A BRIEF PERSONAL INTERLUDE

OF ASSASSINATIONS AND MARVIN GAYE
COTE D'IVOIRE

It was the summer of 1971.  The “Rural Housing Construction” program I had spent the past year and a half working on in the northern Cote d’Ivoire (Odienne, to be precise, located at the edge of the Sahara Desert) had come to a grinding halt and I’d been negotiating for a couple of months with Peace Corps headquarters down in Abidjan to get me transferred to some other country with no-zip-undo results.  So I took it upon myself to hike down to Abidjan (a two day trip: Day 1 by mille kilo – aka crowded, hot, knee shattering, tiny Japanese bus - over washed out piste to Korhogo; Day 2 (after a splendiferous overnight stay at the Hotel Korhogo with air conditioning (!), hot shower (!), soft mattress and a dinner of steak frites and creme brule) continuing by slow train down to Abidjan’s Gare Centrale and then by taxi to the Peace Corps office.   

ODIENNE
I don’t remember the in-country Director’s name at the time.  We’d had three since I arrived in 1971 when the then-director had been decapitated in an automobile accident three weeks prior to my arrival.  But whoever he was, my arrival shocked him.  In fact when I strode into his office he was dumbstruck which is precisely the reaction I was looking for.  I’d had a couple of propositions dangled my way – an archeological dig in Cameroon, a city planning job in Morocco – and lots of promises but no action. 

ODIENNE
Right off, the Director (probably Acting Director at the time) asked me where I was going to stay.  After all, he was ultimately responsible for my safety and as a newcomer to the country he couldn't neglect to help me accommodate my needs.  “Right here,” I replied. “What do you mean?” he asked.  “Well,” I said “I figure that if I camp out here in the Peace Corps office you can’t avoid me and it might spur things along.”  I was a bit hot-headed at the time and rarely minced words; probably not the best approach in dealing with bureaucrats but, hey, I was young and pretty stupid about a lot of things back then.  “Let me make a phone call,” he said, which he did.

As it turned out, the head of the Voice of America operation in Cote d’Ivoire, Richard Bell, was back in the States on R&R for a couple of months and his home in Cocody (then Abidjan’s upscale enclave for foreigners and rich Ivoirians) was vacant.  To this day I vividly recall when a servant opened the door and I could see a vast living room with an entire wall lined with books, European chairs and sofas, exquisite art works hanging on the walls, crystal chandeliers and a sound system to die for.  (I had a cheap, Japanese, battery operated transistor radio up in Odienne and cinder block-and-plank bookshelves.) 

As I walked through the living room, I could see through the rear wall with its floor to ceiling sliding glass doors, a back yard full of flowers, shrubbery, trees, a swimming pool, a couple of dogs and, - God strike me down if I’m not telling the truth – several miniature deer (Tik-Tiks) wandering around.  If I had died and gone to heaven I couldn’t have been happier.

ABIDJAN, COTE D'IVOIRE
After settling in I began leafing through the Bell’s several hundred volume LP (33 & 1/3 RPM vinyl records for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term "LP" meaning "Long Play" as opposed to 78 RPM or 45 RPM records us Baby Boomers grew up with) collection and happened to stumble upon Marvin Gaye’s recently released “What’s Goin’ On.”  I’d heard one or two of the album’s tracks back up in Odienne listening to the VOA’s “Pop & Rock Hour” or whatever that daily segment was called.  It aired at 8:00 PM every evening.  Quickly figuring out how to operate the pre-amp, amp, tuner and turntable, I lay down on the expensive sofa and was transported to Nirvana by the time the opening stanza to  "Save The Children” (the third track) began filling the living room over the built-in speaker system.   I was overwhelmed at the beauty and potency of the lyrics and the creative musicality of the entire work.  It remains today Marvin Gaye’s best work and is still cited as one of the most historic albums in pop music history.

MARRAKESH
As it turned out, my negotiations with the Peace Corps eventually proved successful.  About two months after my surprise visit I was transferred to Morocco to take up a position in the Ministry of the Interior’s Urban and Regional Planning division.  They must have seriously wanted me because when I arrived I was assigned a car (Citroen Deux Chevaux) and a driver (Omar) and toured the country for the next two weeks.  It was fabulous.  Morocco is a beautiful country with Mediterranean beaches and Alp-like mountains.  In fact, it was on an unpaved road in the Atlas Mountains in the middle of nowhere where I ate the best meal of my entire life (still) at some open fire tagine shack perched at the edge of the gravel road with some old guy in a stained and tattered jalabiyya and turban minding the fire and his clay tagine pot.  (I've just been transported back to a dark, star-filled sky with cold winds whipping across the landscape and a divine smell wafting through the air from the bubbling contents a chipped clay pot with flames licking around its edge.) 

ATLAS MOUNTAINS
It took me a couple of days to figure out that Omar was boffing every lonely American wife whose husband was apparently out in the field doing God's work for the U.S. Embassy and AID (or something) at every overnight stop along the way. (At the time, I was thinking "Damn!  What a lucky guy!)  Omar was young, maybe 20 or 21, very handsome with hazel eyes,  spoke excellent English and was apparently very much in demand for his sexual prowess.  Routinely, as we entered Casablanca, Marrakesh, Agadir, Fez or some small town high up in the Atlas Mountains, he would drop me off at the local Grand Hotel at around 5:00 PM, help me register, tote my bags to the room and then tell me he would meet in the the hotel restaurant at 7:00 AM so that we could get an early start on the next leg of our countrywide tour.   Well, by the third day as he crossed the hotel dining room at around 10:00 AM I figured out that his attentions were much more attuned to the services he was providing to the ex-pat American women along the way than he was to our tour.  And it was fine with me.

Unfortunately, the day after we arrived back in Rabat, the what I call the “Second Annual Assassination Attempt” against King Hassan (there had been one the year before at his beachside palace) occurred as he was flying home from a medical visit to Paris.   It was late in the afternoon, I was staying at the Grand Hotel (natch), and I heard what I thought were the metal roll-up doors from the shops on the street below closing for the afternoon siesta.  But the noise kept on and when I leaned out the window I could see a Royal Moroccan Air Force fighter jet circling overhead.  The street below became immediately filled with building wall to building wall cars, trucks, lorries, busses, bike, motorcycles and people all trying to flee.   Story is that the King himself was piloting his 727 when it (he) was attacked by missile firing planes from his own Air Force. 



The Kind escaped death for a second time (lucky man) but unfortunately for me, it was the Minister of the Interior who was executed a week later as the plot’s organizer. It was also at this time that the Palestinians attacked and killed several Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.  Utter chaos seemed bent on thwarting my short-term goals.  So I figured that not much would be happening at the Urban and Regional Planning Division of the Ministry of the Interior for quite some time so I hiked myself off to Europe to finish up my Peace Corps career.   

I will always be grateful that I was foolish enough to join the Peace Corps.  My experiences there (my introduction to hashish and malaria in particular) were quite enlightening.   It was the first time I had met Africans and Arabs and my interactions and friendships have forever left me with a kind of porous world view that has remained with me.  I guess my biggest discovery was that no matter what the geographical, geopolitical, cultural and ethnic differences among us, we really are much more alike than our superficial differences might portend.   It's unfortunate that more people don't hike themselves out into the world and discover this for themselves.  

PS: I still listen to "What's Goin' On" maybe once a month and I am still overcome with "Save the Children." 




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