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In this brief segment, former Foreign Service spouse Kathryn Schmiel illustrates in her understated but descriptive prose style how American personnel stationed abroad in remote parts of the world — especially the children — often find their diversions in unusual ways.


I LOOKED ACROSS THE DULL, DARK FLOOR to the two children strapped into hammock seats against the wall of the helicopter. The roar of the engine and the rush of wind through the open door prevented speaking, but I winked and they smiled back. Dwarfed by the sound-resistant headphones and canvas life jackets, several sizes too big, their brightly colored T-shirts and shorts, tan legs and sneaker-clad feet seemed incongruous against the gun-metal gray of the wall, but their grins told me they were having the time of their lives.

In fact, we were all having the time of our lives, courtesy of the United States Navy. Once again a Navy carrier group had come to pay a call at the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa, Kenya, where my husband Gene was the U. S. consul in charge; we were all, including our twelve-year-old son and ten-year-old daughter, fully involved in the activities.

We had taken off from the airport a few miles out of town. Lifting slowly from the tarmac, the helicopter had flown over the center of town, and then curved around the harbor, tilting slightly for a sweeping view of the four or five, white-numbered ships docked alongside the piers. The sailors on the decks waved and then shrank to ant size as we abruptly gained altitude and soared across the open sea to the carrier anchored a mile or two off-shore.

Within moments the carrier came into view, first a toy boat in the distance, then rapidly growing until an island of gray metal loomed before us. We flew alongside for a time, then rose and hovered over the glimmering black deck. A blast of hot air hit us as the pilot gently maneuvered the helicopter to a landing. Gradually the roar of the engine and the vibrations of the rotor diminished; we unbuckled our seat belts, removed the headphones and jackets, and prepared to step onto the deck of the carrier.

OUR VISIT TO THE SHIP WAS ONLY A SMALL PART of a program of activities that filled the ships’ week long port call. Social events, public tours, courtesy calls, and goodwill projects filled the schedule. All were important diplomatically and militarily, but for our two American children thousands of miles from home, their visit was the most important event.

A friendly, smiling lieutenant greeted us as we stepped out of the helicopter. He led us across a slippery deck to the massive open doors of the hanger. There standing inside the cavernous building, five or six stories high, we almost forgot we were on a ship in the Indian Ocean. Dozens of sailors, skilled aircraft mechanics and technicians, worked busily on the ten or fifteen planes parked in the huge open area. The noise of power tools, the flashing lights of welding irons, the smell of fuel and hot metal filled the air. The officer shouted as he explained the scene before us.

Carefully watching where we walked, we skirted the edge of the hanger to a waiting elevator. As the noises of the deck faded, we descended deep into the center of the ship. When the doors opened, we found ourselves facing a narrow, brightly lit corridor. Bars, handles, knobs, and neatly painted signs filled the wall space. Saluting the lieutenant, addressing me as ma’am, sailors turned sideways, pressing themselves against the walls, as we passed. Our guide led us to the childrens’ long-awaited destination, the ship’s store.

Passing through the door into the tiny, glass-walled shop, we browsed through the displays of T-shirts and knit shirts embroidered with the ship’s name, hats, coffee mugs, postcards, stationery and pens, lighters, cameras and film. At last we came to the section our two snack-starved children were looking for: shelves of potato chips, nachos, candy bars, and gum. M and Ms, Fritos, Doritos, Pringles, Hersheys, Snickers, Reeses: their eyes shone at the sight of American brand names. With a strict rationing system in place, imposed by their parents as well as Uncle Sam, they selected their choices carefully, bearing in mind that the next ship wasn’t due for two months. Their purchases paid for and safely stowed in bags, we continued our tour.

Again we followed our lieutenant as he led us through a maze of narrow, twisting halls, up ladder-type stairs, through oval-shaped hatchways, until we reached the radio room. Gradually our eyes adjusted to the darkened room. There sailors sat in front of radar screens, watching dancing red, blue, and green lights flicker against the dark background. Others monitored computer screens and collected printed data. Our son listened attentively as the lieutenant explained in simple terms the science of navigation in the computer era.

We continued on for the final stop of our tour: the captain’s bridge. With a bird’s eye view of the ship, we admired the highly polished brass of the instruments, examined the detailed maps of the region, and tried out the wheel. The children sat in the captain’s raised pedestal chair for pictures.

Harbor, Mombasa, Kenya
Harbor at Evening
Mombasa, Kenya

OUR TOUR COMPLETE, we headed into the ship for our transportation back to Mombasa, not by helicopter this time, but on board the captain’s gig. We exited the carrier through a small door in its side. There a flight of narrow steps, hugging the outside of the ship, led to a small platform, rising and falling in the waves. The captain’s gig waited, tied to the platform. With great care, we descended the steps and stepped onto the bobbing boat. For the first time we actually felt as though we were on a ship on the ocean again.

After we were seated, the lieutenant brought our purchases to us and then presented us with another shopping bag. There, as an unexpected gift for our children, he had placed a surprise. They looked in the bag and whooped: the biggest box of Rice Krispies we had ever seen and a giant economy-sized jar of Skippy peanut butter, two things they had told him they missed most. As the engine of the gig started and we pulled away from the massive wall of the ship, we thanked our guide gratefully. The children waved at the sailors on the platform. Then, popping M and Ms into their mouths as the boat bounced across the waves, they turned to watch for the approaching harbor of Mombasa.

© Copyright 1998 by Kathryn Schmiel. All rights reserved.

[Author Katherine Schmiel]Kathryn Schmiel, a U.S. Foreign Service spouse for almost twenty-four years, 1973-96, has lived in Sweden, South Africa, Djibouti, Kenya, and Iceland. She currently resides in Springfield, Virginia, and works part time at an Alzheimer’s disease day care center. She has had several of her vignettes published in theForeign Service Journal. – Ed.

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