Skip to main content

Foreign Service officers assigned abroad expect to be called upon to serve as “control officers” frequently during a career, especially after they rise to mid-career rank. That is, they make arrangements for and often escort visiting dignitaries from the United States, including cabinet members and important private sector figures. Minister Heichler looks back on a highly unusual experience that he had in that role.Ed.

Robert F. Kennedy, then attorney general of the United States, paid his first visit to Berlin in February 1962, about six months after the infamous Wall had cut the city in two. Preparations for the visit were intensive and time-consuming. My own part in them was somewhat unusual.

Kennedy had decided to make the government and people of Berlin a gift of a live American bald eagle. After the requisite special Act of Congress had been passed and a specimen selected, the cables started to arrive from Washington. The Department of State notified US Mission Berlin that a healthy, five-year-old bird would be dispatched to us, presumably male. (No one was quite sure, except that he was not known ever to have laid an egg.) A control officer should be appointed immediately to meet the bird on arrival at Tempelhof Airport, make arrangements with West Berlin Zoo authorities for transport, care and feeding, and to turn him over to the zoo to keep until the presentation ceremony.

Berlin cabled back that FSO-5 Lucian Heichler had been appointed control officer for the eagle. He would meet and greet and be responsible for all necessary arrangements. Washington’s reply announced the eagle’s arrival on a Pan American Airways cargo flight due at Tempelhof at 0335—3:30 am, for goodness sake! The PanAm manager at Tempelhof was a friend of mine; I had taken bridge lessons from his wife. I phoned to ask whether he could possibly arrange for the bird to arrive at a more civilized hour.

“Eagle?” said Jim. “Yes, eagle,” I replied. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, funny you should call about an eagle,” Jim said. “An eagle just came past me here about fifteen minutes ago.”

“What did you do with him?” I shouted.

“I sent him to the Zoo,” said Jim. “What else should I have done with him?”

“Bless you,” said I. “You did exactly right.”

I called the Director of the Berlin Zoo, Herr Dr. Kloes, to check on my eagle.

Yes, the eagle was there, all right, and apparently in great shape, a really beautiful specimen, and we’re so happy; we’ve always wanted an American bald eagle, and we never had one before, and now we do… and so forth and so on.

I confirmed that Dr. Kloes and his minions would take good care of our precious cargo until the great moment when Bobby Kennedy would formally present the eagle to the government and people of Berlin.

Bobby duly arrived, accompanied by wife Ethel, his three oldest children, brother Teddy and a cast of hundreds. Two days into the visit the eagle was to be presented. The chosen site was a very large, circular aviary cage at the West Berlin Zoo. Assembled—inside the cage—were Governing Mayor Willy Brandt, Bobby Kennedy, General Lucius D. Clay, the U.S. city commandant, the head of the US Mission and dozens of other dignitaries and hangers-on—like me. Overhead, on a branch of the tree growing inside the cage, sat my eagle, looking hungry, insecure, and angry. Outside the cage, about ten thousand Berliners pressed their faces to the bars, making escape absolutely impossible. It worried me, but then I have always tended to worry.

Bobby launched into his presentation speech. All went well until he did the unexpected and announced that in honor of Berlin’s famous and courageous Governing Mayor, he was naming the eagle “Willy Brandt …” Our Willy, a man of superb political instincts, winced and shuddered. Like the consummate politician that he was, he instantly foresaw what fun the opposition press could have with that. (And they did; subsequent headlines in the conservative papers included such gems as “‘Willy Brandt’ to Share His Cage with Other Predatory Birds.”) The damage was done. Brandt graciously thanked his guest for the thoughtful and unique gift, which Berlin would always treasure, as he said, and the party moved on to the next scheduled event, mercifully unscathed by claws and beak.

My job, however, was far from done. Brandt let it be known, quietly but firmly, that he wished the bird’s name to be suppressed. Kennedy asked that a bronze plaque be suitably inscribed and affixed to the cage where the eagle was to spend the remainder of his days. The delicate task of drafting the inscription naturally fell to the eagle’s control officer. When all was done, a grateful zoo director rewarded my family and me with a lifetime pass to the bestiary.

Several years passed. Then, one morning at the office, I took a call from Dr. Kloes. Clearly embarrassed, the good Herr Direktor recalled my assurances to him that the eagle was a mature but still youthful, vigorous male, in the best of health. Well, he hated to say this, but expert examination had revealed the bird to be at least fifteen years old and increasingly suffering the ravages of old age. For years now he had fallen ill periodically. Well aware of the political sensitivity of the situation, the zoo had quietly procured another specimen and had substituted him for the original whenever necessary, with no one the wiser.

Now, however, it was his sad duty, the director continued, to inform the Americans that the original eagle had gone to his reward. The cage was now permanently occupied by the substitute. What should the zoo do by way of a public announcement? Should they say nothing and continue to pretend that the bird on display was the one which Bobby Kennedy had given the Berliners? Or should they level with the public?

Eagerly seizing the opportunity, for once in my career, to make American foreign policy, I advised Dr. Kloes to issue a brief, dignified announcement to the effect that the eagle was dead, but that henceforth there would always be an American bald eagle in the Berlin Zoo to commemorate Kennedy’s gift.

And so it was done.End.

The author retired as a minister-counselor in the American Foreign Service in 1986 after a career spanning thirty-two years. Other than Berlin, he was posted in Washington, Yaounde, Kinshasa, Rome, Bern, Brussels (NATO), and Ankara.


Comments are closed.