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.

Ken moved into defense intelligence and was stationed at the US Embassy in Tehran, where his second son was born. Ken was on station during the Islamic Revolution. He was caught on the street during demonstrations, came under fire, and helped a number of Iranian citizens flee the country. Ken was himself rotated out – again only weeks before the embassy fell to Islamic extremists in November of 1979. Again, one step ahead of Abaddon -- in Hebrew, "the destroyer" or angel of death.

After a stint in Dublin, Ken was promoted from staff sergeant to chief warrant officer. He was assigned to Yaoundé in 1981. Jon Wertjes and I showed up a year later.

At our weekly TGIF at the Marine House, Ken was always the first to show up and start drinking with us, and he was the last to leave. He watched out for us. Where our regulations prohibited us from having ladies in our rooms at the Marine House, Ken had a standing offer to let us use the spare room at his place. Soft rack.  Basement level. Private door. His only request: “Keep the noise down, will you? Linda and the boys are sleeping upstairs.”

In his Washington Post travel log, Christopher Vourlias described Yaoundé as a green and hilly city. It was that, along with rust-colored dirt and dust that covered everything. Twice a year, you had to throw out your white tee-shirts, skivvies, and socks. No amount of bleach could get that iron-laden red dust out of your tightee-whites.

Despite the country research we’d done prior to leaving MSG battalion, I was surprised at the robustness of the Cameroonian people. I half expected a city full of scrawny nomads, naked children with bloated bellies and navels the size of figs. 

Rather, these people were strong and well-built. They were physically impressive. I commented on the muscularity of the women’s calves and thighs. “That’s what walking all these hills’ll do for you,” Cpl. Wood said.

There was food everywhere. On the streets, in the markets, in the cafes. Ken introduced us to a sidewalk bistro that ended up being our go-to place to eat. The proprietor would wheel a big glass oven onto the sidewalk at mid-afternoon, with rows of gas burners under a half dozen rotisserie spits. They’d load the spits with 25 fat pullets and set them to roasting, turning slowly until that roast-chicken aroma filled the street. 

The smells of roast bird melded with the rank bite of French and Russian cigarettes, a waft of sewer or jungle rot, the smoky aroma of other foods cooking somewhere on the street – fried plantains or roast peanuts or eggs on crusty baguettes. You'd hear the boisterous voices of Cameroonians speaking in English or French, in Ubangi or Bantu. The rhythmic pounding of afro-pop blared from the windows of passing taxis. 

We'd meet Ken at the bistro with our personal bottles of barbecue sauce, strap on the feed bag, and work our way through a table full of roasted barbecue hen and steak frites. Regardless of sauce or  seasoning, the sights and sounds and smells lent an exotic taste to the bird.  This was not roast chicken from your grandma’s kitchen.

We washed it all down iced bottles of 33 or Castel or Tuborg or San Miguel. Or some of each. 

(To be continued...)


     Part V
     Part VI


     Part I
     Part II
     Part III

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