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MEMORIES OF OMAN

1982-84

by Charles Christian

In 1981 I requested and received a State Department posting to the NEA. I had been a Middle East RoverMarch 1960, Genoa, SS Constitution on way to E. Med. and tour with Idealist based in Cyprus in the mid '50's and was enthused with the area and wanted to go back. I then received notification that I had been selected for Amman. I welcomed this as I did 3 months there 1957 and enjoyed the city, people, and being close to the Holy Land. A few days later I was notified that a mistake had been made and the posting was to the Sultanate of Oman. Great! Just where is that? Looking it up on a map I had visions of something like I had always feared in that area. A post like Kabul.

The post report said that the people are warm and friendly and that their view of life, religion, family and basic values was very similar to those of most Americans. This proved to be true, but the county itself was just emerging from the middle ages as it was very primitive, backward, no paved roads, schools, medical facilities, etc, until 1970 when the British assisted the son of the then Sultan, who was happy living in the middle ages, to overthrow him and send into exile to England. Then started the unbelievable transformation of the whole county.

Twelve years later when I arrived at post there was already implementation of the most modern amenities for the benefit of the people and the country. This even included free membership in the good national health plan for the diplomatic community. This was a result of a very benevolent Sultan who started putting the oil wealth to good use. Sultan Qaboos remains the same absolute and great ruler of the country today and as a result Oman today appears to be a mini-Dubai from what I can observe remotely. Instead of trying to tell you more about the county, I suggest that you do a search on "Sultanate of Oman”.

As usual arrivals and departures tend to happen in the middle of the night in the Foreign Service. This includes the Dip. Couriers that we all had to pick up and deliver. I arrived about 2 A.M. The Admin Off met me and drove me past the new modern area with detached houses and where all post personnel lived except for the Amb., PolMil Off, and one communicator, me. The Amb wanted one communicator close to the Embassy and not 20 some miles way out in that housing area. My housing was in a new apt. building just outside the main gate to the old city. Until 1970 the lantern hanging over that gate was put out at sundown, the cannon fired, and the gate closed for the night just as it had been for 1,000 years. My apt. had two bedrooms, new Drexel furniture, and A/C units in every room except the kitchen and bath. I was on SMA as my wife remained at home teaching school in Calif. SMA was used to fly her over twice including one whole summer during my tour. I received 2-3? weeks R and R after a year and went home. State would pay only for a RT NYC, but it was much cheaper then that to go around the world and so I did. This gave me a whole day layover in Hong Kong which was a great way to start the R and R. Then another whole day in England on the way back.

Muscat is upwards of 120 in summer, 90 plus humidity, and it takes two weeks to adjust to where it is bearable to be outside. The first two weeks there I did not have a car and walked about 5 city blocks to and from work. I would go from a shady spot to a shady spot and then have to rest before I could go to the next one due to the oppressive heat. The work was mostly 13 days on and 1 off during my 2 year tour The FS Inspectors had some time before recommended one more communicator in the CPU, but it remained only two of us during my tour due to the shortage of communicators. This was why people like me with 14 years out of the OC loop were being hired at that time. Still there was always that off day when it was possible to take advantage of what there was to enjoy. Thanks to the FS Act of 1980 overtime was now paid instead of comp time and the tour paid well in OT, 25% hardship, 10% COL, plus tax free SMA of over $400 a month.

The embassy was in a 1700's two story building adjacent to the Brit Emb within the moats and walls of the old city. The building was actually crumbling as the cement? had been mixed with salt water due to the shortage of fresh water back then. The termites holding hands were probably holding the building together. The ceilings were old palm tree branches full of them and their droppings in the PCC were always a problem. The phone room was a closet accessed only from the outside with no A/C, hot, dirty and probably the reason the telephones failed constantly. I could do little but change cards in the PBX and hope for the best. When all else failed, in flew again the CEO from Karachi. Part of the problem was that ever since the RAF had the building in WWI (repeat WW one) all new cable pairs were just placed over the old ones and painted a sickly green creating a coil of wires about 6 inches thick along the ceilings of the whole building. If it was a wiring problem you had no choice but to string new wires until the problem was corrected.

Our equipment was the same as I had been working with at various posts back in the '50's after OC was upgraded from CW. Somebody must of told the selection board that I had a reputation of being a fast poker (since 1950 USAF) and sent me to where that small talent was really needed. If I was not at the time I sure was after this tour was up.

One of the amenities that was enjoyable was that the Embassy Recreation Assoc. had a Boston Whaler boat about 16 feet long with a 100 hp outboard and a 6 hp emergency outboard. It was parked on it's trailer at the Capital Area Yacht Club 6 miles up the coast. The club had a great beach in a nice cove, a restaurant-bar, and was a member only club who were almost all expat. Brits with some VIP Omanis. The embassy had 3 free membership cards. I volunteered to help out running the ERA who also had a small store with lots of adult beverages and equipment for camping, BBQ's, charcoal, and a few other items that were occasionally needed by most of us on an outing and not really available locally.

I became the pass controller and the passes were kept by the MSG's at Post One. I made sure they were turned back in nightly and not kept by someone who felt they were able to do so by right of rank/position, I made a US Army Major very unhappy over that once. All in all there was no problem and the ERA was able to have the funds to fix the boat when it needed repairs or service. The boat was a great source of pleasure for all who took the time to be trained in it's use. There was a small cove way up the coast which had a very old abandoned village by the beach. Here was a very popular spot for picnics for the members from the club. The only problem there was the very small entrance between some rocky area at the entry to the cove. Normally it was very easy to get in and out if you had experience with your boat. One late afternoon a bad wind came up and it was a "high seas” area in the entrance. I had a TDY'er with me (one of ten I had during the tour due to the CPO's always shipping out on me) I told him that while others were going to wait I thought we could make it. I just did not want to wait a couple hours until the wind died down. We made it. When we got back to my apt. he proceeded to do a big job on a bottle of my whiskey straight. I had a feeling he was not happy with me after that event. I had lots of faith in that boat for it was a Boston Whaler with a powerful engine.

The PCC messages were about 60%+ for DOD. This was due to the large amount of cooperation and assistance we provided to the Sultanate. The Brits had a handle on most of the commerce and pretty much ran the military by having a Brit officer standing behind the Omani officers advising them what to do and say. I would think this is not true today as at the time the Omani's were all a product of having little education or any training unless their parents sent them out of country. We gave to Oman, and supported with US Army personnel, six modern tanks. They worked better and longer in the sand and heat then the Brit tanks. The Brits would train Omani soldiers in their use and when they became proficient they would transfer them into other branches of the army so as to degrade the U.S. tanks' performance. Eventually the tanks were relegated to a command and control use rather then as fighting units. British face saved again.

The U.S. Navy had a aircraft carrier task force in the Arabian Sea most of the time as they do now. Every two weeks at sundown, in order keep a low profile in the area, a combat supply ship would sail into the port area of Muscat and take on fresh fruits, vegs, and eggs and leave before morning. Often I would go aboard and sell embassy tee shirts and local Omani souvenirs for the benefit of the ERA. In return I would usually buy music tapes sailors made aboard ship from the original tapes and which benefited the ships' slop chest fund for their benefit. The sailors were not allowed to come ashore as the country was a closed country and you could not enter unless you had a "No Objection Certificate "issued by the government.

You had to be sponsored by someone in the country who had a desire or business need for you to visit to get a NOC. I did this for my wife and then my daughter when she finished college and was doing the Grand Tour of Europe. She then came on to Oman for three months where she was a hit with the MSGs. She also volunteered with the Ministry of Interior cataloging plants of Oman as she had a Biology minor. She borrowed a sewing machine and made a colorful Omani's woman outfit in time for National Day and she wore it as we walked up the street to a spot in a modern area of old Muscat and watched the neighbor men doing the national circle dance in the street.

The music was provided by a drum, a clarinet type instrument, and beating drum sticks on a hubcap set in a block of wood. Woman in their black robes stood together behind a wall in an apt. driveway watching. Some of them came out to my daughter to greet her and feel her outfit. Through sign language my dau. explained that she had made it. The women seemed to all express their praise to her for the good job. With the assistance of a trusted older Omani government official she also saw areas and met people that most foreigners never saw at that time. The same man and his lovely wife were also a prominent couple in the social life of the city and diplomatic circles.

Once when my wife was over he took us one evening into the interior in a mountainous area. We parked at a remote location and struck up a conversation with an older goat farmer who lived with his wife in a small stone hut. He had nothing to offer us except the small cups of Arab coffee, some dates, and his camp fire. We sat by the fire for an hour, with my friend as translator, with the goats around us as we learned about each other. The sun had just sat and that moment is one of my favorite memories of the county. This was not an unusual occurrence for those who are familiar with Omani's and/or the desert Bedu hospitality in the Arab world.

At Xmas time 1982 the embassy decided it would try to do something that had not been done before. Get official permission to bring some sailors to our homes for some shore time with Americans. It was granted and we took a total of 50. I took 3 of them as I only had a small Mazda 323 sedan for transport. The rule was they were to get out of the car only at your place of residence. Nothing was said about coming and going. So they got my auto tour of the whole capital area on the way to my apt. I put on a good feed with my part time Pakistani house boy's assistance and offered my bar to them. They would not drink liquor. In return I received some fine souvenirs from the ship which I still have and enjoy The embassy later received a cable from the Rear Admiral of Task Force 73 off the coast besides one from the C. O. of the USS White Plains supply ship for "making the 1982 Xmas season truly memorable for the 50 American sailors”. I use to go and watch one of the ships enter the harbor from a car park overlook and have an strong feeling of pride and appreciation for all those aboard that
USN ship flying our flag. I am sure all who took the boys ashore that Xmas had a similar feeling towards those on our ships out beyond the horizon.

Work for all of us was always to do what you can,as fast as you can, and as much as you can before you have had it and close up shop. Breaks were only a few minutes here and there during the day. At times I had to take outgoing routines, that I felt should have been pouched, and put a DTG and message number on them and return the proper copies. It might be as long as a few days before they went out.

Sometimes we received a perk for our work for DOD. They were joint maneuvers once that required a good 100 hours of OT for PCC personnel. At the end of the exercise the Commanding General of the U.S. Central Command sent the Charge d' a Letter of Commendation with our names. It was greatly appreciated.

Another time the various members of the mission, up to a maximum of 20 from the 13 U.S. agencies we supported in county, were invited to a day aboard the USS Midway at sea about 175 miles out to sea. The embassy office that provided the most assistance to DOD was not to be included. This was the PCC. I was again A/CPO at the time and I sent off a strong protest memo to the Ambassador. Two ranking wives were removed from the list and two of us were selected to go. I was one. If I had to complain again, I would. We flew out in a C-2 COD transport sitting backward wearing cranials and with our feet up against the seats in the back during the abrupt stop of the landing. We had a fantastic briefing by the R/Adm. and then were broken up in two groups and had tours of the whole ship. I asked for and received an unclassified tour of the communications centers. Then the senior man in our group, I think it was a Col. of the Engineers, vouched for me and the Admiral told the Communication Officer to go back and show me everything. There two things that stood out in my mind. First, it is true that the USN always has the best and latest communications equipment. The other was when a compartment door was opened and there sat two old radio operators, who were both CPOs, sitting at a table drinking their coffee with CW equipment nearby. I though I saw cobwebs on the men and their radios. They and the equipment were on standby. CW will work if all else ever fails. I met R/Adm Tom Brown again ten years later when he was the keynote speaker for a luncheon at the O Club at Alameda NAS, CA. He remembered me, but not my name, as I had given him a classified message verbally that day for him only from our DAO, Col. Tom Hall, USAF. It concerned the new classified commo link between the fleet and the Omani military that was shortly to be activated.

After 5 hours, and a great lunch, it was time to leave and tha catapult experience was awesome. Takes the high steam setting to get the transport off the deck and still we actually dropped when airborne until we picked up more airspeed. We all cheered when we knew it was a successful "shot”. I was over 50 at the time and I think that was why my health then started to decline. It was a bigger jolt then anything you get on the rides at the amusement park.

The embassy was located in a bowl with high and rocky crags all around the old city with narrow strips along the coast to the west and east that had roads out of the bowl. One side of the PCC in the restroom was actually rocky side of a crag. We had a dipole on the roof for the use of the Gulf Net and the emergency VHF net and most embassy personnel had Motorola portables of the old large size to use in case of emergency. Almost no one could get them to work as the signals would not get out of the bowl to the distant areas where almost everyone lived. Once when I was A/CPO I tried to do something. There was a retired communicator who was now the Communications Advisor to the Sultan's Palace Office. I knew him from years before when I was TDY in Baghdad in 1956 and worked with him for three months. He was always good for a beer and a chat at Muscat. He also had a business venture on the side. He had the allowable 49% ownership and the other 51% was always an Omani even if he did not have the 51% of money to put up or the expertise for the business. It was a communications/electronic retail store and did a thriving business with the govt. and local commercial firms. My old friend also sold all the commo and TV equipment for the government including commercial crypto gear. He said he would take all the Motorola units and have his techs check them out. He would also arrange for a repeater for the VHF transceiver to be put on the top of a crag with the PCC's HF equipment. It was discovered that most of the units had the wrong crystals in them and that was corrected. Then the movement of the repeater took care of all our VHF problems. It was done with an Omani Air Force helicopter. There was no charge to the embassy for all of this. I asked for a grateful letter to be sent to my old friend. The Ambassador was quick to do so and the old friend was most pleased. This effort on my part did not hurt my next ER either.

We did have the Gulf Net in CPU using the old trusty Collins KWM-2A Transceiver that many of us remember. Weekly we would have a test with Kuwait being the N.C.S. Not everyone could always hear the others. At least that was true with Muscat which would often not hear others or know if we were heard. We do know that it worked from the embassy straight out to sea through the little harbor that old Muscat was in. The two sides of the harbor at the far points of land had 1500's Portuguese forts that were under restoration at the time. Prior to my departure they looked probably like they did when they were new.

We had when I first arrived at post a US Navy transceiver that would also encipher. We wanted it for secure voice contact with the naval units out to sea in case of any emergency. Every week we spent time we did not have testing it. We could get out to a ship at sea but we never could go in uppers due to the crags. I gave up and got permission to get rid of it. I had it crated up and I drove it out to the airport and put it directly on a P-3 patrol plane from Diego Garcia. The USN ran then up several times a week on submarine patrol in the Indian Ocean, To further the low profile the crew would change aboard the plane into civilian clothes and spend the night in the big Intercontinental Hotel in the new housing area by the sea. They were not allowed to leave the hotel. Every so often I would treat myself to some expensive drinking in their bar and have some fellow Americans to chat with.

I decided we needed something even if it was a "in the clear” capability. How can we do that? Add the fleet to our weekly voice Gulf Net as we could always reach out to the seaward direction. I went through the ROC, to the Dept, and then to the USN. Finally it was approved and I assigned a code name to the fleet for use on the Net. Worked fine and they were always there every week afterwards until I left.

We were also available to help out in times of need for U.S. concerns other then the US. official family. The Arabian Sea would in winter get typhoons that came up from the Indian Ocean. There was a U.S. company with oil derricks and barges off the coast of Pakistan. During a typhoon in Nov 1982 one of the barges with 200 people aboard was being towed in 70--90 mph winds and in distress. The company's office in Dubai asked for help from Emb/Abu Dubai and they knew we had good direct radio contact with the fleet. They telephoned us to have us seek the help. The Collins was down for maintenance for some reason so I sent a Flash msg to the fleet through our channels. They came back with the news that the cruiser, USS Bainbridge, was headed to help. She got there about 20 hours later and found the derrick in fairly safe circumstances with only a small loss of life and injury. We then received a grateful thanks from the McDermott Company in Dubai and from Emb/Abu Dhabi.

One of the many TDY'ers was from Emb/Moscow. "Sandy” Smith. Part Cherokee and an attractive young lady. She stayed at the Al Falaj Hotel in the new part of Muscat abut 4 miles away. The manager was a Greek and I had established a friendship with him which gave my wife a free membership in their swimming pool club the summer she was with me. Having been in Athens for three years, and also Cyprus, gave me some Greek knowledge and language skills which also helped. I guess Sandy made a hit with him as when she was ready to return to Moscow he said he would throw a free dinner party for her with up to 20 guests. She asked me who to invite. I told her to start with me, then some folks from the embassy that she liked, the good Omani friend of mine and his wife who knew Sandy and had also befriended her during her off time with some sightseeing and souk shopping, the new TDY'er and his wife from Saana, Yemen, the Adm Off and his wife. It was a feast of the first class and only the best of everything in food and drink. We shared many stories and the Greek mgr told how his family were wealthy Egyptians with 52 years in Egypt until Nassar came to power. They then lost everything, were thrown out of the country, and had to go back to the old family home in the Cyclades Islands with only $13. His father did not go with them as he died two days after Nasser came to power and had taken his all.

Communicators, secretaries, and MSG's seemed to have always form a small clique and if you were liked you got invited to the annual Marine Corps balls. Financed at great expense solely by the members of the unit at post. Always a pleasure and honor to be invited and I always made sure to get on the good side of those guys. It was held in the garden area of that new hotel by the sea and there was almost a whole beef plus a lamb on the spits. Elaborate bar and a band. May we also never forget the pleasures of the Marine House open house bars on Friday or a Wednesday in the Muslim countries. With a lack of watering holes in a dry country it was a much looked forward to affair even after our TGIW bar hours in the Emb. Living close to the embassy I often presided over those until closing time and then drove way out to the Marine House. Brits working in the county threw great parties and I remember mostly the contract workers from Airwork Ltd who maintained the ground to air Rapier missiles that guarded the Sultan's air bases. They had their own compound on a military base with a club-bar house and always refreshments flowed to great excess at their parties. You make points if you could play darts. I never seemed to double out and was an undesirable teammate.

My dau. and I were invited to a Brit. Trafalgar Day beach picnic, and not being much of a drinker, she still played a drinking game with our Marines. Being of a very strong spirit she wanted to be a good contestant. I am pleased that they were able to carry her up the cliff to my car afterwards.

Life off duty also included preparing most of my dinners alone. I took $2,000 worth of dry and canned goods in my HHE from Ho-Ho's in Springfield, VA when I went over. I also bought a case (120) of NY strip steaks and a case of a zillion hot dogs from one of the supply ships and put them in the freezer. Too many even for two years. Often we would take an order from the post personnel and send it to the fleet and it would all be ready to off load when the ship came in. The local vegetable and fruit souks were not only full of many choices and reasonable in price, but it was all inspected for wholeness and sanitary reasons by the local government inspectors. These items were still soaked in a solution of British Miltons for 15 minutes at home. The tap water was suppose to be good and we still boiled it in a big aluminum pot for 15 minutes and then ran it though our issued Bombay filters. For those not familiar with them they had two clay tubes inside the unit where the water dripped through down to the bottom part with the spigot. The tubes broke easy and were also replaced with use. There was a frozen food-meat outlet, a liquor store for foreigners only with a permit, the few hotels of any note had bars for foreigners only, but tended to be expensive even for the area. We had the ERA alcohol outlet and we received these goods from Copenhagen using unused HHE allowances of the post staff. One time I was sure I would not need any more of mine and place a large order. It was $1700. of inexpensive cases of the very best. Upon the arrival of the crate, the FSN's (all Indians or Paks) came and told me there were no bottles inside, just blocks of concrete. The crooks in Denmark stole it! Peter Justesens in Copenhagen replaced it for free and that crate arrived o.k.

Just at the end of my tour I was breaking in the new Comm/Econ Off. and wife in the use of the boat. Suddenly I felt like I was passing out and fell to the bottom of the front cockpit. I was able to verbally get him to operate the boat and get through the small safe passage into the club cove past the under water rocks and fishing pots areas. I had him beach the boat and go for help. Brits carried me to a Land Rover and took me to one of the hospitals. I was later moved to another hospital where I stayed for 5 days before I could return to my apt. but never go back to work. The poor TDY'er had to work CPU by himself for a few weeks before my replacement came in. The men's ward had about 50 or men locals in it. We were all in cubicles with the walls about waist high. Every man had a male relative or friend from his village sleeping under his bed. Two of our wives were RN's and they ran our Health Unit.

They say to it that I received all I needed as no toilet articles, towels, and etc. were provided by the hospital. The food was brought into each cubicle in cauldrons of a stew like matter, Arab flat bread, tea, bad looking fruit and maybe others items at times but I don't remember. To my knowledge every one in the embassy from FSN's to Amb came to visit!. No one had every heard of an European being in a hospital before there. The M.D's were all Paks, the nurses from the P.I. They had me down for a mini-stroke. When I was up to it a few weeks later one of the R.N's escorted me to SFO for HL/AL with a day's layover in London to rest. Often she would take my B.P during the flight home which caused an impression upon the nearby passengers. No circulatory problem was found with the specialist at home. I did recover some and felt good enough to ask for and received a 2 week TDY to help out at the new improvised Emb at Grenada shortly after the invasion. Went on to the next post after being in the first class at WTC. Took me 6 months before I was much good mentally and I had a hard time understanding new methods. After retirement, 3 years later, my Internist found that I was a diabetic and probably had a bad attack that could have been fatal in Muscat.

What I had thought was going to be a rough haul turned out to be a sleeper post. The unique sea shell collecting, swimming, camping, picnics, boating, ocean fishing, trips to remote old forts and villages, including many in the very high mountains where you always had coffee with the village sheik, camel races, souk shopping for reasonable priced 18-21 caret gold jewelry, an active social life including many "must-go's", the enjoyable people, housing, R & R leave after a year of a 2 year tour. Today our new modern embassy is out by that great housing area by the sea.

It would not be the same now for as Thomas Wolfe said, "You can't go home again!” except in our minds.



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