I’m still thinking about being left behind in Brazzaville

6 mins read

It’s Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, and I’m at the Baltimore/Washington Airport waiting to board Flight 1717. I’m sitting at the gate a full 40 minutes before boarding. I’m here, way early, knowing full well this is a symptom of Late Stage Airplane Departure Anxiety. For me it began in Brazzaville.

Many years ago, I was in the Republic of the Congo doing work for President Pascal Lissouba. Our small team had been in Congo for two weeks meeting various ministers in numerous ministries — but we had not yet met Lissouba.

On the day of our departure, we were suddenly summoned to the presidential palace to meet the President and, perhaps, to pose for a photograph. We had been instructed by the Chief of Protocol that we should bring a gift — and I distinctly remember being told that it should be modest in size and price.

In this connection, I purchased a T-shirt at Dulles which commemorated the then-recent Clinton/Gore Inaugural. I was therefore horrified when the first of our group presented the president with an expensively framed Audubon print of a Carolina Parakeet.

My anxiety was further fueled when two other colleagues presented the president with a leaded crystal vase and a silver bowl — the flags of Congo and the United States engraved on the bottom of the bowl.

When my turn came, I held the T-shirt against my torso, saying President Clinton sent his greetings. I did this in a playful manner hoping the president would understand my humor. But Lissouba remained stone-faced.

I reached into my pocket searching for a political button that I could attach to the T-shirt and, perhaps, upgrade my offering. In the process I lost my grip on the button and watched as it rolled across the marble-tiled floor under the fixed, unsmiling, slightly alarmed gaze of the President.

But after a moment Lissouba’s eyes lit up.

“Is Jimmy Carter your friend?” he asked me in a mixture of English and French.

Realizing that the button in play was a “Carter for President” button and not the Bill Clinton button I thought I was proffering, I said, “Yes, excellency.”

Although I have a well-deserved reputation for exaggeration, I had spoken to the candidate Carter (once) and had run his campaign in Beaufort County. In retrospect “friend” was a stretch, but at that moment, I would have said that Carter and I were lovers if that had been the question.

Lissouba rose from his chair and motioned me to follow him into his private office where he opened-up his desk and pulled out a well-worn letter of congratulations (from Carter) on his recent election.

“I am also his friend,” Lissouba said, handing me Carter’s letter.

At that point he wanted to know where I was raised and what I did for a living. When I told him my father was an immunologist, he told me that he was an immunologist and had done research in Malaria and Hemorrhagic Fever.

The conversation veered to the Marburg virus and an emerging disease called AIDS. But as we talked I was uncomfortably aware that our plane left at 5:30 and knew if we departed the palace that very moment getting to the airport before departure would be a near thing.

“You seem distracted,” Lissouba said. “Is anything wrong?”

“Excellency, I’ve been in Congo two weeks — two wonderful weeks — but now I’m ready to get home and see my wife and son,” I replied.

Lissouba didn’t react to that comment, but continued his discussion of the various diseases then prevalent in the eastern part of Congo. It didn’t appear he had heard me.

“This has been a fabulous trip for me Your Eminence,” I said. “But I have a law practice and its time I got back and tended my small flock of clients.”

“Clearly you don’t understand my country,” he said with obvious disappointment. “Don’t you know that your airplane will not leave Congo until I tell it to leave Congo.”

Sure enough the big Airbus and its 320 bewildered, irritated passengers was still on the tarmac when we arrived at the airport two hours later. But I must confess that this near miss rattled me and took its toll on my self-confidence. So much so that I still arrive at the airport much too early and spend that time sitting alone and staring at the monitor.

So here I sit in Baltimore — 26 years later — still thinking about being left behind in Brazzaville.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com


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