I fought Erwin Rommel. Only a few people know that; now so will the six people who read this blog.
Although designated a political officer, as a junior FSO I had to spend a year doing consular work. I spent mine in Georgetown, Guyana in the late 1970s. As I have written before, Guyana then was under the rule of the charming socialist corruptocrat Forbes Burnham. Years of socialist policies and demagoguery had demolished the economy, and eroded a once fairly democratic and tolerant political system and society. Just about everybody in the country wanted out. One relatively easy way to escape involved convincing a junior consular officer at the Canadian or British High Commissions, or the American Embassy to grant a "nonimmigrant visa" (NIV) of some type, e.g., tourist, student, business, and simply never come back.
Before today's elaborate computer and internet systems, and vast digital data bases, a visa officer largely flew solo when interpreting the case before him and deciding whether to grant a visa, "Is this person telling the truth? Does he intend to return to Guyana after visiting the US? Does he have a strong reason to return?" It all proved very fuzzy. In most cases, we had almost no rational basis on which to make decisions, especially since one of the country's richest men had skipped on his visa, preferring chicken farming in Georgia to his "mansion" in Georgetown. Each of us developed his own criteria. I settled on the "Would-I-Mind-If-This-Person-Became-My-Neighbor?" theme. That worked about as well as any other system.
We refused about 60% of the applicants, and should have refused about 99%. When, however, our refusal rate got "too high" we got pressure from our politically attuned front office and from Washington, especially Congress, to ease off. Congressional staffers would berate us for turning down the brother or friend of a constituent, and often accuse us of "racism." I would explain to these obnoxious staffers, trying to keep my anger and irritation under control, that we carried out the law as written by Congress, and that the people to whom we issued visas belonged to the same race as those we denied. It got tiresome and ridiculous.
The visa shop sat in a warehouse-type structure about a block or so from the main building. We had a tough working environment: noise, heat, mold, erratic electric current, beat-up furniture--some of WWII vintage--and peeling paint characterized the site. We had a blue collar, labor union resentment towards the "suits" in the main building. We felt unappreciated and put upon, drawing their attention only when some snooty political officer needed a visa for a contact, or called to yell at us for denying one to a child, spouse, or mistress of somebody "important."
Security was a joke. The Marines guarded the main building; we depended on Guyana's equivalent of mall cops. They wore ill fitting green slacks, cheap black shoes, a white shirt, and a dark green fiberglass helmet; some carried a baton. One or two milled around the main door, another occasionally would walk among the visa applicants who sat in grey metal folding chairs waiting for us to summon them. The smell of sweat filled the room. At one side of that big room we stood behind crude DMV-style wooden counters with no glass separating us from "those yearning to breathe free." We interviewed 80 to 200 NIV applicants in the morning, and 30-40 immigrant visa applicants in the afternoon.
NIV interviews generally went fast; we did not want to get drawn into details of applicants' tales. We tried to determine if the story generally seemed credible, and whether the person telling it intended to return to Guyana after the visit. I had applicants say they would visit Disneyworld in New York; my favorite, however, remained the Berbice cane cutter going to Brooklyn to see how they cut cane there. Applicants would turn in their visa forms, passports, and supporting documents to the Guyanese receptionist who would check them for completeness, get them organized, and pass the packet to the visa officers. We checked on employment, family status, bank accounts, and any other evidence that might show that the applicant had a well-established life he or she would not likely give up. We would review the documents, make quick notes, and in 90% of the cases decide whether to issue before conducting the required interview. That interview, frankly, usually proved a formality; rarely did the applicant say anything to change our initial decision.
One hot humid day, much like all the others, as the only officer on visa duty that morning, I had about 150 interviews waiting. Right off, the receptionist gave me a damp, beat-up passport and a dog-eared seaman's book in the name of, I kid you not, Erwin Johannes Rommel. According to the application, he wanted to visit a girlfriend in Brooklyn, and then join a cargo ship as a crewman. His seaman's book had expired years ago; he didn't know the girlfriend's address; and had no contract to go out as a crewman. Slam. Dunk. Refusal. Not.
Trying to suppress my laughter, I called out "Rommel, Erwin Rommel. Please come to the front." This Rommel did not look much like his Generalfeldmarschall namesake. While I never found out how well he commanded panzer formations, my Rommel was a thin black man, who stood about 5'5". He seemed extremely agitated; streams of perspiration poured from the man despite the--for once--working air conditioning.
"Mr. Rommel, your application doesn't make much sense. Tell me why you want to go to New York."
He backed away, and began walking in fast, tight circles, mumbling--not, however, in German. He would look at me out of the corners of his eyes. He stopped suddenly, head down, and began licking his lips. Jerking his head up, he stared at me. His eyes did not blink.
"Are you OK, Mr. Rommel? I don't think you should go to New York. Go home and get some rest."
He lunged. I stepped back. About a third of his body came over the counter; he reached for me, his fingers raking down my face, and ending up in my shirt pocket which he tore off. Rommel slid back off the counter, and stood looking at the cloth trophy in his hand.
My face stung where he had clawed me; my new shirt sported a gaping hole. Livid, I shouted for the receptionist to call the Embassy to send somebody to the consular section right away. I reached under the counter, and seized a heavy stapler used to bind large packets; it had a big, shiny brass knob. I clambered over the counter unfolding the stapler as I went.
I was considerably bigger and younger than he, but that didn't stop him. Just as I came over the counter, Rommel took a swing at me, barely missing. I used my stapler like a medieval flail. The brass knob whipping into his forehead. He went down . . . for about two seconds and bounced back up, cursing, swinging, and spitting. Another crack from my stapler; again, he went down and back up. He now had two nasty gashes on his forehead; blood mixed with sweat began oozing down his face, making his injury look more terrible than in actuality. He didn't give up: another lunge, another crack from the "flail," down, back up. Most of the other 149 applicants had formed a semicircle, watching the show, many probably thinking, "Wow! These Americans, when they turn you down for a visa, they really turn you down! A simple no would do." One of the security guards finally showed up, and got the dazed Mr. Rommel to sit. Our administrative officer, a political officer, and a visiting Regional Security Officer (RSO) from a U.S. embassy in a neighboring country also appeared.
Mr. Rommel, who never said a word the whole time, now seemed quiescent. The admin officer convinced him to go. The guard led the conga line to the door; Mr. Rommel right behind him; the admin officer next; then the RSO; and the political officer. I brought up the rear after returning my blood-specked "flail" to its perch under the counter. The guard opened the door, Mr. Rommel began to exit, then wheeled about, and landed the most perfect punch I ever saw. He caught the guard on the tip of the chin: down, out cold, just like in the movies. Rommel began to tap dance on the prone guard's head. We all jumped on the Field Marshall, but couldn't bring him down! We formed an absurd scrum bobbing, swaying, grunting, cursing, and crashing into folding chairs as we slid across the floor. The political officer and I pulled down Mr. Rommel's trousers around his ankles. He tripped, and our squirming clump of humanity crashed to the floor.
It got weird; no, it got weirder. The admin officer somehow came to sit on Rommel's chest, grabbed his ears, and began bouncing his head on the hard floor. We yelled, "You're going to kill him! Stop!" He stopped. Rommel slowly got up, looking battered, bloodied, and spent . . . well, almost. Rommel swung at the RSO, who, however, had a can of a then new item, "Mace." The RSO fired a jet of the noxious fluid . . . straight into his own face. He screamed in pain as the stuff burned into his eyes. The RSO dropped out of the picture, as did the political officer who ran to get him a wet towel. Mr. Admin threw Rommel against the wall, held him by the throat, and delivered two loud crunching blows to Erwin's nose and mouth.
The receptionist came running with a pair of handcuffs. "I forgot we had these. They might be useful."
We slapped the cuffs on Rommel and waited for the local law. After considerable time, the cops arrived; two very large plainclothes officers escorted the now docile Rommel to their small and battered unmarked car parked in front of the building. I went along to get our irons back.
At the car, one cop said, "Man, what you want us to do with him?" I stammered, "I, I don't know. Lock him up. Charge him with something. Get him a psychiatrist." The cop made a slight clucking sound, shook his head slowly, undid the handcuffs, gave them to me, and said, "You better not be here. Go back. Don't look at this."
As I walked away, these enormous cops drew wooden clubs from their car and administered Rommel a beating that Montgomery would have admired. They drove off, leaving him crumpled on the street.
We had to call and pay for an ambulance.
So ends the true story of how I saved New York from Erwin Rommel.
New Yorkers, be grateful!