by Henry Precht
How much of this reminiscence is fact and how much is imagination is left to the reader, but the story gives us the flavor of an earlier, less complicated and more adventurous posting in romantic Italy.–Ed.
Skinny and shy: Skinny was better than fat, but shy was something I had to work on if I wanted to get ahead. Back in Georgia I graduated from two dancing schools, but never really learned what to do on the dance floor. And I had even fewer ideas what to do on the ride home.
Four years in the Navy in Naples began to change that — as wine with meals always does. Even more potently, the cheap, fancy drinks at the officers’ club worked their effects. Lust began to wear away my shyness. Still there wasn’t the confidence that would nurture a commitment that might lead to love — the element fundamental to getting the most out of life in Italy, if Dante is to be believed.
Then, my military service done, a few months aspiring to teach in college, followed by another couple unemployed and lastly polished up with three years in a government bureaucracy. But my personal life hardly changed: I gave up on the search for domesticity and love. Finally in 1961, I took the Foreign Service exam and was assigned to our embassy in Rome.
So, you might think, my timidity had been vanquished. Not so. I merely disguised it with southern courtliness and bits of wit that did not offend. I had an advantage, however. My first job was in the consular section, replacing lost passports for Americans or shipping off the bodies of dead ones or refusing (mostly) tourist visas for Italians. I was the third of three junior officers; the higher-ranking jobs in the section were all held by women who knew their regulations and the tricks the public might pull. But none had learned the trick of catching a man.
My advantage was that these ladies were not happy with my two male co-workers who were recent Ivy League graduates, spoke foreign languages and viewed labor in the consular section as time in purgatory before entering the paradise of policy making. In those olden days, the Foreign Service was still an elite corps and a club. The two Ivy boys didn’t project humility and the ladies blackballed them. While I couldn’t match their elite qualifications, I was polite and humble and, anyway, I believed I was already in paradise. Who wouldn’t think that? I would soon rotate to the political section staffed with smart, friendly and helpful old-timers. The most helpful of them was Andy Tucker, the chief, who, also a non-Ivy southerner decided to look out for me.
I was in the midst of interrogating visa applicants one August day around noon when Andy called me over to his office. “Anything important on your plate this afternoon,” he asked before I sat down. And without waiting, “I’ve already checked with Dot [chief of the consular section]. So unless you have secret plans, I hope you are ready for a hush-hush mission.”
“You sure you want me?” Modesty was one of my locally celebrated virtues.
“You’ll do. The courier just brought this envelope. The White House wants it delivered subito by a reliable officer who will keep quiet about it. I figure that’s you, old man. Never, ever utter the name of the recipient. I figure ‘Her or Your Ladyship’ will do. And make sure this parcel reaches her hands directly from yours. Don’t ask a maid or a social secretary to pass it along. Them’s your orders — straight from the top. I know it sounds a bit daft — but you’ll do a lot crazier stuff in this business.”
“I guess I can handle that,” I responded, taking the unmarked envelope from Andy. “Is there an address for the recipient or is figuring that out why you picked an expert Italian hand like me?”
“Her Ladyship is to be found in the Hotel Respighi in Ravello. I figure if you leave right now you can make it in time for a late supper — after making the delivery first, of course. Pasqualle is waiting for you outside. I’ll tell the ladies you’ll see them tomorrow.” Andy ushered me to the door.
In a moment, I was exchanging warm greetings with the driver. “Che piaceri!, don Pasqual. Andiamo in vacanza sulla costiera Amalfitana.” I knew Pasqualle well from the several trips we had made to the airport, deporting destitute world travelers.
I hadn’t anything to read, but gazing out the window, the southern Italian countryside was always diverting and Pasqualle was a safe enough driver so you didn’t have to handle the steering mentally. We curved around Naples, turned right at Salerno and headed up and around and around the Amalfi drive. Then we reached the turn-off for Ravello and twisted up to the mountain whereupon sat the village.
Pasqualle had a word with the policeman in the main piazza who then opened up a roadblock on the driveway to the hotel, saluting smartly as we passed through. “Find a place to stay in town, Pasqual, and pick me up here tomorrow at 8, va bene?”
Presenting myself as dignified-looking as I could manage to the receptionist, I asked to see Her Ladyship. “Just a moment, please,” she turned and made a telephone call: “Tell Sam some one wants to see ‘Her Ladyship.'” “He will come in just a moment,” she informed me.
And, in fact, a moment later a beefy fellow introduced himself: “Hi, I’m Sam Oristano. I’m here with Her Ladyship. (He used the term with a small smirk, mocking me.) What can I do for you?”
“I’m Vice Consul Henry Precht and I have a communication that I must deliver to her in person,” I replied, waving the envelope.
“Her Ladyship is not available. I’ll take it for her and assure you it will be delivered ASAP.” He opened his wallet to show a Secret Service ID.
“My strict orders are to hand it to her in person,” I replied, summoning up the most authoritative firmness I could muster.
“Sorry, that ain’t the way it works here. Either you trust me to deliver the goods or you don’t get them delivered. You have your orders and we have our procedures, which Her Ladyship has laid down. The choice is yours.”
“Is there a telephone I could use to call the Embassy?”
“There is and when it works you might get through for a few minutes. Making a connection might take a day or so. To wind this up, you either give me the letter, or you take it back to Rome. No other choices, I’m afraid.”
I calculated the effects on my career of either option. “All right. Here it is. But could you let me know when you have made delivery?”
“Sure thing. Say, why don’t you have supper with me and Mike on the terrace. We’re just finishing our first course and you could catch up. The food’s really great.”
After checking into my room I found Sam and Mike’s table just as the waiter was clearing away their plates of lasagna. “What’s good?” I asked.
“Join us for the spaghetti with squid and ink. This food’s so good we always go for a second primo!” I agreed.
On the other side of the terrace, I spotted Her Ladyship and a mustachioed type laughing together over wine. “Did you…”
“Yes,” Sam finished my thought, “I did and I told her you were nervous and upset about it.”
My duty done, I settled back to enjoy the pasta, which was as good as Sam scored it. Then we had vitello tonnato followed by a zuppa inglesi. All accompanied by a slightly sour southern wine.
As we were finishing our espressos, who should come over to our table but Her Ladyship. We all rose and Sam introduced me. She then introduced me to Signor Iaccarino and said with the softest voice, “I want to thank you, Consul, for all your trouble in coming down here with that silly letter.”
“I wonder if you would mind taking my reply back with you tomorrow? I suppose you are returning to Rome directly?”
When I assured her that would be the case, she said, “Well, come along with me a minute if you don’t mind. Giorgio could you wait with the boys? I’ll only be a minute.”
I followed her down the dimly lit sidewalk to her suite near the wall facing the sea. She led me in and gestured to a sofa while going to her desk at the rear of the room. “If I had let Giorgio come along, he would have insisted on reading the letter. Now I’ll burn it and be very fast with my reply. I just have to find the right words so you won’t have to make this trip down here again.”
She was quick and, sealing the envelope with a melted wax red circle, she arose and came over to hand it to me. “Thank you so much for your patience and kindness,” she gripped my embarrassingly bony elbow. I started to speak, but she followed with a kiss on my right cheek. There had been nothing in the training classes for new officers to prepare me for that. Nor for the softest kiss I next felt on my lips. “Well, thank you,” was the best response I could come up with.
“Now, not a word of any of this to anyone. Just between you and me,” she kind of giggled. I supposed she was having a little sport with the shy vice consul. I shuffled towards the door and gulped out, “No, Ma’am.”
“Oh,” she called after me, “please tell Giorgio and the boys that after breakfast at 8:30, we water ski. I’m done for the day and folding up as I trust you will too. Good night.”
I followed orders, made my farewells to Sam and Mike, bedded down and after a restless night was on the road at eight with Pasqualle.
This is the first time I have told this tale. I have often wondered how subconsciously it might have affected my timidity and career. I suppose the incident might have been emboldened me to take greater risks in hope of great rewards. Or I might have been cautioned to stay away from situations that might lead to results beyond my ability to manage. Or maybe the two possible effects cancelled each other.
Three things are certain, however. Never during my subsequent career and in my occasional dealings with elites in Europe and America was I ever accorded such spontaneous and generous kindness. Nor in my travels in the decadent East with its fine silks and wool from high mountain sheep did I even feel such softness as those lips. Finally, I suppose, Dante-like, I was struck by a lightening bolt of love — an emotion I had never before been able to enjoy.
A retired Foreign Service Officer, Henry Precht was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia. He joined the Foreign Service in 1961 and had postings to Rome, Alexandria, and on the Arab-Israel Desk in the State Department after the 1967 war. Five years later, he was named political/military counselor in Tehran where he served four years. In the summer of 1978 with the Iranian Revolution at mid-point, Precht was made chief of the Iran Desk and remained there through the Hostage Crisis.
Appointed as ambassador to Mauritania, he was blocked by Senator Helms who deemed him responsible for the fall of the Shah. Instead, Precht was assigned as Deputy Chief of Mission in Cairo for four years.
After retirement in 1987, he was President of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, and taught at Case Western Reserve University. Now based in Bethesda, Maryland, he continues to write regularly, including a book of short stories on the Foreign Service in the Middle East — A Diplomat’s Progress, available at bookstores or directly from the author at email@example.com .