BY STEVEN ALAN HONLEY
Fans of “Jeopardy” know that after the first commercial break, host Alex Trebek chats with each of the three contestants briefly, often about a hobby or a romantic or embarrassing moment (ideally one and the same) in the player’s life.
Those conversations are not improvised on the spot, of course. Rather, those who pass the annual online audition and go to a tryout—the equivalent of the oral portion of the Foreign Service entrance exam—are asked to list five “fun facts” about themselves that could be the topic of an exchange with Alex.
Coming up with those sounds like it should be a piece of cake for us Foreign Service folks, right? But when I worked on my own list after passing the online test last spring (and two years ago, when I also passed, but wasn’t selected for the show), I found it a real challenge.
My first two entries were easy enough to identify: I stood at the South Pole on New Year’s Eve 1988 and, as a result, have set foot on every continent. Much as it pains me to admit this, however, I can’t honestly claim either of those distinctions as an achievement.
I only got to Antarctica because I was the science officer (one of many hats I wore as a second-tour political/economic officer) at Embassy Wellington, and all my superiors had either already gone down to the ice or didn’t want to do so during the Christmas holidays. And while it was an unforgettable experience, I was still essentially a glorified tourist who never even got cold.
In contrast, surviving the massive September 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, my first posting, certainly qualifies as a dramatic incident. And as if that weren’t traumatic enough, I happened to be the deaths and estates officer in the embassy’s citizen services section at the time.
But I got off lightly because, miraculously, just a handful of Americans died in the quake—and my intrepid Foreign Service National, Olga Meza, did just about all the work anyway. (That technicality didn’t stop me from dining out on earthquake stories throughout home leave, of course.)
As for the rest of my Foreign Service career, spent entirely in Washington, I am proud of the work I did as a desk officer in the Political-Military Affairs Bureau and the Bureau of African Affairs, as a watch officer in the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, and as a bureau representative on countless task forces.
But again, it’s hard to come up with a snappy story from those years—though the night of Aug. 1, 1990, might qualify.
Surviving the massive 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, my first posting, certainly qualifies as a dramatic incident.
Moments after I arrived to represent PM on a task force monitoring the Marines’ evacuation of U.S. citizens from Liberia, Embassy Kuwait called to report that Saddam Hussein’s tanks were moving into the country. I then spent my shift on a secure line comforting a terrified summer intern who passed on developments as heavy artillery boomed in the background.
Was that historic? Absolutely. But it’s not exactly fodder for a 30-second interview with Alex Trebek on national television.
Indeed, I think that is the biggest drawback to Foreign Service work: some of our most valuable contributions entail working behind the scenes, monitoring crises and keeping overseas situations from making the news in the first place.
Yet, to quote the final lines of John Milton’s sonnet, “On His Blindness,” written when the poet lost his eyesight in his 40s:
Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
So to all the Foreign Service members who toil in anonymity—whether in the Operations Center, the bowels of a government annex or at a remote overseas post—I say this: Take heart! Your hard-won expertise may not lend itself to a sound bite, but it still matters.
Speaking of waiting, I’m still hoping for a summons to sunny Los Angeles to appear on “Jeopardy.” Even if I do get that call before my 18-month eligibility expires, Alex may be more interested in my having perfect pitch than diplomatic exploits.
But I still have those Foreign Service highlights on my “top five” list, just in case!