Questions from a couple of readers invite these prefatory remarks. As must be obvious, the posts draw extensively, sometimes completely, from letters written at the time things were happening. The Situation reads as more dangerous than it felt. I do not recall ever feeling afraid during this time. However, I was very conscious of not dramatizing my life.
The previous post indicated that we evacuated Coq. Was that the right move? In my judgment “Tom Madison” should have sent his wife “Sally” to Leopoldville, as instructed, and then manned the post in Coq in a manner that served US and Congolese govt interests. But he did not want to be in Coq. The Madisons trying to get everything out of Coq, the rugs, the lamps, even “the expensive books,” must have struck Tom as the proper move. But, in fact, he was dismantling the post, hoping – perhaps unconsciously – that he’d never have to return.
Tom pulled us out too early. Our departure hastened the deterioration of the situation in Coq. Other expats assumed that with all the US resources at our disposal we were well-informed about what was happening. Therefore our departure signaled an immediacy of danger that did not exist.
That’s how it seems 40+ years later. For how it seemed at the time, read on.
As The Situation worsens, Fred spends an evening with the Andrés.
Continuing with the letter from 9/3/64:
Tuesday evening, language study night. Dinner as usual chez les Andrés. Jules and Thérèse in fine form. All went well at dinner; no outbursts from Jules, no scoldings of Thérèse. Jokes about the College where Jean-Luc and Yves start school next week. Yves complains that all they’re fed at school is rice; they’re being sent to China. Jules asks the names of the priests at the school. Jean-Luc knows them only as le Père Prefet, le Père this, le Père that. All titles. Jules inquires: “Do you know le Père Petuel?” The guys shake their heads. “Le Père Ceptive?” Jules asks. The adults laugh behind their napkins and the kids finally get it.
For some reason after dinner we three adults discuss wine ceremonies of la vieille Europe. I laugh at the formality of it all. Thérèse, on edge and suddenly offended, leaves the table, saying she will not discuss it further in my presence. “What can one do if he has an ironic smile?” I ask her, alluding to her tale of being given demerits at school simply for smiling at the teacher. She returns to the table. Jules recounts wine formalities with his usual enthusiasm and involvement: the cave, the cushion of earth on its floor, the testing and tasting, home-bottling, securing the right kinds of cork. Jules tells of the curé who knew the origin of every wine. How he would pour wine into his hands and sniff. As he tells his story, Jules sits there: pouring, rubbing wine into his palms, taking deep sniffs.
I sit there feeling an obligation to warn these friends of Tom’s decision to evacuate. I finally tell them. An abrupt change of mood. Thérèse puts her head down on the back of her chair, sitting sideways in it, and says nothing, worried, fearful, feeling abandoned.
Immediately agitated, Jules paces back and forth, words spilling out, bending down to me to make a point (I’m next to Thérèse, also sideways in my seat). At last he sits across from us. Thérèse stares at three huge beetles, long as a man’s finger, that the kids have hung on a bar of the small table lamp, their wings as glossy as hard shells. The stingers work (and even look rather) like a thumb and forefinger and the beetles hang from them. Before dinner Jules referred to the beetles as Yves, Jean-Luc and Benoit and now Thérèse taps one after the other and says: “A. N. C.” She laughs like a mischievous girl and begins to break up a little wooden match-box, arranging the pieces in a circle.
Jules says to Thérèse: “If we have to go this time, it’s finished.” He speaks of Australia. No, he won’t go back to the small-mindedness of Belgium. Thérèse’s head remains on the chairback. Jules says Belgium and the US are crazy ever to have mixed into an inter-African squabble. We have different objectives, take war more seriously. Africans like to palaver, the whole thing might have arranged itself. In any case our intervention has not helped. Perhaps. But US policy forces intervention because, whereas we talk continually of non-intervention, intervention is our real policy.
He concludes by saying that if we must leave, he hopes that it will not be too soon. I say I’m afraid it will be. Suddenly exhausted, he says goodnight. He goes upstairs to take a sleeping pill and leaves me with his wife. Thérèse and I start to work on English. A regular length lesson, late starting, followed by tea. It’s mostly talk which she and I both need. I return home at 1:15. Late for Coq.
Next report: Tom Madison makes his decision.