October, 2010:

Costumes & Cameras – Wheelus AFB TV

My starring role as Louise

Halloween brings to mind my few moments of fleeting fame on TV long ago. Perhaps a few hundred people actually saw the program broadcast from the Wheelus Air Force Base TV station, just outside Tripoli, Libya.

Since Hollywood didn’t come knocking on my door with a contract, I chose a writing career instead.  No big script or book deals or a big budget movie, yet…alas.

My starring role was to portray the fictional Louise while Joe, a talented pianist and airman played the song of that name. Maurice Chevalier, French actor and singer is known for singing the song at least 50 years ago. Two of the lines are:

Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise.

Birds in the trees seem to twitter Louise.

Joe (I can no longer remember his last name) had a half-hour TV program, which featured him playing piano.  It was broadcast in the evening to every home with a TV set at Wheelus Air Base. I don’t remember if I even knew when or how often, but I did save the photos taken for the special occasion. My family had not brought the TV to Libya so Mom and Dad did not catch my debut.

Keeping his program unique was probably a challenge for Joe. One day he came up with the bright idea to play famous songs named for women: “Marie,” “Charmaine” and “Louise,” for instance, and have a girl in the background who represented the particular song.

He would play five songs. He already knew two Italian girls to feature, but he needed three more females to represent all the songs he had in mind. Apparently reasoning that the high school physical education program would provide him with the best choices, he came out to the Wheelus tennis courts one morning. The male mind is always intriguing! Maybe it was our grace hitting a tennis ball or perhaps what our legs looked like in shorts that influenced his choices?

I had never considered myself a talented tennis player, although I did improve over the years. I was still in the hitting-the-ball-too-high stage, lucky to make it over the net. My legs, however, were shapely.

Joe picked me, Judy Jones, and Vicki Scola and we all agreed to face the cameras. I was supposed to be a French Louise and had to find a beret and a scarf since my portrayal was a variation of the famous French Apache dance (based on Parisian gang culture and named for the US Indian tribe). I’ve still got the now tattered beret and the orange scarf.

I don’t recall that we did much if any rehearsing since we simply had to sit or stand, as the case may be, and look sexy. When Joe played each song, the camera panned from his playing to the appropriate girl and the painted background scene behind each of us.

No lingering fears of cameras linger; I don’t think I was nervous. One of the young Italian girls apparently did get the jitters; her underarm perspiration shows on her pretty dress.

Was that my “15 minutes of fame?” Fame is so ephemeral.

Between the two Italian girls, I'm in beret and scarf. Judy and Vickie are on the right. Joe's at the piano, the star of the show.

Animal Life in Southern California

When my children were younger and I was still married, we had a condo on the beach in Ventura County. It had a view of the ocean and was a very relaxing place to be. One day I was walking alone along a fairly uninhabited beach, which led to a large power plant, a few miles south. I noticed a baby seal slowing swimming in with the tide and decided to see if I could help him change direction. I waded in and softly spoke to him and gestured toward the ocean. He seemed comfortable with me a few feet away and looked as if he understood. Just then a Volkswagen “Bug” drove to the water’s edge to watch. The seal growled at the car and when the car drove off, I went back to my traffic cop routine. This delightful sea creature didn’t act aggressive toward me, and eventually got the message. Was I missing my calling as an animal trainer? Hardly likely, but it was a memorable experience getting so close to a wild animal. When I researched the seal, I discovered it was a baby elephant seal. I liked to imagine I “rescued” him.

Raccoons are plentiful in the California hills. For a few years, I lived in an area that bordered the Santa Monica Mountains. A pair of raccoons (apparently, it’s normal behavior to pair off) decided to explore the dumpster across from my apartment building one night. The next morning one was stuck inside it while the other one ran around the top perimeter of the dumpster, as if it could figure out a way to help its friend or mate. When I told the manager, he brought a chair from the pool area and placed it in the empty dumpster. It didn’t take long for the enterprising raccoon to climb out and join his friend.

The charming and resourceful Raccoon

My most poignant critter encounter was a couple of blocks from where I’m now living. My building borders the concrete flood control channel (a fenced-in tributary of the mostly dry Los Angeles River) and, except for some bushes and a few trees, there’s mostly empty land on both sides. My landlady likes to joke that we have a river view, which the flood channel becomes once it rains. I was taking a break from a walk and sitting on a small wall surrounding a home garden. I heard a whimpering sound and turned around to see a lone raccoon with an injured paw approaching me as if I could help him. My first thought was of the fictional children’s book character who took care of animals, Dr. Doolittle, but what could I do for this wild animal? He got within a few inches of me before he turned around and hobbled off into a fenced-in garage area and disappeared. I felt privileged that this creature felt comfortable enough to approach me and I silently wished him well.

Being Famous Doesn’t Make You Good or Bad.

Wonderful Actor James Whitmore

As an avid film fan, I have my favorite movies and stars, and one of the character actors I admired was the venerable James Whitmore. I loved him in The Shawshank Redemption, as the gentle librarian, wished I’d seen him on stage as the comedian and political commentator, Will Rogers, and had enjoyed his Miracle Gro commercials for years. I was convinced the gentle and wise personality he projected on the big and small screen must be his true self.

I had first seen Whitmore in person in the early 1960s when I was attending the College of William and Mary in Virginia. I was with a friend on the Williamsburg tour bus when I spotted him on a nearby seat. I knew he was an actor but I couldn’t remember his name until much later. No one else indicated they knew who he was, perhaps because he was a small man and sat there quietly. I had never forgotten the sighting. Perhaps it was a harbinger of future encounters with famous people of one sort or another.

In 2004, my friend Sally and I were at a small French restaurant called Champagne in Westlake Village, California, having dessert after seeing a movie at the nearby theater. We were sitting outside and I spotted Whitmore with a lovely woman, who seemed younger than him. They chose a table a few feet away and right away I determined that I would go over at an appropriate time and talk to him.

About a half hour later I made my move and he was immediately gracious as I told him how I had seen and enjoyed so many of his movies. The woman, who, as I later discovered, was probably Noreen Nash, whom he’d married in 2001, was also welcoming. She obviously enjoyed seeing her man enjoy a fan’s recognition.

I told James Whitmore I had originally seen him way back in the 60s in Williamsburg. He gave me a big smile and charmingly remarked I must have been a little girl at that point.

I’m glad I met and talked to him; he was just as personable as I’d thought he’d be.  I miss seeing him on stage and in film; he died a few years later, in 2009.

***

Celebrities don’t always meet one’s expectations. Years ago, a girlfriend of mine worked on many movies as a unit production manager, primarily at Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank. Max had been a special friend of Paul Monash, producer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and many other movies, and she had worked on the Barbra Streisand movie Nuts, which turned out to be an appropriate title for an unhappy set. Max had snuck me into the huge closed set of producer Steven Spielberg’s The Goonies, where I saw the 17th century pirate ship sitting in a fake lake.

I had mentioned to Max that I’d had a crush on William Shatner since his work as Captain Kirk on TV’s Star Trek. Max knew him very well and saw him from time to time. She said she’d arrange something since he was working on the TV show T.J. Hooker, then filming at Warner Brothers. I was thrilled.

Max was true to her word and I was invited to visit her at the studio. Around lunchtime we walked over to the TV show’s set where Shatner was taking a break in his trailer. We were invited in, Max sat down at the built-in booth facing Shatner, and I stood nearby. I was definitely an unnecessary “fifth wheel” and might as well have been invisible. I could see his interest in Max was more than friendship and he enjoyed acting the “star” role in front of her. I don’t recall that he said anything to me except a perfunctory “hello” and perhaps “goodbye.”

Despite my dashed illusions about Shatner’s heroic appeal, I’ve enjoyed his more recent TV roles. I especially liked his “over the top” role in Boston Legal, though I haven’t yet watched his brand new series. Apparently my fantasies are better than the reality. I live so close to Hollywood…it’s no wonder!

Actor William Shatner

Critter Encounters — Tame and Wild

I’ve had a few pets in my life: rabbits, cats, fish and dogs. And my son raised a few hamsters. Animals play a fascinating part in our lives.

When I moved to California as a young bride, I never imagined the critters that would show up in my life. Agoura, for instance, was in the Conejo Valley between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Simi Hills and there were varmints in those hills! Coyotes, especially.

Mountain Lion in California hills--not an animal to tangle with

Before I saw a coyote, however, we had a mountain lion alert! The Agoura-Westlake Village area in the 1970s was just starting to develop and nobody had alerted the wild animals they were being encroached upon. We had lots of open space in our Hillrise housing development and our home backed onto a grass and oak tree dotted hill. Since the hill was not surrounded completely by homes at that time, the mountain lion assumed it was part of his territory until a sheriff’s helicopter, after using a megaphone to warn residents below,  shooed him off. I later learned mountain lions had huge territories

Coyotes thrilled us with their yips and howling at night, sometimes having a gathering close by. It reminded me, over the years, of a scary movie or a Stephen King novel. Residents in the California hills have to watch out their pets don’t become a snack or a meal and that’s still true, despite the population growth. I’ve seen a coyote come into an unfenced or fenced back yard and come right up to a glass patio door. “What’s for dinner,” those fearless eyes seem to say.

Behind a fence, a Coyote checks things out

In the early 80s when I was editing/writing the Acorn weekly newspaper, there was a great deal of housing construction. The coyotes must have wondered what was happening—perhaps a new source of food? One resourceful critter spied a juicy toddler wandering without any supervision (new homes hadn’t fenced in their backyards yet) and decided to check her out. He had the baby in his mouth when the distraught mother came screaming after him and managed to rescue her child. It was a great story, especially since it ended well. My headline for that week—COYOTE BITES BABY.

There were wild mule deer in various areas where the hills bordered growing development. And snakes, especially rattlers, were common to see when the warmth of spring caused them to explore and enjoy the sunshine.

Big hairy tarantulas came down off the hills occasionally. I caught a couple in our pool and one time one of them came inside. My daughter Heidi was about two when a tarantula sauntered into the family room. I was spraying insecticide like crazy, afraid to clobber him, when little Heidi grabbed the fly swatter to solve the problem! He expired from poison before she could interfere.

TRIPOLI – POLITICS AND INNOCENT INTERNATIONAL ROMANCES

In March 1957, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon visited Tripoli on his tour of the Middle East. He and wife Pat had been feted by various Air Force and Army bigwigs at various venues at Wheelus Air Force Base and in Tripoli. My parents, among many military personnel, went to a party and met him. My mom laughed about  her embarrassment when her garter belt broke and one of her stockings crept down her leg. She managed to recover, although I don’t remember the details, probably by taking off one stocking.

Though I was not politically minded, I thought it would be great fun to see Nixon in person and made the effort to get myself up at 6 a.m. to see him off.  It involved some extra effort since my friend and I had to catch the base bus in Tripoli that would take us to the airfield at Wheelus Air Force Base. We were standing with a small crowd on the tarmac close to his plane when Nixon decided to shake some hands before he embarked. He was already on the other side of a short chain-link fence. I happened to be close enough so he reached for and grasped my hand and then smiled broadly at me. Better yet, he hadn’t reached for my girlfriend’s hand! She and I had breakfast afterward and I remember not wanting to wash my right hand! I was thrilled, feeling it a special privilege to shake the hand of a Vice President. Little could I guess then what an unfortunate destiny was in store for the man.

***

Living on the economy, as the term went, had exciting advantages over living among only Americans. During my second summer in Tripoli, I expanded my social horizons by meeting some British teenagers. The British Army also had a post in Tripoli. A few of my girlfriends and I were invited to a private party given by a young English boy. We were the hit of the party in our Bermuda shorts, a fashion that had yet to hit England. These young Brits listened to American rock and roll but many of them hadn’t quite mastered the steps for fast dancing, which at that time was something we called jitterbugging.

A young man named Chris, an American wannabee who sported a crew cut, talked to me at the party and asked me to dance. Dancing to slow songs was an invitation to bodily contact. I think we were both about 14 at the time. I didn’t know what his experience in romance had been; mine had been limited to a few kisses with a boy at my dad’s last post in Kentucky. What a wonderful awakening to the highly enjoyable sport of making out. Better yet, he had mastered the art of kissing, in my humble and inexperienced opinion.   As I remember, we had great fun testing out new feelings through several slow songs. I did quite well at reciprocating, and it was thrilling.

That summer I spent many hours in his company comparing notes on the differences in American and English lifestyles. Like most English students in Tripoli, he would visit his parents on his several vacations during the year and would return to England where he went to a private boys’ school. He invited my mother and I (my father must have been on one of his business trips to Saudi Arabia or Ethiopia) to join him and his parents on a sailing excursion in Tripoli harbor. They were members of a Dolphin Club, which meant sailing an impossibly tiny sailboat with room for three at the most. My mother joined his father. I was onboard with Chris and his mother, and she relaxed while I helped with one of the important ropes. The trick was to move from side to side with the wind, making sure the boom didn’t hit you in the head. I got calluses for my efforts; my mother narrowly missed the boom, but enjoyed relating her adventure afterward.

Stefano and Enzo with my baby brother Darby

An enthusiastic tennis player, my father joined the Tripoli Beach Club, a European private club of Italian, English, Russian and American families that featured tennis courts, a private beach on a small cove and a clubhouse. The club was outside town, a short drive away. Being a member didn’t help my tennis game, but it added to my boy-watching skills and provided a way for me to meet more international teenagers. One of them was Stefano, or Steve, as he liked to be called, a young man who had gone to school in the U.S. and whose father worked for the Italian Embassy. He introduced me to his young Italian friends.

It wasn’t long before I had developed a crush on the handsome young Vicenzo, or Enzo for short. I later recalled that I had been sitting two seats away and admiring Enzo at a concert at the Piccolo Scala the year before. His father was a wealthy Italian businessman, his mother was English, and they lived on an estate about a mile away from our villa. He was entranced enough with me to begin waiting for me at the school bus stop in the afternoons and walking me the half block home. What made him especially dashing was the motorbike he rode. To this day when I hear the soft whir of a motorbike engine, I think of that old excitement. No leather jacket for this dapper Italian; on school days he was always in proper trousers and the sport coat he wore to school.

Enzo invited me and a couple of my girlfriends to his sixteenth birthday party scheduled from 4 to 10 p.m. on a Sunday, which I remember thinking was an odd time for a party. The lush estate was impressive. His parents had converted a stable into a party house, adding furniture in the latest style, a corner fireplace, huge picture windows and a wall mural depicting a hunting scene.

The guests consisted of Italian teenagers with a sprinkling of Americans.  Charades in English and Italian provided a challenge and much hilarity. After a tasty Italian pastry cake, we all danced. The Diaconos were quite modern: they had a small collection of Elvis Presley records! I received a kiss from my Romeo when one of the Italian girls suggested that the birthday boy had to kiss all the girls. He blushed but kissed us all politely on the cheek. It seemed that in the romance department my friend Chris definitely had the kissing advantage. Never underestimate the British!

School bus stop - my sister Joan on the left, Enzo on the right. Two students I don't remember. My school girl writing above, as if I would forget.

THE SINGLES’ GAME

Is it the sunset of your life or a new beginning?

I find it difficult to believe in “till death do us part.” The phrase was a part of my marriage vows, but 16 years later the marriage was over and I was nowhere near old age and so far had no deadly diseases. After I’d mourned the death of my marriage for about a year and realized that joint custody of my two children meant I had more freedom than I’d had in a long time, I decided it was time to explore the LA singles scene.

Bonnie, a younger single friend who was a guy magnet (blond and petite, what do you expect?) persuaded me to go to a local spot with lots of singles and live music. The 19th Hole was at the golf course but it was quite a swinging place after 8 p.m., and the crowd was mostly 35 and older. One of my first lessons: Just because he isn’t wearing a ring doesn’t mean he’s single. Lesson two: Everybody looks better and younger in dim lighting and after a couple of drinks. It works both ways; I’ll always remember a very young man, about 21, who was enchanted with me. I wasn’t ready to rob the cradle but was very flattered with the attention.

Dancing to live rock n’ roll made me feel very young again, almost as if I didn’t have children. There were some very good dancers among the patrons, and I considered myself a talented, enthusiastic dancer with lots of stamina. The music was too loud for intelligent conversation for the most part, unless you leaned in closely, waited for a band break or went outside.

The atmosphere was smoky; it was a few years before California banned smoking. Non-smokers were used to being in the minority. When I got home, I’d hang my stinky clothes outside and put baby powder on my hair to absorb the odor.

Not far from the 19th Hole was a bar/restaurant with a thriving business and their Happy Hour featured tasty free appetizers. The lighting and lower noise level made it easier to make contact, whether you wanted a friend, a lover or to hear what the opposite sex had to say. Many of the same people showed up every Friday evening and the age range varied from 21 to 75 or so, an amazing combination, I always thought. Occasionally, after 9 p.m., they would even have live music.

Although I loved dancing, a good conversation and lots of laughter were main attractions for me at this popular place. Besides observing the crowded scene, I made new friends and had many talks over politics, religion, books, relationships, etc. I met Dick Griffith, a charming former New York ad man (shades of TV’s current “Mad Men”) who had been a technical advisor in Africa for the ABC-TV series American Sportsman. A white-haired older gentleman, he loved to wear a loose jacket that featured wild African animals and a wristwatch with a metal elephant surrounding the watch face. He amused his friends with his African adventures and the variety of famous and infamous people he’d known over the years.

Several years later I edited two books for Dick: Adam’s Horn, an adventure story set in Africa about the time of Idi Amin, and In the Hearts of Famous Hunters: a series of his personal interviews with hunters like Roy Rogers, astronaut Wally Schirra, ace jet pilot Chuck Yeager and LA Times publisher Otis Chandler.  When Dick’s book was published, we had a book party at this restaurant, and actor Robert Stack, one of the famous hunters interviewed, came to celebrate. I got to hug Stack and even had a photo taken, but never saw it.  One of Dick’s friends liked to call the actor Old Novocaine Lips since Stack usually looked so serious on TV or in movies. For this occasion, however, the actor managed a few grins.

Helping Dick edit his books was the seed that resulted in my many years of editing books of all kinds, something I still love to do.

The ocean may wash away the heart but you can draw a new one.

Friendship

Hands of friendship

“Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other’s gold” are the words of a song I learned in Girl Scouts. I’ve remembered those words these many years, just as I’ve kept in touch with friends.

Recently, my friend Kathie asked me if I thought friends were more inclined to stick closer together when they got older, even if they weren’t close when they were younger. What prompted the observation was a reunion. As we age, reunions–high school, college, family, business–seem to multiply and mean more to us.  Kathie was referring specifically to a reunion of mostly Air Force and Army dependents who’d lived and gone to school together in Tripoli, Libya, in the 1950s and 1960s.

As these once lively “kids” matured, they realized more and more what an unusual experience they’d shared in that exotic place so many years before. Their memories were unique and needed to be shared, especially with others who’d lived those  same experiences. They could all laugh and shake their heads at the oddities of living overseas in North Africa, of all places, and the times they’d enjoyed that brought them together. It’s probably been 20 years since they started holding these reunions. How many people do we know who’ve lived in the Middle East as youngsters?

The unusual thing was that many of them hadn’t known each other well or at all back then since the group was composed of a variety of class years, but the commonality of experience produced unexpected bonds. Even sight unseen, these now mature folks, including me, could forge friendships through Email, letters and phone calls. When they saw each other at reunions, it was even more special. Most were not as svelte as they once were; silver hair was more the norm and sometimes no hair. Not everyone was as rambunctious, but their spirits were still alive and raring to go. Deep inside there was a connection between them all.

Perhaps as we age, we forget about the superficial likes and dislikes of our younger years. Whether we have the same talents or make the same money, live in the same kind of houses, or like the same things doesn’t mean as much. We can see our common humanness and it’s enough that we shared a special time and place. Despite differing religions, philosophies, and lifestyles, aren’t we all one, as human beings?

The picture below is a sampling of the alumni attending the September reunion. We couldn’t all make it but I believe we were there in spirit.

Wheelus Air Force Base High School Alumni - Always young at heart.

Is It The Great American Novel?

The Ultimate Writer -William Shakespeare

Writers continually joke about writing the “Great American Novel.” Did Hemingway do it, Fitzgerald, Faulkner or Steinbeck? What about more contemporary writers like Philip Roth, John Irving or T.C. Boyle? Do the authors have to be American males? Does the subject matter have to be American? I suppose history will judge. In the meantime, I enjoy reading all sorts of books.

I didn’t worry about writing that “Great American Novel,” when I started creating my book. Once inspired by the story of Sir Francis Drake of England, I decided I needed a novel to accompany my screenplay; if one didn’t sell, the other would. I’ve always enjoyed history and was intrigued by the possibilities of historical fiction, which is based on actual history with the addition of fictional characters.

My fictional characters: the young 16th century maiden, Melaynie, and her father and brothers seemed to spring out of nowhere. My active imagination must have been storing up ideas for years. I had been a fan of the annual Renaissance Faire, Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I, etc. And being an independent-minded female, it was natural to concoct someone with my tendencies. I haven’t disguised myself as a male and sauntered off on a distant voyage, but I’ve enjoyed imagining it. Being an Army brat often endows one with extra “moxie” and a lack of fear about traveling alone.

Writing a book is a fascinating process, a great deal of it unconscious. While I was in the act of creation, I was thinking about the story, planning how I was going to set it up, making notes about the various scenes.  I needed to do lots of research into the 16th century, which I loved. The Internet wasn’t the effective tool it is today and I used libraries for most of my research.

When I needed to describe a 16th century ship or the variety of clothing worn then, I headed for the children’s section of bookstores or libraries. Picture books were just the thing. I had to know how my heroine was going to accomplish her daring feat, how she would look, and what her family home would look like. The various Time-Life historical series were also a great help; they always had lots of graphics.

Queen Elizabeth I

It doesn’t take long before the story and its characters take control. I was living with them in my head, so no wonder. Many authors verify that oddity. Behind-the-scenes, my subconscious and my own past mingled together in the ethers, at least that’s how I explain it. I did a lot of creating while I was swimming in a pool. Water was the best element to get my “flow” going, especially since I was devising a sea adventure.

I finished the book, after five years of creating, letting it lie dormant and then recreating. During one of my last readings/proofing of the book, I began to realize why many of my feelings had come forward, unconsciously, in the book. I had given my heroine a kindly, generous father and three brothers who spoiled her. My stepfather, the US Army officer who raised me, was a very thrifty taskmaster. He saved his charm for others, his strong sense of discipline for the family. How clever and comforting for me to create an imaginary father I would have completely enjoyed!  What fun to be the heroine who succeeds in her adventure! Plus, interestingly enough, actual history made it easy to manipulate and blend real facts with my imagination.

Since I believe in reincarnation, perhaps I actually was a sailor in the 16th century. In the 20th century, I also had sailing experience as an Army dependent passenger on several ships.

I’ve always been an adventurer, but certainly not as daring as my heroine, Melaynie. Of course, she has many of my traits—how could she not! Her feminist ideas were mostly mine, but I wasn’t consciously creating them. All these factors snuck up on me! Or did they?

For those interested in reading my novel, Melaynie’s Masquerade, it may be purchased on Amazon and there is a link       on my web site www.victoria4edit.com to buy it. My web site is also linked to my blog.

CAMELS, DONKEYS & THE SUEZ CRISIS

Americans living in Libya in the 1950s didn’t forget their normal holiday celebrations. For the Christmas pageant, there was the added novelty of local animals. The three wise men could ride real camels and Joseph could lead his Mary actually seated on a donkey.

The Fourth of July celebration had its own unique touch; four American Marines serving on the ships sent by President Thomas Jefferson had died in 1805 fighting the infamous Barbary pirates. The Barbary Pirate fort still stands facing Tripoli Harbor and the four long-dead Marines are buried in Tripoli. Americans familiar with the Marine Corps Hymn remember the well-known words, “From the Hall of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.”

The huge Fourth of July celebration I remember was held west of Tripoli at Thirteen Kilometer Beach, named appropriately for its distance from the city. Besides American food, fireworks and three-legged races, there were camel and donkey rides.

I looked forward to my first camel ride. Onto a makeshift seat that rested upon the camel’s sole hump, I climbed, grateful that the irritable, growling camel was muzzled. The camel’s legs were folded under him, but at his Arab handler’s insistence, the back legs unfolded first and I swayed, rump first, into the air. The front legs swung up and suddenly I was sitting above everyone with a view of the beach and the 1,000 or so celebrants. The handler led his camel slowly around a circle, and I enjoyed the swaying back as the animal crunched along on the heavy beach sand. It was a brief thrill and remembered again not long ago when I saw the second Sex and the City movie, filmed in Morocco, which featured the four heroines riding camels.

My friend Karen shows off her camel-riding skills!

The donkey I chose for my next excursion proved too much for my limited bareback equestrian talents. After meekly walking around a circle, the animal decided I was a pushover, and off he went up a small adjacent hill in search of grass. I shouted for help, concerned partially for my bare feet, but my friends thought I was having fun and waved at me happily. When the beast found his grass, he stopped and I gratefully jumped off, feeling foolish that I hadn’t done it sooner.

We were not immune from the world’s volatile situations; Libya was, after all, in the Middle East. At the end of October, 1956, we were plunged right into the middle of the Suez Crisis. One morning in Tripoli, the school busses didn’t arrive. After an hour of waiting, we learned the Libyan drivers had gone on strike, and many small riots had started. An ideal way to get out of school!

Nasser, then President of Egypt, had taken control of the Suez Canal. Why should Britain and France control the canal that ran through Egypt, he reasoned? He wanted the tolls to help Egypt build the Aswan High Dam. It marked the spread of Arab nationalism, though Libya was late to that game, and Gaddafi didn’t seize power until 1969. According to some reports, the young Gadddafi took part in the riots. Good practice for his takeover later?

Gamel Abdul Nasser, President of Egypt

Riots took place in front of the French and British embassies, and a couple of small bombs a day were set off in various areas of the city. It wasn’t a full-scale insurrection, but with the heat on, the British evacuated their women and children, flying them home to England.

Americans within Tripoli were put on a 6 p.m. nightly curfew and were told to have a bag with the barest necessities packed in case of evacuation. Gates and doors were to be locked and shades pulled down. We were all instructed not to venture into the old city. My mother got caught on the edges of a small demonstration near a friend’s house several blocks away. It scared her, but she was in our car and managed to leave without incident.

When you’re young, political situations don’t seem to matter. It was all just extra excitement and a chance to miss a couple of days of school. The curfew was moved to 9 p.m. within a week, and several weeks later, as things cooled off, life was back to normal. British families, however, did not return for several months.

The U.S. and USSR had put pressure on the U.N.,  and there was a cease fire by November 6. Egypt had scored a political victory. I had seen a preview of Nasser’s growing power when I’d spied on the party held at the Egyptian Ambassador’s residence across the street from me. Almost like a drive-in movie, there was Nasser enthusiastically holding forth on a large screen, and the sheiks in attendance were a captive audience.

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