Sunday, April 14, 2013

Don't Call Me Buckwheat

If you were any good as a bouncer at the Vogue Nightclub, you could usually get the job done without having to put your hands on anyone. 

A drill field worthy command voice with a haircut that said “recently-discharged Marine” goes a long way toward establishing alpha-dog status. It's all attitude and presentation.

Since its opening in 1938, The Vogue has screened the films of Burt Lancaster, Henry Fonda, Carole Lombard -- and even Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems when the place was an X-rated theater for a couple years in the 70s. As a concert venue, its stage has hosted acts like Willie Nelson, Keb' Mo', and Kings of Leon.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Running from Abaddon (Conclusion)

Jon Wertjes and I left Yaoundé later that year, toward the end of 1983. Jon was off to New Zealand and I was headed to my next duty station at our embassy in the Bahamas. I said goodbye to Ken on the weed-lined tarmac of the Yaoundé Ville Airport.  

He was looking forward to his upcoming transfer, taking his wife and two boys to his next assignment at the US Embassy in Beijing. I shook his hand and we promised to keep in touch. Ken was 32 years old.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Running from Abaddon (Part VI)

In his 2013 Washington Post travel log, Christopher Vourlias wrote: “In free-wheeling Douala, young hedonists danced until the wee hours to the latest bikutsi club tracks.” Thirty years earlier, Douala had no less music and was no less hedonistic or free-wheeling.

After a day of high-speed logisticizing, our consulate group gathered at a portside bar to debrief. It was there that I came as close as I ever came to getting hit by a flying beer bottle. A certain lady of questionable character... okay, the place was full of hookers. 

hooker expressed her interest in my remunerating her for the pleasure of her company. I declined in my elementary French.

Running from Abaddon (Part V)

A team of us from the embassy traveled to the coastal city of Douala later that year to coordinate logistics during a port visit by the USS Portland (LSD-37), a “dock landing ship.” The mission of an LSD is “to transport and launch amphibious craft, vehicles, crews, and embarked personnel in an amphibious assault.” That is, an LSD gives Marines a ride into the fight. 

I recently looked up the USS Portland to remind myself of her appearance, her lines. I found that “The Portland was decommissioned in 2003 and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register in 2004. It was sunk as a target during an exercise off the Virginia coast later that year.” 

I had no idea. I admit a twinge of sadness, like hearing that an old girlfriend you hadn’t seen in years had met an early and untimely death. She wasn’t much over 30.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Running from Abaddon (Part IV)

Despite any first-day-of-school hazing, the Marine Embassy Guards knew Ken Welch as a solid friend. An Army officer with Defense Intelligence, Ken had longish hair for a military guy. He was tall, maybe 6’3”, and somewhat softer around the middle than the Marines expected from its officers. But he carried it well. I never counted how many packs of Kools he smoked a day, but he was rarely without one burning within arm’s reach. And he never turned down a guy who said, “Hey Ken… gimme a smoke.”

He treated us younger Marines less as “officer to enlisted” and more as “older brother to younger brothers.” Ken’s own brother Mike had, he told us, been assigned to the Marine Barracks in London.

Through his military career, Ken seemed to have kept one step ahead of the bad shit. He was stationed outside of Saigon and traversed the combat zones of Vietnam as a classified courier from 1972 to 1975. He got out shortly before Saigon fell in April of ‘75.

Running from Abaddon (Part III)

We landed in Yaoundé after sunset. Cpl. Steve Moye met us at the airport with a Cameroonian driver named Ambrose, who piloted a Chevy Blazer with diplomatic plates. At 2500 feet above sea level, it was cooler here than at the coast, and smelled less of dog. We drove north into the African dark, up the winding N2 highway on a bouncing three-mile trek from the airport to the embassy.

We were tired, dehydrated, and hung over – not only from our recent night at Quantico's Command Post pub, but from the half-dozen Bloody Marys we’d had on our flight. I believed that vodka, tomato juice, and celery was the perfect prescription for a genius flying into central Africa with an open head wound.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Running from Abaddon (Part II)

The place still shows up in my dreams. The roads crowded with Russian Ladas, Fiat taxis, and Mercedes trucks – only about half with working mufflers. Walking the crowded markets, the air was ripe with the sour bite of Cameroonian sweat mixed with the smells of diesel and woodsmoke and roasting meat. In a Washington Post travel log, Christopher Vourlias described it:

“Pavement chefs presided over small propane burners,
Photo: Ludwig Troller, Creative Commons
dishing out avocado salads and spaghetti omelets to crowds of hungry laborers. Stocky women in colorful dresses arranged their mangoes and oranges on sidewalk blankets, calling out in a cheery singsong. And young men wove through all the clamor selling secondhand shoes, a high-top sneaker or loafer balanced precariously on their heads."

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Running from Abaddon (Part I)

Ken made it out of Saigon just before that city fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. In 1979, Ken flew out of Tehran a couple weeks before Iranians climbed the walls at the US Embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year. He always seemed one step ahead of the bad news. 

In the spring of 1984, Ken reported for duty as a Defense Intelligence officer in Beirut. Somewhere in between, Chief Warrant Officer Ken Welch was our friend.