Wheelus Field Dependents School

While in Tripoli, Libya, Air Force personnel and their dependents  lived in Wheelus Air Force Base housing for the most part, but the families of men who worked for the State Department and some of its agencies, or for oil companies searching for black gold, lived in many different areas of Tripoli from Garden City to Georgimpopoli, a coastal area on the western edges of the city. Our school bus, one of many that picked up American children all over the city, traveled down Sciarra Ben Asciur on its eight-mile journey to the base. I still have a very tattered mimeographed copy of my school bus route. It did help me identify my old home on Google Earth.

During the rainy season, from November to March, all busses faced the possible flooding in the tiny town of Suk el Guima, (Friday market in Arabic), which was near the base gate on the only route to Wheelus. Although the town’s street was paved, there were no gutters or drainage systems. When it rained, it generally flooded, and the street could be as deep as three feet in some spots. The Libyans took it in stride, but the Air Force didn’t. Servicemen would be up to their knees in water and armed with water pumps whenever they were needed. Others have since told me the little town had quite an odor because of a tannery, but I never noticed.

Enrolled in eighth grade when my family arrived, I joined a class of forty students. Wheelus High had an enrollment of only 170 students, from seventh to twelfth grade. The entire class of 1956 consisted of a mere four seniors. There were twelve in the junior class, fifteen sophomores and thirty-two freshmen! We underlings were by far the most populous, and I was considered practically a high school student. One alumnus remarked that because it was such a small school there was more intermingling among students;  younger students weren’t treated as much like outsiders. The following year, we new freshmen had to suffer the indignities of freshman initiation. As I recall, wearing clothes backward was one ritual.

A class on the Arabic language was a requirement for all students, but few took the class seriously, especially the friendly, eager-to-please teacher, Haj Ali (pronounced Hi Jolly). I can still count to ten in Arabic and learned a few phrases, hopefully accurate, such as molish (who cares), bahi (good),  ana nagra (I am reading) and baksheesh (free). I was told that zup meant the same as fuck. What inquisitive American teen didn’t learn that word and its equivalent in other languages! The boys probably knew a few more.

I had an opportunity to see the difference between American and European educational systems. Our freshman high school class visited Lecio, Tripoli’s Italian high school. In contrast to our casual attire, the boys dressed mostly in suits, the girls wore black smocks. Italian students acted as our guides and took small groups of us into various classrooms.

Practicing international relations with two Lecio students at my school bus stop

In drawing class students were copying Roman columns, an appropriate theme because of the nearby Roman ruins of Leptis Magna and Sabratha. Since most of their students studied French, I tried out my decidedly novice abilities with a young man. His French was impeccable; I wish I could have said the same for mine. In an entirely male physics class I was asked to put an algebra problem on the board. A volunteer student worked it immediately and returned the favor. Algebra, or should I say math in general, was not my strong suit. I called for Karen, one of my classmates to help, but we were both stumped. The class laughed good-naturedly at us, delighted to prove their male superiority while gawking at American girls.

Miss Gobi teaches French at Wheelus High–Fantastique! C’est si bon!

The Italians were even better at basketball. From my young viewpoint, I had always assumed it was an American game played more adeptly by Americans. Our high school team played Lecio every year and were continually trounced. Of course Wheelus High didn’t exactly have a huge talent pool from which to draw.


This story has been published in a new Libyan magazine Kalam, the December edition.  Check it out at


  1. Thanks for your story, Jeff. I was a little older than you and apparently lived in the same area. My little sister, Joan Tupper, was very friendly with kids on Via de Gasperi (the border street for the Egyptian embassy). There were some British kids, for instance, and she picked up the accent.You probably remember the Libyans on bikes with trays on their heads carrying fresh Italian bread. And camels that would be guided down the streets. I do remember the “curse” word — who could forget!!

  2. JEFF FREEMAN says:

    Victoria – unsure if this missive will arrive because of intervening time, but I’ll try. My Army dad and family lived “on the economy” across from the Egyptian embassy and adjacent to L’Odean theater from 1954 – ’56; I was 8,9 years old. My youngest brother was born at Wheelus on Christmas Day in ’54 – named him Joseph, Jesus seemed a little presumptuous. We loved and hated Tripoli for a myriad obvious reasons, but time has blunted the hate. Loved the beaches on the Med, LL baseball, daily fresh bread, fresh shrimp/tuna and Chianti (even then). Really regret Ghaddafi (sp?) messing up the country; it was a wonderful experience. Also attended dependent schools in Germany & France. Oh yes – remember “zup”; one of the first Arabic words I learned – and you are correct in its translation! – Jeff PS- I don’t do Facebook.

  3. I thought that KALEM had gone out of business. They published that story over a year ago, as I remember.

  4. Becky Goddard Rizek says:

    Wonderful article published in new magazine KALEM , FEATURING your recalled memories of Wheelus, your school memories and vivid description of a tour I shared for the 1956-1957 Freshman , Wheelus High School year – are so succinctly mine as well , ! Victoria Giraud , that was the beginning of almost 60 years now of a close knit , celebrated friendship between two young women just starting to flower , you and Me – Love ya dearly – and read all your great blogs –

  5. Rebecca Goddard Rizek says:

    When I read your published articles, it is as if you and i were walking side by side over there.. I can see and hear and smell the air of Wheelus AFB, Tripoli. North Africa. Who would not be entranced to be transported to such an intriguing and entirely different environment than we experienced in the United States. The wail of the minaret calling its people to prayer, the smell of Arab tea brewing in the air, the palm trees against the sunsets and the shockingly blue waters of the Mediterranean, still call out to me. Thanks for transporting me back every time, Viki!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Rss Feed Tweeter button Facebook button Technorati button Reddit button Myspace button Linkedin button Webonews button Delicious button Digg button Flickr button Stumbleupon button Newsvine button Youtube button