by Henry E. Mattox
The editor of this journal recently had the opportunity to visit the Azores for the first time since his assignment there a half century ago as a very junior Vice Consul. He recounts here his reminiscence-filled search for old haunts and his satisfaction at being able to participate in Ponta Delgada’s commemoration of the humanitarian relief provided by the United States to the victims of the islands’ volcanic eruptions in 1957-58. – – Pub.
Back in the summer of 1960, I finished my second Foreign Service assignment, vice consul at Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island in the Azores. My young family and I departed for the next stop on a career path that led to five more postings abroad, plus a Washington assignment. There followed post-retirement travels and other adventures. The Azores, stranded as they are in the mid-Atlantic, from then on figured not at all in my plans, nor evidently very often in the intentions of others. Nearly everyone transiting the North Atlantic flew over or sailed by the nine islands with, I dare say, scarcely a thought or a glance. Only rarely did the archipelago figure in the news. And why should not that be the case—small, remote, and relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things as the Azores might be considered?
One never entirely forgets the days of youth, however, especially those times that proved markedly pleasant and interesting or conversely, unpleasant but instructive. This old retiree, who managed a considerable amount of world travel one way or another as the decades passed, never totally lost sight of that particular Foreign Service tour, a brief period of my life that I came to view as taking place in the dim mists of the past. My thoughts nonetheless returned occasionally to that brief chapter in my life, from the end of 1958 to the early summer of 1960, even though increasingly long ago and far away. Would I ever see those isles again? It seemed most unlikely.
Ah, but then recently came the chance to return, as the reader might have been led to expect from the foregoing comments. Following up on a cruise ship lecturing opportunity that happened along late last year, I applied for a voyage from Florida through part of the Caribbean and thence to Europe – via Ponta Delgada. (For some few years, it seems, certain of the modern-day cruise liners have included that stop in their semi-annual re-positioning treks across the Atlantic.) Upon being accepted for the cruise, with my wife, I notified the Portugal Desk in the Department of my proposed visit. From the desk officer I obtained the consul’s name and, miracle of miracles, the consulate’s direct-dial telephone number.That was the first of quite a few surprises, if not to say shocks, that came my way. The consulate now has a telephone connection with the world? Out there in the middle of the ocean? Such was not the case, back in the good old days of my tenure at the post. The consulate then had nearly damn-all in the way of communications with Embassy Lisbon or the Department in Washington: An infrequent telegram was sent or received via the Portuguese telegraph office in town. The thankfully rare classified cables arrived the same way, to be laboriously deciphered by me as the junior officer, using our one-time pad. (Importantly, because of the attendant complexities, we never sent a classified telegrams during my tour, not one.) The port received a bi-weekly visit by a World War I-era freighter out of Lisbon that brought mail and an occasional pouch. (Consul Roger Heacock arrived on transfer by that means and I learned of my first promotion, to O-7, that way.) A USAF DC-3 flight from the Lajes Air Base on the somewhat distant island of Terceira landed occasionally on the local grass strip with mail and supplies. The local airline’s little De Havilland Doves used the same grass strip for local hops to Santa Maria and Terceira.
That just about did it. Cruise ships had not yet been invented and I don’t believe a passenger liner ever arrived during my tenure. American and British warships called occasionally, as did, once, a very large Italian Navy sailing vessel, of all things.
To return to my account, after a pleasant telephone conversation with Consul Jean Manes in Ponta Delgada, originated by me from North Carolina with absolutely no complications or delays, I had the assurance of an appointment for us to call upon her, my wife and I, during the few hours our cruise ship was scheduled to remain in the port.
We eventually arrived on schedule in late April this year at the familiar long gray concrete breakwater that forms the city’s harbor. (That feature constituted for me one of the few completely familiar sights of the day at first glance.) There at the foot of the gangplank Consul Manes and her consulate driver awaited us. The adventure in rediscovery began.
According to the consul, my brief stopover proved opportune. The local authorities plan to commemorate formally, in cooperation with the consulate, of course, the fiftieth anniversary of a relief effort sponsored by the United States in the Azores. That program provided special U. S. immigration visas to Azoreans who suffered damage from volcanic eruptions just off the coast of Fayal Island during 1957-58. The Department authorized the consulate to set up a branch office at Horta on Fayal to conduct the program. Consul Manes viewed my brief visit as an unusual opportunity for the consulate and the local press to obtain a first-hand account of the events. She arranged in advance an interview with a representative of Ponta Delgada’s leading newspaper.
Two side comments here:
1) The passage of the legislation in 1958 had occasioned my transfer to Ponta Delgada, unbeknownst to me at the time. But it turned out I had little or nothing to do with that visa program administered from Horta; the then-consul at Ponta Delgada, Homer Lanford, had already sent a vice consul to open the office when I arrived. The program was supervised during most of its life by Roger Heacock, the very able senior Foreign Service officer heading up the consulate during nearly all of my stay at the post.
2) I am not sure Ponta Delgada had a newspaper of any sort when I was there; it’s possible, but I don’t remember one.
The interview arranged by Consul Manes took place in Ponta Delgada’s main square near the “old town” waterfront in the midst of a large, bustling crowd of tourists from the cruise ship on which we had arrived. We had an al fresco lunch and talked in this, one of the few specific locales still familiar to me after my long absence. I noted nearby the fairly large, ornate bandstand where the locally sponsored forty-piece brass band long ago had performed in concert late Sunday afternoons, a group in which my trumpet and I had had the honor and pleasure of participating. (Sadly, no one I ran into on this short visit seemed to know anything about such a band, past or present.)
Consul Manes—Jean—informed me later that the correspondent’s interview made the paper’s front page.
Most of the rest of our afternoon’s visit we spent in being driven about and absorbing information about the present scene by Jean. I eventually decided the city I knew so long ago still existed even though much changed, and I recognized, finally, the large white house in which I had once lived. The consul’s residence back then I found nearby, even with the addition of considerable vegetation all over everywhere. We found, through the consulate driver’s extensive knowledge of local history, the old multi-storied residence-office fronting directly on one of the narrow streets where the consulate had been located for many years, during my time and long before. Refurbished, it is now a government drivers’ license bureau. Therein I paid a visit to my former office, perhaps the most spacious, it happens, I ever occupied during my Foreign Service career.The new consulate offices – the second set occupied since my departure from the post, are modern and efficient looking, and well guarded, located in the port area itself. None of the consulate’s people from my day were still employed, of course, but staff members promised to pass on my regards to two or three surviving retirees whom I remembered quite well.
I come here to a summing up of the changes:
Considerable portions of downtown Ponta Delgada I found, after a bit of mental adjustment, hauntingly familiar, even with the added complication of very much heavier automobile and truck traffic in the streets along with a heightened pace of business. There is no room anymore for the many mule- and horse-drawn carts that one commonly saw. The city is much larger than it was back in my day, with new construction spreading out extensively from what used to be the city limits. A modern hospital sits in the new suburbs; formerly there had been no such establishment this side of the air base on Terceira Island. An up-to-date airport— not a grass strip—with scheduled international flights sits near the port area. One notices a half-dozen attractive international tourist hotels where absolutely none had existed before. Wonder of wonders, one can even find a new, modern shopping mall in the suburbs.
As we sailed away from Ponta Delgada, after profusely thanking Jean for her hospitality and laying on the experience, I thought of Thomas Wolfe’s noted observation about returning home, but decided I didn’t agree. After some reverse culture shock and experiencing the favorable circumstances I encountered at Ponta Delgada, I reached a determination that you can indeed go home again, even after almost a half century.
Henry Mattox is the editor of American Diplomacy.