The $200,000 phone call
From P.J. O’Rourke, editor in chief, American Consequences:
To me the saddest part of living a security-and-surveillance life is that we’re never far, far away anymore. We’re always in view. We’re always connected. We’re never in an unknown place. There is no Middle-of-Nowhere left, no “it’s not the end of the world but you can see it from here,” no To-Hell-and-Gone. A contemporary person on a solitary ski trek to the South Pole is blogging about it.
The romance of being lost is… lost.
The romance of being remote, isolated, and incommunicado used to be my career. I was a foreign correspondent from 1984, during the civil war in Lebanon, until the Iraq War in 2003. (When I decided I was too old to be scared stiff and too stiff to sleep on the ground).
During those two decades I spent a lot of time in “to hell and gone” – the deserts of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Iraq… the jungles of Mindanao, El Salvador, Honduras, and Peru… the mountains of Chiapas, Kyrgyzstan, and Himachal Pradesh… the chaos of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania… Peshawar, the Swat Valley, the tribal areas of North-West Frontier Pakistan… Apartheid-era Soweto, Transkei, and KwaZulu… with Palestinians in locked-down West Bank refugee camps, with Israeli troops on West Bank patrols, on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, at the barbed wire fence around Chernobyl, in East Berlin during The Spy Who Came in From the Cold era, and again when the Wall was coming down.
There was no way for the outside world to get in touch with me and almost no way for me to get in touch with it. This was very romantic. (When I wasn’t wetting myself.)
But the most romantic part of being to-hell-and-gone was an actual romance.
At the end of November 1992, I was sitting at a bar in Washington, D.C., and a beautiful woman approached. She said, “Are you P.J. O’Rourke?”
I said, “Yes!”
My heart leapt.
She said, “You covered the Gulf War for Rolling Stone?”
I said, “Yes!”
She said, “I’m here with an Army officer who fought in the Gulf War. He’d really like to meet you.”
I said, “Ummm… yes…”
My heart sank.
But, as it turned out, the Army officer, Mike, an infantry captain, (now a retired colonel and my good friend) was also with his girlfriend (now his wife) who was the beautiful woman’s good friend.
Capt. Mike had IDed me. He had a copy of my book about the Kuwait liberation, Give War a Chance. But, with the diffidence oddly common to people with physical bravery, he didn’t want to bug me. The beautiful woman said, “I’ll do it.”
She and I danced that night. We went out to dinner a couple of days later. Then President George H.W. Bush ordered 25,000 American troops to bring humanitarian aid and a semblance of peace to Somalia in “Operation Restore Hope.”
I flew to Nairobi and chartered a small plane to Mogadishu. (Those were the days when magazines had budgets!) Thanks to a side job I had as a sometimes radio reporter for ABC News, I had a billet in the Somali capital.
The network – with the help of the U.S. military – had found a walled mansion, more or less intact, and supplied it with a generator and a water purification system for the well.
Some 30 of us – reporters, camera crews, video editors, producers, and tech guys – were housed in this compound, bedded down in shifts while our 40-man army of Somali mercenaries camped in the courtyard.
Somalia was true anarchy. A vicious dictator, Siad Barre, had been overthrown, and the Somalis celebrated their independence by shooting each other.
Fighting had broken out everywhere. It wasn’t traditional Africa tribal warfare. The Somalis all belong to the same tribe. But the tribe has six clans, the six clans have hundreds of sub-clans, and each sub-clan is divided into infinite murderous feuds.
The Somalis fought each other with rifles, machine guns, mortars, cannons and – to judge by the look of Mogadishu – wads of filth. In the old town not one stone stood upon another. In the new part of the city everything was built out of concrete, and the concrete had been blasted back into piles of aggregate, rebar, and Portland cement.
There was no public supply of water or electricity. At night the only illumination was from artillery blasts and tracer bullets. Every tree and bush had been snatched for firewood. Sewage welled up through what pavement was left. Mounds of sand blew through the streets. Rubbish was dumped atop wreckage and goats grazed on the offal.
Everything that guns can accomplish had been achieved in Mogadishu.
It was impossible for us to go outside our walls without a truck full of “security” (as the Somali mercenaries liked to be called). Even with our gunmen along there were always people massing up to beg, gape, and thieve. Hands tugged at wallet pockets. Fingers nipped at wristwatch bands. No foreigner could make a move without attracting a hornet’s nest of attention – demanding, grasping, pushing mobs of cursing, whining, sneering people.
Young men waving AK-47 assault rifles pushed among the crowd. Rusted, dent-covered, windshield-less pickup trucks with machine-gun mounts welded into their beds sputtered by on predatory errands.
We spent Christmas Eve on the roof of our mansion. ABC’s London Bureau had shipped us bottles of whiskey in camera tripod case tubes. We broke into the medical supplies and handed out the pain pills. Somali gunfire provided a light show.
Bush, on his final foreign trip as president, arrived in Somalia December 31. He spent the day visiting American troops. We’d found out, through military sources, that the president was planning on a New Year’s visit to an orphanage in Baidoa, a small famine-gripped city 160 miles of bad road away from Mogadishu.
The president would travel by helicopter. We were not so lucky.
On the last day of 1992 we set out to get to Baidoa before the president did.
We went in a four-vehicle convoy. There was a Land Rover full of reporters and another full of satellite technicians and a camera crew. Each Land Rover hauled a trailer, one carrying a satellite dish and the other loaded with a generator and fuel. Somali “security” were needed to guard us – one stake bed truck full of them in front and a second truckload behind.
Along the road to Baidoa, a dozen or more impromptu roadblocks had been set up. These were lengths of iron pipe balanced on an oil drum and counterweighted with a chunk of concrete. One harmless-looking old fellow squatted at each roadblock. He was not asking for a toll. You could see what the deal was when you stood on the Land Rover seat and looked out the sunroof at the surrounding thornbush. Armed creeps lurked.
If you had more guns than the creeps, the harmless-looking old fellow raised the pole and obsequiously waved you through. If you didn’t have more guns, you were robbed and shot. We had more guns.
We arrived outside Baidoa in the middle of the night and found a crappy, but defensible, place to stay. It was a roadside restaurant with a wall around it. In Somalia everything has a wall around it.
That must have been around 1 in the morning – 9 a.m. New Year’s Day back in the States. We’d brought a bottle of whiskey from the Mogadishu compound. We had a couple of drinks. I was thinking about the beautiful woman.
I said to the reporters, technicians, and camera crew, “I met this beautiful woman right before I left. I’m crazy about her. I’d like to call and wish her a Happy New Year. We’ve got to set up the dish first thing in the morning anyway…”
“Ooooo… A beautiful woman half a world away,” said everyone. (We foreign correspondents of yore were a sentimental bunch.) “Let’s do it.”
The Somali “security” was on the restaurant floor, sleeping off overindulgence in Somalia’s national dish. (Which is, of all things, spaghetti – due to Italian occupation from the 1920s until the end of World War II.) Not that they would have been much help.
The eight of us, with flashlights in our teeth, muscled the TV dish off the trailer and unfolded it. In those days the things were the size of beach cabanas. We did the same with the bulky generator and got it wired up and running. Then we needed to “find the bird.” This was before civilian GPS and the satellite location had to be eyeballed by azimuth and elevation.
By 2 a.m. we were ready. And then I realized I didn’t have the phone number. The beautiful woman had told me she was going to her parents’ house in Westport, Connecticut, for the holidays. But I didn’t know her father’s first name. I called 411.
Back then you got a person on the line – a kind, polite, and patient person. I said, “Hi, I’m in Somalia…” and explained the situation to the 411 lady. She read me all the listings under that last name (a not-uncommon Irish one) in the Westport phone book. “Edward!” I said, “I think she told me her dad’s name was Ed.” The kindly 411 lady tried the number and I got through.
I figure it only cost ABC about $200,000 in equipment, vehicles, supplies, payroll, and payoffs to Somali gunmen.
I said, “Hi, I’m in Somalia…”
“Oh my gosh!” said the beautiful woman, “Are you all right?”
“I’m happy!” I said, “And Happy New Year!”
“That’s so sweet!” she said. “How on earth did you get through?”
“Well, I’m out in the middle of the Somali desert in someplace called Baidoa with these other reporters and we set up the satellite dish and…”
Later the beautiful woman told me, “That was the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.” She must have meant it because we’re married now and have three children.
But how romantic would that phone call be today?
If it could happen. There are no more kindly 411 ladies sitting with local phone books in their laps.
Besides, contemporary beautiful women (I judge by my 20-year-old daughter) don’t even use the phone. They text, which is something my old, arthritic thumbs can’t do no matter how many expert technicians I have with me.
If her phone rings, my daughter assumes it’s a robo-call and lets it go to message and then never checks her messages. When I want to phone my daughter I have to e-mail her and make an appointment.
She also doesn’t read her e-mails – they’re all spam.
Furthermore, contemporary beautiful women (again, judging by my daughter) aren’t up to speed on the news the way my wife was 26 years ago. My daughter knows about… A fast among the Kardashians? Yes. A famine among the Somalis? No.
Nor do contemporary beautiful women seem to have much sense of where To-Hell-and-Gone is, or much sense of geography at all.
When my daughter was in prep school one of the international students invited her home for spring break.
Daughter: “What’s the big deal? We’re just talking about going to China for a week.”
Me: “Where do your friend’s parents live in China?”
Daughter: “Oh, I don’t know. Someplace nice.”
Me: “China is a big country.”
Daughter: “So is Florida. And you let me fly there to see my grandparents.”
Thus, if I were young again, and calling a beautiful woman from To-Hell-and-Gone in the Somali desert, and the call somehow got through, the conversation would probably sound like this:
Me: “Hi, I’m in Somalia…”
Beautiful Woman: “Uh, that’s nice.”
Me: “I’m out in the middle of the Somali desert in someplace called Baidoa…”
Beautiful Woman: “Bilbao?”
Me: “In Somalia…”
Beautiful Woman: “Isn’t Bilbao, like, in Spain?”
Me: “With Operation Restore Hope…”
Beautiful Woman: “Hope you like it. Sorry, just got a Tweet. Have to go.”
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