Monday, November 10, 2008

Meeting a Minor Legend

In my section, we're snowed under with work - I'm normally doing 60 to 70 hours a week, and I'm barely staying ahead of my commitments.  We periodically will get temporary help from DC for three weeks to a month, flown in just to alleviate some of the pressure or to allow us to get caught up on some project.  These temporary staffers are usually retired foreign service officers, who work three to four months a year in short-staffed posts and make a tidy sum doing so.  Sometimes we get crotchety old fogeys, and sometimes we get true gems.  The best ones regale us with stories about life in the Foreign Service back in the day, whatever decade that might have been.

In October, we had this wonderful person, Tom, come out to help us with our workload.  Tom is a matter-of-fact, no-bullshit sort of guy, and this simple delivery makes his stories all the more astounding.  Some bullet points about his life...
  • He was a member of the first Peace Corps class and got to meet every liberal politician in the developed world who wanted to attach their name to Kennedy's program.  He was sent to what is now Eritrea, before it won its war of independence with Ethiopia.  He saw the first shots fired in the war, which didn't conclude until the 1990s.  He met Hailie Selassie a number of times, and he has some choice words for that man and Ethiopian strongmen in general, as well as the current president of Eritrea, who actively refused him a visa to go back and visit his old village.
  • His first Foreign Service assignment was Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, back when our embassy was still there.  He was part of the skeleton crew that did not get evacuated or burnt to a crisp when rioting broke out in Saudi Arabia during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.  
  • His second tour was in Nigeria, in the middle of the Biafran War.  He and his wife were the only people at his post at that time who did not eventually commit suicide or have to be locked up for long-term psychiatric care after witnessing the brutality of the conflict.
  • Tom eventually realized that something just wasn't right, divorced his wife, and became one of the first openly gay person in the State Department, lobbying for fair treatment of gays in the Service.  When that didn't work out so well, he left the Service and ran a therapy and social work center in San Francisco for twenty years before rejoining the Service later on.
  • Tom now lives on the beach in his hometown in New Jersey, going overseas every few months to get a little extra spending money and otherwise being a loveable old bastard who enjoys tweaking the nose of the stodgy State Department.  
You might have picked up on the fact that I am crazy about Tom.  He seriously brightened up my life the month he was here - calling BS on silly management policies because he could get away with it, sitting by the pool with a beer and telling stories about where he's lived and what he's seen, and complaining about the Bush Administration.  I and my friend Olga will move back to Washington at about the same time next summer, and we're planning to take road trip up to spend a weekend with him, picnicking on the beach, drinking wine, and cursing the government.

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