Adventures of a Lifetime
By John Popovich:
When I was growing up in California, many of my neighbors and elementary school buddies were of Asian ancestry. Their parents came from various countries in the Far East. Listening to them in the early 1940’s tell stories of their youth in the countries of birth so excited me that I decided early on that I wanted to study history and see the world. It eventually happened but under strange circumstances.
It began when I joined the U.S. Army in 1952. The Korean War was still on. I was on the list to be drafted so I joined the Army because they offered me training opportunities. As a conscript, I was certain I’d end up in some trench in Korea. Best decision I ever made. I ended up at the Army Language School in Monterey, California studying Russian for 46 weeks. But on completion, instead of getting an assignment to Europe (a reasonable expectation), I ended up in Tokyo, Japan! Fortunately for me, the armistice was signed and the war in Korea came to a close. Whew…that was a close one as I later learned I was to be assigned there.
As luck would have it, I spent the next two years in Kyoto, Japan, the original capital, historical and cultural center of Japan. Now I was really hooked and reaffirmed my dreams that after the Army I would somehow see the world…..I just did not know then how I would accomplish it.
After discharge, I enrolled in the University of San Francisco and subsequently got a degree in History thanks to the $200 I received every month from the GI bill and the few bucks I earned working part time at the University of California School of Medicine library. After graduating, I was literally broke. Now what?
Still pursuing my dream, I walked the streets of the financial district in San Francisco dropping off my resume in every building along the way. My resume was so void of any experience, I heard nothing until one day I stopped by a privately owned company called General Steamship Corporation Ltd. They were agents for seven foreign flag lines serving the San Francisco Bay area. Bingo! They hired me to prepare ship manifests for outgoing cargo. I ran a mimeograph machine (remember those?) to prepare the manifests. Soon they promoted me to a position responsible for calculating harbor and pier costs for ships at berth and for getting Stevedores to un-load cargo. Now that was always a problem as the Union was too demanding. Somehow I must have sounded very “diplomatic” in my discussions with them because in the end they did provide bodies as requested.
I was also concerned but pleased to find out that the company hired another person to prepare manifests on that mimeograph machine. That person turned out be the one who encouraged me to follow my dreams and give me information on how to see the world! I shall always contribute my success to his encouragement.
He was about 70 at the time. He was from China. He was a Professor of Philosophy at a University in Peking. In 1948 when the Communists took over the country, he, like many others, left the country. He ended up in Laos where he got work with the U.S. government foreign aid program known then as the International Cooperation Administration (ICA) subsequently renamed the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) by President Kennedy in 1962. He was befriended by an American couple that brought him to the United States and sponsored him to become an American Citizen.
After returning to the office from lunch a month or so later I saw an ambulance in front of our office. It seems this wonderful person died from a brain tumor. I was devastated.
Weeks later while walking during my lunch break, I saw a small sign in a local bank window that said “ICA Recruiting Officer inside”. Talk about coincidence. I went in to see the Recruiter. I asked for an application. She gave me one and said I should get it back to her soonest because she was returning to Washington D.C. the next day. I filled it out and gave it to her the next morning.
Eight months later I received a phone call from the Agency (ICA) asking me if I would like to go to Beirut, Lebanon? I said OK. They sent me a package of documents to prepare for security and medical clearances that I completed and returned. About six months later I had another call. This time they said the position in Beirut was eliminated. Would I like to go to Phnom Penh, Cambodia?? Naturally I agreed, and so my journey and career of adventure began as a Records Management Clerk in 1960 at the lowest salary on the pay scale of $2000 per year.
Over the course of the next thirty three years I served in Laos, Vietnam, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Yemen, Egypt and Panama with three Washington assignments in between. I retired in 1993 as an Assistant Inspector General for Resource Management with the rank of Minister Counselor in the Senior Foreign Service (SFS). (That rank is equivalent to that of a Lt. General in the Army.) But my journey was not yet over.
After retirement, the Agency kept calling me for short term contracts to cover overseas needs. So off I went again with short term assignments for the next ten years in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Austria, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Cape Verde Islands, Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania, Vietnam, Thailand and finally, once again, Cambodia. Then I called it quits. It all began in Cambodia. I thought it great that it should end there too.
I am now 85. I live a peaceful life in Florida with my wonderful wife of 50 years. I play some golf and do a little fishing. Unfortunately, I’m lousy at both. I still have the urge to go somewhere though. Strange isn’t it?
The purpose of this article is to encourage young folks to join the Foreign Service of the United States. It will make for a wonderful and exciting career. If for no other reason, you get to see the world for free…….and they even pay you for doing so.