10 October 2011

7 June 1995

That's a very important date to me and to my family.

But first, some history. I grew up during the height of the Cold War. I still remember crouching under my desk during bomb drills in elementary school (as if...). With this terrifying threat drummed in your mind long enough - not a day seemed to go by without a short film clip of a nuclear test - it's not surprising that many people of my generation worried a lot about a nuclear holocaust. When the US and the USSR between them (mid 1970's) had sufficient nuclear devices to turn this entire planet into a cinder many times over, well, it can color your thinking.

I mostly got over it, but it started worrying me a lot again after my children were born. Should we even have children? While pondering and praying about this in 1979, a startling understanding burst into my mind. I can't articulate it better than this, but the understanding was instantaneous, and it was not in English. I had to convert it to English to share it with my wife. In short: "Don't worry. There will not be a nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR. There will be a nuclear exchange in the future, but in another, narrower venue." I was told where that other venue would be, but can only share it with my family for reasons that I need not explain to a Latter-Day Saint.

Fast forward to 1989: the USSR crumbled almost overnight after being one pole of a bipolar world (pun intended) for over 70 years. The START treaty and START II led to (by comparison, at least) dramatic reductions in nuclear stockpiles.

Fast Forward to 2004: evil incarnate, in the form of A.Q. Khan of Pakistan, stole the hardest part of nuclear weapons development - isotopic separation technology - from the Netherlands. He then shared it for huge personal bribes with Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Until they perish from this, the Pakistani people will continue to revere Khan as the Father of the Islamic Bomb. Indeed. However make no mistake about it: Khan couldn't do any of this by himself - he had nowhere near enough jets to swing it. He received nearly unlimited money for bribes and purchases from the Pakistani military, used outright theft, and voila, we have another nuclear Sword of Damocles - this time in South Asia... and in the Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean... and the South China Sea.

Flash backward to 1995: For a long time I have tried to disentangle myself from my position as deputy chief of the USGS Saudi Arabian mission. For over 30 years the Saudis have paid the USGS to map their country and do a mineral resource assessment.  For the previous four years I have been living in Jeddah, on the Red Sea, while my children have been attending boarding school in Switzerland or college in Spain and Montreal. My wife, however, has seen a steady drop in her physical health. If we go to Ireland for 10 days to do the diplomatic-passport-required annual R&R trip out of the country, her health pops back to normal. Return to the Magic Kingdom and it starts rapidly spiraling downward. I research the water supply: reverse-osmosis filtered. I check the house for mold - humidity is too low. We restrict the food to only what the US military provides through their imports at the PX in Arabian Homes - no change. I talk repeatedly to the USGS mission chief: "Jeff, we can't do without you. You are the deputy chief for science, the chief geophysicist, and head of the remote sensing section - it will take three people to replace you."

The mission chief retires in early 1995. The Saudis reject PhD scientist after PhD scientist offered by the USGS, and insist instead that the mission's finance officer - with a BA in accounting - become the next USGS mission chief. The USGS meekly complies - the Saudis have poured over $10 Billion into the US Treasury over the previous 30 years as "overhead" for the mission. George's selection may have a lot to to do with the fact that the Saudis can count on anything they ask for from him. This includes up to six pink Cadillacs (I'm not making this up) per year from him, which then disappear from both the USGS and the host agency car-pool lots. Our French counterparts are even more open about the corruption: they have hired an architect whose sole job is to design the 2nd and 3rd villas for the Assistant Deputy Minister and the Deputy Minister, so they can acquire their 2nd and 3rd co-wives respectively.

This stinks. I begin to worry that just be being a deputy mission chief, I am somehow becoming an accessory to a huge criminal enterprise. And my best friend's health is going down the tubes.

At 10:30am on 7 June 1995, I am sitting in on a nasty bureaucratic fight in the Ministry building in Jeddah. The Saudis, ever paranoid, have decided that the USGS and the BRGM are HOARDING SAUDI DATA. This first cropped up several days earlier. Understanding immediately what is happening, I call in one of the several spies assigned to my geophysics section. How do I know they are spies? They speak excellent English, have no other apparent skill set - and want to talk all the time and ask me questions. I ask Hani to go through my computer with me, and then go through every other computer in the section. I instruct him to extract all the geophysical data he can find onto floppy disks and deliver the stack to the Ministry. My French BRGM counterparts, however, are very western and are being stubbornly rational: "What?!?? Archiving IBM PC 8-bit data onto obsolete DEC-10 computer tapes, with a different OS, will jumble the bit-order and will be forever unusable. This is an exercise in stupidity!" "But Jeff Wynn did it in less than a day! What is YOUR problem?" yell back the angry Saudis.

As I tilt my chair back, bemused at this spectacle, a thought enters my mind - and it does so instantaneously. It is so clear and strong that I nearly fall out of my chair.  It is not in English - it is a crisp, diamond-hard, pure understanding : "The time to depart with your family is October. Don't worry. This is in answer to your prayers and worries over the past 18 months." Click, it ends within a microsecond of starting. This did not come from my mind, and I am astounded, shocked. It makes no sense.

90 minutes later I head home for lunch, and share this astounding experience with my wife. What could this mean? The logical time to leave - even if the USGS lets me - is in August, when the kids can start the Fall semester in school. I have another 3 hours to ponder this when the phone in my office rings. George asks if I could come downstairs to his office in the huge USGS complex.

"Jeff, I have a big problem, and don't know what to do."

Tell me. 

"I got a call at noon today from Khabiri, the Deputy Minister - that means I miss my lunch and it is done deliberately to punish me.. I got to his office and he said 'Tell Jeff Wynn to stop practicing his religion.' "I ask him what he meant? Khabiri gestured to his desk and said 'I have report after report from the Mukhabarrat (the Saudi Secret Police) that Jeff Wynn attends Christian meetings at different houses every Friday. Tell him to stop this.' "

My skin runs cold: this means I've been followed. It also means that the Assistant Deputy Minister, who covets the Deputy Minister's job, is about to use me once again with some trumped-up issue, to force the Deputy Minister down to his office during yet another weekend. The Deputy Minister is a lawyer and smart enough to know what is probably coming next. More seriously, it means that the local police are about to raid our LDS Church meeting. The local police are not told that Latter-Day Saints have authorization from Higher Up to meet with up to 35 people per house at one time. No, this is the land of the Haramain - the Two Holy Mosques - a land where theaters or other social/political gatherings of three and more people are absolutely forbidden. I have a diplomatic passport and speak sufficient Arabic to walk away from this, but the German, British, and Filipino guys will all be thrown in jail for up to several months. Their wives if present will be put in a women's prison, and any children will be put into a Saudi orphanage. It will take months to sort out, because the Saudis will not bother to call or notify anyone. The Filipinos will almost certainly be beaten repeatedly and eventually deported - at a huge economic loss to them and to their families. This is how it always happens, at least - I've searched for and found several of them among the seven jails (that we know about) in Jeddah. We routinely go searching to get them out of jail when they don't show up at Church. Usually they haven't eaten for up to 6 days by then, so I would always bring food with me.

All of this pours through my mind, but I've had more than four hours to think about this. "No problem, George, I will resign immediately and return to the domestic USGS program."

"You can't do that! This place will fall apart! I don't know jack about geology or mineral resources! I DEPEND ON YOU!"

"George, no one is irreplaceable. I will personally help the chief geologist to find the replacements. And George - you know very well that if you don't comply with this instruction, your daughter in college will NOT receive the necessary visa to come and spend the summer with you. She'll be stuck looking for a place to stay in the States."

"Oh God, you're right... you would do this for the mission ( = for me)?"

"Sure, George, I'll have the letter in your hands in 10 minutes."

I return to my office and called my former Branch Chief in the USGS Reston, VA, National Center, and explain this to him.

Klaus' reply is telling: "Wow, Jeff, we'd love to get you back - we are desperately short of people with your skill-sets. But whatever you do, delay your return until 15 October at the earliest."

"What? Why?"

"Because we will be having a RIF - a Reduction in Force - and will lose about 1,000 people from the USGS Geologic Division. You have a guaranteed re-employment clause in your Saudi agreement, but if you came back it would knock someone else off the ladder. The RIF notices will be handed out on August 15, 1995. People will have until October 15 to clear out their offices."

I ponder that.

The next day, George shakily tells me that he explained to Khabiri that I have resigned rather than stop practicing my religion. He reports that Khabiri is enraged: Why?!?? George says that, "Well, Jeff can't go to a Church like you can go to a mosque." As Khabiri stares at him, George then said this:  "Despite the teachings of the Qu'ran, no Christian Church can be built in Saudi Arabia." George reports that Khabiri screamed at him "Don't you presume to tell me what the Qu'ran teaches!" - and threw a copy of the Qu'ran at him! George says could think of nothing better to do than to beat a hasty retreat without saying anything more. He is afraid to return to the Ministry... or to answer his phone.

As the summer proceeds I learn that the full $25,000 fee for Cory's senior year at the boarding school in Laysin, Switzerland, must be paid by mid-August. The mission is more than happy to pay this, so Cory finishes his senior year with friends and has the American School in Laysin on his transcript to get into Virginia Tech. Even though his grades are good, he's an exotic - he adds diversity to the student body and is coveted by admissions officials.

In early October, my Saudi, Palestinian, Sudani, Somali, and Filipino staff put on a lavish farewell party for me. Later I realize that you don't cover an acre in the middle of a giant traffic loop with Persian carpets for ordinary parties. They present me with a gorgeous carpet as a gift, which I later learns is worth $2,600. They are quietly trying to convey a message - to me, but also to the Deputy Minister (who is not among the ~200 invited guests). For years afterward, when one of them comes to the States for training, they go out of their way to visit me.

We departed Saudi Arabia on October 9th, and we both looked around and remarked that the lights in the aircraft got suddenly brighter as we cleared Saudi airspace. We spent a paradisaical week in a Mediterranean sea-front hotel in Gammarth, Tripoli, and visited Carthage. We then spent three days in Lisbon - whose history of ocean navigation and exploration has always fascinated me - then flew on to Paris. Our multi-lingual Cory arrived that same day by Bullet Train from Switzerland to spend much of a fun-filled week with us touring the Musee d'Orsay, Montmartre, the Louvre, and the Hotel des Invalides (another special place for me).

On October 22 Cory returned to Leysin, and we flew on to Dulles Airport, where I kissed the ground, so happy to be an American. There we were met by our 22-yr-old Jared, who had just completed his LDS mission in the Czech and Slovak Republics (and now speaks 6 languages), and our 14-yr-old Don, who had flown out of Jeddah two weeks earlier to camp in our house with his older brother. It was camping, too: no furniture, no utensils, no car - just our friends the Willises providing support.  The next day I showed up at work in Reston,VA, and was given the key to a large but utterly filthy office; the previous owner had had little incentive to clean anything. It took me three days to clean it sufficiently to move my stuff in, during which I struck up a friendship with an LDS painting contractor working there. By an interesting (perhaps foreboding) coincidence, the building walls - previously color-coded to help people navigate in a huge building made up of 8 floors of 12-sided stars - was being repainted battleship gray. Government contract: the lowest bidder wins.

I have never forgotten that Bright and Shining - and instantaneous, non-English - message of 7 June 1995.


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