Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Charles Brumfield writes


“For God’s sake, Janice, can’t you ever be reasonable? You know I can’t go on that river tour today. I have to meet the ambassador at one o’clock, and we’ll probably be tied up for the rest of the afternoon.”

“But you promised, and the kids have been counting on it so much.”

“I can’t help it. This is important and is the only time I could arrange to see the ambassador. You’ll just have to take them yourself.”

“But they want to have you along. You haven’t spent more than ten minutes with either of them in I don’t know how long. They need you John. We all need you. Can’t you take just two little hours of your time to be with us?”

“Listen, Janice, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to understand that in my kind of work certain sacrifices have to be made. I explained all that to you when we married. I have a career to think about and a position to uphold, and there are a lot of people depending on me. Now you take the kids and have a good time, and I promise I’ll take all of you out to dinner tonight."

An empty promise, I knew. How many times had I broken similar promises in my life as a diplomat?  I could hardly blame Janice for the discouraged look she gave me as I hurriedly kissed her goodbye and rushed out the door.

I had to get away early so I could have a few minutes to look over the proposals I was to present to the ambassador concerning expansion of trade channels with Yugoslavia and other Iron Curtain countries.

It was sunny and warm as I sat down for a quick noontime chi in the sidewalk café on Bulevar Revolucije. As I sipped the warm tea and breathed the fresh spring air, I set aside the proposals for a moment and let my mind drift back to my youth and those carefree summer days when Janice and I would pack a lunch and pedal my grandmother’s old two-seat bicycle down to one of the secluded California beaches near our home near Eureka. I still remember that crazy red panama hat I always had to wear and those green and orange plaid Bermuda shorts. I guess we were so young and immature that we didn’t care about anything.

But that was a long time ago, and Belgrade, Yugoslavia, is a long way from Eureka, California.  How many years and how many miles later is it now? Ten years by my calculation, countless miles through almost every corner of the Earth. Can I be the same person as I was then? All the travel, the conferences, the cocktail parties, the harried days and long nights, never any time to stop and take a really deep breath of fresh air or a long look at myself. But then, I’m a diplomat, and I chose this way of life freely, so why should I complain when I don’t have as much time as I would like to spend with my family. I like it this way.

However, after eight years of packing and unpacking, hellos and goodbyes, outpost assignments, and stolen belongings, worrisome incidents and constant harassment, planes, hotel rooms, and long periods of separation, I’m beginning to feel as though Janice has almost had enough. She wants a home, community, lasting friendships, but most of all, security — all of the things that millions of everyday people have.

Not me! Never a common life for me. Eight to five, subways, television, PTA …. give it all to others. I want travel, adventure, excitement, and most of all a feeling of importance. With eight years' seniority and an established reputation in the diplomatic corps, I could not conceive of myself risking it all for something as trivial as a boat trip on the Danube.

As I sat there feeling the warm rays of sunlight penetrating my new Oxford suit, I noticed a rather odd looking spectacle slowly moving up the boulevard, delaying the hurried noon-hour traffic. It was a small wooden wagon being pulled by what first appeared to be two men. But as they drew closer, I could tell that they were a man and a woman, both well past middle age. They were talking and laughing as they struggled to make the old metal wheels move over the resisting cobblestone pavement. They seemed oblivious to the horn blowing of the irate drivers behind them.

On the wagon was a heavy metal brewing pot, blackened with age, and an old rusty set of bed springs. Neither could have been worth more than fifty dinars, but these ancient relics were being towed down the main boulevard of this capital city as if they were intended for the use of Marshall Tito.

As the two came opposite to the café where I was sitting, they halted, gave each other a quick furtive glance, dropped the tongue, and plopped down on the curb to rest. 

She was wearing man-type work shoes, heavy stockings, a tattered, shin-length skirt, topped by an equally tattered long-sleeve sweater. Around her semi-grey hair was a printed scarf. His clothes were much dirtier and ragged than hers, except for a spotless brown derby hat which topped his unshaven face that made him appear almost humorous.

Traffic would bottle up behind the wagon until the left lane cleared, then the cursing drivers would whip around the motionless obstacle and rush away to their demanding destinations. None of this seemed to faze the couple, and their laughing chatter continued.

At one particularly enrapturing comment from the man, the old woman gave a wide semi-toothless grin and reached over and knocked his derby down over his eyes. He responded with a gentle pinch to her thigh, and they both giggled.

Their seeming happiness fascinated me. How could two people with so little be so happy? They were acting almost like a young couple in love in the springtime. And it was springtime. But what could they possibly see in each other to delight in, especially at that age and under those conditions? I could see nothing that could make them so happy and carefree.

As I watched I had a tremendous urge to walk across the plaza and ask them what they could possibly be laughing at. But while the thought was still rolling around in my mind, a husky policeman approached and, in a rough sounding melee of words, ordered them to move on. 

With lowered heads they lifted the tongue and once more began their struggle up the hillside boulevard. I saw them exchange quick smiles, and soon I could hear them laughing again.

 And then I remembered the appointment to meet the ambassador at one o'clock.            

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