Being A Foreigner Comes Easy, But So Does Not Being One, Part Ii


Last week we talked about some things that made it easy to get along in a foreign country. What it boiled down to for most of the people I knew was just being yourself — just being an American. Unlike people from some countries, we don’t have lords and ladies, fussy rules of behavior, or the confusing customs I’ve run into.

So it’s easy to just be yourself. We may be a little rough around the edges at times, but we’re honest about it, and we’re satisfied to be what we are. Which by and large helps people overseas not only to accept us, but to like us.

On the other hand, there are times ...

I hope you’re ready to break up, Johnny, because there are times when ... well read on, you’ll see.

Let’s take Colonel Gerlich and the camel’s milk. Colonel Gerlich was my boss in Karachi, Pakistan. He was a good old Texas boy, tall, thin and as plain as a rail fence. And he came with a corncob pipe, which perfectly fitted the image.

Mind you, other than being a big fan of LBJ, Colonel Gerlich was no dummy. To begin with, he was a command pilot, and those fancy wings he wore aren’t issued with the uniform. And I forgave him for the LBJ thing. They were both Texans, loyalty is an admirable thing, and Texas is close to my favorite state.

But for an officer a part of whose major mission there in Karachi involved support of the U-2 aircraft which were overflying the USSR from a base up-country in Peshawar, Colonel Gerlich had a big problem. You see, the very top people in Pakistan knew about the U-2 flights; they had to. But beyond them, no one else did. And one of our biggest jobs was keeping things that way.

Which meant that Colonel G and I, as the two Americans in MAC, the Military Airlift Command had, among other things, the problem of keeping Pakistani Customs from becoming too interested in some of the cargo that kept pouring in from the states.

By which I mean that when whole palette loads of aerial photography film came in for the U-2s, marked for shipment up to Peshawar, it was a good idea to keep someone from asking, “That’s odd. The Americans don’t have any aerial photography aircraft up there. Or do they?”

So how did we handle that? Whenever the “right” aircraft came in with the “wrong” cargo on it, someone had to be having such a great chat with the customs officer on duty that he hated to break it off merely for the sake of doing his job.

And how can you be assured that someone over in India or Pakistan is not going to give up a little chat? Just make sure it is taking place over a cup of tea. Preferably Lipton Green Label tea from Ceylon, something no self-respecting person on the Indian subcontinent would walk away from, and which I was careful to keep the customs folks supplied with by bringing a packet of it with me every time I dropped into their office for a visit.

Trouble is, tea means tea-with-milk over there because it is premixed in the pot. And milk was something that Colonel G could not abide. Grew up on a ranch, you see. Told me tales of cows stepping in something, and then in the milk buckets, and other stories unlikely to make milk your favorite beverage.

And on top of it all, this was camel’s milk.

Ever stand downwind of a camel? Take my advice — don’t.

And so guess who got the job of drinking all that tea?

Wasn’t a bad job. In fact it was a good one. But one day ...

I was on my honeymoon with Lolly for a week, and when I came back and strolled into the embassy, the most serious-faced colonel I have ever seen called me into his little office and sat me down.

“Sergeant Garrett ...” he started. Then he paused. “No ... Tom, I need to talk to you. Seriously.”

I thought he was going to tell me we’d gotten a flash message announcing World War III. But he gulped and said, “Had to do it. Just had to do it. Didn’t have any choice. Just had to. You ... uh, you don’t plan on taking off any more time do you?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, I ... uh, I guess it’ll be all right then. You can go.”

I was as puzzled as I’ve ever been. “Is that all, sir?”

“Yeah, Tom ... uh, yeah ... I’d just as soon not talk about it.”

Later on, Hassan, my clerk, who was as mystified as I was about the way Colonel G looked that day, made a comment that explained everything. “I was very happy to see the colonel drinking tea with the customs people out at the airfield Monday,” he told me. “They have been very unhappy about his never having time for them.”

I laughed for ... oh, maybe a week.

And then there was the time at RAF Upper Heyford in England when a new man arrived, a Chicagoan, looking unusually worn out considering the fact he had an easy time getting to the base. He’d only had to take a train up to Bicester from Paddington Station in London, and call us for a ride from there — just five miles.

I should precede this little tale with two facts. As you will soon gather, our new man was not the brightest bulb on the tree, and Bicester rhymes with Blister, not Buy-sester.

“You sure looked pooped,” someone said to the new guy.

“Din’t think I wuz gonna get here. I couldn’t get no ticket.”

“Huh? How come?”

“Well I goes up to the ticket lady and I says I wanta ticket for Buycester Nort, an she says ya mean Bista.”

“OK. So what?”

“So I says, yeah, Buycester Nort. An she says ya mean Bista.”

“So? What did you do then?”

“So I says, yeah, Buycester Nort. An she says ya mean Bista! An I says, yeah, Buycester Nort. An she says ya mean Bista!!”

By this time half the guys in my field training detachment are looking like they are going to fall on the floor and roll around. But Captain Wright, the detachment commander, obviously trying not to break up, asked, “And how long did this keep on?”

“I dunno. She tole me ta step aside afta a while. Then, afta she takes care of some other guys she asks me what can she do for me. So I been thinkin’ about it and I decide that this broad ain’t never gonna sell me no ticket if I don’t say it her way. So I says I need a ticket for Bista an she sells me one.”

I admit it. Being yourself doesn’t always work.

Did I mention that our new man was an instructor?

Sorry. I’ve completely forgotten what it was he taught.

English grammar maybe?


Would you like to respond to this column? Or to something else in this edition of the Roundup? Just go to: Your opinion is welcomed.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.