I mentioned a while back that the guys I was stationed with in the American Embassy in Karachi were just a tad different than most GIs.
And they were.
For one thing they were all so honest they squeaked. I’ve known honest people in my life, but that bunch was something else. I think they were all working on sainthood.
If you know anything about GIs you’ll understand why that seemed so odd to me. Now I don’t mean to imply that our men and women in uniform are crooked or anything, but wel-l-l-l ...
It’s sort of like a game. GI versus dumb-adze regulations.
Sometimes it’s a matter of taking on some lame-brained admin officer who got carried away with the magical powers of his pen and wrote a regulation that was just made to be broken.
Take Keflavik Air Base, Iceland, for example, a place in the middle of nowhere, wild and desolate nothing stretching away in all directions. It was a place just made for hiking. And what? The regulations said we could only go off base in Class A blues.
When we first heard that we assumed it meant we had to wear our blues if we were headed into Reyjavik, the capital city —which was actually the only place you could go, Iceland not being too rich in tourist traps. But when we strolled over to the orderly room and asked if we needed special permission to go off base in fatigues when we weren’t going into town, we were flatly told no.
We were, so they said, supposed to look like “gentlemen.”
Gentlemen? Were they kidding? We were GIs. Why try to fool the poor Icelandics? They had enough problems trying to figure out how to live on a fish three times a day diet. So with that thought in mind, three of us took our case over to base headquarters.
The answer was, “Not only no, but hell no! Get your butts out of here and act like gentlemen when you go off base!”
This from the lips of a 12-year-old second lieutenant admin officer, who was probably the one who wrote the regulation.
He looked the type. Lt. Fuzz, you know?
Gentlemen? We couldn’t believe it. In what universe?
So we did the obvious. We tried sneaking out the main gate on a civilian bus. No soap. The Air Police hauled us off the bus and over to AP Headquarters, where the three of us listened to a butt-chewing from another second looey, this time an 11-year-old.
So once again we did the obvious. We signed out a pair of bolt cutters from supply, went to the back fence, which was just a couple of hundred yards behind our quonset hut, cut a nice handy-but-hard-to-spot gate in the fence, returned the bolt cutters, and spent 12 months on the island using our own private exit.
What did they think we were going to do?
But back to those NCOs in the embassy in Karachi ...
Would they have done something like that?
Not only no, but ...
Which considering the fact that they handled top secret material every day was perhaps a good thing.
As squeaky clean as they were, however, they did make one minor exception.
Wanna guess what it was?
“Aha!” you say. “I knew it!”
We got paid in American dollars, deposited in a bank account back in the States. If you didn’t have an account back home, one of the first things you had to do was get one. However, there were some things for which we needed Pakistani rupees. Eating in a restaurant or going to the movies, for example.
If you needed rupees you went into the Air Force attache’s office and made the exchange at the official rate — 6.141 rupees to the dollar.
For a week or so that’s what I did. But then I noticed that nobody else did it, so I asked a friend a question.
“Go see Manny Lewis,” I was told. “You’ll get a better rate.”
That confused me. Manny Lewis was a senior master sergeant, the NCOIC of the Air Force attache staff.
Anyway, I grabbed Manny and asked him if he had a couple of hundred rupees.
“Does it rain?” he asked. “Does a cat have an ...?”
So I exchanged my dollars at 10-to-1 instead of 6-to-1, a much better deal. But when I asked my friend the obvious question about Manny, the answer nearly floored me.
“Huh? Oh Manny’s in the black market.”
I could see my stripes flying off, replaced by a couple of years in Leavenworth.
“Don’t worry. It’s unofficially official.”
I had heard that one before.
“Forget it!” I told him. “Last time I heard that one it came from someone who was in the stockade the next time I met him.”
“Look, Garrett. What’s the official State Department rate?”
“You know what it is — 6.141-to-1.”
“Right. Where does the embassy get rupees? And at what rate?”
“I don’t know.”
“In the States, where the official rate is 23-to-1.”
“Wait a minute. You mean I exchange my bucks at 6-to-1, but the State Department trades them for rupees at ...?”
“Now, you’re getting the picture.”
“But the black market, that’s kind’ve far out.”
“Don’t sweat it. Every coupla weeks Manny brings over a refrigerator or somethin’ from the exchange over in Saudi Arabia. Comes right in on the attache aircraft. Costs him maybe two hundred bucks and he sells it for maybe seven thousand rupees.”
“And nobody gets burned?”
“Hey, Washington is tryin’ to screw us. All we’re doin is screwin’ them back.”
I’ve got to say, that did feel good during the couple of years I was over there.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that now?