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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

October 1997

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The Purple Captain's
Final Voyage

by Gene Schmiel
Harbor at Mombasa, Kenya 

Dealing with deceased Americans overseas was the one part of consular work which I, always more comfortable writing political analyses or trying to obtain information from a source over a gin and tonic, prayed wouldn't happen during my tenure as principal officer at the U. S. Consulate in Mombasa, Kenya. But of course a consul's prayers are seldom answered.

As usual, the call came on a Saturday, just as I was setting out for the weekly tournament at the local country club. I wasn't much of a golfer, but I enjoyed the social aspect of the tournaments. And I still retained the hope that my variety of hooks and slices would some day cancel each other out and lead to more shots going down the middle of the fairway.

Thus my mind was more on my recalcitrant six iron than my duties when the police called to say that an American had been found dead in the harbor. Squeamish about these matters, especially when I might have to identify and ship home a body which had been under water, I asked if the person had been a drowning victim. The police lieutenant assured me that he had not, but rather was the captain of a yacht who had been found by his mostly-American crew dead in his cabin.

Breathing a slight sigh of relief, I put aside my clubs for the day, wished my son good luck in the tournament (he finished third -- not bad for a 14-year old!), and drove off to the harbor and the police boat which would take me to the deceased.

The yacht itself looked more like a schooner than a dinghy. At least 100 feet long, it was festooned with the latest electronics gear on the outside and ultra-modern facilities on board. It was also populated by a depressed-looking crew of young Americans and Brits who had been shocked to discover their almost equally young captain dead.

Although they complained that they had already told their story to the police, they grudgingly repeated it to me. The captain was, like them, hired to take the yacht to various ports of call and await a call from the owner, a British manufacturing heir. It seems that the owner liked to pick up and leave his work on occasion, fly to exotic lands, sail for a few days, and then return, having sent the yacht on to a new destination. He also occasionally provided the same service to business contacts, especially those who wanted "special treatment" for their illicit sexual liaisons.

The young crew members had been ordered to this African port ten days earlier, and they had been sitting around doing nothing. Unfortunately, their captain, whose excesses were the talk of the crew, wasn't the patient kind. He had been spending his days and nights searching for adventure, and had found it in the form of heroin, marijuana, cocaine, prostitutes, gin, and other stimulants. In fact, the crew said, the captain had boasted repeatedly about his ability to "out-drink, out-coke, and out-screw any man jack" of them.

The crew told me that the captain had been asthmatic and had been warned repeatedly about the dangers of excessive alcohol intake. He had ignored the advice, although he had at least always taken along his inhaler to combat the very hot and humid conditions.

They explained that their former leader had been out carousing the night before, returning to the yacht at 3 a.m. Yelling loudly about his "conquests," a bottle of gin in his hand and a bag of "nose candy" in his pocket, he had gone to his cabin, shut and locked the door, and not been heard from again. It was when they tried to awaken him the next morning that the crew realized that something was drastically wrong. They had finally forced the door open, found him dead on the floor of the cabin, and called the police.

Finished with my interview, I "sucked it up" to prepare myself to view the body. And although I knew intellectually what to expect, I wasn't really prepared for experience of seeing the "Purple Captain." The victim, lying sprawled over the toilet, was a bright, bluish purple from his head to his naked waist. He had, the doctor attending him told me, experienced asphyxiation aggravated by not only his asthma, but also by the empty quart of booze which lay at his side and the contents of the needle which was still stuck in his left arm. It wasn't suicide, the physician said, but probably the closest thing to it. The odor of death was still mild, but the tightly closed room was about to be inundated with it. I quickly left the room and, luckily, didn't get sick, although the vision of the purple captain stayed with me for many months thereafter.

I saw the body only two more times. No, that's not true. I saw it three more times, but the final time it was in a very different form and under a different cover -- another aspect of consular work about which most people don't think often.

The first occasion came when the police arranged for the body to be carried off the yacht to the police boat for transshipment to the morgue. Rigor mortis had set in, and the stiff, violet corpse did not cooperate as the workers tried to maneuver it out of the cabin. They banged the captain's head and his shoulders on the doorframe on the way out, and then they dropped the corpse in the narrow corridor. Although the captain obviously was beyond caring, I was very much afraid that they would drop the body into the water while carrying it from ship to ship. Thankfully, the transfer was successful and without incident.

The second time I saw him was at the morgue because the local police required that a relative or an official identify the body before it was either interred or cremated. Dragging myself to the hospital morgue, I steeled myself to identify my fellow citizen again. Strangely, this time the captain seemed more peaceful and content. Maybe it was the fact that he was in the only cool place in town?

That same day I implemented another element of deaths and estates cases that all consuls hate, the call to the relatives to advise them of the American citizen's death. After several hours of discussions among themselves, the relatives called back and said they had decided that it would be best to cremate their kin and to return the remains to them.

I had my secretary contact the local crematorium, which took the body from the morgue and completed its services quickly. Two days later, the chief undertaker arrived at the consulate with a small metal box with the captain's remains. After signing the papers certifying that all was in order, we exchanged copies of the documents and he handed me the box.

Seeing the captain for the third and final time, although in a very different form, I took the box to my office, placed it on my secretary's desk, and asked, "What do we do now?" Given the box's contents and the bizarre circumstances, I really didn't know how to send him back home -- although I was reasonably sure the diplomatic pouch wasn't the answer!

My secretary, a skilled veteran of consular matters, replied matter-of-factly, "Why, we just send it like any other package -- by Federal Express or DHL !"

That took care of the problem simply and yet neatly for us. As for the Purple Captain, I'm sure he never expected his final voyage would be by that particular means of conveyance.

© Copyright 1997 by Gene Schmiel


Dr. Schmiel's 24-year career as a U. S. Foreign Service officer included five assignments to posts abroad. He retired in 1996 and now counsels college students in two internship programs in Washington, DC.

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