With the Ambassador
The British Virgin Islands are uncommonly beautiful. The harbor at St. John is usually filled with graceful yachts, the lines of their masts clinking rhythmically as they bob at their moorings. I sat in an open bar, escaping from the mosquitoes with which I shared a hotel room. Game Six of the NBA Championships was on television, and I was a fan again, hoping Philadelphia could stop Magic Johnson and Kareem Jabbar. I had one eye peeled for the Ambassador. He was lumbering around the bar area with a red face made redder by the Caribbean sun, his constant sweating, and a liberal application of Canadian Club. The damned mosquitoes were dogging his ass, too, and I wasn’t about to let him bite mine because of it. We had made the trip into Tortola on a Puerto Rican Air National Guard C-130 with bare insides: no insulation against noise and no pisser. Marsha, the Consular Office along for the ride, had had to pee in a Coke bottle midway through the trip. The Ambassador was uncharacteristically silent during the flight from Barbados. I later learned that he was watching one gf the engines as it sputtered and turned fitfully. His mind was on an emergency landing he had made in a snowy Nebraska cornfield while hustling votes for Ronald Reagan a year ago. Now here he was with a cooler full of booze and four fairly green Embassy workers to carry his bat. There was Tom Kane from AID, Larry Rosin from the Political Section, Marsha from the Consular Section, and myself, from Education and Cultural Affairs. It was an interesting group. Tom was preparing to go to El Salvador to make his career. If he got through a tour without catching a bullet or two, he’d have it made on postings from then on out. Larry was almost Albino, very slight and awfully near-sighted. He had recently claimed minority status based on a Cuban relative that he dragged out from his past. This enabled him to catch a few breaks on the way up the ladder. Marsha, the one who peed in the Coke bottle, was a sassy Jewess from San Francisco, who firmly believed that blacks were inferior to whites. How she was able to get through her three years in the Eastern Caribbean among a sea of black faces was a mystery to me. I was Assistant Public Affairs Officer. My role on the trip was to speak on cue about educational and cultural exchanges, and to swallow real hard when the dullard who was the U.S. Ambassador began promising educational programs that he’d never deliver. I also got to drink some of the Canadian Club. I learned that I really liked the taste of it, so the trip was a limited success for me. Back at the bar, the Ambassador requested everyone’s presence at dinner so he wouldn’t have to eat alone. We got to sleep soon after that. I drifted off to the buzzing of mosquitoes and the smell of Vap-Mat pellet smoke, which I knew was semi-toxic at a minimum. At least it did keep away the mosquitoes after a while.
The next day we made the rounds of this tiny little British widget of a government, whose principal virtue was its positive love of the money brought to shore when foreign yachts docked after making the TransAtlantic run. I stopped into a gift shop and bought a Pusser’s Rum t-shirt for two-year old Johnny to wear. I couldn’t find much else to buy that I could afford, so I was relieved to be called out to the official government van which transported us to the noisy Puerto Rican C-130, all ready to take off for Anguilla, a small pancake island east of the British Virgins and within sight, north of the French-Dutch resort that was St. Martin Island.
We made the tarmac at Anguilla Airport shortly before noon. The whole place was a loose collection of dust and one storey brick structures with
corrugated metal roofs. It was hot as hell and nothing was moving. Nothing was damned smart. We were whisked from the plane into two Toyota Land Cruisers and sent on our way to visit the British Governor General, who lived smack dab in the middle of the pancake, where everyone Anguillan could see the Union Jack lowered at sunset. His house was not air-conditioned, but thankfully he did not have much to say and the Ambassador was too overwhelmed by the heat to do anything besides his take-off-the-clothes close order drill. This started when he realized that it was hot as Hades and he was dripping with sweat. He would suggest to someone, say me, that it was hot, and that I should take off my jacket because he was going to take off his jacket. This I did and he did. Then everyone else did. Then we all got to drink rum punches, supplied by whoever was our host of the hour. Next, the Ambassador would say it was getting hotter, and it was time for me to take off my tie because he was going to. So he did and so I did. Then everyone else did. Then we got to drink a second round of rum punches, which made the Ambassador feel the heat ever more. The final part of the drill came when the Ambassador said that he was goddamned hot and he thought it would be good if we all opened our collars and rolled up our sleeves. When he did this and we did this, the drill ended with a third round of rum punches.
We ate lobster at the GG’s table and said our quick goodbyes thereafter. We headed to the south side of the island where they were building time share condos. The island had recently created an interesting policy to boost its upscale tourism. It had decided people interested in buying a vacation at one of the new condos had to have minimum incomes in excess of $50,000. This would keep out the riff raff of white floatsam from the drug trade and dropouts from 9 to 5 in the continental U.S. On this island at least it would only be their defense attorneys or their office managers who could afford to brown in the sun with rum punch in hand. Whoever got hustled on Anguilla would get hustled by Anguillans. Old man Reagan would approve of this because it was part of his Caribbean Basin Initiative to promote small business. We slept fitfully in the new condos. The Ambassador had gotten one with a Jacuzzi in it. His condo also had a walk in shower and sunken tub. I think there was a mirror over the master bed too. Unless he’d gotten a hold of Marsha on her way to pee in the middle of the night, I think the shower must have been the only thing that he used. In my room, I focused on St. Kitts, which was our next stop the next morning. Since I’d been there before, I felt like I had a little idea about what I could expect. I was wrong.
When I had visited Basseterre, which is the capital of St. Kitts-Nevis, I found a sleepy little Caribbean harbor full of pelicans and black swans. I did some minor business at the extramural center of the University of the West Indies, and made contact with a few Peace Corps Volunteers who were teaching and working in community development. My stay was short and uneventful. I got to Nevis by ferry. Nevis is St. Kitts’s sister island, part of the political entity known as St. Kitts-Nevis and famous as the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. It has narrow cobbled streets and the atmosphere of an English country town. It is also filled with U.S. expatriates who drink rum punch on their verandas and have learned the secret of gentling down their lives. The only strain on the island is at the airport. Chickens run amuck on the landing strip and hazard the safety of the incoming single-prop twelve-seater planes.
My trip to St. Kitts with the Ambassador was different. It was made out to be an event. Everyone in the island government expected something big from the Ambassador since it would soon be coming up on independence day for the British protectorate. Consequently, there were large black sedans with impressive flags stuck in their mirrors waiting upon our arrival. We were sped through the island to an old plantation where important Kittitians would join us in lunch. As we bounced on the single lane hardpack dirt that constituted the roads of St. Kitts, the dust kicked up and through the cracks between the car windows and frame. We were all hot and grimy by the time we arrived at the plantation. None was hotter than the Ambassador. Our first order of business then was the take-off-the-clothes close order drill. We performed the drill before lunch and after lunch, only with just the rum punch portion the latter time. As a result, none of us remembered what happened at the meeting in the old plantation house in the middle of the island. We therefore went back to the Embassy in Bridgetown without a policy statement. So we made one up later. Since nobody readly believes anything diplomats say, it did not matter that the policy statement was fictive. We had seen and been seen in St. John, Anguilla and St. Kitt. Moreover, we had flown successfully back and forth without an emergency landing and mostly on one functioning propeller in a C-130 that still held bullet holes from unfriendly fire in Vietnam. Our pilots were happy because the only flying they had been permitted to do previous to chauffeuring the Ambassador was to circle the island of Puerto Rico. They had not flown in a straight line on a course since their days in ‘Nam.