During his career with the U.S. Foreign Service, Dave Grimland spent a good portion of his time explaining the United States to people in other countries.
Since retiring to Columbus in 1995, one of his most enduring activities has been explaining the rest of the world to people in his native country.
On his own, and then under the auspices of Humanities Montana, Grimland gave 200-some presentations—mostly in Montana but in several other states, too—on the history and practice of Islam.
His latest venture is a recently published book, “Journey to Ithaka: Memoirs of an American Diplomat.” In it he writes of adventures high and low, of learning experiences and of unforgettable characters and places.
Mostly what he does is urge others to get out and explore the world, to immerse themselves in other cultures, to take their own journeys to Ithaka. The title of the book comes from a poem, “Ithaka,” by Constantine Cavafy, a 19th-century Greek poet.
Reading set in Billings
Dave Grimland will be talking about his book and selling signed copies in the Royal Johnson Community Room of the Billings Public Library at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 8.
“Its message is simple,” Grimland says in the foreword to his book: “the journey and the road that take us toward our transient goals are truly everything for all of us. The goal merely provides an excuse for the journey, and the lessons learned through discovery, adventure, and misadventures are the most powerful.”
Grimland remembers starting on the journey as a young boy growing up in South Texas. His mother liked to take him to foreign movies, and his family made a point of eating exotic food whenever the chance presented itself.
Grimland has a vivid memory of eating at a Syrian restaurant near the port in Houston, of digging into hummus, sesame tahini and flatbread for the first time.
“Oh, my gosh,” he said. “The world opened up. … I learned a long time ago to enjoy trying weird things.”
That experience served him well during his years as a public affairs officer in Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Bangladesh and India. Once, attending a Greek wedding where a goat was the main dish, he was told that it was customary to offer the youngest guest the animal’s testicles, while the most distinguished guest was offered its eyeballs.
It turned out he was both the youngest and considered the most distinguished, so he ate—without hesitation, he says—all four delicacies.
The low point of Grimalnd’s career was his stint in Cyprus, which was invaded by Turkey in 1974 after years of tension between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Grimland’s boss, the American ambassador Rodger Davies, was assassinated, and for a while there were daily protests and occasional riots at the American embassy.
In one harrowing incident, Grimland was pressed into service alongside two Marines and a security officer, throwing canisters of tear gas into a crowd of rioters while one of the Marines attempted to stop a man who was trying to pry open the embassy’s steel gate.
Grimland met his wife, Kathleen, in Bangladesh, where she was working for UNICEF, and when Grimland quit the foreign service after 21 years, one year more than the minimum for retirement, they moved to Columbus. They did so because another couple they met overseas had looked all over the West for a good spot to retire, fell for Columbus and invited the Grimlands to join them.
Grimland said he had been telling stories of his foreign service career for many years, and his wife had often suggested he start writing them down. He never got around to it until 2010, after he and Kathleen visited a sixth-grade classroom in Columbus to give a presentation on India.
As part of the presentation, Grimland talked about the many religions in India and he mentioned Sikhism and Sikhs. One boy raised his hand and wanted to know what a Sikh was. Grimland accordingly told him of the time he slept with a Sikh in a crowded hotel in Calcutta.
When he got home that night, he said, he sat down and started writing that story out. When it was done he just kept writing, and in six months he had a 25-chapter memoir.
Tuesday night, Grimland told that story and a few others to a book club that gathered at a residence near Rocky Mountain College. As he told the book club members, it took several more years of editing and re-writing to complete the book, “but now it’s out and it feels really good.”
He also told them that although he wrote a lot for the foreign service and even won some awards for his work, that kind of writing “was a terrible chore.” In recent years he has also written poetry and short stories.
Despite his stern last name, which sounds like it would suit a Viking chieftan, Grimland is soft-spoken and polite, given to long pauses while he forms a response to questions. Diplomatic, you might say, which certainly helped when he used to give his presentations on Islam.
“The line I always took was, I’m not here to change your mind, but to ask you to consider Islam from the standpoint of a Muslim,” he said. When you simply ask for understanding, not agreement, he said, “you can get away with an awful lot.”
He started speaking about Islam in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 and then the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he saw Islam being blamed for the actions of certain Muslims and demonized as a religion of hate and violence. He wanted to tell people about the Islam and the Muslims he got to know during his career, particularly in Turkey and Bangladesh.
He started out by offering a five-night adult education class at the high school in Columbus, which led to other presentations in the area and then to the lecture series sponsored by Humanities Montana. In 2006, a freelance writer in Columbus, Linda Halstead-Acharya, wrote about Grimland for the Billings Gazette.
That story caught the eye of a Los Angeles Times reporter who came to Montana with a photographer and accompanied Grimland to a presentation in Plentywood. The resulting story led to even more presentations, including several in Idaho, Wyoming, Washington and South Carolina, to radio appearances and to creation of a DVD, “Just Like Us.”
Grimland writes of the Plentywood appearance in the last chapter of his new book. He said he listened as the L.A. Times reporter asked a ranch woman of about 50 why she’d come out on a cold, snowy night to hear a man talk about Islam.
“Listen, mister,” Grimland recalled her saying, “out here, we like to sniff the sources of our information.”
At the book club meeting Tuesday night, Grimland told an abbreviated version of another story in his book, how he convinced a Turkish military leader during the invasion of Cyprus to restore electricity to a certain castle. Inside was a salvaged ship, from the 4th century B.C., that had to be stored at a particular temperature to prevent its dissolution, which meant restoring power to keep several air conditioners running.
It wasn’t easy in the midst of a minor war, but the commander ultimately saw to it that the castle had its electricity. Out of gratitude, the archaeologists presented Grimland with two almonds found on the ship.
He brought a vial containing the artifacts to the book club Tuesday and—still politely but with some pride—noted another of his distinctions.
“I think I’m the only person in Columbus with 4th-century B.C. almonds,” he said.