EMBASSY KID: Home Leave Territory is Still Sacred Ground

For the first twelve years of my childhood, America was not home, but rather the place that we visited every few years from Europe or Latin America and the cities that WERE home: Caracas, Bologna, Rome, Bogotá. Foreign service officers like my father was during the Cold War, are required to take what the State Department calls “home leave” — travel to their designated home and 30 days within the USA — to refresh their allegiance to the country they represent.

The background on the home leave rule is the concern that diplomats might become overly sympathetic to whatever culture they’re in and forget about their American roots. Those 30 days were designed to re-Americanize those of us who’d been overseas.

My father, Robert C. Amerson, United States Information Agency

For my midwestern family, home leave was travel to the farmland of eastern South Dakota, where my father was born and raised. Along the way, we’d also visit Winona, Minnesota, the Mississippi River town that my mother came from, and the Twin Cities, where my father’s siblings had settled.

Home Leave Territory

These locations—where we had grandparents, aunts and uncles, and scads of cousins—became to me Home Leave Territory. It was a world in which it was always summer, our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived in the same homes year after year, and we were the celebrated visitors. Here’s how I described a 1962 trip.

Home Leave Territory takes up most of my childhood mental map of America. My memoir EMBASSY KID (coming in Spring 2023 from the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and New Academia Publishing) includes this telling illustration.

The World According to Jane, Embassy Kid, publication expected 2023

My home leave connection remains in my 68-year-old marrow. Postponed for three years—first, by my 2019 illness and, then, by the pandemic—I traveled with my sister to Minnesota in mid-July to for a weekend of family time, an echo of the huge gatherings that would erupt when we visited “the home sod” every few summers from 1957-74.

My 2022 visit

Our first stop was at Firefly Farm, my cousin Ricka and husband Josh’s tranquil retreat amidst acres of sweet corn and soy fields, where her sister Becky at This Old Horse manages Wells Creek Wild Mustang Sanctuary, an awesome forever home for these rescued horses. Ricka and I are the oldest cousins on my mother’s side of the family, and we still huddle when given a chance.

Baker Medlock sculptor
Baker Medlock sculptor

The very cool horse sculpture is by nephew Baker Medlock, cousin Eve’s son. You can find more of Bake’s work here.

Then, we were off across the farmland and big open skies of Minnesota to see my father’s side of the family in the Twin Cities.

Amerson family reunion St. Paul MN
Amerson family reunion in St. Paul MN

Seated in the St. Paul backyard of Uncle Carl, we raised a glass to Aunt Jeanie, who passed in 2021, and to her daughter Shannon, whose birthday my sister and I celebrated with her in Colorado just days before.

Cousin Shannon, sister Sue, and me
Cousin Shannon, sister Sue, and me

On Sunday, we got one-on-one time with Dad’s surviving sisters, Aunt Snooky and Aunt Elaine, both in their nineties and sharp as tacks. Snooky leads the book club and takes calisthenics at her senior living facility in Minneapolis.

Elaine, who lives alone in St. Paul, does a daily workout routine she created 20 years ago. We felt her strength as she whirled us through the polka. My sister and I come from good stock!

Polkaing with Elaine

Family ties that bind FS kids

I feel very lucky to have known these people my whole life, and to share memories with my cousins that go back two generations. Although it’s not nearly the same as having family down the block, or even in the same country while you’re growing up, the State Department’s home leave paved the way for longterm relationships with the people who I treasure.

A current Foreign Service family recently wrote on their blog that they are sad that their children have so few opportunities to be with their extended family.

And the truth is that our kids do not spend enough time with their cousins. They should be engaging in the kind of cousin hijinks that form lasting familial bonds and undergird close relationships into adulthood. This is part of the price we pay for serving overseas.

Towels Packed, Will Travel

My Amerson cousins are still laughing about the time in South Dakota that we kids hopped off the hay wagon into the corn field, leaving one cousin driving the tractor alone. Silly prank. Meaningless, really. So why does it bring us all so much joy?

It isn’t the amount of time together. It’s recognizing that any time together is precious. And that Home Leave Territory is still sacred.

Surviving Amsterdam: The Restorative Power of Love

Amsterdam ICU
Amsterdam ICU

The presence of my husband, daughter, and sister around my bed in the Amsterdam ICU—holding my hand, stroking my face, speaking to me even when I was intubated and under heavy sedation—is one reason I did not succumb to the ruptured aneurysm and my body’s six-week fight to live in 2019.

There is a restorative power to love that I experienced then, and that I continued to experience throughout my recovery and rehabilitation.

And I’ve seen the healing power of love in the transformation of our rescue black Lab, Kumba, from vicious attack canine to the calmest, sweetest dog in the neighborhood.

Traumatized rescue

Kumba pawshake
Kumba pawshake

When he was flown from a shelter in Puerto Rico to South Florida in late 2019 by Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, Kumba was so thin and sick that the LRRoF vet was surprised he could even stand. It took two months of medical attention—and foster family love, including being in the pack of the foster household’s two other black Labs—to get Kumba back to health. We just happened to be the lucky family that was first in line when Kumba was ready to be adopted.

Per LRRoF requirements, we brought our daughter’s Lab (and our daughter) to meet Kumba during V and Pancho’s visit from Florida’s west coast. Kumba was a little nervous around Pancho, but a complete soulful sweetheart around us. The match was made, if we could wait another month while Kumba completed recovering. On Super Bowl Sunday 2020, we brought Kumba home.

Kumba becomes Cujo

That’s when we discovered that Kumba was Cujo.

On my husband’s first walk with our new dog, Kumba lunged at our neighborhood’s friendliest dog, snarling, teeth bared and eyes wild. It was a shocking behavior that his foster had not seen. Perhaps being in the pack had given Kumba a sense of protection, but now, alone on a leash in a new environment, Kumba did what he probably did in the shelter fending for himself. Or maybe this is who he was. We had a choice to make: take him back, or help him. We looked in those soulful eyes and knew we had to help. Or at least to protect him and other dogs from this menacing behavior.

Kumba snuggle
Kumba snuggle

We brought in a trainer, Alison Chambers, who confirmed that we had a very good dog who was anxious about other dogs. In our first lesson we learned how to read Kumba’s behavior and how to begin forging the relationship with us that might just lead him out of anxiety and vicious self-protection. We had just one lesson before the pandemic locked everyone down.

Over the next month, I did my best to avoid other dogs on our morning walks, reinforcing positive behavior, but Kumba tensed, pre-attack, any time he saw another dog. Worse yet, he shocked us by dashing out open doors to attack unsuspecting dogs who were doing nothing more than walking by. He snarled, teeth snapping, at our neighbors’ friendly golden, Lexie, when she approached too quickly. There was never blood drawn but the psychic damage and our neighbors’ anger was real. We needed to protect him, ourselves, and others. We bought a muzzle.

The muzzle helped. The social distancing imposed by the pandemic helped— being kept a safe distance away from other dogs (and their people) gave Kumba reassurance. The gentle, sweet dog who loved nothing more than curling up at our feet (or next to us on the couch) began letting go the anxiety and the defensive behavior.

Kumba makes a friend

Then, Kumba made his first dog friend—Reese, the dachshund-golden mix who is the self-appointment goodwill ambassador of our community. Hallelulia! Other small dogs followed—Adam the French bulldog, Cookie the Shitzu—but it was when Kumba greeted German shepherd Myla that we knew he was getting better. Well enough to invite Pancho back.

The first few hours were tricky, but Pancho and Kumba soon established self-protecting force fields that allowed them to share a space without crossing personal boundaries. Another huge step forward for our sweet boy!

Labs Kumba and Pancho
Labs Kumba and Pancho

Finding his people gave Kumba confidence. Finding his bliss—retrieving—gave him a purpose. He was a fragile four-year-old dog who didn’t know how to run, catch, and retrieve when we adopted him. The hours of that pastime have added physical and psychological resilience to our six-year-old happy dog, as I wrote in a post about the magic of finding the thing you were meant to do. Our pup is happiest with a ball in his mouth.

Kumba laser-focused on retrieving

But would this new-found confidence help Kumba over the hurdle of re-making the acquaintance with dogs he previously snarled at?

Love restores

The answer is yes. The power of love restores. Kumba is now completely relaxed around Lexie, the Golden up the block who he snarled at, and he is the dog in the neighborhood who gives nervous dogs and their owners the confidence to approach us. He is such a good host to visiting dogs that he’ll even allow a guest to make herself at home on his bed. ”Mi cama, tu cama,” he is saying to Lila, the sweet girl who hangs out with us on the weekends while her mom works.

Lila on Kumba’s bed
Lila on Kumba’s bed

And around the newest pup in the block, Kiwi the tiny powerhouse? Kumba just kind of smiles and shakes his head at this bundle of confidence. Can you see the thought bubble over Kumba’s head? ”I don’t understand girls, but they’re fun to have around.”

Neighbors Kumba and Kiwi
Neighbors Kumba and Kiwi

Yes, love is a powerful thing, inspiring the best in us all.

A Dog’s Biological Fulfillment: Know Your Breed, Find Their Bliss

When we met our rescue Lab in early 2020, a tick-borne illness had worn him down to barely 50 pounds. The folks at Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida weren’t sure how Kumba was still standing. I, too, was thin and weak, just seven months into my recovery from a near-fatal illness in 2019 that had depleted my body of the ability to move. 

Kumba and me on a long walk in 2020
Kumba and me on a walk in 2020

We became each other’s support system on the road to full recovery. Morning strolls became long walks that improved our strength and confidence with each step, and now we run two miles several times a week.

Finding what we are meant to do

Thanks to steady exercise over the past three years, I’m back to swimming, an activity that floods my brain with endorphins that float my entire day. Submerged with the bubbles of my breath as my soundtrack for thirty minutes of rhythmical movement, it’s as if I’ve found what I was meant to do.

Kumba, too, has found what he was meant to do. Those frail 50 pounds are now a robust 80 pounds of bounding joy for whom catching and retrieving has become the highlight of each day. And there’s a big lesson in this. 

Biological fulfillment

As a Labrador retriever, it’s in Kumba’s DNA to feel incomplete without holding something in his mouth. Initially, chewing was his way of releasing anxiety when we left him alone. Over time, however, Kumba’s separation anxiety lessened, and his confidence in us and in himself grew. As dog trainer Alison Chambers recently helped me to understand, a huge piece of this change is the result of my husband’s daily catch session with Kumba. 

It’s called biological fulfillment.

Dog behavior expert Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training in Boca Raton, FL

At first, Kumba would run after the ball but not bring it back. Gradually, Kumba discovered the joy in the game, and today he runs fast and far and returns the ball at Ray’s feet over and over. When he’s had enough, he holds onto the ball and turns toward home, tail high and wagging. Labs retrieve. That’s their job. 

Kumba and the ball take a break
Kumba and the ball take a break

Find your dog’s bliss

We forget that dogs used to have jobs.

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

Work like minding the children, herding sheep, hunting kept dogs engaged. The transition to indoor pets — what Alison calls “cuddly at-home figurines” — removed the work dogs were bred to do, leading to behavior problems.

Alison has three dogs. She treats them to different activities that make their breed happiest. Ruka, her Belgian malinois — a breed Alison describes as “a German shepherd on crack” — is a ring sport dog, bred to excel at personal protection. Sundays are “biting days” at a local training facility. Jett, Alison’s terrier, is a fearless pursuer — “He is not afraid to die,” Alison says — and has become Number Two in the nation in barn hunting, a sport that mimics rat hunting. Otto, Alison’s pit bull mix, goes along for the fun but is happiest laying in the backyard.

Jett, Otto, and Ruka
Jett, Otto, and Ruka

It’s amazing to see a dog who is genetically predisposed to do something light up when you give him the chance to do it. It’s like he’s saying, ‘Wow! How did you know?’

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

 So, folks, find a ball, go to the pool, or head out for a spring walk — find what lights you and/or your dog up, and do it!

Family Friday: The Year-Round Christmas Colors of South Florida

On my morning walk with Kumba, our loyal black Lab rescue, I noticed this berry bush that reminded me of Northern climes’ holly. The coral ardesia is pretty but a problem: with no insect predators, it has displaced native plants. See more about berries in Florida in Susan Barnes’ Tallahassee Democrat article “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”.

South Florida berry bush

Spotting the berry bush, it occurred to me that there are a lot of holiday colorings to our year-round plantings. Here are some examples from our garden this week.

Crown of thorns, impossible to deter
Hibiscus, crown of thorns, and milkweed
Milkweed, foodstuff of Majestics
Caladium
Caladium, which goes underground in the summer.
Croton
Croton, a hardy ornamental bush.
Hibiscus
Hibiscus, just splendid. Pinks, too.
Cordyline
Cordyline, tall spikes of leaves.
Paddle plant
Paddle plant, a succulent.
Bleeding heart vine. Such bursts of color on our two arbors!

We have joined the neighborhood in adding even more red and green to our outdoor decor, [Along with the great doormat Levi-the-therapy-dog and Julie and Raul gave to Kumba!]

Christmas decor

This weekend, our community will enjoy all the neighbors’ holiday lights when Santa and his hayride/sleigh come to visit. And we are going to see the Lights 4 Hope display at Okeeheelee Park. Footage to follow!

In the meantime, happy holidays from our red-and-green garden!

Here are other posts about gardening that you may enjoy: Five ways that gardening is good for you; Rebecca Mead’s meditations on gardening; and Monet’s gardens in Giverny.

How American Diplomats Celebrate Thanksgiving

For the first time, my husband and I did not have turkey for our Thanksgiving meal, choosing instead butter-soft filet mignon for our dinner-for-two this year. However, tradition is much on my mind.

As US embassies, foreign service families, and ex-pats of all kinds celebrate America’s national holiday abroad, the events of the day are inevitably influenced by the overseas environment. Here are some Thanksgiving insider stories drawn from my own experience and from the extensive oral history collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST).

The tastes of home

When you’re far from home, it can be the small private traditions that matter. For example, the 1960 Thanksgiving for the international student body at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies(SAIS) in Bologna almost didn’t happen because celery — the essential ingredient in my mother’s turkey stuffing — could not be found locally, and it took an all-day trip to two American military bases to save the day.

The eight-hour, 400-mile shopping trip resulted in a splendid Thanksgiving dinner that was a hit among the students and faculty who gathered at the Bologna Center on Friday, November 25, although the canned cranberry jelly got more attention than the celery dressing. 

Jane Kelly Amerson López, EMBASSY KID (publication pending)

International understanding

Sometimes, as ADST’s files reveal, Thanksgiving creates an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and understanding.

Ambassador James F. Creagan, who was Deputy Chief of Mission at the American embassy to Vatican City in the late 1980s, drew on turkey, stuffing, and 100 proof Wild Turkey Bourbon to negotiate a ceasefire between rival parties in Mozambique’s bitter civil war.

They had big headaches the next day, but they signed a ceasefire and applauded Thanksgiving.

Ambassador James F. Creagan, ADST Interview

Ambassador Joyce E. Leader, who was Consul General in Marseilles, France prior to becoming ambassador to Guinea, was faced with the challenge of fitting in multiple Thanksgiving dinners put on by clubs of Americans who’d stayed on after WWII. There were two clubs in Monaco, more in Nice and Cannes, and three in Marseilles.

Nobody knew how to make a pumpkin pie, but let me tell you there are more ways to service pumpkin than I ever imagined.

Ambassador Joyce E. Leader, ADST Interview
Our outdoor Thanksgiving table in South Florida
Our outdoor Thanksgiving table in South Florida

Conflicting events

And sometimes, history continues to be made despite the American holiday.

Arriving in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, the day before Thanksgiving, Theodore Boyd was quickly thrust in to Congo’s political upheaval.

When I got up on Thanksgiving Day and there was no one on the streets I said, “Oh, that’s okay because it’s a holiday.” Then it dawned on me subsequently that the Congolese didn’t observe Thanksgiving so I went over to the embassy and they said, “Come on in we need you, we’ve just had a coup.”  

Theodore A. Boyd, ADST Interview

However you celebrated, Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!

A Day With A Palm Tree: How to Spread Year-Round Joy with Christmas Lights

A day with a palm tree is a great day!
Stories of personal triumph, community engagement, and environmental stewardship.

About today’s story

Our accountant’s husband, J, is a huge Christmas lights fan. When they lived in our neighborhood, the rooftop Santa and reindeer were on their garage by Thanksgiving, along with an enormous collection of other sparkling, flashing, and inflatable decorations. E, J, and their great kids were the heart of their street, and we were sorry when they moved to a nearby neighborhood. However, we understood: the larger lot gave J more room for Christmas. When we drove by over the next holidays, we spotted their house two blocks away.

Spreading holiday cheer for more to hear

Lights 4 Hope volunteers
Lights 4 Hope volunteers

However, E and J’s hearts are, in a turnaround from the Grinch, two sizes too big, and the family’s passion for Christmas has grown way beyond their home. J is now the architect of a one-mile, drive-through holiday lights display in nearby Okeeheelee Park that runs weekends through January 2. As AP reporter David Sharp said in his recent article about the tradition of light shows, ”You can feel the difference when there is a lot of love behind the project.” Lights 4 Hope, the non-profit the family helped establish four years ago, uses the funds generated by the $15/car entrance fee to spread happiness and joy year-round to families coping with their child’s critical illness or life-changing physical changes.

Wonder if Lights 4 Hope has made a difference? These children’s delight says it all. Lots more of these uplifting photos and stories on Instagram.

You can be part of this joyful mission

To learn more about Lights 4 Hope, including how to get tickets for this year’s display or to become a sponsor or supporter, click on their website here. You can also follow Lights 4 Hope on Facebook or on Instagram. ’Tis the season, after all!

Pandemic or not, this drive-through format is a perfect way to end 2021 in a safe and inspiring way.

The Town Crier
Lights 4 Hope 2021
Lights 4 Hope 2021

Family Friday: Birthday Breakfast and Anchovy Pizza

My birthday was this month. We all have celebration traditions. Mine are Birthday Breakfast and anchovy pizza.

Birthday Breakfast

Birthday Breakfast is a tradition my mother created 67 years ago to offset likely evening obligations my father’s Foreign Service work required of both my parents. Why wait to celebrate with a post-dinner cake when you can blow out candles and eat (coffee) cake at breakfast while wearing a crown?

My Birthday Breakfast table!

All my life, family birthdays have begun with this celebration, except for the year we forgot Birthday Breakfast on my mother’s special day when my sister and I were selfish teens and our father was up to his eyeballs in diplomatic work.Awful us.

Pizza buon viaggio party on my 9th birthday

Why anchovy pizza is on my birthday menu is another story.

In the fall of 1963, when I had begun fourth grade and my father had begun his second two-year tour as Press Attaché in Rome, the US Information Agency in Washington decided they needed him in Bogotá, Colombia. ASAP. We would not be able to take time to see family in Minnesota, but instead go directly to Bogotá after Dad’s briefings in Washington.

My last day of school at the Overseas School of Rome fell on my ninth birthday. My mother brought personal pizzas to my classroom for a combination farewell-and-birthday party. My pizza came loaded with anchovies, a preference I’d developed during our three years in Italy. As I looked around the room, I understood that leaving was our normal. Packing up just the four of us, on to our next lives.

You might assume that pizza would be associated in my heart with sadness, but instead it became a salty touchstone through which I could always connect with my childhood, especially on my birthday.

Time to go for the gusto again

We’re not fast-food eaters, and the pandemic has only reinforced our home cooking norm. However, pizza entered my consciousness again recently, just in time to join another birthday.

A month ago, I closed the door on a fifth grader selling coupon books for her school. It’s the kind of hustle I participated in when our daughter was little, going door-to-door in our upstate New York neighborhood hustling products for the PTA and the Girl Scouts. In fact, as I said, “No, thank you, we don’t buy anything,” I reminded myself of the old crone who turned our daughter away. “We don’t eat cookies.” I’m still furious at her.

“We don’t buy anything.” Wow, that’s a pandemic phrase. We don’t go anywhere. We don’t buy anything. Unless it’s on Amazon. And even then, if it doesn’t fit into the routine inside our bubble, it isn’t happening. We have become entrapped in our survival routine.

I was shocked at my behavior. There was a quick fix. I called the girl’s mother to ask the youngster to come back, and minutes later shelled out twenty-five bucks for a book advertising discount deals at local vendors that we are unlikely to use. But I at least I’m a better neighbor.

Our daughter flipped through the book when she stopped by. ”The pizza place I like is in here,” she said. My husband stays away from tomatoes and spice. “You know, Dad,” our daughter said, “You could have a little from time to time.” And, I reminded my husband, there’s always white pizza, although that doesn’t really match the standards of my Brooklyn-raised honey.

When my birthday came, our daughter and her fiancé surprised us by having delivered to our home two delicious fresh trattoria-style pizzas: one white, and one tomato and anchovies. What a birthday dinner!

Maybe we’ll even use a pizza coupon next time!

How do you celebrate your birthday?

EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR. Episode 3: How My Mother Got Our Family Through A Revolution (1958, Caracas)

[This is a condensed version of my memoir about my childhood in the Foreign Service during the Cold War. EMBASSY KID is being evaluated for publication by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training]

Episode 2: The Mob Comes Roving

Episode 1: The Dictator Flies Over Our House

EMBASSY KID: Preface


My parents watched the procession of looters shuffled by, the sounds of their humble slippers, the Venezuelan alpargatas, mimicking the sound of prairie wheat blown by the wind. The parade disappeared into the night. In just hours, dawn would peak over the Andes, ushering in the first day of Venezuela’s freedom from tyranny.

“It’s going to be a long day,” my father said. ”Might as well get a little sleep.”

My mother lay at his side, eyes shut and mind wide open. Never in a million years had she imagined while growing up in Winona, Minnesota that she’d be a 30-year-old part-time diplomat, mother of two bilingual kids, and boss to a live-in maid, trying desperately to figure out how was she going to her household through a South American revolution.

Dad muttered something in his sleep, and Mom rested her hand on his shoulder. The baby-faced blond GI who’d wooed her at Macalester College had charmed her with his intelligence, wit, and gift of gab, and she knew that her smile, chestnut hair, and dancer’s grace made them look elegant wherever they were. He’d been looking for adventure, and boyohboy they were in it now.

The pitter-patter of little feet told Mom that I was up and in search of Fina, leaving Susie to sleep in for another hour. Slips of quiet Spanish made their way from the maid’s room beyond the kitchen. Mom roused herself to get the coffee water on, an old habit. 

Josefina and Janie, Caracas 1955
Josefina and Janie, Caracas 1955

Fina had become my world when she rescued me, wailing, from the spot between the bed and the wall I wedged myself into the day my parents and I were at the home of another Embassy family. In short order, Fina had moved in with us, and I had my first full-time playmate. Spanish was my first language. After my sister arrived, I knew I could still steal my Fina time first thing in the day. 

I danced into the kitchen in my pink robe and Venezuelan alpargatas sandals. Like baby Susie, my fair hair and blue eyes revealed my parents’ Norwegian heritage. “Buenos días, Mommy!” 

Mom scooped me up. “Good morning to you.” She kissed the top of head, remembering our first year in Caracas when my scant hair and lack of pierced ears had caused caraqueños to think I was a boy. She gave me a squeeze before depositing me onto my regular chair at the little kitchen table. 

Josefina walked in, smoothing the skirt of her cotton dress and tucking back a strand of her black hair. She had on one of the flowered dresses Mom had insisted she wear instead of the head-to-toe black outfit Fina had worn when she first came to work for us. Mom would have no mourning clothes here. To my mother’s midwestern sensibility, somber clothing was appropriate for funerals but not for the everyday wardrobe. Cheerfulness would be the order of the day.

“Fina.” Mom nodded with what she hoped was confidence. There was no need to get her going again.

The living room phone rang. Dad spoke into the receiver briefly. 

“Well, looks like we’ll make it,” Dad called out.

“That’s good,” Mom said, waiting for more.

Fina tied on her apron. “Señora.” She smiled, holding her lips tight over her bad teeth. “Yo me ocupo.” I’ll take it from here. “¿Geni, Corne Flex?” The Kellogg’s cereal was a staple in our house. She poured me a bowl.

Mom smiled to herself, remembering Fina’s first days with us, when she’d carried the box of Betty Crocker cake mix to the breakfast table thinking it was cereal. “Gracias, Fina,” she said, and joined Dad in the living room.

“Well, things are settling down,” he said, “but the communists are emerging. The Boy Scouts, in fact.”

“But that’s an American organization, isn’t it?” Mom said.

“International, but this region is headquartered in good ol’ Havana. So these kids, commie-trained maybe, have seen an opportunity to be helpful, and, damn it if they aren’t doing just that. They’re directing traffic all over town.”

“Well, the craziness of last night could hardly continue,” Mom said.

“It’s been months brewing, Nan, so, no, it’s still crazy,” Dad said. 

Fina brought in their coffee. “¿Algo más?”

No, gracias, Fina,” Mom said. 

The maid nodded and returned to the kitchen where I waited to chat away about our day’s plans. I had no idea anything was going, and Mom wanted to keep it that way. Happy and normal.

“So,” Dad continued, “Things will be more crazy as Caraqueños realize the shackles are gone. Best we stay off the streets for a while longer.”

Janie, Susie, Fina, Caracas 1958
Janie, Susie, Fina, Caracas 1958

And so our little family spent the rest of the day indoors. While Dad kept the telephone tree information flowing through the Embassy, Mom worked up a batch of Grandma Amerson’s lemon bars, and Fina oversaw Susie and me playing in the aluminum washtub next to the cement laundry sink behind the kitchen, keeping an eye out for the rats that lived in the drain. A poison-laced banana had kept the varmints away during my grandparents’ visit. 

The day limped along. Mom typed her weekly letter to her parents. Susie and I played store with Fina in Spanish, had lunch, napped, played dress-up in Mom’s old modern dance costumes and Fina’s Sunday shoes, had dinner. After our baths, we cozied into our hooded towels while Mom read us a bedtime story. If you ignored the radio, it would have been just another family day at home.

But it was my father’s job to stay tuned in. As the press attaché, Dad had developed a wide network of contacts among journalists and newspaper editors, academics, and political players. The American press included trusted contacts as well, like Tad Szulc of the New York Times, who covered the growing resistance to Pérez Jiménez. Many of the Venezuelan journalists and professors Dad first met in 1955 had become involved in clandestine work against the military dictator. Periodically, things would come to a head in their conversations, the Venezuelans questioning how America, beacon of democracy, could support the tyrant. Dad’s personal sentiments bled through his official response. 

Now that the reviled Pérez Jiménez had been overthrown, Dad would be able to celebrate the success of the revolution with his contacts.

If they survived. The radio blared the latest: shots had been fired as a mob surrounded the headquarters of the dreaded national police.1

Footnotes

1Pérez Jiménez’ Seguridad Nacional enforced press censorship, restricted organized labor, and banned political opposition. (Amerson, Robert. How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, The American University Press, 1995. p. 4)

A Day With A Palm Tree: It is Never too Late to Live Your Dream

His newly-minted BA in electronic engineering secured my friend and neighbor Oscar a coveted summer internship with Amazon — that is, unless an offer from the aerospace giant McDonnell steals him away to fulfill his childhood fantasy of building spaceships. Either way, it’s a promising start for a new college grad with a 4.0 GPA.

What makes the achievement even more remarkable is that Oscar is in his 50s. This is his second BA and his third career. And he thanks failure for making it all possible.

Idyllic childhood

Oscar, who is from Colombia, spent his formative years inspired by the machinery of a steel mill company town, where the amenities were plentiful and the freedom to explore was unlimited. His academic and leadership skills made him a star at home and in the community.

I was the president of the school theater club, the captain of the swim team, and the provincial director of the Red Cross. I was the center of the universe.

Oscar

Grew up too fast

When Oscar moved to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, for college, he quickly realized that being the solitary high-achiever — the big fish in a small pond — had not prepared him for the challenges of university life.

He hadn’t learned how to do the normal childhood things, like playing or hanging out with friends. And the rest of the students had gone to prestigious private schools, where they’d learned English well enough to handle the American engineering textbooks.

I was at the bottom of the food chain. I didn’t know shit about anything.

Oscar

Academic failure and renewal

Distracted by weekend volunteer work that tapped into his leadership skills, Oscar soon found himself on academic probation. His mother interpreted the situation as the system’s failure and scraped the funds together to have Oscar study English in the United States. He stretched those limited funds to cover a full academic year and returned to Colombia with a command of English, a new networking ability, and renewed purpose.

Oscar sailed through the rest of his college work and graduated with a degree in electronic engineering.

Engineer reinvention

Oscar’s first job out of college in Colombia was as a software engineer designing the systems that made ”point of sale” terminals work.

The sound of a terminal printing a receipt still makes me ridiculously happy.

Oscar

However, when it came to innovation and money, engineering proved a dead end. The opportunity was in sales. Oscar pitched his skills to high tech companies, inventing Latin American sales jobs for himself with Colombian, then American, and finally, Chinese companies.

I went over to the dark side for 25 years.

Oscar

He was a self-made success, supporting his wife and children in their new South Florida life.

Business failure, reinvention

But, as the tech business shifted to China, initiative and hard work could not overcome an inflexible business model and haphazard customer support half a world away.

When fifty percent of your success doesn’t depend on you, that’s an awful feeling.

Oscar

Oscar toiled away against diminishing returns until, exhausted and defeated, he found himself unemployed at age 51.

Oscar had one special asset: his wife, Coni. She had seen her husband in his glory leading Red Cross volunteers in Colombia, and she suggested that he return to the work that had brought him so much satisfaction. He’d supported their family while she was home with their children, learning English, and developing a career, and now it was her turn to support him.

After a quarter century of non-stop travel and never-ending problems, the simplicity of helping a hurting person sounded like a balm. Oscar decided to become a paramedic.

Physical failure, reinvention

Oscar quickly secured his EMT certification, but being a paramedic in Florida requires getting firefighter certification as well. Oscar, still an accomplished athlete, welcomed the challenge, knowing that he would be ”the old man” of the class. He made it through six months of grueling training under the blistering tropical sun, wearing heavy gear and lugging even heavier equipment, as his body grew haggard and his skin pale from exhaustion. Only weeks from completing the certification, he felt his shoulder rip. Unable to use his arm, he was out.

But Oscar would not quit. After extensive physical therapy, against medical advice and knowing full well the risks, he reenlisted in the rigorous program. Six more exhausting months, and his body again failed him. He was done.

My physical abilities have always defined me. But here I was, for the first time in my life, unable to finish something I started.

Oscar

Back to engineering dreams

As her husband nursed his physical and psychological wounds, Coni again saw a way forward: Oscar should continue his engineering education.

When Coni said I should go back to school, I said, “I can’t do that.” But she kept encouraging me. And so I did.

Oscar

All those years of experience did not translate into current engineering knowledge, so Oscar found himself starting from scratch with challenging coursework. And he was twice the age of the other students.

But Coni was right. He is really good at this stuff, and the joy he has found in recovering his academic skills infuses his life. He is beloved by his classmates and respected by his professors, on tap for a prestigious internship, and back to being an early-morning regular in our community gym and swimming pool.

Thank God that I could not finish my paramedic training. It would never have been enough.

Oscar

He and Coni (whose new swimming skills also inspired a recent post) can’t wait to see where this new trail will lead them. Neither can I.

It is never too late to live your dream!

A day with a palm tree is a great day!

EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR. Episode 2: The Mob Comes Roving (Caracas, 1958)

[This is a condensed version of my memoir about my childhood in the Foreign Service during the Cold War. EMBASSY KID is being evaluated for publication by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training]

Episode 1: The Dictator Flies Over Our House

EMBASSY KID: Preface

Episode 2: The Mob Comes Roving

My father lifted an arm and waved at the corner of the living room ceiling as the sound of the Venezuelan president’sairplane faded away. ”Adios, el president.”

Ernest Hamlin Baker, TIME magazine cover 2/28/55
Ernest Hamlin Baker, TIME magazine cover 2/28/55

Our maid Fina let out a short cry, and my mother shot Dad a look. Wit had its time and place, and the early hours flight into exile of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was neither. “¿Fina, café?” She said. 

The maid headed to the kitchen, mumbling rosary incantations under her breath. My mother followed to check on Susie and me. We were still curled into our sheets. The resiliency of kids. She walked back into the living room and dropped onto the edge of the couch next to Dad, her hands on her knees as if awaiting instructions.

“The telephone investment seems healthier now, eh?” Dad said. The $250 purchase and $24 a month had been prohibitive when we’d arrived in Venezuela.

“Yes,” Mom said. “Do you think we should call Mother and Dad?”

“Well, no need to alarm your folks, I think. Let them keep the Caracas of their visit.”

“I suppose.” Mom sighed. She was grateful that her parents had avoided this mess when they visited two years before. Tonight, Caracas felt like a different place from the easygoing, eternally springtime city she and Dad had fallen in love with.  

Caracas cityscape 1950s
Caracas cityscape 1950s

My father turned on Radio Caracas. Sporadic news bulletins interrupted the familiar rhythms of Venezuelan folk tunes on the nightly program, Música Criolla. Each announcement reflected a still-evolving scenario. That the completely united army had overthrown the regime. That some army rebels, along with other armed forces and civilians, were taking the credit. That there was violence downtown. Excited voices urged citizens to stay at home, to remain calm, to refrain from harming foreigners.

“So, should we be doing something?” my mother said. “What’s the plan?”

Dad turned down the radio and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “We’re to sit tight. Hard to tell what’s going to happen, but better to be here together than to get caught up by a crowd in the street.”

He wasn’t sure how much my mother had heard about the deadly chaos of rampaging mobs in the coup d’état that had brought PJ to power in 1952.  The folks at the Canadian Embassy had approached their American counterparts several months before about consolidating evacuations. That had seemed like a remote possibility, but maybe not anymore. 

Caracas neighborhood 1950s
Caracas neighborhood 1950s

The Embassy was in downtown Caracas, several miles away from Zucatarate, the tree-lined residential neighborhood on the western edge of town where we and several other Embassy families lived. It was time to touch base with one of those colleagues. 

“Let me give Russ a call.” Dad spoke quietly into the receiver as Fina arrived with the coffee. 

“¿Algo mas?” the maid said. 

My mother forced her lips into a smile.“No, gracias, Fina.” 

The maid nodded. “Pues, buenas noches.” Fina returned to her room. 

My mother nodded and took a sip of the strong brew. None of that wimpy American coffee down here. There was so much they truly loved about this place. She took another sip, allowing the liquid heat to relax her back into the sofa. 

Dad hung up the phone and turned the radio back up a bit. “Okay, so maybe there’s something,” 

My mother snapped to high alert.

“We may want to hide the car,” he said.

“Hide the car?”

“They’re looking for PJ’s head honchos. Russ just had a mob in front of their house thinking his diplomatic plates were Venezuelan issue for the regime. Lucky for them, the men headed down the block before Russ shot his gun.”

“His gun?” Mom sat up straighter. “We don’t have a gun.” She paused. “Dad’s hunting gun.” Her father had given his duck-hunting rifle to Dad.

“Well, yes, we have your father’s gun, but no, I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”

The radio crackled as an enthusiastic announcer broke in. “¡Periodistas!” Newspaper editors! He continued in Spanish. “You are finally free. Tell the public that the dictator is gone!”

“Imagine that,” my father said. “An uncensored paper. First time in ten years.”

“The car?” my mother prompted. The diplomatic plates on the Oldsmobile sitting in our driveway a few feet from the street could easily be confused with those issued for the Venezuelan government. “Do you think maybe we should put out the American flag? I mean, we’re the good guys, right?”

My father considered the suggestion. “Well, we know we’re the good guys,” he said, “but I’m not so sure everyone agrees. Better play it safe. Got some Crisco?”

My mother retrieved the blue tub from the refrigerator. Dad scooped out a handful. He opened the front door slowly, paused, and stepped out. The air was still and heavy with the scent of ripe mango. The pop-pop-pop of fireworks echoed from downtown, or was that gunfire? 

My mother huddled in the doorway as Dad took three long strides across the little yard to the Oldsmobile and crouched down to smear the license plate with grease and dirt. Satisfied, he hurried back inside. My mother shut the door and secured the lock. 

Dad turned off the radio. “Let’s try to get some sleep.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when a car careened around our corner, brakes screeching, horn blaring in defiance of Pérez Jiménez’ edict against honking. My mother froze, her eyes wide. Would the Olds’ camouflage work? Would my grandfather’s shotgun be necessary? But the driver and his euphoric passengers flew by cheering and continued toward downtown.

“Like winning the big game,” Dad said, downplaying the anxious moment with a shrug of his shoulders. Another car swept loudly past. “I think all the action’s downtown. Nothing more to do except get that rest. It’s going to be a long day.”

Caracas photo image late 1950s
Caracas photo image late 1950s

Mom looked in on us girls again. Susie and I were still fast asleep, untroubled by the noise and innocent of the drama unfolding around us. Mom wondered if she’d be up to the task of creating a routine in a city that was in chaos. My preschool would be closed, so both us kids would be home, and Mom hoped that Dad would stay home as well. She’d need to watch Fina. Susie and I would absorb her mood without understanding it. Everything needed to be normal.

She climbed back into bed.

“Everyone okay?” Dad said.

“So far.”

They lay still, eyes closed and ears open. Another few cars gunned past. In the distance, car horns bleated off-key against the staccato rhythms of gunfire. The night wore on. 

As dawn made its tentative advance, they heard a whispering from the street, like prairie grass in the summer wind. It grew steadily louder. They crept to the living room window and peered through the glass slats and metal bars. Out of the fading night emerged a parade of men and women, their passage marked by the soft whoosh-whoosh of the alpargata slippers worn by the people that lived in the shacks up the hill. It was like an Easter processional, only instead of the statue of a saint, each person carried a chair or a television or a file cabinet.

“Looters,” my father said. “They’ve broken into the police station.”

Next time from EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR: How this young Midwestern family — a farm boy and a small town girl, and their two daughters — found themselves in Venezuela