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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

January 2006

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Getting there is an important part of the first post experience. In this article Betty Sher recounts a memorable journey.—Assoc.Ed.

Our Journey to Laos in October 1962

When my late husband Ron and I were enroute to Laos (1962), we were to have flown into San Francisco, but because of horrible weather, the plane was redirected to Portland, Oregon. By time of our arrival, all hell had broken loose in Portland and our plane was being blown around in the air like a feather. The pilot did manage to land—and in those days, one deplaned and walked to the main terminal building. As Ron and I were wending our way to the terminal, I thought for a while that we would be blown away—the winds were so intense! It was Hurricane “Frieda”.

We managed to get inside, and ducked down behind a brick wall as all the glass windows were being shattered. Just after calling my mother and dad in Minnesota, the telephone booth from which I made the call went flying up and around and through one of the open glass window spaces. After Ron and I made it into the main part of the building (which was in the process of being blown apart by high winds) we learned the National Guard had been called in and marshal law was declared. Flooding of the city was taking place, enormous numbers of trees were falling, bridges were blocked, and all planes were grounded. It was an horrendously frightening feeling.

I was in the Pan Am line to see whether it was going to be possible to depart and whether our routing to Laos (tickets) would have to be changed. I was standing behind a terrible guy who was ranting and raving and giving the poor little ticketing agent a very bad time, to the point of saying: “I have a first class ticket; I have a very important meeting in San Francisco, and I demand that I be flown out immediately. I leaned forward and said to the young ticketing agent: “Why don't you just tell this guy to go to hell, you don't need his business”—(and to him) “don't you understand that martial law has been declared and all planes have been grounded?” He then turned on me and I became his target. Finally, he left —you could see the young lady was terribly upset, almost in tears.

I spoke to her for a few minutes and she said: “M'am all passengers from all flights are going to be taken to motels, you and your husband remain right here at the airport, and come back and check with me in about 45 minutes.” Forty five minutes later I went back and she told me there was a United Airlines flight departing for San Francisco in another 45 minutes or so and that Ron and I had been booked on that flight (that terrible man was also going to be on the same flight). Sure enough about 75 minutes later we were enroute to San Francisco—and what a mess it was there. Planes were not departing and everyone was taken to a motel—we waded in water up over our ankles. We did not have any of our luggage (that was when we learned to carry on a small bag with a change of clothes).

The long and short of this story is that we got very little sleep and by 10:30 the next day we were on our way to Hawaii for a three day visit with friends before proceeding to Hong Kong/Laos.

We were told to do 'shopping' in Hong Kong (food/other things for the household) and to arrange with the American Consulate for shipment to Vientiane. We departed Hong Kong for an overnight in Bangkok. After spending an uneventful night there an embassy vehicle picked us up at the hotel for our flight on Royal Air Lao to Vientiane. Arriving at the airport, we told the driver to leave—there was little point in his staying with us. We boarded the plane, and waited for hours. The pilot could not be found. We disembarked and were taken to a dingy hotel. Our room had one light bulb that hung down on a cord from the middle of the ceiling, and our pillows seemed filled with sand. Early the next morning we were taken back to the airport by bus, boarded the plane (the pilot had been found), and off we went into the wild blue yonder. Gaining altitude, the ashtray (filled to the brim) came loose and both Ron and I were covered in ashes and butts. There was no air conditioning aboard this plane, only small electric fans and mine dropped into my lap—still whirring. The stewardess (at Ron's beckoning) managed to remove it.

Upon arrival in Vientiane, our plane kept circling and circling—we couldn't figure out why it didn't land. Finally we did land, but we still did not know what the problem was. We were met at the airport by Ron's boss, Gerry Gert (PAO), and it was he who told us “there was a water buffalo on the landing strip and it took nearly 20 minutes for the people with the airlines to get it far enough away from the landing strip for the plane to land.” Thanks to Portland, Oregon we were kind of prepared for all the foregoing problems.

We spent the next 39 months in Laos—5 coups d'état, very little electricity (only every other night) and temperatures that sometimes reached 128 F, during the day with little relief at night. We had a lot of candle-lit dinners! Yes, it was “never-never land.” Fortunately the French had spent many years in Laos, and we had a few restaurants with great food.


Betty Sher is a native of Minnesota and now lives in Fearrington Village, N.C. She and her late husband Ron had assignments with the Department of Defense, USAID, and the Department of State including Germany, Hawaii, Laos, Togo, Senegal, Washington, D.C., Yugoslavia, USUN/New York, and China. Betty retired from State in August, 1980.

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