It was an unplanned Christmas in Liberia
My friend and colleague Guy Farmer recently penned a fun column describing memorable Christmases he and his family spent in the Foreign Service. My family has similar fond (and sometimes not-so-fond) recollections of holidays away from home.
Foreign Service Officers serving in the most difficult posts qualify for Rest and Recuperation (R&R) leave every couple of years. Our second R&R came after two years in Tanzania – a post we did not consider particularly difficult, but that would have been hard to staff if an extra incentive was not offered.
So for Christmas 1971 we made plans to fly home on Christmas eve and spend the holidays with our parents in southern California.
Pan American Airlines had a flight that started in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), crossed the African continent to Dahomey, then made an additional stop in Monrovia (Liberia) before crossing the Atlantic to New York. Tanzania to California took a full day and night but we were young and strong and we thought we could arrive at our parents’ with enough energy to enjoy Christmas dinner before falling into bed.
What we had NOT allowed for was mechanical difficulty. When the Boeing 707 landed at the international airport in Monrovia and one of the tires blew out we knew our Christmas plans were changed completely.
Liberia is home to the Goodyear Tire company, so for just a moment I thought we might find a spare tire there and continue our flight after a short delay. Goodyear located in Liberia because a lot of rubber trees grow there, but it didn’t make aircraft tires and there were no spares to be had in the country. We would have to wait for one to be shipped in from a neighboring country: possibly Nigeria, more likely somewhere in Europe.
Then as morning stretched into afternoon we learned the replacement tire would have to come from New York and could not arrive before the next day. Since there were no other flights in or out of this airport, we were stuck here for another day, perhaps longer.
Pan Am bused us to the best hotel in town, but “best” was a relative term in a country like Liberia in the 1970s. Our Christmas-eve accommodations would not compare favorably with a cheap motel in Austin or Tonopah.
And not having anticipated an additional 30 guests for the night, the hotel was hard-pressed to supply enough clean sheets and soup, much less a turkey with trimmings. Nor was there a competing restaurant that would welcome us for dinner. It was thin soup or nothing.
We settled in for the night in our sparse conditions. The hotel had not thought to install Christmas decorations, and nighttime temperatures only a few degrees from the equator were in the mid eighties with equally high humidity. It certainly did not feel like a Norman Rockwell Christmas. But as transplanted Californians we were accustomed to short-sleeve winter weather, and fortunately our daughters were 3 and 1, respectively so they had no great expectations for Christmas eve or even the next day, when we hoped to be once again on board the Boeing headed west.
Sure enough, a replacement tire arrived at midday on Christmas and was installed in a few hours. We were on our way to New York shortly after noon on Christmas day.
Despite our 30 hours delay we had a nice holiday meal with our families and opened presents after enjoying pumpkin pie — something we would never have gotten in Tanzania, nor in Liberia.
Now, some 43 years later, with snow on the Carson Range and a couple of grandkids enjoying the Christmas tree in the corner, we can smile over the memories of that West African Christmas and revel in more pleasant times with family. When we hear friends complaining about the commercialization of Christmas we smile inside, knowing the alternative can be pretty desolate.
LaSor and his family spent more than 20 Christmases outside the USA while working for the U.S. Foreign Service.