Thursday, May 21, 2015

Harry Gilmore and the Yugoslav Desk (1974)

Harry Gilmore passed away on April 23 (his Washington Post obituary is here.  As Yugoslav Desk Officer back in 1974, he was my very first boss in the Foreign Service, when I was marking time between language training and going out to my first assignment in Belgrade.  He was a great guy, with a wonderful sense of humor and an infinite reserve of common sense.  We bumped into each other periodically during the remainder of our careers in the Foreign Service, but I never worked directly for him again.  I'm sorry I didn't. Here is an excerpt from my draft memoirs on my time on the Yugoslav Desk in 1974. 

After spending Christmas vacation at home in San Clemente, I returned to Washington to work for few weeks on the Yugoslav Desk, which at the time was part of the Office of Eastern European Affairs.  Harry Gilmore was the Yugoslav Desk Officer, and as I had no known skills, he put me to work as one might an intern, organizing filing cabinets, doing Xeroxing, and other tasks of a pretty menial nature.  In the process, I also got to read a good bit of the cable traffic coming from Belgrade and to brief myself in on my future job as half-Political Officer, half-Ambassador's Aide.  Harry was a very genial soul, and very easy to work with.  He eventually rose to the senior ranks, and was our first Ambassador to Armenia from 1993 until 1995.

I also did a couple of minor human rights projects with Judyt Mandel, who at the time was a Junior Officer working in the office.  Judyt had a natural interest in human rights, having been born in 1948 in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp (her parents had been inmates of the original concentration camp), and she threw herself into her work.  She proved to be an invaluable colleague, if on occasion a trifle disorganized.  I served several tours with her, including one rather memorable one in Moscow from 1989 until 1991. 

Finally, I took the opportunity to meet and talk with Dick and Sharon Miles, who were back from Belgrade.  Dick, who had workedwith Vernon Jordan in his pre-Foreign Service life, was extremely impressive.  He and Sharon seemed to know everyone and everything about Yugoslavia.  In later years, we would become fast friends, serving together in Washington and in Moscow, and keeping in touch through our entire careers. 

While my time on the Yugoslav Desk was generally very pleasant, not all my encounters with Department staff were friendly.  One day, Harry gave me a last minute task to copy an entire briefing book for John Baker, our EUR DAS, and so I hurried down the corridor and got to the copier just before a few of the more senior secretaries walked in, and I proceeded to monopolize the copier for the next fifteen minutes or so.  In those days, there were usually only one or two copiers on each corridor of the Department, and they did not have the automatic collating and sorting functions we take for granted now.  Because of this, the local secretarial corps got rather possessive about their Xerox machines, and weren't happy with the appearance of interlopers, particularly Junior Officers like myself.  As time went on, and I continued copying away, the secretaries got pretty ticked and began talking among themselves.  Eventually, one senior secretary disdainfully asked who I was and what I was doing.  I explained it was a last minute project for the DAS.  “Well, that's PPP,” she commented -- shorthand for “Pretty Poor Planning.”  Suitably chastened, I hurriedly completed my project and dashed down the hall.

A couple of days into my tenure, Harry decided that I needed an office of my own, and as none appeared to be available, I suggested that I clean up one of the deserted corridor offices that, while it had a desk, was also stuffed full of papers that nobody else seemed to want.  Harry agreed, and so I got to work cleaning the place up.  After a day or so, the office looked pretty good.  Its most significant distinguishing feature was a six-foot tall map of Albania, so Harry dubbed me the “Albanian Desk Officer.”  This was quite a good joke, as we had not had relations with Albania since the beginning of the Cold War.  Little did any of us know, of course, that after the fall of the Soviet Union we would have an Embassy of several hundred people in Tirana, and that the country would serve as one of our principal military support bases for the air war in Kosovo in March 1999, a war in which I was to play a significant part as head of the Kosovo Implementation Office.  Time has a way of changing everything.

As part of my honorary Albanian Desk Officer duties, I occasionally had to scramble down to the language unit to get an Albanian document translated.  It was my first encounter with the State Department's linguist corps, and it was a memorable one.  I found that there was no one in Language Services who knew Albanian, but that there was one interpreter who was willing to give it a try.  The interpreter, a career civil service employee whose name I never learned, was very old; his hair was white, his glasses coke-bottle thick, and his skin the color of translucent parchment.  He had the air of someone who had spent his entire career indoors, sitting at his desk.  Nonetheless, he had a twinkle in his eye as he warmed to his new challenge.  “I know all the languages around Albania,” he said proudly, “just not Albanian.”  Slowly, like he was working on an Acrostic, he pieced together the translation from snippets of this and that until finally, after about fifteen minutes, it was complete.  I was impressed.  In later years, I came to realize just how lucky the State Department was to have such talented people working for it.  I came to know quite a few Russian interpreters during my career, including Dmitriy Zarechnyak, Bill Hopkins, Kyrill Borissow and Peter Afanasenko.  They all had phenomenal interpreting abilities, putting my years of study in the shade.  I don't know what we would have done without them.

One of the last events of my brief tenure on the Yugoslav Desk taught me a good bit about what it meant to be a personnel manager.  One of the Desk's Civil Service secretaries had just gone into the Foreign Service, and was about to go on her first secretarial assignment overseas.  John Baker, who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary in EUR at the time, came down to say a few words at her farewell office party.  I remember thinking, “I wonder if I'll ever be able to speak that well?”  The chief thing I took away from my experience on the desk was that they were a close-knit community, people who really cared for each other.  

No comments:

Post a Comment