To Paraphrase President Kennedy: ”I am from Kyiv.”

Remembering the Cold War face-off

The last time that a Russian leader faced off with the West — the 1962 Cuban missile crisis — the Cold War made clear the battle lines: it was the Communist USSR’s Nikita Khrushchev versus Free World leader President John Kennedy. Khrushchev had outmaneuvered the president, still smarting from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, at their 1961 Vienna Summit, and constructed the Berlin Wall. However, Kennedy prevailed in forcing the Russians to stand down in Cuba in 1962, and Soviet containment continued to frame American foreign policy.

My father was there

My father, Robert C. Amerson, worked the press tent at the Vienna Summit as a Foreign Service officer with the US Information Agency. My mother, sister, and I saw President Kennedy waving from a balcony at the Summit’s conclusion. Dad was the Embassy’s Press Attaché in Rome during the missile crisis, but it was his experience at the Embassy in Caracas, our first post, during the 1957 Venezuelan revolution that really informed his understanding of the power of democracy, the threat of communism, and the iron fist of dictatorship. His 1995 book, How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, tells the story. Both of my parents found honor and personal fulfillment their teamed 20-year career in personal diplomacy in Latin America and Europe. You can read Dad’s interview about his foreign service career in the oral history files of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST).

The Cold War faded into history

I’ve recently completed my own book about this life, Embassy Kid: An American Foreign Service Family Memoir (ADST is presenting it for publication this year). Until the events of the past week, it seemed like long-ago history. The end of the Cold War, marked by the 1989 toppling of Berlin Wall, saw the dissolution of the USSR and the emergence of democratic governments in the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine. The Iron Curtain was gone.

Russia’s invasion has solidified the West

However, Russian president Putin carried Mother Russia’s loss of dominion and territory as a personal grievance. His unprovoked military attack on Ukraine this week, which could be just the first salvo in Putin’s goal of rebuilding the former Soviet empire, has garnered the 30-year-old democracy the support of the world — and solidified the partnership between the United States, NATO, and the European Union —  while the aggression of the former KGB agent has condemned and isolated Russia. Even the US Congress rose united in solidarity with Ukraine during President Biden’s State of the Union.

We stand with Ukraine


Strongmen cannot prevail against the winds of democracy. We stand with the brave people of Ukraine, as President Kennedy did with the people of Berlin in 1963, saying ”I am a Berliner.”

We are from Kyiv.

American and Ukrainian flags hands clasped
American and Ukrainian flags hands clasped

Swimming, Singing, and Diplomacy

My father, Robert C. Amerson, was an American Foreign Service officer with the United States Information Agency during the Cold War. Building relationships was an essential part of his diplomatic responsibilities, “winning hearts and minds” for America.

Growing up as the perpetual new kid in school gave me the ability to quickly make new friends. That may be one of the reasons that I so enjoyed teaching exercise, and when I moved to South Florida and the venue became outdoor pools, I was a very happy camper. Trust and guided support allowed my adult students to relax and discover the joy of moving in a pool. Buoyancy and resistance are a marvelous combination.

There is nothing better that witnessing 60+ year-old women overcome their fear of the water and float for the first time in their lives, smiling ear-to-ear like happy kids. And when adults progresses from being unable to put their heads under water to swimming the freestyle across the pool, there’s no stopping that kind of confidence.

You may also know how important the water has been to my survival and recovery from a near-fatal illness last year.

Today, I want to share another person’s story. It combines my father’s chosen career and swimming. I came upon this delightful anecdote in Bonnie Tsui’s new book, Why We Swim. I am a complete fan.

Why We Swim is a gorgeous hybrid of a book. Bonnie Tsui combines fascinating reporting about some of the world’s most remarkable swimmers with delightful meditations about what it means for us naked apes to leap in the water for no apparent reason. You won’t regret diving in.

Carl Zimmer, New York Times science columnist and author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

Bonnie Tsui writes about Joseph “Jay” Taylor, an American diplomat in Baghdad who received an award from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 for teaching his fellow Green Zone colleagues to swim. The Green Zone was where the international community lived, and where the American Embassy was housed in Saddam Hussein’s royal palace, which included a luxurious pool.

… adorned with eight-foot fountains and lighted with standing chandeliers for nighttime swimming. Jay couldn’t believe that he got to swim in it, even if on more than one occasion he had to jump out of the deep end at the scream of an air-raid siren and, still dripping, clamber hastily into a concrete bunker as the boom boom of exploding mortars vibrated around him.

Bonnie Tsui, Why We Swim

The swim lessons began when Jay offered to teach a colleague from Madagascar who thrashing about the pool without much success. Soon, he was teaching two classes a week.

Cooks, drivers, translators, peacekeeping troops, helicopter pilots: People from all over the world, from all kinds of places and backgrounds, wanted Jay to be their swim coach … Honduras … India … Ukraine … Lebanon … Mexico. It was a miniature United Nations, a global diaspora of people who had never learned to swim.

Bonnie Tsui, Why We Swim

They called themselves the Baghdad Swim Team. They formed a community, forging bonds and finding solace in a common pursuit. I get that. Some of my most intimate friendships have begun in a pool. More importantly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recognized Jay Taylor’s efforts with an award for teaching those wartime swimming lessons. For building community.

My Dad could have been one of Jay’s students. He almost drowned as a kid in rural South Dakota and was never comfortable in water, making this memory so much sweeter. It was the only road trip I ever had with just my father. We drove from the East Coast to Iowa for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. It was hot summer, and the small outdoor pool at the Illinois motel where we stopped for the night was perfect temperature for after-dinner relaxation. We bobbed in that pool for about a half-hour. It was probably the longest Dad was ever in a pool, and I got to be there.

Snooky, Elaine, Bob, Terry, and Jeanie

Dad built community with music, a habit learned on the South Dakota prairie. From hootenannies with expats in Rome, to música folklórica in Bogotá, to flamenco guitar sessions in Madrid, Dad loved nothing more than an informal gathering of music-makers. He celebrated his 80th birthday with his siblings the way they grew up — harmonizing!