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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

February 1999

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LIFE IN THE
FOREIGN SERVICE
 

Riding Free, Into and Out of Haiti

Foreign Service
fiction

by JACK L. NIXON


AuthorJack Nixon

In a departure for this or any other primarily scholarly journal that we know of, we present here a work of fiction. The author based this account closely on real-life events that he participated in as American Embassy duty officer at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in early 1972 (the names of those involved obviously have been changed). American Diplomacy offers the vignette as representative of the problems encountered abroad all too frequently by diplomatic and consular officers.
~ Ed.
“She’s threatening to punish all of us if we don’t do exactly what she wants. My wife and children are scared to move. I’m calling you from a neighbor’s house so that she can’t hear me. I’ve studied psychology, Mr. Chapman, and am convinced that this woman is paranoiac and schizophrenic.” So spoke Pastor Rankin, the American missionary.

It was late Thursday afternoon. Dennis Chapman had already been at home for two hours, but he had been halfway expecting an emergency telephone call like this. He was Port-au-Prince Embassy duty officer that week, a responsibility that came his way every three or four months. So far on his several stints of service, nothing at all had happened during nonworking hours.

“How do you happen to have taken such a person into your home?” Dennis asked.

“We didn’t invite her. She appeared here at Good Shepherd’s Fold early this afternoon in a taxi. She couldn’t speak anything but English, and couldn’t pay the driver, who told us that he brought her here because she kept thrusting her Bible at him. So he decided she must be a missionary.”

Birds of a feather . . . Dennis thought to himself, but over the phone he only asked, “Then you don’t know who she is or where she came from?”

“She won’t tell us her name. She just says she’s our Lord’s messenger. She claims she got to Port-au-Prince early this afternoon on a flight from Managua.”

“How strange,” Dennis remarked. “There are no direct airline connections between Port-au-Prince and Managua, or any other Central American capital. Can you persuade her to go with you to the Embassy? Tell her it’s for purposes of identification, and that the Embassy expects all U. S. citizens visiting Haiti to do this for their own protection.”

“Yes. I think I can manage that.”

“Good! I’ll meet you at the Embassy then in half an hour, Mr. Rankin.”

Madeleine Chapman smiled sympathetically at her husband as he hung up the telephone. “Poor dear!” she remarked. “Just at apéritif time, too. I hope the Thursday evening crisis can be resolved quickly this time.”

“So do I, dear, but it sounds as if it could get complicated. We shall see. I’ll hurry on down there and arrange things as fast as I can.”

As Dennis began his ride down the steeply sloping Lalue road towards the Embassy near the waterfront, the sun was sinking low in the sky, casting an orange glow over everything. The patchwork city, for all its shabbiness, looked on all sides like the ultimate gathering place for supernatural elements.

While waiting at the Embassy, he took over the marine guard’s telephone and, after the usual number of futile inquiries and wrong numbers, finally succeeded in getting connected with the airport official who could tell him about non-commercial incoming flights.

“The only private airplane,” the official asserted, “that landed here was Mr. Ribeira’s. You know him, the owner of the sugar mill at Les Cayes. He came in from Inagua, in the Bahamas.”

So that was it. The celestial herald’s notions of geography were faulty. This, of course, was not altogether surprising. But why, Dennis wondered, should she have been on the island of Inagua any more than in Nicaragua? It occurred to him only later that he had forgotten to ask, but then probably so had his man at the airport.

“Can you tell me if he had any passengers?”

“One. An American woman. He said she had come up to him at the airfield and asked him to give her a ride.”

“You checked her passport, I suppose. What’s her name?”

“She had no passport,” replied the airport official. “She had only a letter from the Adventists identifying her as Mrs. Marjorie Schneider. She had no baggage either. The woman told me she had some important work to do here, but would not inform me of its nature. Mr. Ribeira knew nothing about her; he just said she was a lot of fun. She went over to the terminal and got a taxi.”


Dennis was waiting on the steps of the Embassy when Pastor Rankin and Marjorie Schneider appeared. With her stooped posture and ill-assorted clothes, Mrs. Schneider looked older than she probably was. In spite of Haiti’s humid heat, she wore black wool stockings, a granny gown, and a black pullover. Her dark, curly hair was unkempt and her face, though round and childish, bore an expression of perpetual preoccupation. From one hand dangled a tattered purse; in the other hand she carried a worn Bible.

As soon as they entered the small Embassy lobby, she put her purse down by her sneaker-clad feet, opened the Bible, and loudly shouted a verse: “But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards and not sons!” Her eyes grew fiery as she read. Lifting them from the soiled page, she scrutinized Dennis, Pastor Rankin, and the marine guard one by one, and then looked all around her as if something or somebody were missing.

“Bastards! You hear me? Bastards!” she screamed. “I don’t see any Bibles in here. I want each of you to get one and start reading. This place is starving for the truth! And I mean starving for it, I tell you!”

Amused, Dennis reflected that indeed only a heaven-sent envoy would so unhesitatingly hit that nail on the head. Showing indifference to her zeal, he spoke in a monotone designed to be calming: “I’m Dennis Chapman, madam. On behalf of this Embassy I welcome you to Port-au-Prince. If I’m not mistaken, you are Mrs. Marjorie Schneider and you arrived here today from Inagua. To be of service to you the Embassy needs to know approximately how long you plan to stay in Haiti, as well as your home address in the U.S.A.”

Unimpressed with this approach, Marjorie Schneider replied, “Oh, I haven’t got any home address. I go wherever our Lord sends me. And that bothers old Satan. He doesn’t like our Lord’s messengers. He’s really mad at me now because of all the good work I’ve been doing lately in a lot of places.”

“Be that as it may, Mrs. Schneider, you must have a close relative in the U.S. who would be concerned about you.”

Marjorie Schneider’s mood abruptly changed to dejection. “Well, yes, I have a daughter.”

“Could you tell me her address and her telephone number?”

“Got a letter from her here in my purse. The address is on it, if you want to look. She got married recently.”

While Dennis was copying the information, Lola Mancini, one of the American secretaries, strolled into the lobby, greeting both those whom she knew and those she didn’t with a refulgent, yet impersonal smile.

The marine guard gave her his most irresistible (he thought) grin. “You’re early, Lola. The movie won’t begin until 7:30. You know that.”

“Guess my watch is fast. I’ll just wait here.” Lola sat on the couch near the security guard’s office.

Mrs. Schneider’s mood quickly reverted to the militant as she turned towards Lola. “Are you saved?” she demanded.

The always-cheerful Lola chuckled. “For some special purpose? I’m afraid not.”

“Saved from old Satan! That’s what I mean, young lady!” Mrs. Schneider plopped herself down next to Lola and began to scrutinize her.

Lola, conjuring up an appropriate expression of foreboding, murmured, “Oh my goodness! I didn’t realize he was after me, too. Tell me! What’ll I do?” Clearly Lola thought this would be a good way to fill in the wait for the movie in the consular section.

Far removed from Lola’s joking manner, Marjorie Schneider felt in her inner self great concern for the spiritual wellbeing of what obviously was a choice morsel for the Evil One. She leaned closer to Lola and began to tell her things in low, confidential tones.

Dennis Chapman winked mischievously at Lola and started up the stairs, saying, “Keep an eye on the ladies, Pastor Rankin, and wait here. I’ll be back shortly.”

He went to the privacy of the ambassador’s office, empty at this hour, of course, to use the telephone. In Port-au-Prince it was easier and faster, literally, to make an overseas long-distance call than to telephone a number a few streets away. The directory service in Trenton, New Jersey, gave him the number of Rosemarie Dwight, Mrs. Schneider’s daughter. It galled him to have to ask the operator to place the call collect; some U.S. government regulations were petty beyond all toleration, he thought. It was bad enough to have to jolt her with all this, whoever the daughter might be, to say nothing of expecting her to pay for the bad news.

When he heard her voice on the telephone, soft, sad, and very young, he felt all the more like a cheapskate.

Dennis explained to her as quickly as he could that the Embassy, following the U.S. government’s policy of trying to assist American citizens in distress in foreign lands, was obliged to notify Mrs. Marjorie Schneider’s nearest relative in the U.S. that it would be advisable to take measures to return her to her homeland as soon a possible.

Rosemarie sounded as if she were reciting a refrain from a melancholy song. “As soon as I heard the operator say it was a long-distance call from some faraway place, I knew it must have something to do with my mother. I hope she’s all right. Is she in serious trouble this time?”

“Not yet, but things could get worse. Some American missionaries here claim that she has threatened them with bodily harm if they do not obey her orders.”

“She threatens a lot,” replied Rosemarie, “but I’ve never seen her do bodily harm to anybody, really.”

“I can believe that. It’s just a matter of trying to understand her approach to religion, I guess. All the same, it seems preferable for her to go home. Can you help?”

“I’m very sorry about Mother. I’m about the only one left who cares much what happens to her. I wish I could help, but I don’t have any influence on her.”

“I mean,” Dennis interjected, “help by providing her with return fare to the U.S. From what I’ve gathered, she doesn’t have a round-trip ticket.”

“No, I’m sure she doesn’t. I don’t know how she manages all this travel. Two years ago she somehow got to Iceland and back. This time I’ve received postcards from her from Mexico, Trinidad, and the Bahamas, but I didn’t know till now she had added Haiti to her list.”

“Do her postcards inform you of her money problems?”

“No. She only writes bible verses on them and signs ‘Love, Mother’. In the last one, she just noted a Bible reference, Hebrews 12:8. It was from a place called Matthew Town. I went to the library and looked it up in the atlas. It’s in the Bahamas on an island called Great Inagua.”

“She was there this morning, it seems, and then she came here.”

Rosemarie did not, as Dennis expected, ask “how?” She simply went on with her private inquiry. “I just can’t figure it out. She has no income, and I don’t have any way of helping her. I hope she’s not going hungry.”

“Apparently not. She told me you got married recently. Perhaps she borrowed money from your husband.”

“I don’t believe so. He hasn’t got any either. He’s my age, nineteen, and in the army. They’ve sent him to Vietnam. I’m working part time in an office here in Trenton, but so far I haven’t been able to put together any savings. . . .”

There was a brief pause in the call, which had already cost the better part of her day’s wages.

When Rosemarie spoke again, her voice sounded more resolute. “I know. I’ll ask some friends to help me, Mrs. and Mrs. Henry Nelson.”

“Could you give me their address and telephone number?”

She did, and Dennis quickly jotted down the information for the official record. He also requested and noted Marjorie Schneider’s date and place of birth: March 26, 1927, at Culpeper, Virginia.

“The Nelsons have been like foster parents to me. They run a nursing home in Philadelphia, and my mother and I lived there for about three years. Mother worked as a housekeeper, and they paid her generously. But eventually she got mad and quit.”

“Why?”

“The usual . . . She decided they were not taking her sermons and prophecies as seriously as they should. She’s had this happen with people time after time. Once it happens, people usually won’t even speak to us any more. But the Nelsons are very kind, very understanding. They’re very good to me, and I’m sure they’ll help. I’ll telephone them right away.”

“If you can let us know tomorrow morning, that will be fine. Just cable your message to the American Embassy, Harry Truman Boulevard, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Thank you Mrs. Dwight, and goodbye.”

“Goodbye, sir, and please take care of my mother meanwhile.”


As Dennis descended the stairs back to the lobby, Lola rose from the couch saying, “Well, thanks for all your good advice, Mrs. Schneider. I don’t know what I’d have done without it.”

“You just keep reading your Bible, young lady, and our Lord’ll show you what to do! Bye now!” Mrs. Schneider was grinning like a winner and looking quite elated.

Lola giggled and whispered in Dennis’s ear as she passed by him: “You’ve got a psychopath on your hands, I’ll clue you! But she’s a riot! Wish we could hire her for the motor pool dispatcher’s office.”

Dennis took Pastor Rankin aside and informed him about the salient details of his conversation with Rosemarie.

“We’ve got to find a place for her to stay until we can send her back to the States. Do you have any suggestions? She’s an Adventist according to her sole identity paper. Surely that denomination has some representative here who would be willing to take her in for a short while.”

Pastor Rankin noted that, as a matter of fact, one of the Adventists, Mrs. Rehbar, was away on vacation. He was sure that Marjorie Schneider could stay at her place over on Delmas Road.

Dennis grumbled to himself that this Rankin should have taken poor old Marjorie there in the first place, instead of engaging her in his game of Sunday School one-upmanship. Aloud he said, “I leave it to you to get her there and keep her there until further notice. If she gives you any more trouble, which surely she won’t if you just keep quiet and listen, then telephone me again. I’ll do what I can.”

Dennis went up to the lady in question and held out his hand to bid her farewell, as he thought custom would have. But to her, this was apparently a foreign, unfamiliar gesture. Without extending her own hand, she simply exclaimed, “Well, Mr. Chapman, all things work together for good to them that love God.”

Picking up her personal belongings, Mrs. Schneider rose and trudged toward Pastor Rankin. As they reached the door, she turned back towards Dennis, and assuming a magisterial pose and apocalyptic tone, handed down her judgment:
And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.
Dennis’s slight, ceremonial bow as her Bible closed with a slushy sound disconcerted Mrs. Schneider and sent her scurrying off without further bother in the wake of her fellow missionary. Dennis heaved a sigh of relief as he watched them drive away into the night, remembering himself some words from her ill-used book: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” It seemed to him that he had accomplished something significant by getting God’s messenger off the streets of Port-au-Prince, where, in the midst of nocturnal messengers of various callings, she was likely to do much disservice to herself and others.

His turn as duty officer ended the next day. He turned his special report over to Walter Burns, his successor.

The next Monday afternoon Burns stepped into Dennis’s office and asked, “Remember our Bible-banging friend, Marjorie Schneider?”

“I’d rather not, but do tell me what happened.”

“Her daughter got help quite promptly to pay her way back to the States. So we got her a ticket and sent a driver to pick her up and put her on the American Airlines flight to New York. But the driver couldn’t find her. She had vanished into thin air.”

“You mean literally?”

“Quite! Two hours earlier she took the Caribair flight to Kingston. That’s what the airport authorities told us at any rate.”

Dennis sat looking off for a moment toward the lonely, desolate island of La Gonave in Port-au-Prince Bay. He could still hear Rosemarie saying, “I’m very sorry about my mother. I’m about the only one left who cares much about what happens to her.”

His remark was not necessarily for Burns’s ears or anybody else’s. It was faint and quizzical: “Riding free. . . .”

Burns took a long look at Dennis and, sensing something of his puzzlement, turned and walked away without further comment.


 



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