June, 2010:

Two Powerful Poems

I enjoy good poetry–poetry that speaks to you. It can be a reminder to keep you going, despite your challenges. Or something that just makes you feel wonderful. I’ve loved Robert Frost’s poems since college, especially the one below because it reminds me that I took a road in life that was unique and just for me. And it has made all the difference.

The other poem is a powerful one from a 19th century English poet, William Ernest Henley. Many of my readers may know the last two lines. I was inspired by watching the great movie Invictus (also the name of the poem). Morgan Freeman plays the indomitable and courageous Nelson Mandela in this movie about the World Cup for Rugby in the mid ’90s that was held in South Africa. It also reminded me of the current World Cup.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN – Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

INVICTUS — William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul

Shores of Tripoli – A New Home in Garden City – Part 3

The view from our balcony

Just before Christmas the five members of the Williams family left the hotel when my dad found a home in Garden City, an upscale location for Europeans, Americans and wealthier Libyans.  Consisting of streets like spokes that branched off Garden City Circle, the area was a neighborhood of one and two-story, flat-roofed, square and rectangular-shaped villas surrounded by stucco walls as high as ten feet. The walls were as much for privacy as protection, and many of them had decorative, fret-worked sections. Flowering vines such as bougainvillea, lantana hedges, and palm trees were ubiquitous; Garden City was an appropriate name.  It was some time before I discovered that the vibrantly-colored pink and purple bougainvillea vines that seemed to cascade from countless rooftops were in actuality growing up from the ground to the roof and not vice-versa.

Our spacious home was on the second floor of a two-family villa on a street that maintained its Italian name, Via de Gaspari; an Arab family lived downstairs. A balcony, on both stories, ran the full length of the villa’s frontage. Small square sections, supported by columns, jutted out at either end of the balcony, giving the villa a slight “U” shape. The slatted, green-iron gate led from the street to a small side yard, large enough for the swing set my father ordered, which flaunted our American ways in this faraway land.

A heavy wooden front door, which could be opened by key or from a buzzer upstairs, welcomed us to our new home; a two-tiered marble staircase led upstairs to a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment. There was no central heating, but since doors closed off the entrance hall, separate dining room and separate living room, we could keep the back bedrooms and kitchen warm in winter with portable Aladdin propane gas heaters. To add to the coziness and keep out pesky sand from ghiblis, the desert sandstorms that would blow into town on occasion, there were green wooden shutters that could be rolled down over the outside of all the windows.

The family home, above the Bougainvillea

Garden City was multi-cultural. Our side of a very short block boasted a British general and his wife on the corner next to us; another British family occupied the home on the other side. Across the street lived a French family and an Italian family, and a large corner compound surrounded by a decorative wall contained the home of the Egyptian ambassador to Libya.

The popular Gamel Abdul Nasser was in power in Egypt, and while we were there the ambassador held a party for Libyan dignitaries and politicians (only male, of course). I spied on the interesting event from our balcony and watched as his male visitors mingled. Robed Arab sheiks, with their distinctive square cloth headdress bound with gold rope, seemed to be the dominant guests. Seated at outside tables set up in the sizeable yard, they smoked as they watched films of Nasser on a giant movie screen.

Facing an adjacent street but bordering on the back of our villa was the home of a former Arab queen, perhaps a relative of King Idris, then King of Libya. My girlfriend, Gail, who lived around the corner, and I were very curious about the mysterious queen but never had a glimpse, despite the fact that we would climb my back garden wall and peer through the trees into the lushly landscaped acres surrounding the queen’s home. We played tennis in the street in front of the queen’s mansion, but were such poor players that we lobbed and lost balls in her gardens.  When we hit them into the General’s yard, we had an opportunity to flirt with the soldiers who attended him. These young men took to drawing cartoons of us, which they enclosed in an old tennis ball they had slit and then tossed in our direction. Walls were ideal obstacle courses for inquisitive girls. My girlfriend Karen and I scooted along the General’s back wall one night to spy on a big party he was giving.

My mother faced most of the household problems alone. She managed to eliminate most of the roaches, but ample hot water was usually a challenge. Tiny wall water heaters in kitchen and bathroom couldn’t keep up with our spoiled American demands. Always enterprising, she’d put large pots of water on top of the Aladdin heaters to get extra hot water. I was in charge of dishwashing, and it was my job to monitor this water when my parents entertained. We had brought our American washing machine with us, but it soon burned out, perhaps from the difference in electrical currents. Mom took to washing in the large bathroom tub, a normal size and shape. Fortunately for her, my thrifty father relented and decided he could afford an occasional maid since it would be difficult to procure another washer.

Me, Darby, Joan Tupper in the side yard

The maid situation was comical but instructive. Dad hired an Arab girl, Fatma, who was attractive and cheerful, and tattooed on her ankles, forehead and hands, traditional markings applied when she was an infant. She wore her street barracan when she arrived and would remove it to do her work. I can still picture her sitting at the kitchen table, her blue striped house garment wound around her body and over her shoulders, dark hair partially hidden beneath her hair covering. She spoke very few words of English and didn’t attempt to learn any more, content to sit warbling her singsong Arab tunes as she languidly dried the dishes and silverware.

A sprightly Italian girl remedied the problem. Fatma was let go and pretty, dark-haired Chezeri joined us. Not only was she fluent in English, but she was efficient and friendly, teaching us bits of Italian, which I got to practice when her boyfriend Douilio, who spoke no English at all, came to pick her up. We invented Italian nicknames for the appealing British soldiers who served the general next door. A tall blond fellow, who walked the general’s German Shepherd among his other duties, was called Biondo. She taught me a little Italian ditty about a poppy.

Even now my sister and I remember it. I drag it out upon occasion to show off my facility in languages! At a wedding a couple of years ago I met an Italian woman who knew the song. Most likely our spirited chorus annoyed many of the guests!

March on Washington – Part 2

Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier at March on Washington

The March was scheduled for Saturday, August 28, 1963, and several of my bosses from the airport’s Operations department would be on duty. I jumped at the chance to blend in with the celebrities, and I invited my good friend Harriet. In the early 60s, especially around Washington, women got dressed up for events and even shopping; it was a more formal time and T-shirts and jeans were not appropriate attire. Harriet and I knew exactly what to wear—high heels, stockings, and a dress. I don’t know if we wore hats; usually hats were for church.

California, where most of the famous folks were coming from, had been declared the home of “fruits and nuts.” As an Easterner, I was ignorant about almost everything but the term “Hollywood” and knowing somewhere out there was the magical Disneyland.  Harriet and I probably took along our white gloves, which were the ultimate extra touch when dressed up. I recall my three-inch-high beige heels, but I don’t remember the dress I wore. It was probably a sheath of some kind that looked business-like.

Harriet and I were very excited about the day, but had no idea what to expect as we climbed the stairs to the second floor lounge at the Butler Aviation terminal. It was full of people milling around, most of them casually dressed. I gawked as I saw a fully bearded Paul Newman, fresh from filming the comedy, What a Way to Go; he played an obsessed painter married to Shirley MacLaine. In the middle of the room was the handsome Sidney Poitier talking to Dianne Carroll.

One wall of the lounge was almost entirely glass and looked out upon the airfield. I walked toward the window to see if any planes with more stars would be landing. As I stood there in my heels, I felt tall and imposing—about 5’10” in my “spikes.”  Two diminutive black men came and stood on either side of me, neither of them taller than my breasts. On one side was the multi-talented actor-singer Sammy Davis, Jr.; on the other was renowned author James Baldwin. I tried to act nonchalant as they talked. I was probably too nervous to eavesdrop.

Not long afterward, someone announced a private plane from Southern California was landing and would soon be taxiing to the Butler Aviation gate. All of us were encouraged to go downstairs and outside to greet them. Harriet and I followed along and wondered who the new arrivals would be. While we were waiting, I overheard some cynic say, “Here come more of the fruits and nuts of Hollywood.”

Within minutes a small passenger plane taxied toward us, engine still roaring. I put my hands over my ears and looked up into the smiling face of Moses himself—Charlton Heston. “Loud, isn’t it?” he intoned with that unmistakable, powerful  voice. I beamed at him and nodded my head.

As he turned away, Harriet leaned in. “Can you believe that was Charlton Heston?” She was grinning with excitement.

The plane’s engines quit and the door opened. Men and women began to descend the stairs and I noticed how differently they were dressed—tanned women were wearing loose clothing with flashy jewelry; men were in white shoes and colorful shirts. Out the airplane door sauntered someone I knew from television: handsome James Garner. Photographers and reporters were there to cover the story and the dark-haired Garner didn’t disappoint. Right away he waved and played to the crowd, starting some fascinating repartee I no longer remember. But I couldn’t forget his charming easy smile.

A few years later when I moved to California and became part of that laid-back  lifestyle and sunny climate, I would remember my historical hint of things to come, courtesy of Dr. Martin Luther King. And I saw an older James Garner in person at a shopping center: he was asleep in an overstuffed chair, probably waiting for his wife.

Blog Author Appreciation

Hello Readers,

I’ve been writing almost all my life, as most of you will know who’ve read my various posts. My writing has been published in newspapers and magazines, and I’ve written a screenplay and a novel, besides all the books I’ve edited, rewritten and co-written.

I love written communication. My blog has been one of my life’s peak experiences! Not only have I throughly enjoyed creating the posts, but I’ve heard from so many readers who told me they’ve enjoyed my posts. You’ve liked the subject matter and the fact the posts were well written.

I haven’t had to look far for the posts–I’ve written constantly over the years about my experiences without publishing the stories. I always thought I’d eventually have a book of short stories or would write another novel. Using a blog has been an ideal way to share experiences, philosophy, and emotions, and I intend to continue this practice for a long time.

Keep reading and sharing your thoughts. I love it! I’ll be posting at least 2-3 times a week.

Victoria

Remembering some poetry

The warmth of summer helps me remember some good poetic expressions from 19th century English poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

As I am growing older, I can’t help but reflect on these good words from Browning’s poem Rabbi Ben Ezra:

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made.


His wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote the immortal and inspiring How Do I Love Thee:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.


Alas, Elizabeth died young. Perhaps she sensed this in her poem.

March on Washington – a brush with history

“How’d you like to see some movie stars?” a retired Navy pilot asked me on a summer day in 1963, shortly before Martin Luther King’s March on Washington event. It was the summer before my senior year of college, and I was working for Operations at what was then Washington National Airport on the Potomac River in the District of Columbia.

I was the only female among six retired Navy and Air Force officers, all former pilots, and our offices were on the field level of the airport. Even though the men had done their twenty years in the service and were drawing their retirement pay, they were only in their forties. They had opted to keep working by getting a government job, which kept them in the same place for a change.

The fellows in Operations, who were all cocky and full of charm and humor, would make sure takeoffs and landings were going smoothly. They were in charge of monitoring aborted flight departures or problems with arrivals because of engine trouble or whatever else might go wrong and did. Potential mishaps, depending upon the severity, were labeled either “Standby at the station” if it was mild—as with a plane coming in with less than all engines operating—or “Standby on the field” if it looked more serious—faulty landing gear, for instance. These competent but seemingly relaxed men were privy to what was going on around the airport in general.

As a lowly clerk-typist, GS-3, I was responsible for answering phones and typing whatever documents needed typing—monthly reports of the flights in and out of the airport, for instance. Our oak-paneled offices were nicely appointed and were historic, having been used by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his long presidency, and on our wall there was a photo of him sitting in this office. I enjoyed the job because my flirtatious but well-mannered bosses were fun to work for; there was never a dull moment if they were around. I was their built-in audience and they let me in on their little jokes. One of the them, who resembled old-time movie actor Robert Taylor, would request that I bring him his coffee just like his women—“hot, dark and sweet.”  A former Navy pilot, whose crewcut was getting sparse on top, claimed his hair was guilty of mutiny—they were all deserting the ship.

I was only dimly aware of the growing civil rights movement, which was beginning to heat up at that time. I attended William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and we had no African-American students. Although integration within Virginia schools was mandatory, it had yet to become widespread.  In 1963 Viet Nam action consisted of American military “advisors” and was very much an unknown factor; it was August 1964 before the US began a substantial military build-up, which escalated into a war.

Washington National Airport was a hub of activity in those casual days before extensive security checks and terrorism. Getting on and off planes was easy; no one cared what a traveler had in his luggage. If my bosses, who seldom stayed around the office except to have coffee or tell me a joke, spotted anyone famous in the airport, they’d tell me, especially if there was time for me to go sneak a peek. Renowned Spanish painter, Salvador Dali, with his distinctive long curling mustache, was once spotted in time for me to look him over. One of my bosses was very excited when he caught sight of NBC  television news anchor Chet Huntley, who had probably flown on the Eastern Airlines Shuttle—their gate was close to our office. I enjoyed my peek at the handsome, bushy brown-haired Huntley, who was based in New York City; his co-anchor, David Brinkley reported from Washington. Their famous Huntley-Brinkley Report was a highly popular news program of that day and broadcast from 1956 to 1970, when Huntley retired.

None of these celebrities compared to the mix of stars who were coming for the March on Washington, a massive protest for jobs and civil rights headed by Dr. Martin Luther King and his supporters.  Since then I’ve learned much about that milestone and about King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. At that time, all I knew was that King’s celebrity supporters would all be gathering at the private aviation terminal, not far from the main terminal. My bosses didn’t know who would be there, but they’d be delighted to drive me and a friend to the Butler Aviation Terminal. We just had to act like we belonged there.

To be continued…

Summer clerk-typist Washington National Airport Operations Office

THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI–PART 2

The Barbary Pirate Fort was the entrance to the Old City

A Libyan woman in her barracan

A good rest that first night in Tripoli would do wonders, especially for the young girl I was. Sunshine and new places to explore revived my spirits. We ate breakfast in the hotel dining room, a sizeable oval room that jutted out into Tripoli harbor and offered a view of ships and sailboats with the ocean in the near distance. Best of all, there was a tunnel under the street leading to the restaurant. My sister and I skipped through the tunnel, admiring the paintings and an aquarium filled with vividly colored fish, all of it relieving the white monotony of the tunnel’s well-lit walls. As I was approaching my thirteenth birthday, I was soon to admire the restaurant more for its attractive young Italian waiters than the view or the charm of the tunnel.

In an expansive mood that first morning, my father announced plans to take his family on a “gharry” (an Indian word for buggy) ride to explore our new home.  Gharries in Tripoli were horse-drawn open vehicles with large wheels, like carriages of old. I never questioned how an Indian word was being used in an Arab country once run by Italians.

The Libyan driver, shod in sandals and eager for business, stood on the hotel driveway in front of his gharry.  He was dressed simply in baggy white pants and shirt, a black vest, and a burgundy-colored close-fitting cotton hat with a tab in the middle, which reminded me of a beanie. The small, well-used black gharry was hitched to a lean brown horse.  Though the driver had a limited knowledge of English, he understood my father’s wish that we be driven around both the new and the old city.

As we seated ourselves on bench seats facing each other, the gharry pulled out onto the lightly traveled harbor boulevard with the musical Italian name Lungomare, which means along the sea. A bright sun sparkled off the harbor’s blue water, and a gentle sea breeze blew the fronds of the palm trees that lined the curving street on both sides. We passed along the edge of the new city headed for the old Barbary Pirate fort at the west end of the harbor, a distance of only ten long blocks. The new city gleamed: white, modern-looking and flat-roofed, enchanting us with its Arabian touches of mosque, minaret and arabesque decoration.

Within a few blocks we passed the Italian Cathedral, a grand edifice of granite with its own cross-embellished high dome and adjacent tower. It might have been lifted straight out of Italy. The Italians, who had first settled in Libya in 1911, had been an important part of the country’s recent history.  They ruled the country until World War II changed everything, and the United Nations granted Libya independence after the war.

The horse led the gharry past the Fountain of the Gazelle, a small traffic circle surrounded by tall palms in the middle of the boulevard. The circular fountain contained the statue of a seated nude woman, her right hand caressing the neck of a gazelle, which resembles a small horned deer, as she gazes into its eyes.

A short distance further, we were all impressed with an immense, three-storied white edifice surrounded by the ubiquitous palm. Resembling a princely palace, it had squared towers at all four corners. A taller squared tower, with finials on each of its corners, greeted guests from the center front of the gracious building. All its many windows were arched. Checking his guidebook, my father announced that it was the Grand Hotel, too fancy for his budget.  But not too fancy for Vice President Richard Nixon, who in the mid-fifties was on a worldwide public relations tour for President Eisenhower, or for Sophia Loren and John Wayne, who stayed there while making a desert film, “Legend of the Lost,” a couple of years later.

We were soon approaching the old city boundary, the Barbary Pirate fort.  Also known as the Castle, it contained a hodgepodge of rooms displaying an assortment of old relics from pirate days as well as artifacts from Libyan history. The highest walls of the oddly shaped, but mostly rectangular stone structure projected toward the harbor. Its upper story had several large arched openings; on the harbor side cannons projected through these arches, the same ones that had fired at U.S. Marines in 1801. The Barbary Pirates managed to sink several Navy ships. The five Marine casualties were buried in a local cemetery and celebrated by Americans every July 4th (until all American service personnel left in 1970). Tripoli is the famous city in the Marine Corps song with its words – “from the halls of Monteczuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

The horse and driver led us through an archway of the fort as we passed into the old city. The difference between old and new was apparent right away; here the streets and crumbling buildings were narrow and old. Tiny homes and shops, no longer whitewashed and neat as in the new city, were crowded together. It was alive with people: Arab men and women going about their business. Many of the men were dressed like the gharry driver, but others were in more traditional garb. Besides a shirt, very baggy trousers and sandals, they wore a light cloth wound around the head and over it a roughly textured brown or white covering, called a barracan, which draped around head and shoulders and ended below the knees. I later heard an unverified rumor that their loose trousers, with the crotch hanging almost to the knees, were designed that way to catch the prophet Mohammed, who, when he was reborn, would be born to a man. Women were carefully enclosed in a similar flowing white garment, but it covered them from head to toe, only the right eye and bare feet in sandals peeped out at the world.

Still traveling along the harbor, we could see working fishermen seated along the sand at the water’s edge repairing fishing nets; others were bundling their nets into small fishing boats. The pungent smell of dead fish was pervasive. Some of these same fisherman turned their attention to flying creatures a year or so later when Tripoli was host to an invasion of locusts. They were considered a delicacy, and Libyan men would eagerly gather the winged bugs that had landed along the sea wall, putting them into bags to take home to eat, perhaps after roasting them over a fire.

The Libyan woman painting is courtesy of a fellow student at Wheelus High School, perhaps Chad Langdon. Pardon my lack of proper acknowledgment.

Whither goest Sex?

Sex may make the world go round and the population go up, but how do we approach it in writing? Gingerly or full bore? And yes, you can interpret that as you wish.

Sex affects us all in one way or another, obviously. We spend enough time figuring it out: what’s our invented character’s sexual preference and can he/she or we be put so easily into the box (label) of heterosexual or homosexual or something in between? Didn’t Kinsey, and Masters & Johnson open the door to open-mindedness and acceptance? Yes and no. Consider the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Not to mention the Catholic priests’ scandals, etc. I won’t open that Pandora’s Box, but the subject of sex is always an attention getter.

I’m a person of mixed beliefs about sex and about sexually-oriented books, films, and TV, as I’ll wager most of us are. No tidy preferences for many of us; emotions can be jumbled. As a voracious reader, I can enjoy a book that hints at sexual dalliance as well as one with specifics. I’m not a prude but I can also be quite conservative. I speak or write more bravely than I act. I’ve seen a few porn films but prefer soft porn, which excites without being as explicit. That preference extends to books, for the most part.

Yet, I wrote two fairly graphic sex scenes for my book, Melaynie’s Masquerade, and enjoyed the process. It was my first novel and my first attempt at a genuine sex scene. All the newspaper/magazine articles I wrote over the years steered clear of sex. Except one: when the Chippendales craze hit, I wrote about women attending a show featuring men dancing and stripping provocatively. Most of the female audience at one of these early shows responded with glee, then went up to the stage to tip the entertainers by inserting a bill into his skimpy underwear. Some fondled a favorite dancer and a few were rewarded with a kiss.

Since I was writing my article for a family weekly newspaper, I chose to keep it humorous and friendly. Besides, the whole act just hinted at what could happen. At that time there was no “full monty.”

As a child of the 50s, my sexual education was a definite mix. Don’t get pregnant was the big fear before the 60s ushered in free sex. As we learned in no time, nothing is free! Sexual diseases, the usual STDs and then AIDS, soon took over. I’ve been married and single and not always prudent, but I’ve escaped dire consequences. Experience, however, does provide an edge in writing about sexual subjects. Imagination goes only so far!

It’s fun to debate the issue: to write or not to write the sex scene. I recently edited a highly sexual book and found it to be a pleasurable experience and sometimes titillating. Despite finding it salacious when I first read a sample, I changed my mind when I discovered it was very humorous. It was written by a young math teacher in his 30s and he didn’t have outdated compunctions about sex. When I’d grown up, sex was a sinful thing to be hidden and whispered about. The majority of us were not so innocent but pretended we were pure. Lots of hypocrisy exists concerning sex and that will probably never change. I went through a time in college when I was asking girlfriends if they were still virgins! Hilarious now, (I wonder who was lying?) but some of us still were in the early 60s.

I admired Dave’s easy way of writing about his adventures; he’d already put them on a blog; in case you’re interested—www.daveglenn.com. His writing is quite explicit; he doesn’t mince words. And he didn’t treat himself as the stud king. He described his mistakes, his rejections, and the hilarious escapades from meeting all sorts of women, both young and older, in bars or online, as well as encountering foreign girls available on travels to Europe, Australia, etc.

Dave told me he thinks casual sex and having sex buddies is fine, if it’s done responsibly so that no one’s feelings are hurt. He’s not averse to masturbating but having the real thing is more fun. And he doesn’t need a commitment or marriage to sanctify his sexual urges.

Editing his book brought me up-to-date. My, my…Sex was treated as a perfectly natural part of life (Kinsey had thought so in the early part of the 20th century: wish I’d read him earlier!) Modern girls are just as anxious as guys to crawl into bed or wherever the assignation might be, despite emotional or sometimes physical risks. One night stands.

Sex may be freer and more open now in the Western World but, being humans, there are usually emotional strings of one sort or another, especially for women. I must conclude I’m still betwixt and between. At least many of us can read about sex these days without having apoplexy.

A Favorite Saying

Since I’m into sharing all sorts of thoughts on this blog, I felt I must broadcast some inspirations as well. I found this Vietnamese proverb in a book by Leo Buscaglia, The Way of the Bull, I believe. I have quoted this very often to myself and to others.

Learn to let go as easily as you grasp or you’ll have your hands full and your mind empty. Every hello is the beginning of a goodbye, but every goodbye can be the beginning of another hello.

The Shores of Tripoli

From the Fountain of the Gazelle to the Barbary Pirate Fort

Tripoli—the name rolls off my tongue conjuring up exotic memories of its smells, sounds, landscape. It’s been several decades now but the city on the shores of the Mediterranean has never lost the magic it held in my heart. I note as I get older that life seems to go in circles; my Southern California domicile has the same weather and blooms with many of the identical plants that I first came to know and love in Tripoli.

As a young American teenager in the 1950s, I was fortunate to spend several of my formative years in a wondrous Middle Eastern world. It was an extraordinary time made more so by my awakening to the world and to the mysteries of blossoming womanhood, a rite of passage from age twelve to age fifteen, though looking backward often adds its own sentimental patina to events. My parents had come through a difficult time in their marriage and were enjoying each other again, and my strict and demanding father left me alone, within reason, to have a splendid time socially.

What changes were wrought in my life during that impressionable time, an ideal time to be living in such a unique world! My long wavy hair, which I wore in a ponytail, was cut there by an Italian hairdresser and fashioned into a short, curly do and I discovered I had naturally curly hair. My flat chest experienced its first budding of breasts and along with it came an active interest in boys – American boys, English boys, Italian boys. I heard my first really dirty joke, learned swear words and explicit gestures in Arabic and Italian, got embarrassed by my own farts, and had my first make-out session with a boy who truly knew how to kiss.

Libya is under Gadhafi’s thumb now, and I often wonder what changes oil and despotism have made upon Tripoli. In the middle 1950s it was a bustling, cosmopolitan city inhabited by Arab (we were taught to call them Libyans), Italian, British, American and an assortment of other European and Middle Eastern nationalities. Both the British and the Americans had military bases, and international oil companies were drilling for the oil that would eventually make the country rich beginning in 1959. Libya, for the first half of the twentieth century under Italian rule, had only gained its independence in 1951, and that auspicious occasion had been marked by the renaming of a main thoroughfare, to be forever after known as 24 December Street.

Like many major events in the life of an Army brat, I wasn’t sure I wanted to uproot and travel to such a strange land. I was shocked when my father received orders to report to North Africa. We were stationed at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, at the time, and Africa couldn’t have been more distant from civilization as far as my twelve-year-old mind was concerned. Morocco was our first assigned destination, specifically the peculiarly named Nouasseur. Then, for some governmental reason (Morocco was having violent political problems, as it turned out), the orders were changed to Tripoli – Wheelus Air Force Base. My Army Corps of Engineers father would command a military group that had something to do with maintaining that strategic airfield, the closest, large American location to Russia, an important fact in those Cold War days. He would also be traveling to mysterious places such as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia.

Our little family, which included Darby, my two-year-old brother and Joan Tupper, my six-year-old sister, boarded a military prop plane at Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey the week before Thanksgiving 1955. We left a snowy landscape and headed southeast over the Atlantic, our circuitous flight path leading us first to the tiny Azores Islands. Propeller-driven planes, not as efficient as jets, required refueling stops. We landed on the islands about 3 a.m. Azores time, were roused from sleep, and dependents and military personnel were herded off the plane and onto waiting buses for a trip up a windy mountain road for breakfast in a non-commissioned officers club. A couple of hours later we were jammed back aboard, but mechanical difficulties kept us on the ground several more hours. Then it was on to Nouasseur Air Force Base in Morocco for another stop and finally on to Tripoli. Military planes, whether carrying troops or dependents, weren’t on fixed schedules. You landed when you landed.

What seemed like days but was more than likely some thirty hours later, we reached our new home. It was 9 p.m. in Tripoli, but after so much time and so many time zones, who could tell. No snow on the ground here: the weather was temperate and probably no colder than 55 degrees. Only after a good night’s sleep would we regain our land legs and clarity of hearing – the noise and vibration of prop planes had a habit of disorienting the body, which included sight and hearing, for hours.

An officer from my father’s new command met us at Wheelus Air Base and drove us the eight miles into town to our temporary quarters – the Albergo Del Mahari, a hotel that definitely marked our passage into an Arab country.

The flat roof of the white stucco hotel was highlighted in front with a dome that sat upon two pentagon-shaped, windowed bays. Just under the dome was a high bay accented with a multi-paned, oval window on each of its five sides; under it was a flatter and wider bay with opaque, rectangular glass-block  windows on each section. Its unusual design, to which I would soon become accustomed, reminded me of a tiered wedding cake.

Tired and disheveled, we were led under a portico and through the hotel’s glass double doors into a spacious marble-tiled lobby. Each side of the five-sided lobby faced a different courtyard; the center of each courtyard contained either a fountain or a small, rectangular pool. Vines covered the courtyard walls; small trees, many of them poinsettias, dotted the space and surrounded several benches.

Our tiny suite of rooms was reached across a courtyard with a fountain, and our suite faced the courtyard garden. It was like an enchanting scene from Arabian Nights — the mosaic designs, the unfamiliar, musky fragrance of the air.

My excitement turned to apprehension as I surveyed the tiny bedroom that my sister and I would share: two narrow single beds covered by dark red- striped bedspreads. The strange surroundings almost overwhelmed me. I felt disoriented and fearful – gone were the familiar touchstones of stateside life. And it all smelled so odd. I couldn’t wait until we had our own place and were surrounded by our own furniture.

Our private bathroom changed my mood.  The very deep rectangular tub was unusual, even ludicrous to American eyes. The tub was designed as a seat; when the bather was seated, the tub would hold enough water to reach our armpits. There was no stretching out in this oddity. Prominently hung on the wall was a urinal, with no sign of a regular toilet. Obviously a man’s convenience was more important in this Middle Eastern palace. Giggling at the incongruity, the two of us found we couldn’t even improvise; it was too high to fit our private plumbing. We’d have to find a normal toilet to use.

The above is only the first part of a fairly long “short” story I wrote about my days in Tripoli. Since it’s so long, I will print it in sections. Watch for another one next week. I will probably vary these stories with other posts on different subjects.

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