Bob Kessler, and his deputy were pilots and often flew the West African Diplomatic circuit in their US Air Force Cessna, which was kept at a small airfield close to the US Embassy. When the large diplomatic pouch arrived at the international airport from Washington, DC, it would be taken by armed Embassy car to registry in the US Embassy compound. Inside would be the sub-addressed pouches to all the US Embassies in West Africa.
Routinely the military attaché pilots would fly those pouches as far northwest as the US Embassies in Dakar, Senegal and southeast as far as Accra, Ghana. Trips would take two or three days.
On one such flight the wife of the deputy attaché was asleep in her bed when she sensed that she was not alone in her bedroom any more. In the dark, without moving her body, she cracked an eye open as she faintly heard someone at the foot of her bed breathing. Then beside her, she heard someone move their hand over things on her bedside table, where she kept her watch. Then another person near the bedroom door made a slight hissing noise and she shut her eye. She could hear the person at the end go through her purse which was hanging on a bed post, and all she could think about were her children down the hall. Please she prayed, let them be safe, let these people just get the valuables and don’t bother my children.
She was worried that someone had seen her cracked-open eye and was standing nearby with a machete ready to strike if she moved. She started to sweat profusely and made an effort to keep breathing and not shake… and then they were gone.
As surely as she knew that there were people in her dark bedroom one minute, the next she was sure she was alone, and she got out of bed and stood absolutely still. In the other end of the house from the bedrooms she heard noises, she waited a moment, the noises stopped and she ran to her children, who had not been bothered, and they huddled together in the master bedroom until the sun came up.
Out where we lived, we weren’t bothered so much by these professional “slickly boys,” as they were called. Foreigners, they would have had to deal with our neighboring Bossa, whose badness was known up and down the west coast of Africa. I mean a Bossa by reputation would kill you for your belt buckle.
We were relatively safe because the Bossa being bad to the bone, were otherwise very unsophisticated – unprofessional in any kind of way – and could not plan any two or three step home invasion operation. Mug a foreigner walking near their village, sure. But anything more than primal blunt force, was way over their heads.
Plus we had trained, vigilant guards on our compound.
Despite my best efforts, the guards who we hired from the Bossa village slept. We went through four or five guards, firing them every time we caught them sleeping, before we found one old man that didn’t sleep that much. So we kept him. Not an armed corps of guards who were on to anything that went bump in the night. Just one old man, but Brenda liked him because he had a nice smile.
“Sleeping guard” stories were all the rage at cocktail parties of the foreigners. One diplomat’s guard would go into some trance when he slept. You could strip him naked, according to the man, and he wouldn’t wake up. One night the diplomat and his wife went to a dinner party and got back home early evening. He blew the horn outside the gate. No guard. He blew the horn again. No guard. Got out and looked over the gate and there was the guard, lying with the driveway, asleep. Man went back to the car and blew the horn again. Guard didn’t wake up. Man yelled the guard’s name. He didn’t wake. Finally the diplomat climbed over the fence, got the gate key off the guard’s waist, unlocked the gate and opened it. And he and his wife drove in so that the guard’s feet were under the car bumper, then the guard’s torso was under the car and then the car was completely over the guard and the diplomat blew his horn again and underneath he heard a… “clunk.”
Our saving grace was an outside dog we bought from a family leaving about the time we were arriving. He was a German Sheppard mix and just a loud barker by nature. Alert, on guard, all night long, sitting ears up, eyes darting around, right beside where the old man sat and slept.
Great, great dog; men are seldom served as well by their animals.
He also had a wonderful habit of baring his teeth when locals walked by our front gate. And there was that one celebrated incident when a friend of Brenda’s, Sarah Alvarez, had driven out to the house and Brenda had gone to the gate herself to let her in. There were a couple of Bossa men some distance away from the front gate taunting the outside dog. Brenda opened the gate, Sarah came in and Brenda closed the gate but because she was busy chatting with Sarah… she didn’t close it so that the latch caught. The gate was closed, but not locked. When the men went back to taunting the dog, he lunged at the gate, barking like crazy and when he hit it, it swung open, and suddenly there was nothing between that mad dog and those villagers. Frozen for a fraction of a second, eyes suddenly wide… they took off running the dog almost at their heels.
A combination of the dog being uncomfortable suddenly outside the wall and Brenda’s yelling, brought him back inside. But we noticed that locals didn’t taunt the dog that much thereafter.
Harry, our long time pet that came with us to Africa, had been a family member since Brenda and I were married. A pure mutt, he was a stocky male on the short side. The outside dog was a female on the leggy side. They got together and had the weirdest puppies. They had the outside dog’s body and Harry’s little legs. The puppies looked like something reflected in a carnival mirror… dogs made out of spare parts.
On the night the outside dog was giving birth to those strange looking puppies… around 3 am, I was sound asleep. Brenda woke me up. Because of the strange job I had, sometime I would get messages for emergency meetings with agents and I’d leave sometime in the middle of the night. And there would be nefarious people to meet at points away from the house, sometime when the family was along, sometimes not. Brenda was accustomed to me working odd hours with odd people.
“Are you expecting someone here tonight?” she asked.
I thought for a moment and said, “No.”
“There’s someone at the back door,” she said.
I went to the edge of the darkened living room and there on our back porch was a man with a crowbar trying to pry open our sliding glass doors. We had a broom handle cut to size in the channel preventing the door from sliding open, but the fellow apparently didn’t know this because he was putting all his weight on his crowbar to open the door. I yelled and switched on the lights and the barefoot fellow took off… and there was the disconcerting clambering noise of others in the bushes by the porch also running away.
That was the catalyst for bringing in Agency security people to make our homes as safe as possible.
Now you might be asking… well, why for God’s sake didn’t you just move into town, Mule. Maybe into the US Embassy compound, guarded by US Marines?
Our stay at that particular place was for CIA operational reasons, which is another story that will take some time – and a security clearance – to explain… but believe me, it was in the United States of America’s interest that Brenda and the family live out in the wild, next to the internationally notoriously bad Bossa village. That was the raison d’etre for us being here… because the neighborhood was dangerous and very out of the way.
I was offered guns because we lived so far out, but I never liked the idea of guns in a house with kids. So I said no. Then Hqs insisted, so we got a shotgun, with shells, and locked it in our bedroom.
Our house was one of the last addressed by the CIA workmen who had been sent in to make our homes local “slicky boy” proof. The more they assessed what was needed, the more work they did. When they finished, our home was like a jail. They made our master bedroom the “saferoom” inside the house, with a re-enforced metal door, alarms, radios, water. The idea was if there was a home invasion, to get the family in the “saferoom,” lock it down and radio the Embassy for help. The old wooden front door was removed and a metal door with wood veneer replaced it, but because the main door swung into the house they built a metal bar outer door that had spring hinges that closed it shut. Once that door was shut, that house was secure.
Brenda and the kids left that first spring to go back to spend some time with relatives in North Carolina. I stayed because of work.
One night, sound asleep, I heard this racket outside. The outside dog, now back on guard with her pups still in the garage, had caught a cat inside the walls and was killing that cat. Making a racket to wake the dead. That cat was screeching and screaming. And it wouldn’t stop. I was in my shorts so I went out on the porch to yell at the dog to stop killing that cat – like the dog would have heard me, and said, oh stop with the cat, OK – when the newly installed front door shut.
It’s late at night, I’m in my skivvies, on the porch of a locked-tight house in West Africa. You can imagine the words I said.
The guard, the Old Man, was awake and was standing in the middle of the yard to get a better view of the cat fight. He turned and looked at me, not having the first clue why I was so upset. He just cocked his head to one side and watched me beat the door.
At sun up the guard went out to the road to the airport to get a taxi to the landlord’s house, to convince him to come to my house, where I had to convince him to go the US Embassy, where, after the Embassy opened, he got a spare set of keys to my house and returned.
I got to work at mid-day and warned people not to ask what happened, although ever since my new car was turned over in our back yard, there was no story of mine too tall for the Embassy to believe. Midafternoon the Ambassador stuck his head in my office and just smiled.
Going to work every morning I had to drive very carefully. The 30 kilometers would sometimes take me an hour. West Africans, especially the tribes out our way just had no history with the moving automobile and I would be goin’ along maybe 20 miles an hour through a market area when suddenly there would be a woman standing in front of my car, on her way from one side of the road to the other. This happened often. The people would always have the greatest sense of alarm and indignation on their faces, like what are you doing flying down the car path toward me as I walk across to talk with my friend? What is it with you?
You’d slam on brakes and the car would sometimes skid sideways to a stop… all the time the person continuing with the what-is-it-with-you look.
The only thing to do with these people you came within inches of hitting, was not to look at them, even if they slammed one of their hands down on your hood. Just look away. It was their country. It was their road. You were in their space. Calm down, re-start the car and go on.
Every commute a different adventure. Almost every time some danger.
On night I was going home around dusk, after the Embassy closed, and right around a curve, with no warning, was a truck load of dirt, right in the middle of the road.
It was there later that evening when I had to return to the downtown area on CIA business. And on top was a Volkswagen car. Front tires were in the air. Back tires in the air. Sand all over the front bumper. Car was sitting on the top of the sand pile, five feet in the air. No one anywhere around.
Coming home from CIA work, there was no car on the sand pile. Sand pile was still there, but other than some tire tracks up the side of the pile, no signs of the car.
It was almost like West Africans out that way “car fishing,” using the sand pile as bait. They snagged a Volkswagen, took it off the hook, and were waiting for the next bite.
Don’t laugh, I’m from the south and I know of places out where my Momma grew up where farmers would water the dirt road down near some creek bottom and then wait in the woods for people to come along and get stuck, so that they could haul them out for a buck or two.
Don’t know that for sure if all this was planned, I just know one night there was a pile of sand in a dark area on the road to the airport, and it snagged at least one car, and that pile of sand – and the car – were gone the next day.
So with this goin’ on all the time, I dreaded that drive to and from work at the Embassy and then to and from the back alleys of this coastal town in West Africa where I did my CIA business.
But just staying in the Embassy to wait until it was dark and time for the CIA super spy to go to work, was just terrible.
So I’d cancel the commute home and back and would sometimes just go over to the Marine House for their happy hours or go to the home of other Embassy people for sun-downer drinks, but too much of this and I started to feel very obvious about my habits. If someone wondered if I was in fact CIA, then these conspicuous waiting periods for West Africa to go dark where telling. Why doesn’t the Parker guy go home? What’s he doin’ hanging around?
And just sitting at my desk inside the Embassy after hours was torture, plus that was really obvious to the locals who worked at the Embassy. No sane person just sat around reading a Time magazine when everyone else but the char force and the Marine at Guard Post # 1 had gone home. There was no Time article nearly that good. Now Playboy, but you’d be surprised how few Playboys you’d find in your everyday US Embassy.
And then I found the El Mason.
I knew my way around this costal West African city. Knew all the bars. Those that were dives, and those that were dumps. Majority were dumps in that they had long since sunk below a reasonable hygiene level for safe drinking. Some had scaly goblins from the African bush for customers. You could go in and have a table by yourself peacefully once or twice or a half dozen times. But the odds on the bad gods that roam West Africa finding your sorry ass sitting alone… were great and disease or robbery or evil women would eventually claim your soul.
So just hanging at a local bar was out.
But there was the Lebanese-run El Mason bar, restaurant and boarding house downtown. Upstairs were private, clean rooms, in which TDYers to the US Embassy sometimes stayed. Downstairs near the front of the building was the restaurant. Two glass window opened to the street and – more important – to the street light out by the curb. Most of the light in the restaurant came from that light. At the back of the restaurant was the bar, lit only by a few beer signs. It was dark and cool. People from a dozen different nationalities would come in, especially late in the day, for a beer.
I found I could take an International Herald Tribune, go to the end of the bar near one of the signs, order a beer and almost disappear for an hour or two reading my paper, maybe doing the cross word puzzle – certainly reading and re-reading the Russel Baker and Art Buchwald columns on the back page – and nursing my beer. Or a cup of coffee.
How was I to know it was John Sherman’s place.
And in fact I didn’t notice him the first couple of times I went there to hide, but over time he was hard to ignore. Not loud so much, he just had presence that called your attention. And he was outspoken, had opinions on everything. Had conspicuous self-confidence and seemed to know how the world worked.
And he was funny, in a very fast, clever way. Robin Williamish almost. John could just roll his eyes and you’d laugh. Had a great imagination.
Sometime every stool at the bar would be taken by multi-national customers, and people would sit out in the back of the restaurant area, sipping their drinks and talking. John’s arrival was often announced like “Norm” in the TV series “Cheers.” “John,” someone would call out as he walked to his spot in an open area that led to the front.
And once in place, One didn’t get into a put down contest with John Sherman, because One would lose… not that I ever tried in a group. When it was just him and me, I’d take him on, and sometimes win. OK I remember once I zinged him and he had nothing. Though he rolled his eyes, which sort of gave him the last word.
He never stuck his nose in my face, or asked what I was doing there. But he noticed me and we struck up a friendship. And in short order we moved from me sitting on my bar stool and John standing out a bit, to us sitting down in the one of the tables at the rear of the restaurant to eat supper together.
An Americo-West-African John was descendant from former slaves who had returned to West Africa from the United States in the early 19th century. US church people had help establish this part of West Africa. John’s family had started their trek coming up from the deep south in Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad to the US northeast where they were returned to Africa in passenger ships chartered, sometimes crewed, by church groups.
Descendants of those returning slaves ran the governments of West Africa when we arrived in the summer of 1977. They considered themselves the oligarchy and tended to marry within their group.
Once John said that one thing all people in the world have in common is that they are tribal in nature. Whatever some individual might say to the contrary… they are at their core, tribal. It is a basic human pre-disposition to herd together with people of the same sort. Never forget that, he said. Birds of a feather, and an apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree and all that. “I am an Americo-West-African tribesman. Proudly. Comfortably.”
John Sherman was a well-known personality not only in the tribe of returned slaves, but also among the rank and file in West Africa. Born and raised initially in Robertsport – a US deep sea port and airport during WW II, and sort of the African Pilgrim Rock of the returning slave – he was known for his ability to play the guitar… and for going to school in the states, and then unlike many others who did this, to come back to work for the gov’t. Because of his extra ordinary personality, he was the gov’t’s golden boy, with a reputation for being a world class soccer player… though in fact I never saw him play the guitar or kick a soccer ball.
His gov’t job when I first met him was ass’t minister of Commerce and occasionally local men, mostly Lebanese businessmen, would call John aside there in El Mason. To “talk” business. John would “listen.” Occasionally I understand money passed hands.
I asked CIA headquarters if they were interested in a reporter on the West African economy and they said they were not, so he just became my friend. And that was good because doing CIA business, local who were just trusted friends were rare.
John and his family lived on the road to the airport, this side of the missionary compound – but not nearly as far out as us. If he missed me some night at the bar he’d show up at the house to make sure everything was OK.
On these times he dropped in he’d just suddenly appear in the dining room…our old man guard knew him and would let him in unannounced. He’d usually join us for supper. Twice he came in when we weren’t there and took some of my liquor. Though because the house we lived in was supposed to be clean – as they say in the intelligence business– I worried about this well-known local personality hovering around, so I told him he couldn’t come to the house again unless invited, and he said OK.
Not long after I told him to pls give us some privacy, he invited me and Brenda to a christening of his new daughter. We were the only white people. (In checking on what’s known about John to write this piece, I found where he had an adopted child and a son… no mention of a daughter, but I swear both Brenda and I remember that the party at his house was for his new born daughter… so go figure.
Hard to put a finger on what bound us together. Our contacts at the El Mason should have been fleeting – especially because Hqs did not express any operational interest in the man – but we were comfortable with each other right from the start and our cross-cultural contact just evolved into a real friendship.
My father had a rough upbringing in a fatherless farm house, mostly, with a mother who dislike him – that’s another long story… but Dad often told me about the mother of his two best friends, who were black, who lived near Dad’s “homeplace” and how sometimes he’d eat at their house and (for reasons he wasn’t sure) had to stand up at the supper table, rather than sit down. But he liked being in their warm home, and loved the mother, who would ask him about how he was doing, and showed some concerns with bite and cuts he’d accumulate…interest in Dad he didn’t have at home. He told me once, “Stella Neal, William and Edward’s mother, was the finest lady I knew as a boy.”
Later as a kid I worked for Dad at his coal and ice plant in a small southern town, and knew how seriously concerned he would get about some of the older black ladies who did business with him. Who, if he didn’t know for sure that they had bought coal in the dead of the winter, would put a bag or so in one of his trucks and take it out to where they lived. Never ever making an issue of it.
In 1965 I went to Vietnam as a 2nd Lt platoon leader in the first division and chose as my radio operator a black hip hopper from Detroit, who I was most comfortable with there in jungle combat… and even leaving Vietnam, I came back home through Europe with a black Lieutenant friend…
We adopted our kids in Thailand. Mim our daughter can pass as either white or Eurasian. Joe, our son, however, looks Thai. For all the world, Asian. He used to tell me he could tell when he met occidentals how – if they had no experience dealing with Asians – always acted a little uncomfortable around him.
I was comfortable with John Sherman in West Africa because of all that. John was comfortable with me because I didn’t have that shock and awe others might have displayed in being close one-on-one with an African. I liked John without reservations, 100%, not 99.8 or 99.9.
One night he was waxing on about something and I told him that pretty serious thinking for a nickel and dime con man… and he said something like, you can’t judge the depth of a lake by its surface, or something like that.
Blam. There it was. Evidence he was like someone else I had known.
I worked as a life guard at Myrtle Beach South Carolina in my late teens. At night the guards near the pavilion used to gather at the Marine Room, which had a horseshoe bar that jutted out near the dance floor. One of main character that peopled that life guard place was UNC law school freshman Bob Sommers who had the life guard stand two north of me. Being a narcissistic, glib showman, he used to stand out in front of the Marine Room bar just talking, defying people to argue with him. He had some sting in his comments sometimes, though mostly he was funny. Once when he and I were commuting to the beach from Chapel Hill, I told him that for someone so stupid, he could sure acted smart, and he said something almost exactly like John said that night, that you can’t judge the depth of a lake by the way it looked on the surface.
John Sherman was Bob Sommers in black face. The John Sherman personality was in many ways interchangeable with Bob Sommers. That’s why I liked him, hell I knew him.
Hard to put a number of times John and I had dinner together at El Mason… once or twice a week for 8-10 months, probably. Do the math.
The interruptions by local businessmen continued.
Never a European colony, West Africa had its own way of doing things. It had gov’t price fixing, for example, to keep down inflation, that ravished other parts of west and central Africa. The gov’t put a price cap on all imported products. The Ministry of Commerce kept up with things.
Say you sold tires and the international price of rubber went up and you needed to raise the price of your tires to meet costs, you had to petition the Ministry. There were forms to fill out, that required supporting documentation and there was a preliminary panel – sort of mediation – before a full review board was convened to consider whether in fact you could raise the price of your tires. The Minister of Commerce himself had the last word.
John Sherman, as the Assistant Minister of Commerce, made himself available most every afternoon after 5 pm to discuss market pricing with any businessman who wanted to talk.
Like I said, John didn’t want to waste anyone’s time, but if anyone wanted to “talk,” John would “listen.” And sometimes money passed hands.
Usually after a session with John, the businessman could go by the Ministry the next morning to pick up the final approval papers.
We occasionally talked about the Bossas that lived near our house and John confirmed what others had said, that local businessmen wouldn’t hire them, because they always stole and lied. They weren’t educable, either. They were incorrigible in their ways.
John said they didn’t hire any in the Commerce Ministry. A Bossa would walk in and ask for a job, he’d be shown the door. They’re “wil’ “(as in wild) he said, imitating the way West Africans spoke about savage animals. Men don’t work. Women had bunches of kids, no idea who the daddy was of any of ‘um were, pretty much. Teenagers, some of the boys would bred with their half-sisters, hell they didn’t know.
We also used to talk about taking Robertsport – where he was born and raised – and turning it into a tax free zone. John would make it work in the gov’t, would provide a long term lease, if I would go out and get say $20 million dollars as start-up money.
I told Bob Kessler about John’s half serious, half joking idea and he said he flew over Robertsport every few weeks, and the airfield was still there, the landing strip more or less operational… and the deep water harbor was concrete and still, as far as Bob could tell from the air, in serviceable condition. He also said the continental shelf came close to shore there, and as a result they had these massive waves they landed on a mostly abandoned spit of land that went out toward a breakwater for the harbor. Bob knew the waves of Hawaii and said what he saw at Robertsport look similar to the waves and pikes of North Oahu.
Altogether a very nice, unspoiled area.
Our best friends were the Alverezs. Max was the manager of the Washington Bank branch downtown in the capital city. I told him about John’s idea that would require $20 million from me, and Max said, the money was out there. He knew sort of where to go to find it.
I told John that maybe we had something, he’d be the inside guy making this work, and I maybe could find some money to get this thing started. And for the next couple of times we met we discussed it at great length, one or the other suggesting that the cheapest set up was to make it a dumping ground for Europe’s toxic waste, but all that took away from those Hawaiian like waves hitting the nearby coast… and I don’t know after a while we talked about other things. And someone had a birthday or something. Subject just sort of went away.
I asked one time who was a great black American, John said, Dick “Night Train” Lane, a corner back in the NFL during the 50s and 60s. He changed the game of American football…
Nights later I asked him what he thought about my other American Blacks.
His answer went something like this: “Jimmy, Jimmy. I am African. My relatives went through America, but my roots are African.
“So listen to what an African says about American Negros….” and he stopped talking as if to gather his thoughts.
“Now if I were a European sitting on the balcony of a hotel in Barcelona, Spain looking down a street,” he said slowly, “I bet I could pick out the Russians from the Brits from the Turks from the German… by the way they dressed and talked and looked. Looking down the street at a bunch of Europeans, if I’m a European, I could pretty much pick out where the people came from.
“Am I right?
“And if I were an Asian and was on the balcony of a hotel in Hong Kong, I bet looking down the street I could pick out the Chinese from the Koreans from the Thais walking around.
“Sure I could.
“If I’m an African and sitting up there by our Ducor Hotel and looked down Gurley street here – what would I see?
“Now you as a white man, you’d just see West Africans.
“Me, I’d see Kpelle tribesmen and Bossa and Gio and Kru and Mandingo and Mano… Krahn… Gola, Gbandi. Tribes as distinctive in their way and different on this continent as Russians are from Brits in Europe and Chinkers are from Koreans over there in your Asia land.
“Think about that a minute and you’ll see what I mean.
“Now here’s the thing. I went to school on the east coast of the United States and went downtown Pittsburg and Philadelphia. Ghettos, you know what I mean? American negro neighborhoods. I’d look down the street over there, and you know what I’d see? Bossa!!
“Here you live next to a Bossa village. You know what they look like. I’m telling you, you see them over there in Harlem – all your big cities… and, and, you got more of ‘um now we got.
“And I tell you something else, if those slave ships pulled up off the coast of Sierra Leone now, and said they were buying slaves, we’d go get ‘um more Bossa.”
“Your ancestors Bossa, John?” I asked.
“Well, there you go. There were some Africans, some very smart, some strong tribes even, captured and sold from here, too. Some real warriors and scholars sold as slaves. But mostly the people sent to the US from here, were Bossa.” He said.
“OK, now stop looking at me like that. People going to think you queer.” He said.
The subject of American blacks never came up again with John that I remember. And he made his comments in 5 minutes of the hours and hours we talked together. They don’t define John in my mind, but they have often given me pause.
Something else that didn’t get discussed much was his businessmen contacts in the El Mason, though the facts of the matter were pretty obvious.
Though usually a non-topic, one night he was talking about being the ass’t Minister of Commerce. He said that if he ever got the Ministry of Commerce portfolio and kept it for a year, he’d be set for life. One year and he’d be on easy street forever.
He said he’d have an “open drawer” policy and he knew the first one or two businessmen to invite in. He said, he’d seat them close to his desk and when they asked for something – like approvals to raise the price of their goods – he’d just open his bottom drawer and when enough money fell in, the deal was done. Didn’t have to say a word.
We had been in West Africa about a year when John was indeed appointed Minister of Commerce. I didn’t go to the swearing in ceremony at the Presidential Palace, but I did go by his new office that afternoon. I walked in with a good bottle of Cognac and set it on his desk. I said, “Congratulations.” He smiled, reached down and gunned his bottom drawer a couple of times.
14 April 1979 the gov’t raised the tax on rice by a few cents… and it caused riots. It started small – the way these things do – when people took to the street to protest the increase in their dietary staple. Police showed up to disperse the crowd and someone pushed someone and then someone threw the first rock and within a few hours downtown area was on fire with thousands of people roaming the streets, looting buildings, taking everything.
US Marines put barricades on the street in front of the Embassy, closed and locked the gates and took battle positions on the compound walls.
Shots were fired downtown. More and more fires were started until the smoke blocked out the sun.
I was in the Embassy when it started. I knew that Brenda and the kids were going to be with Sarah Alvarez and her kids for the afternoon, and knowing her I was sure she would stay there rather than get out on the road home and into who knew what. I called Max who was just getting ready to leave his office downtown and he said he’d look after Brenda and the kids.
One of my coworker left to look after his family. He took an armored car and skirted around by the docks rather than go through the downtown area. He called when he got home with a report that everyone was accounted for and he was hunkering down at home with his wife and kids.
The Ambassador was out of the country. The Charge d’ Affaires who lived on the Embassy compound was satisfied that the Marines had the front covered, so he went to his quarters.
There were more and more explosions downtown and suddenly crackling, like from a machine gun or something small, exploding. People and vehicles, some on fire, clogged the streets from what we could see from the US Embassy.
My concerns were two communication technicians who were due in from the international airport the middle of the afternoon. The two had been in a number of times before and did not normally need special handling. They might have been caught downtown when the riot erupted. But every place I called and radioed had no information on them.
We had cots and mattresses prepared for emergencies in the Embassy. I spent the early part of the evening acting as a relay for people trying to get information on what was happening and where friends were. The Charge would call every hour or so. No one in our Embassy community seemed to be missing, except for those two visiting technicians.
Morning came and Brenda woke up the kids in the room where they were staying at Max’s and Sarah’s and got them into the car. Everything was quiet. She didn’t want to wake anyone… just wanted to go to Easter sunrise service on the beach at the missionary compound. The gate guard didn’t want to let her out when she came up to the gate but Brenda insisted and she drove slowly out.
The compound was on the eastern side of town and Brenda did not have to go into any part of downtown, just up an access road to the highway to the airport, take a right, go by John’s house, by the Missionary compound, by the crazy Brits’ house and she’d be home.
She got out to the airport road, took a right, went around a curve and came up to a military roadblock. Twenty or thirty unorganized soldiers were milling around in the road. No one seemed to be in charge as first one, then a half dozen soldiers came up to her car window and asked for identification. The kids were frozen in the back seat, holding their toy animals, eyes wide. Someone asked to look in her trunk and she started to get out, but instead handed them her trunk keys.
In a few minutes her keys were returned and she was passed through. When she got home she gathered the kids in the master “safe room” and waited for me to arrive, too afraid to attend the sunrise service.
Being at the mercy of armed Africans will do that.
About the same time Brenda was leaving the Alvarezs’ I was leaving the Embassy to go via the docks around town to the road to the airport. I wanted to check on my family, and also to look for the two technicians.
Past the docks was a shopping area that had been completely looted, the streets covered with broken glass and debris. Ahead, about half the length of a city block was a bus trying to make its way through the debris. I was moving cautiously in the bus tracks so as not to run over glass and damage my tires. Occasionally the ocean breeze whipped smoke down on the road and for seconds at a time I would lose sight of the bus.
In one section smoke from a burning car obscured my vision and I almost came to a complete stop, when… suddenly my car was overwhelmed by armed men. Most had machetes. All were screaming. The few who came up to my window were drunk.
…. no idea where they came from… things were relatively quiet, some popping in the distance from lingering fires in the downtown buildings, smoke was everywhere – which was why I had my window down – the bus was moving ever so slowly – then in a second’s time 6 or 10 men were on my car, on the hood, jumping on the roof – yelling, a couple reaching in trying to get the keys from the ignition… both so close that their liquor smelling sweaty faces were pressed against mine as I tried to keep their outstretched hands from reaching the keys… men on the hood started hitting the windshield with their machetes…
“Out,” they yelled. “Ge’ Ou’ da’ ca’.”
One, then another, reached for my door handle and started to pull it open. I grabbed the door to hold it shut. On the passenger side, boys started to hit the window with their machetes.
There was a pounding in my head. The drums were calling. The beat was fast. The end near.
The men on my side got the door open and they started to reach inside to get me. Hands grabbed by shirt and shoulder… one of the men leaned in close to my face. His eyes bloodshot. His body stinking of whiskey and shit.
Ahead of us, between my car and the bus, a sole soldier was coming down the road and he started firing his rifle in our direction. I heard the bullets whistle by and they made a beautiful, beautiful sound. The men who had engulfed my car, who had seconds before had grabbed me, took off running. Seconds away from being dragged from the car, I was free to drive on.
Having survived one of the most fearsome moments of my life.
In retrospect the two years went relatively fast… though when it came time to put in for my next assignment, Brenda said No More Africa. Read My Lips. No More African Assignments For Me Or The Kids.
So I put in for something else, and got it.
Didn’t see John much at all towards the end of the two years… He was more and more in the news. Someone in the Embassy said he was on the way to being the next President. He was being mentioned that way among the Americo-West African. And in fact he was seen more and more in newspaper pictures standing next to William Tolbert, the present head of State.
We packed up the house.
I met my replacement and his family fresh in from the states.
Gave the old man – the only Bossa who lasted – a bonus and laid him off.
Sold or gave the outside dog to someone, I’ve forgotten. Said our good-byes, attended a few going away parties, and that was it.
John called at the Embassy for me the last week, but I was out. I returned the call and he was out. Then upcountry. Brenda took some things by and gave them to John’s wife, Kellita, who said John had been trying to get in touch.
One last, leisured dinner and bridge with the Alverezs.
And we left West Africa.
12 April 1980 about 10 months after we left, a master sergeant in the West African army, Samuel Doe, after a Friday night out drinking with his friends – in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning – went to the Presidential residence of William Tolbert. No guards were on the scene. He and 18 drunk cohorts went into the lobby of the palace, then took the open elevator up to Tolbert’s living quarters and shot him dead.
The next day all Tolbert’s cabinet men were arrested and charged with corruption. 22 February 1980 John Sherman was taken out and shot.