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Behind the Scenes of Life in the Foreign Service

November 4, 2012

Eddie and Mary Lee Deerfield offer a look behind the scenes at Foreign Service life in Madras, Kampala, and Lagos.

As my wife and I chatted during a drink before dinner one evening, talk turned to our time in the Foreign Service. Mary Lee was at my side through 22 years at seven posts. We had been reviewing a written account of those memorable years as part of a family history. As we reminisced, it came to us that we had not included some happenings that were so bizarre or outlandish that they seemed out of place in a “proper” historical document.

My first posting was in 1966 as USIS Information Officer in Madras, India. We introduced ourselves to the Madras elite and diplomatic community by extending invitations to a reception in our new home. One of the invitations went to my counterpart at the consulate of the German Democratic Republic. The very puzzled GDR representative came to our reception and thanked me profusely. Rumors swirled about a possible change in American relations with the communist regime. In reviewing the guest list, it hadn’t occurred to me that the U.S. didn’t have diplomatic relations with communist East Germany. Eventually, the incident was recognized as a friendly gesture by the new boy on the block, and U.S.-GDR relations returned to “business as usual.”

A few weeks later, my wife invited some Indian ladies to tea. She had also supervised the preparation of small cakes and a large bowl of fruit punch. Soon after the guests arrived, she told the bearer to bring in the cakes and the punch. He told the cook, “Madame said to bring the cakes in the punch.” When the bowl arrived on the dining room table, numerous small cakes were bobbing around in the fruit punch.

M. S. Subbulakshmi was the most revered exponent of Carnatic classical music in South India. We became friends with the vocalist and her husband, a Madras journalist, and were invited to attend her next concert. When that evening arrived, the USIS driver dropped us off and said he would be parked nearby. We passed through a garden and entered the building expecting to be asked for our tickets. Instead, we were profusely welcomed and garlanded. It soon became clear that this was not Subbulakshmi’s recital hall but the site of a wedding celebration. It would have been awkward to hastily excuse ourselves, so we stayed for refreshments and then left. The driver made some calls and was given the correct location of the music hall. We arrived late but not too late to enjoy the talent of the breathtaking classical vocalist.
In 1979, shortly after the overthrow of the brutal dictator Idi Amin in Uganda, I was assigned to the American Embassy in Kampala as Public Affairs Officer to establish the first USIS presence since the severing of diplomatic relations seven years earlier. Our house was a two-story structure with electricity but no water. We hauled water piped from a spigot at the Embassy into a steel drum in the trunk of our car, and then pumped up to a tank on the roof of the house. Food was also in short supply. When a Ugandan friend said he was buying a whole beef from a farmer and would sell us a side if we shared the cost we jumped at the opportunity. We hired a butcher to do the carving, and he was waiting in the garden when the meat arrived. Almost immediately, when the side of beef was placed on a table, two vultures swooped in. For the next half-hour, until the butcher finished his work, Mary Lee fought off the vultures with a kitchen broom.

When we were in Lagos, Nigeria where I served as CPAO, we often hosted official visitors as guests for short stays in our residence. One such visitor approached us at breakfast one morning and, with an embarrassed smile, said, “I’m afraid I’ve broken your toilet seat.” That afternoon a young Nigerian employee, recently hired I learned later, brought a new seat to the house and was directed to the bathroom by one of the household staff. The young man installed the fixture upside down so that the lid was below the seat. Over the years, traveling from post to post, I carried a set of tools to make minor repairs in assigned housing. The problem was easily corrected.

In retrospect, not including those odd happenings in our family memoir was clearly an oversight. They were very much part of our lives in the Foreign Service.


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