Saturday, August 19, 2006

International Distress

A buddy from Arkansas asked his sister to ask me about the time I inadvertently sent out a double international distress signal to anyone happening to pass by the American Embassy in Liberia.

I was an embassy guard and young; it was my last day on duty in Africa. Its tough to say this, but I was leaving in disgrace. I had married four days before and had done so against orders; but the way I saw it, they were not valid orders and I had solid ethical reasons for thinking so…. I thought I had a baby on the way.

I was having a great career in the marines up until then. I had made my fateful decision in the face of my company commander, who warned me of dire consequences from all the way across the African continent where he had his headquarters in Nairobi. Being a stubborn cuss, I went ahead with my marriage.

For months I had stood my post in the embassy, mostly without incident. Out of the hundreds of days accomplishing my duties, I’d only had a couple of minor "blooper" screw up moments.

Once, a couple of young American backpackers had come inside the embassy lobby on a Saturday, and I had let them leave their packs with me while they went down to the cafeteria. I should have searched them first, but I knew them well and knew they were okay. Just my luck, the Master Sergeant in charge showed up and demanded to know if I knew the contents of the packs. I got a real dressing down for that one – ouch!

The only other time that I had officially messed up was at the end of a midnight to 7 a.m. shift. A critical key was missing from the Post 1 key box. The marine who had signed it out had put it back on the wrong hook, but I couldn’t find it in my exhausted state. In my frustration, I fired back at the "boss" as he gave me the "third degree" and I came pretty close to being insubordinate. He "locked me up" into the position of attention and I took my medicine with another chewing out, after which I apologized for my misstep of temper.

There WAS one time though, where I messed up when no one saw me, and it could have been THE most serious. Once again, I was on midnight shift, and cleaning my revolver, as all watchstanders were required to do at sometime on that shift. I think it was two or three a.m. After wiping off the last of the cleaning oil and rechambering my five .38 caliber rounds, for some unexplainable reason I went back into cleaning mode, noticing that there was still some excess oil under the trigger. Without thought, I pulled it back and immediately realized with horror that I had cocked my loaded pistol. Luckily it wasn’t hair triggered; close to panic, I stuck my thumb into the hammer mechanism to prevent an inadvertent firing. I must have kept it like that for ten minutes until I finally forced myself to carefully remove my thumb pad. Slowly and gently I let the trigger return to its uncocked position. Several marines every year accidentally discharge their weapons doing equally unmindful things, or just being idiotic, like playing quickdraw in the mirror; and it always results in being sent back to the States in disgrace. Eventually, I too would return under a dark cloud, but for a different reason.

My last shift ever as a United States Marine Corps Embassy Guard was on the 3rd of July 1978. My wedding had been on July 1st and even though I was in trouble for going through with the marriage, I was given July 2nd off to "enjoy" my honeymoon. My last watch was to be at Post 1, right inside the front door of the embassy.

Before relieving the mid-shift Post 1 guard in the lobby, just before 7 a.m. the oncoming dayshift watchstander raised two U.S. flags in front of both the consulate and the ambassador’s residence. So, to begin my final day as a Marine Security Guard, that’s what I did, and with all the military ceremony and solemnity expected of a squared away marine, even a so-called "disgraced" one like myself.

I had always enjoyed the morning ritual of raising the flags. Cradling the tri-cornered folded American flag against our chests with folded arms, we marched straight and proud to each flagpole. All embassy personnel and anyone else in sight of the flag raising was required to stop and stand silently and respectfully. It was kind of cool being the center of attention, knowing all eyes were on you.

Upon arriving at the flagpole, we unwound the lanyards and clipped the rings to each end of the flag, the top clip to the blue, the bottom to the red. Then, taking one step back we raised the flag briskly to the very top of the pole and then tied off the rope. After which, we snapped off a sharp salute, immediately followed by an about face in marching.

After raising the second U.S. flag in front of the colonial style ambassador’s residence, I marched smartly back to the embassy lobby. I accepted the logbook from the offgoing marine and made note of my acceptance in the same book. I took my seat next to our Liberian receptionist and settled in for another and final eight hours on guard. Moments later, grinning and shaking his head, the sergeant whom I had just relieved walked back in the front door of the embassy. He beckoned me over to the window and pointed at the top of flagpole. My heart dropped into my stomach, and my stomach fell to my knees. There, flying proudly, was the American flag that I had just raised…and it was UPSIDE DOWN!

And that wasn’t all. My marine comrade snickered, "How did you manage to raise BOTH flags upside down man? Are you sure marriage hasn’t done something to your head?" He laughed and continued, "I’ll fix it Phil, but you’re going to hear about this until the day you leave!"

Forlornly, I replied, "Well, I guess it’s a good thing I’m heading back to the States tomorrow then. Damn, I can’t believe I did that…both flags? Are you sure? Damn!"

"Yep!" He passed back out the glass double doors, stopped, came to attention and marched back to the flagpole to "fix" my inadvertent international distress signal. At that point, clearly, I was the one in distress. To this day, I don’t know how I managed to do such a boneheaded thing. It had happened to a couple of the other marines, but I never imagined I would do it. I’m sighing now, just thinking about it.


Ed said...

In the scouts, our troop was to raise the flag in the morning's ceremony at camp. We had already taken down the flag and folded it correctly the night before so we were pretty sure we had it on easy street. Their were several of us and the two other scouts clipped the flag into place (right side up) and quickly raised it to the top. Then they handed me the rope to tie off since I was the best in knots and quick rope tying. I quickly tied off the end and we started marching back into line when I heard one of the scout masters say, "ahem." I looked back to see that the flag was now at about 2/3rds mast. Later I found out that the rope had slipped in the hands of one that had raised it and instead of raising it again, he handed it to me and without looking to check, I had tied it off. I was pretty embarrassed of that incident.

After Reagan died and the official morning period had ended, I waited for two days and then had to remind the human resource head in charge of putting up the flag that it no longer should be at half staff. It bugs me that so many people don't know the proper rules and ettiquette for flying flags. Not to long ago, flags that clipped to your car window were all the rage. I picked up dozens laying in the gutters during my nightly walks and saw scores more still being "flown" but shredded into almost unrecognizable states.

Amadeo said...


I used to jog around car dealerships in Daly City and invariably one of my regular finds would be that small flag sewn to a strip of plastic that got inserted to the car's antenna. Just lying by curbside.

I collected many of these, which btw, are sold for a dollar during July.

As we speak, I have 3 of them attached to a small pole flying high above the kids' hoops.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hey Ed, you know, you and I both made the same error... I was trained to look up at the flag as it is raised to ensure it is properly unfurling as it rises and that it "too blocks" all the way to the top... Sometimes you do the same thing so many times you take it for granted. Never let your guard down, right? Famous last words!

Its always gratifying to me when Americans take interest in showing proper respect for the flag and in flag protocol like both Amadeo and Ed do. I get peeved by the things Americans do unknowingly that are highly disrespectful. I've seen flags flown threadworn, ripped and ragged; I've seen them left out at night without lights; and what really upsets me is the flag used as a bandana, a kerchief, or sewn into clothing. Ugh!

Anonymous said...

"Marriage has done something to your head?" It was probably the thought of becoming a father. When my brother-in-law learned that he and my sister were having their fifth child, he went to this absent-minded phase and we would tease him about it.

About gun accidents, my mother told me that her mother (my grandmother) was accidentally shot by my grandfather when he was cleaning his gun. Unfortunately, my grandmother died and my mother was only a baby then. Although, my grandfather remarried, I think it's sad that my mother didn't get to know her own mother.

Nick Ballesteros said...

Must the groggy from all the things happening all at once! Getting married, moving on from a stint at the embassy.

So that's what an international distress sign is. I only know about the half mast when someby really important passes away, and when you turn the Philippine flag upside down, the red section is the one on top and it signifies that we are at war.

How come they're against your being married, if I may ask?

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hi Wat...I'll have to get back to you on the marriage thing... maybe a whole separate post. That was quite an adventure all in itself...

Americans, especially us military types, take our flag and its handling and display EXTREMELY serious. What I did that day, to me, was not a simple boo boo to be blown off or made light of. I felt deeply upset over my SNAFU. I have a huge problem with the casual way so many civilians try to display "Old Glory;" many end up being disrespectful, albeit mostly out of ignorance, although I don't believe that's an excuse.

American "progressives," aka "liberals" use our passion and love for our flag against us. It IS the symbol of all we hold dear. They know how visceral we will react if we see somone burn it or soil it. Imagine seeing your own mother attacked on the street, THAT is how we feel when the flag is attacked. It means everything to us.

It seems to me that many on the left despise their own country so much that it seems absolutely fitting to them to have the right and the freedom to use their first amendment free speech rights to show their contempt for their country by defiling its perfect symbol. When they do something like that, for whatever cause they are trying to attract attention to, they immediately lose any support or empathy I MIGHT have had for them.

Nick Ballesteros said...

I just realized how rushed my comment above looked. Sorry about that. I'm the one that looked groggy!

Reacting to how you value the flag, I guess this must be why a photo from the 9/11 incident with the firefighters raising the American flag is a very strong symbol of the country's will to overcome.