The lead headline in last week’s Fort Leavenworth Lamp read “Chinese delegation visits Fort Leavenworth.” The accompanying front page article told of a seven-member delegation from the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China visiting the fort.
It caused a flashback to 1981, and the first visit of a Chinese general in anyone’s memory. The major general was the Chinese military attaché in Washington, and came to speak to the CGSC class. By then I’d been “certified” as a post tour guide by the Fort Leavenworth Historical Society, and was asked if I would take the general on the famed historical tour of the fort.
I would, and I did. I checked with the office that administered allied officers, as they were called then. There had been a few Chinese army students prior to WW II, but none since the war. And no office could find information about even a visit by a Chinese officer, much less a general officer, since the Big War.
I’d been stationed twice in Asia and Europe, and had never seen a Chinese officer before. As one who has always enjoyed meeting military personnel from other countries, as evidenced by my family’s 35 years of sponsoring international officers, I certainly was interested in meeting my first one from China.
I reported as directed, and was briefed by the Chinese interpreter as to how the tour would proceed. The interpreter would ride in front of the Army sedan, with the general and me in the back seat.
The interpreter was very insistent that I was to look at him and not the general, speak slowly, and in essence ignore the general and deal only with the interpreter. That order was soon overruled.
Being aware that not everyone is interested in history, I’ve always incorporated humor wherever I could in my tours. Cause them to laugh as often as possible, and they might enjoy the history more.
At my first attempt at humor, I dutifully looked at the interpreter. When he translated my remarks, the general gave a subdued laugh. That was a good sign that the old boy had a sense of humor.
At my second attempt, as we passed the commandant’s quarters, the general again laughed. But something made me suspicious.
At my third attempt, I looked directly at the general rather than at the interpreter when I spoke, and sure enough, before my remarks were translated, the general smiled.
I then probably broke international protocol by looking directly at the general and saying “General, you understand everything I’m saying. For the rest of the tour, I’m going to talk to you rather than to the interpreter.”
Page 2 of 2 - Not surprisingly, the interpreter went bananas. His face turned bright red, and he yelled “You cannot speak directly to the general. You must talk only to me.”
But, rather than my being reported to the United Nations, State Department, CIA, and probably a few more alphabet agencies, to my great relief the general waved his hand at the interpreter and said something in Chinese.
Fortunately whatever he said was not my death sentence. The interpreter said nothing, but turned in his seat, bowed his head, and spoke not another word the rest of the tour.
At the end of the hour, the general shook my hand, but never said a word in English. The interpreter, subdued, thanked me for the tour, but didn’t sound very sincere. I’d heard of the famed “inscrutable oriental,” and surmised I’d probably just met two of them.
I say it’s way past time for a CGSC student from the People’s Liberation Army.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.