Have you ever seen a monkey in an airport? How about the Dalai Lama? Have you visited the world’s first judo dojo in Japan? George Herrmann, who served in the Department of State as a full-time Security Engineering Officer (SEO) for over twenty years, has done all this and more. Herrmann fixed locks and doors, installed security cameras, and made other repairs at consulates and embassies all over the world, including West Africa, Central and South America, East and Southeast Asia, and Australia. While this was his day job, he also had opportunities to explore his surroundings and have fun in these diverse places.
After he retired, Herrmann and a few other former SEOs corresponded via email and shared short stories of some of their most memorable experiences. Herrmann emailed one story to his former colleagues every Monday morning for five years. The stories are compiled in three volumes and are purposely out of chronological order, so each story switches location and time. Herrmann also includes a few stories from his childhood as a Foreign Service dependent, his time overseas as a U.S. Army soldier, and his experience as a science teacher in Maryland after leaving the Foreign Service.
Enjoy a few selections from Volume 1 below.
Read volume 1 of George Herrmann’s short stories HERE.
Drafted by Ivan Plante
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“When we went to check on Cliff about fifteen minutes later, we discovered that he had opened the trunk of the car and had just crawled in, leaving the lid up and falling asleep on the floor of the trunk.”
The Caracas Taco Stand:
Traveling on per diem [funding provided for temporary duty personnel to cover hotel and meal costs] and working during the day usually meant breakfast at your hotel, lunch in the Embassy and dinner on the town in some restaurant. Being taken to an interesting place to dine was always a treat, especially when there was fun involved.
When I was assigned to Panama in 1983, the Security Enhancement Program was in flower and the attention of our Engineering Center slipped from countermeasures to physical security improvements. Nearly every large embassy in our territory that was not built by FBO [fixed-base operator] had some huge project in progress. It was initially our job to install all of the new equipment; later, we worked with teams of contracted installers from Washington to be sure that they did the work correctly.
Caracas, Venezuela was scheduled for security enhancements. It had two large buildings—the Embassy itself and an Annex building—both of which requiGeorge Herrmann’s Excellent Adventures in West Africa, South America, East Asia, and Morered security enhancement packages. We decided to do the Embassy first. The practice was to engage a local contractor to install the ballistic doors and windows provided by DS [Bureau of Diplomatic Security], and then the ESC [Expeditionary Sustainment Command] would be on hand to move the Marine booth and install all the alarms, television systems, door lockup systems and other security hardware required by the Embassy. The RSO [Regional Security Officer] in Caracas was Tim Fountain, a friend of mine and a former U.S. Border Patrol officer. He was looking forward to our visit (before we started, the Caracas marine booth was filled with a lot of old equipment) and he was a good host, trying to get us out to see parts of the city.
Caracas is a spectacular place, for those of you who have not been there. It is a long, sinusoidal city of skyscrapers that starts at the bottom of a mountain valley and progresses all the way up into the mountains, widening and narrowing as the earth permits. There is actually a subway system installed in this earthquake-prone city, and it works very well. The people are handsome and open, with an astonishing number of red-headed women, and they were friendly toward Americans while we were there. Our Embassy was up toward the top of the mountain range, but I would mention here that the tops of all the mountains were left undisturbed as natural parks. So, even though we were in a city, we were surrounded by nature. Many of the apartment buildings in Caracas stepped down to the street like pyramids in a series of widening floors, with hanging planters of flowers on the edge of each floor a common practice. The per diem was good, the food and even the local beer were great, and we had an interesting assignment to complete in a set period of time. I have lots of Caracas stories to tell, but I would prefer to deliver them as individual episodes to keep them short and not lose the fun each story contains.
The Embassy kicked things off with an introductory briefing for local contractors followed by a cocktail party for the contractors who were interested in making bids. Using my FSI [Foreign Service Institute] Spanish, I welcomed the bidders and attempted to explain what we were doing, what types of equipment they would have to install, problems we had had with installations at other posts and what our role in the project would be. The Admin Officer would help me with a Spanish expression from time to time, but I had some vocabulary words (puertas blindados [bulletproof doors, for example]) that did not come easily to the Admin officer. We followed our briefing with a walk-through of the affected areas of the Embassy, chiefly the ground floor and basement, and then went to the cocktail party.
At the party, there were two sharp and very respectful bidders who drew me aside and asked me questions about the job. How were the heavy doors supported? Were there problems in installing the windows? How large a conduit should be run to each new camera location? I answered these questions as best I could, often making little sketches on Embassy cocktail napkins to explain details. When we returned to Caracas after the contract had been awarded and the equipment had arrived, the firm that asked me the most questions had won the bid, and my cocktail napkins were prominently mounted on their bulletin board. Who needs Matisse [a French artist] when you have an SEO [Security Engineering Officer] around?
When we started work on the Embassy, I brought in a team consisting of myself, a Seabee [an enlisted, active-duty seaman in the U.S. Navy from a Construction Battalion] car mechanic (Chief Vantine), and two young men from Dynelectron, the contractor hired by Washington to help with these projects. We would usually eat breakfast at the hotel, eat lunch at the Embassy Annex, and then go out to dinner somewhere. And there were a lot of great places to dine inexpensively.
It should be said at this point that our hard-working Seabee Chief had an unusual problem. After about 8:30 at night, he would fall asleep. It did not matter whether he was lying down, sitting down or even standing up: he would fall asleep. Horses can sleep standing up: so could Chief Vantine. You would be talking to him in a bar and turn around to answer someone else, turn back and Cliff would be asleep. He understood this condition and usually tried to be sitting down when sleep took him.
Early in our work on the Embassy, Tim Fountain announced that he wanted to take us out for the best Mexican food in Caracas. Tim having served on the Border Patrol, this seemed to be a strong recommendation. Tim had a little Honda Prelude at the time, a two-door car, but we could get five men into it with a little discomfort.
On a Saturday evening, Tim picked us up at our hotel and we started to drive through town. We drove through some very ritzy areas, then some very modern areas, then some poorer neighborhoods and finally up a narrow road on the side of a mountain where a vehicle that looked like a Gulfstream Trailer was parked. It was a dark and rather seedy area. I noticed that the trailer was powered by two long battery jumpers that were clipped onto the city power lines next to the curb. There was an oval back door to the trailer, and a ladder leading up to it, and the sides of the trailer swung out on each side on struts to form both windows for ventilation and takeout windows for customers who stopped by in cars. Inside, there were wooden benches and stools along each side of the trailer, so we sat down and ordered Polar beers. Tim knew the owner and introduced all of us, and we ordered a couple of rounds of tacos.
Meanwhile, the takeout traffic to the side of the trailer was almost continuous and very intriguing. The traffic consisted of a lot of high-end cars (S-series Mercedes, just as an example). The car would pull up to the ordering window, a darkly- glazed window would roll down and a girl of astonishing beauty would order for herself and others in the car, many of whom were equally stunning. When the order was filed, the girl would hand the owner some money, the window would close and the car would head on up the mountain. Another car of equal status would then pull up and the process would be repeated. I did not see a single young lady who would have looked out of place on the cover of Elle magazine.
By this time, we were eating and the tacos were all that Tim had promised. We had several rounds of beers and ordered more tacos, since Tim was driving. We were starting to get full but did not want to miss the continuous parade of beauty passing in front of us.
By this time, however, it was past 8:00, and Chief Vantine was getting sleepy. Not wanting to spoil the evening for the rest of us, he asked Tim if he could borrow the car keys and sack out in the Prelude. Tim handed him the keys and went back to a discussion with the owner. When we went to check on Cliff about fifteen minutes later, we discovered that he had opened the trunk of the car and had just crawled in, leaving the lid up and falling asleep on the floor of the trunk. One of his feet was propped up on the edge of the trunk, giving him the appearance of a body that had been tossed carelessly into the back of the car.
There is crime in Caracas, and the jumper cable power arrangement might suggest to some of you that we were not eating in the high rent district. Cliff’s presence in the Prelude did not go unnoticed among the take-out patrons in the expensive cars, who took one look at what appeared to be a dead body and sped away without ordering a thing. After about four cars passed without ordering, the owner noticed that something was wrong and suggested to Tim that he take his tired party home. We reluctantly woke Cliff, climbed back into the Prelude and returned to our hotel.
The trapped personnel came pouring out of the bottom of the sally port and tried to force their way back into the orderly line of personnel waiting [at] the metal detector, starting a fight.
Opening Day at the New Embassy in Lagos:
Late in 1978, the new FBO-built [fixed-base operator] American Embassy in Lagos was set to open to the public. I have already described the process of moving safes from the old building to the new one. We had done a lot of work in getting the new building ready for occupancy, and we were especially eager to see the new security package developed by FBO put into service.
The Embassy was approached through a gate in its surrounding fence. Once inside the gate, visitors followed a concrete path to the front entrance. The new Embassy had a double-door front entrance that led up a set of wide stairs to the Marine Guard. There was a landing below the Marine booth with a metal detector and a local guard who also acted as a guide for Nigerian visitors. In front of the Marine, there was a deal tray; the Marine had control over two entry doors to either side of the MSG [Marine security guard] booth, one leading into the Embassy and the other leading into the Consular area. The Consular section was divided into a seating area and windows for American citizens and a larger area for Visas and Immigration. At the far end of the Consulate was a cashier window at which visitors could pay for Consular Services.
In leaving the Consulate or the Embassy, FBO had designed “sally ports” which exited the front of the building on either side of the entry doors. Each sally port was accessed through a locked door at the top of the stairway and each of these sally ports had interlocked doorways, the one at the top of the ramp and the one at the bottom. A departing visitor could be admitted to the exit chute through the upper door by the Marine on duty if the lower door was locked. The visitor would walk down a ramp to the lower door, which could be opened by a push bar if (and only if) the upper door was locked. The visitor would then exit the building. These doors were interlocked to prevent people coming in through the lower door and thereby bypassing the Marine; to help keep the sally ports secure, there was no locking hardware on the exterior side of either upper door. All of these doors were made of aluminum with plate glass panes, had electric Folger-Adams locks on the top of each door with steel bolts, and were controlled by a 220-volt AC [alternating current] system installed as a part of the building contract by a British firm working in Nigeria.
All of the wiring for this door control system used wires of the same color. Individual wires were identified by taped numbers which were wrapped around the wires. Almost before the wiring project was complete, the hot African sun began to cause the numbered tapes to unfurl and fall on the floor. (But that’s another story.)
Because the Consular Section had been closed for three weeks, there was a huge backlog of personnel needing its services. The line of waiting visitors that morning was long, stretching all the way down the front of the Embassy and about a half-block further. It was colorful, too: Nigerian men and women in their best flowing robes, decorated with gold and silver embroidery. As soon as the gates opened, this anxious crowd surged forward through the gate toward the front doors of the Embassy. The local guard manning the metal detector could not persuade the crowd to stop and pass through the metal detector one at a time. In short order, the landing in front of the Marine Booth filled up with visitors pushing on both entry doors, which the Marine would not open because no one had properly cleared the metal detector. Other visitors below continued to press on the bottlenecked visitors above. Help from the RSO [Regional Security Officer] was requested and more local guards were sent to the front of the building to help control the crowd. Eventually, by backing up the first visitors and individually screening them, the crowd began to follow the instructions of the guard at the metal detector….
It looked as if things were under control until the first Consular visitors concluded their business in the building and started to exit through the sally ports. The first guest stood at the upper door, pushing at the lock until the Marine opened the door for him. Then he went down to the lower door to exit the building. As soon as the lower door was opened, about twenty visitors rushed through this apparent new entrance, bypassing the metal detector. They began pounding on the upper door, which had no external hardware. When the bottom door eventually closed, all of these personnel were trapped inside the sally port. It was hot, and not what they expected, so they panicked and began to push together on the locking hardware of the lower door. The deadbolt remained fastened, but the frames of the aluminum doors bent out to a point where the deadbolt no longer secured the door. The trapped personnel came pouring out of the bottom of the sally port and tried to force their way back into the orderly line of personnel waiting [at] the metal detector, starting a fight.
The Marines were worried that they might not be able to control the crowd. The Gunnery Sergeant went outside the front door to try and assist the local guards in stopping the fight, and almost immediately became involved in the fight himself as waiting visitors began to first push him around and then hit him. Seeing their Gunny in trouble, three other Marines went out the back door, joined the fight at the front of the Embassy, rescued the Gunny and returned to the building through the back door.
The back door of the Embassy was essentially unlocked at that time and was used as an entry way for Embassy employees while the new front door system was being tested. A number of the waiting visitors realized that there was another way into the building, watched the Marines enter the back door and then slipped in the back door behind the hardline themselves. Some wandered toward the front of the building, some took the elevator by the back door to upper floors, and still others walked up the rear fire stairs. Employees leaving the Ambassador’s office would find themselves in an elevator with a group of Nigerian men dressed in the traditional flowing robes, pill-box hats and gold-toned pointed-toe shoes. When word of the building penetration reached the Marines, they began a sweep of the premises to expel unwanted guests, herding the Nigerians they encountered toward the back door and around to the front of the building. A guard was then posted at the back door.
The fight in front continued. The confusion in the Consular section sally port was repeated in the Embassy sally port the first time an employee exited through the lower door. This door, too, was damaged when trapped Nigerians panicked and bent the frame of the door. With both sally port outer doors now able to extend their bolts, the interlock system saw them as “locked” and no longer worked as designed. Visitors were able to use the push bar at the top of the Consular exit ramp to open the door. The crowd saw this and surged toward the Consulate, with about twenty visitors getting into the Consulate through the chute.
At the direction of the RSO, the Marine on duty dropped the large, motorized steel grille that was intended to secure the Embassy at night. This formed a barrier that the crowd could not breach, and they clustered around the grill, reaching through its bars and shouting for the right to enter. The Marines inside the Embassy cleared the Consulate of visitors in small groups, escorting each group to the front entrance on the Embassy grounds. Other visitors were then informed that the Embassy was closed for the day, and were persuaded to leave the Embassy grounds, which were then secured. Quite an introduction to Lagos!
“Looking closely at the heavily-laden offering tables, I spotted a can of Pringles in the middle of the center table….Did a devotee from the States return to Thailand to offer the Buddha this new food?”
The Temple of the Emerald Buddha:
Thailand is a great place to both visit and to live. A wealthy Buddhist monarchy, the country has a great number of temples and stupas in each of its cities. The center of the country features a large ring of ancient stone temples surrounded by a river, each of which can be reached from boats. As you approach the capital from the North, the temples get more and more ornate and more modern. Chief among these is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which is on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Bangkok, right on a wide curve of the river.
The Emerald Buddha isn’t made of emerald. The statue is light green, and to my eyes looks like it might be made of nephrite or serpentine, but it is a sacred object to Thais and they are not about to send the Buddha to a lab for analysis. The statue has two sets of clothing; a gold outfit for the summer months and a black outfit for the winter. Within its very ornate gold-leaf temple, the statue sits serenely atop a pyramid of tiers, each higher and narrower than the others. Visitors to the temple must raise both their eyes and their heads to regard the Buddha in all his splendor.
Buddhist temples are maintained by monks, and devotees who come to visit each temple routinely bring gifts for the Buddha that are intended for consumption by the monks. The people of Thailand are very devoted to their religion, and very generous. At the Emerald Buddha Temple, I noticed four long tables of gifts set on the terrace below the statue. Each table was piled high with flowers, fruit and collection boxes for money. There were orchids, popular in Thailand, but there were also gardenias, roses and frangipani. The tables were filled with fruit: There were mangos, loquats, grapes, green bananas, lychees and custard apples. There were offerings of food in a great variety of containers, some oriental and some of Tupperware. Monks from the Temple counseled visitors as to their spiritual questions and needs. They took pilgrims on walking tours of the palace, through an ornate religious history museum on the palace grounds with the entire life of Buddha hand-painted on the interior walls, and to the other temples near the palace.
Looking closely at the heavily-laden offering tables, I spotted a can of Pringles in the middle of the center table. At that time, Pringles were rather new, and I wondered at their origin. Did a devotee from the States return to Thailand to offer the Buddha this new food? Had this product reached Thailand and achieved the same popularity there that it met with in the U.S.? What would the monks do on opening the can? There was no answer from the Emerald Buddha, who simply sat on his podium, smiling gently and observing the world below.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
U.S. Army 1967–1972
Joined the Foreign Service 1975
Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire—Security Engineering Officer 1978–1981
Panama City, Panama—Security Engineering Officer, Officer in Charge 1983–1986
Washington, D.C., United States—Division Chief for Countermeasures 1989–