Going to Afghanistan

March 26th, 1958

This is Post #1 in the Series “Going to Afghanistan“.

Going to Afghanistan

~ “In the beginning” – but in a country with a five thousand year history there really are no new beginnings.

I went to Afghanistan because my father went to Afghanistan.  My parents and I were living in Washington D.C. at the time, my father was with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); Assistant Chief of the Common Carrier Bureau to be exact.  It was the beginning of February 1958 and Washington being Washington people run into each other and my father, Fred W. Clayton, “bumped into an old Burma hand” and they began talking.

It is an old story; this story about going to Afghanistan and how and why.  There are at least a dozen versions, rewritten at least fifty times, if only in my mind.  The problem is that it’s always so hard to say when the story really started, when that path “less taken” was first trod upon and whether the story is really more mine or his or just more about Afghanistan itself.  It’s hard to put a face upon Afghanistan, it is too old and too complicated and too remote in time.

America is different, it has a face.  The face of America is George Washington, on coins and dollar bills, portraits in the galleries and glorious (if not made-up) pictures of crossings of the Delaware and Valley Forge and swearing oaths on Bibles.  The only face of note ever seen from Afghanistan was that of the Buddha at Bamian, the standing statutes, there really are (or were) two.  Both of these faces however have long been faceless, since the days of Tamerlane (Timor the Great); when his troops literally defaced the statues by removing the eyes and forehead and leaving only the mouth to tell the tale.

But I get ahead of myself or go too far back.  Afghanistan was old when Christendom was young.  Even the young Buddhists that brought their religion to Bagram and Bamian some hundreds of years B.C. were treading upon an ancient land, populated and mostly free.  But that brings us back to Burma, home of the Shwedagon Pagoda, and the airport in Rangoon, and the reason why my father was in Burma in the first place (in 1951 and 1952).  He was there to build an airport, longest runway in all of Asia, made for jets and jet aircraft and designed to change all that once was Burma into something new and more notable and more important in the scheme of things than just a country of elephants and teak might be; teak now no longer useful in making battleships for war which is why the British liked the place the first time – and took it.

So it was a Burma hand and six months in Burma and the building on an airport that brought my father to Afghanistan.  Small world, a “small world story” as my father used to say.  But the world is really larger than all of that, goes back further, has more twists and turns, not just simple soundbites.

Fred was an Eagle Scout and scouting had a motto – “Be Prepared”.  Fred had a hundred theories on life, the first one was about readiness and preparation.  Simply stated the idea suggests that doors open to those first ready, those that are prepared and willing for the task at hand.  If one wished for a good job or adventure “be prepared for it”, “do your homework”, “get an education or a better education”, “gain the experience that you may need”.  His words still haunt me and Afghanistan intrigued and haunted him.

Before there was Burma there was Coalinga, California; small town rich from oil.  Fred’s father was very poor then (and there).  He had been rich earlier in life, cattle ranches in Nevada where in his early years Fred grew up.  The family lived in the Ruby Valley, Elko County (Nevada); in a remote house and place in the most beautiful corner of the world one could find.  At least that is what those partial to Nevada might say, the simple life; wood cooking stove, stone chimney, the vistas of water and mountains at your front door and so few to share it with you almost really wished for a neighbor, not just cattle – but cattle country it was and had been and would be perhaps forever more.  And there were Indians too, and wild horses that the Clayton’s helped keep well-bred, letting the best studs out free each spring to mingle with their freer cousins of the open range.  The Indians they helped, blankets for the cold, food when they were hungry; the Indians were there first and there was a human need if not an obligation.

The banks were dishonest then, as now.  The Clayton money was used for speculation and everything was lost in the mid 1920’s, Mr. Clayton (senior) was ruined and in time his health was ruined too.  The family tried again in Colorado, cow smallpox wiped them out so it was California and the Golden State and a community literally built on oil that offered the hope of retirement and a better education for Mr. Clayton’s boy, Fred.

On one spring day on the hills above Coalinga Eagle Scout Fred Clayton (16) sat with his girlfriend on a rock overlooking the oil and town below.  Coalinga was somewhat boring.  The vast reaches of the San Joaquin Valley, “desert brought to flower” by Hetch-Hetchy and other dams and the power of modern irrigation had lost its bloom.  Life should be about adventure, dark romance in an environment of peril if not risk; the challenges to man come only in the wild places, the far-off places, the places not completely settled and almost completely free.  Afghanistan (if not Nevada) was the ticket.  “Some day I’ll go to Afghanistan”, he might have said; but, anyway they sat and talked and painted pictures in their minds of wild places and free, romantic and very foreign; places important to imagine and almost impossible to describe.  They called that place “Afghanistan”.

[First posted:  2010.02.26 / FridayGoing to Afghanistan]
“Afghanistan Central” at Qala Bist.com is linked HERE:

Going to Afghanistan – Part Two

March 5th, 1958

This is Post #2 in the Series “Going to Afghanistan“.

Going to Afghanistan – Part Two

The guy from Burma now worked at ICA – the International Cooperation Administration.  It was the US foreign aid program.  ICA was the federal agency that delivered aid to foreign nations, not military aid, but economic aid and food aid and all the aid other than military that foreign nations might need.  Military aid was delivered through the alliances, the treaty apparatus, through organizations like NATO (North Atlantic), SEATO (Southeast Asia), CENTO (Central Europe, which meant more the Middle East or the northern Mediterranean), ANZA (Australia and New Zealand).

Of course the UN gave aid to foreign nations, to less wealthy or well-off member states.  Afghanistan was a member state of the UN, it joined in the beginning, the Afghan flag was the first flag in the UN row of flags at the UN Building in New York.  The UN started with Afghanistan some would say.  The point of the comment was generally lost.  The point that was not lost was that the UN aid was not enough, people in Afghanistan were starving (or were until recently), the Russians were taking over the world (and they were right next door to Afghanistan) and finally of course there was always the story about how the Afghans were like us (and liked us) because we had fought off and defeated the British just like they had done.  Something about “The Great Game”, British India, Gandhi and independence and the fact that the Brits were moving toward the soft underbelly of Russia and somehow the Afghans had stopped them.  And finally, oh yes, the US would have lost all of Europe without the Marshall Plan, not just eastern Europe where we never sent funds, so that proves that foreign aid not only works but is often necessary.

Anyway, all this was carefully explained to Fred in a three hour meeting with three ICA representatives held on March 5th, 1958.  Maybe the emphasis of the meeting was not so much about Afghanistan, but each nation had its story, a reason for need and aid, a hook to connect it to America and a threat from the Russian Bear.  This was the cold war.  Economic assistance and food were the icebox part that if effective would keep our GI’s at home and safe and out of harms way so we would not have to commit them to a new “hot war” like the Korea fiasco which just cost blood and money and didn’t get “US” anywhere as we didn’t even win the war; “it’s just a truce there you know”, the ICA guys kept talking.

“We don’t send aid to Burma.”  Burma was always still a question in my father’s mind.  The family was supposed to return with him to Burma in the fall of ‘52.  The family bought tropical clothes, Hawaiian shirts, stuff for the heat of the tropics and then camped out for the summer at a summer cabin at Lake Tahoe waiting for orders and tickets to Burma.  It was a disaster when politics got in the way.  The government of Burma changed and Fred was blamed for being foreign and the construction outfit out of New York was dropped and so they dropped Fred and my brothers and I with my mother sat at 7,000 feet above sea level in a small cabin waiting to freeze to death or something worse while my father (Fred) looked for a job, any job that might feed the family and make everyone forget about the Burma plans.

[Read the Big Snow post to get a sense of part of the pathos].

The real question Fred explained, was do families get to go?  Fred was probably quite willing enough at the time to go off to Afghanistan or just about anywhere else a good “career-advancing” job might take him, but he was not willing to get a divorce and it was pretty clear in his mind that a repeat of the Burma
Fiasco certainly could lead quite directly to a divorce.

“Families can go,”  was the short answer.  Then there was discussion about “hard-ship posts” and extra pay and how housing works and how everyone would fly first-class and there was a family car allowance and the car could not be too nice, no Cadillacs or Lincolns certainly, and that was all very fine because flying first-class would be new to Fred and the family didn’t own a Cadillac or Lincoln.  “Yes, the 1955 Mercury Station wagon would be a fine car to take wherever you might go”.

The second meeting with ICA was on March 7th, by March 20th Fred’s application for employment was in the hands of ICA.  It was probably clear from the beginning that Fred was going to Afghanistan and not some other nation where an exceptionally qualified engineer was not so important.  The next three months were mostly involved with trips, New York, secret missile tests, Portland, Oregon and a photographic redoubt in Reno and a visit with Ken (my brother) in Carson City, a Cub Scout outing in the Appalachians with Donald (meaning me).  The physical for Afghanistan was scheduled for June 27th.  Fred passed.

August 18th was the hire date.  The job title was impressive.  “FWC – Chief of the Transportation and Industry Division – United States Operation Mission (USOM) / Afghanistan – International Cooperation Administration (ICA).  Supervisory responsibilities included numerous project sites both in and outside of Kabul including Kandahar International Airport, the Kabul Gorge, the Helmand Valley, and the road project between Kabul and Kandahar.  ICA wanted Fred to leave for Afghanistan at the earliest opportunity.

To understand the situation one must know a bit more about the family.  My mother’s name was Lloydine; Fred and Lloydine were married in March of 1938 in Sacramento, California where they both worked at the time.  “Martin” was born about a year later in Reno.  In 1958 he was serving in the US Navy on a carrier after leaving Harvard College after his Freshman year.  Kenneth (Ken) was younger, he finished his Junior Year in High School in Carson City, Nevada in the summer of 1958.  He lived with the Lynch’s that spring because he had severe asthma that made living with the rest of the family in D.C. impossible.  I had just completed Fourth Grade at Janney School [reference to other posts].

In spite of the assurances about families getting to go (to Afghanistan) there were practical considerations that influenced “when”.  First, the family home in Carson City (rented out for the year in Washington D.C.) was not yet sold.  A career in the foreign service would make the sale of the house practical; it’s hard to collect rent from Afghanistan; meaning the checks in the mail, but it might take two months to reach you and then there were not really banks in Afghanistan willing to cash Carson City checks.  Sure one could impose on relatives, have them mind the store, give powers of attorney for emergencies.  The decision was made to just sell the house, it was so much easier and the money from the sale might be useful.

Then Ken might or might not do well in Afghanistan due to his asthma.  Transferring schools would be hard enough as a Senior, ignoring the fact that there was no Senior High School in Afghanistan for non-Afghans, no private school, no military school, no International School.  And even if, what if he had to leave for his health, traveling sick across half the world, no adequate “western” medical care in the whole country.  I however was good to go; but it was not me or the family that went that twenty-first day of September – it was Fred.

[Originally written:  2010.02.26 / Friday – Going to Afghanistan – Part Two]