Muddy Roads Blue Skies

Chapter 2: Risk - Excerpt

It took years to move through the bureaucracy of the application process before I was offered a position in the Foreign Service, and there was no rhyme or reason to the timing or sequence of correspondences. A request would arrive for a phone number of someone I used as a reference or for a college transcript; I would compile the information and send it out into the black hole I called my mailbox. Months would go by. I would forget I had even applied. Then, without warning, an envelope would appear, tucked between bills and fliers, asking me for something else. At times, I doubted the job existed. Somebody’s just jerking me around, I thought.

The call offering me a position came in the same unexpected way. No matter. Saying “yes” without hesitation had nothing to do with the job and everything to do with my situation. I was out of all viable options to succeed in life that depressing morning. I could use a fresh start. Plus, the lady in the human resources department who extended the offer said they would pay my way to DC, put me up in a nice hotel with a spending allowance, and provide free job specific training. I packed up, dropped Andrew off to Momma until I could come back for him, gave away my mobile home and anything that wouldn’t fit in the car, and drove north.

Those first weeks in class were exhilarating. My classmates— all men—seemed smart and accomplished. They were well-spoken and well-dressed. They were overwhelmingly white. I was a minority three times over: black, Southern, and female. Fine with me. I was in Washington, DC. The city emanated power and prestige in the same way the heat radiated from the endless concrete sidewalks I saw. I could smell the money, the power.

So, I got the job, but I forgot to do my research and read the fine print. I assumed I would be working in Washington, DC. It was the first of many naive presumptions I would make throughout my career. I had no idea where, why, and what working for the Foreign Service really meant. I had sent various documents to a Washington address. When classmates began talking of overseas assignments, I was flabbergasted, then giddy. While colleagues pursued exotic posts of assignment like Athens, Dubai, Brasilia, Hong Kong, Pretoria, and Montreal, I placed bids for places I knew little about: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Philippines, and Honduras, to name a few. I didn’t really care where my assignment would be. All the choices were equally foreign and exciting.

Things kept getting better. They provided housing, paid travel expenses to and from the States or another country for rest and recuperation if you were posted to a dangerous or challenging country, and paid for boarding school for my son if schools in a post-of-assignment country were not adequate. They also provided continuing education for me to stay at the top of my field. My gosh, they would even pay overtime for me to dress up and attend official parties and functions where I would mingle with the who’s who in the country of assignment.

It became clear that a certain element of danger was involved. We reviewed security regulations and learned how to detect if we were being surveilled. When I called home, I was careful to talk about my training experience in general and use positive terms so my family wouldn’t worry, yet I never hesitated myself. Fear is not a natural emotion for me.

 In one of the hottest months in 1989, I sat in training, waiting for my name and post of assignment to be called out. When it was called out, it wasn’t a true surprise because my Career Development Officer (CDO) had already told me that I wasn’t going to get my first choice, the DRC. In that discussion, he talked a lot about the Philippines being ideal for me and my son, since I was separated from Tommie and he was not accompanying us (even though I offered him one last chance to make up while I was in Washington). So when my name was called and “Manila, Philippines,” followed, I acted excited, but deep in my heart, I was a little disappointed. I had wanted to go to Africa, the heart of Africa—Kinshasa, DRC. No matter. I was headed to Manila, 8,555 miles away, with my little boy. I had no idea what awaited us, except a job in the US Embassy there.