We were living in the UK. The Big Man’s orders said that we would be moving to Jakarta, come the summer. I read up on Jakarta, I was totally stoked. On 01 April the Big Man got a call (while he was in the rack. Shift work). Some poor jamoche in some faraway hell-hole had dropped dead from a heart attack. He couldn’t fill (obviously) his follow-on billet. There was a ripple effect across the entire organization. The result was we were no longer going to Jakarta, Indonesia. We were going to Monrovia, Liberia. “Yeah, April Fool’s to you too, [expletive],” said the Big Man. Then he rolled over and went back to sleep. It wasn’t a joke.
Eleven days later, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe led one of the bloodiest coups (up to that time) in African history, and took over. Won’t go into the 5Ws of the coup, but it was bloody and the body count was extravagant.
About two months later, we moved there.
It was awesome.
Imagine being an adolescent teen, dropped into the middle of Barter Town. The lessons I learned were immediate, important, and useful. The Krahn had been kept down under the boot of the Amerigo-Liberians since the Amerigos had sailed back home from America, and installed the same plantation paradigm they’d known back in the States. Then all of a sudden, through the coup led by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, they were in charge, and boy, they were enthusiastic about it.
Whole lot happened; it was all crazy and dangerous, and at 14, I was pretty sure I was living the dream. I learn fast and–most importantly–my superpower is that I have an ineffable ability to learn vicariously through the exploits of others, good and bad. Were it not, I’m pretty sure would’ve been packed off to the Valley Forge Military Academy For Wayward Boys. The Department of State doesn’t play around with teens that get caught pulling shenanigans.
A few of us Embassy teens had a racket. Buying anything imported for the Liberians was problematic. There were huge import taxes involved. Something that had a $1000 MSRP would cost the average Liberian $5000 after taxes were assessed. But. The Doe administration didn’t assess taxes on items that were brought into the country through diplomatic auspices, and then sold on the economy later. A lot of the politicians and muckity-mucks got their lickies and chewies from departing diplomatic personnel.
So the scam we wee teeny-boppers came up with was: find an American who was leaving soon, solicit what he wanted to sell his car/TV/stereo/reel-to-reel (hey, it was the early eighties) for, and then shop it on the local market. Whatever the delta between what the departing American wanted for his commodity and what the local Liberian was willing to pay went to us. We made pretty astounding money, for teeny-boppers. I should’ve banked it; I didn’t know about the miracle of compounding interest back then. Instead, I lived like a rock star. Even trade.
I got a rude awakening one day on my way to a buyer’s meet, and the teen who’d set up the meet handed me a crappy, five-shot 38 and said, “Hey, man, keep this on you. This guy is sketchy.”
Dude, this tool is sketchy. Whatever. Let’s do it (I was 14, therefore the rules that apply to other mortals obviously don’t apply to me). Meet went off without a hitch. Al’humbdull’allah.
I was returning home to the Embassy from setting up another meet, turned a corner onto Embassy Row (I think it was called Sekou Toure Road), and espied a mob in the street in front of the US Embassy. Apparently whenever people couldn’t procure enough food or fuel in the utopian, command-directed economy, it was the US’ fault. So, no rice? Let’s have us a Rice Riot! In front of the US Embassy! Yay! [The link is to a riot that happened previously, and was one of the events that led Master Sergeant Doe to take over, and promptly screw the society up even more.]
I figured this was not the time for a tall, skinny white kid to be strolling down Sekou Toure. I started doing an awkward backward moonwalk shuffle, keeping an eye on the crowd. I didn’t know, then, that if you don’t want someone to see you watching him, don’t look directly at him; it’s a vestigial prey-sense thing.
Of course someone on the outer edge of the mob turned around and saw me, and he grabbed two buddies, and they grabbed two buddies, and a pack of angry rioters broke off and started walking toward me. Their pace quickly turned into a lope, then into a sprint.
Ohno ohno gottago gottago!
I turned and sprinted the opposite direction. I figured if I could get to the not too distant Firestone complex, I could avoid getting…whatever the pack of angry young men were going to dole out. If I got caught, a beatdown was the best possible outcome. The Firestone compound was walled and manned by professional security; I could beg succor there. Here’s hoping that hadn’t locked down to wait out the riot. Man, I hate leaving my fate to hope.
We hit a residential area but were still on a broad, paved road. I was afraid of someone or a group emerging in front of me, deciding to get in on the action, and cutting me off, so I turned down a service road. Most all the decent houses in that part of town were walled, with broken glass mortared onto the top of the wall. Most of these rows of houses were on paved roads, but had hard-pack dirt service alleys behind them. The service alleys have lots of ruts and crevices; erosion bequeathed by the rainy season. Here’s hoping I don’t break an ankle. Dang it. Hoping. Again.
Walls, all with a big gate for cars, little door for people lined either side of the alley. I was flying. I remember thinking, appropriately, that I was really glad I’d worn sneakers instead of my usual goat leather flip-flops to the meet. I remember thinking, inanely, that my nascent, burgeoning addiction to cigarettes had to go.
Up ahead of me about 50 meters, a wall people door opened up. All this running and I still get a beatdown? Shucks. Two men stepped out, one white, one black, both in the new US Army camouflage uniform, both bare-headed. Hey, kid, in here. I cornered through that door so fast, I’d’ve made a BMW sports coupe blush with envy. I entered the walled yard, turned back toward the door, and put my hands on my knees to see what was going to happen. I could only see the two yankees, stone-faced and looking harder than woodpecker lips. The white guy looked big and mean. The black guy looked bigger and meaner. Some words were exchanged, which I couldn’t make out due to the bellows of my own breath. I saw the white guy raise his forefinger and slowly move it left and right: the international gung-fu signal of “Go away. I am a blender and you are about to push puree.”
The two guys came back in, looking like the Cain & Abel Sons of the War God. They secured the door, broke into easy grins, and “dapped” fists. They looked up at the flat, railed roof where there were two more guys, one with a long, scoped rifle, one with a pair of binoculars. The bino guy flashed a thumbs up.
A Special Forces A-Team, deployed to Liberia to train and–hopefully–professionalize Doe’s security forces had been on their way to the Embassy for a little R&R (sometimes sitting in an air-conditioned cantina drinking a coke with ice counts as R&R. Exquisite R&R) when they got the radio call that there was a riot breaking out in front of the Embassy. They identified the most defensible structure around, politely rang the bell at the gate, when it was opened they politely handed the man of the house a wad of cash, and then forted up for the duration.
I spent the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening with these guys. They were good guys, and although I must have driven them a little crazy, they answered all my questions. This is an M16. This is an M60. This is an M21 sniper rifle. This is an M203 grenade launcher. No, we won’t fire off any grenades for you.
C’mere, kid. Let me show you how to disassemble, assemble, and perform a functions check on an M16 (Ski, you are not conning that kid into cleaning that weapon for you.)
They got as good as they gave, though. I loaded them up with great intel. Here’s the best bars to go to. Here’s the vendors you can trust. These are the parts of town you absolutely do not want to be in when the sun goes down (I now know that about 1/3 of the guys would beeline straight for those places at the first opportunity). Cooper’s Beach is great for surfing. And the creme-de-la-creme, the crown jewel of local intel: If you can get to Cooper’s Beach about 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, the Swiss Air flight will have arrived, and all the stewardesses sunbathe topless.
Finally, the radio squawked the all clear. The obvious leader of the group, the oldest, hardest, most weathered guy I’d ever seen stood up and said, “All right, kit up, we’re going to the Embassy.”
Uh, sir, there’s a prob-
Don’t call me sir, I work for a living.
Riiiight. Okay, there’s a problem. It’s after curfew.
Doe had instituted a city-wide curfew immediately on seizing power. Dad had beaten me senseless a couple times when I’d busted curfew. It wasn’t so much the breaking of the curfew, but the fact that the Army would shoot on sight anyone caught out after curfew. I’d been shot at a couple of times. The soldiers would see you and your buds in the shadows, or think they saw someone sneaking around in the shadows, and just let rip with a burst or two. Good thing they couldn’t shoot for squat. The Big Man finally got me to cease and desist by explaining that if I got shot, it was just desserts. But sooner or later a round would go through a window or overpenetrate a wall, and kill an innocent person, and that would be a stain on my soul forever. Could really apply a good dose of Catholic Guilt to modify behavior, my Da.
The old, hard guy spit out a stream of tobacco, jacked what I now knew was the charging handle of his M16, and said, “Kid, nobody is going to give us static for being out after curfew.”
And that was the day I decided to become a Green Beret.