Middle East

AMERICAN MUSIC on WHEELUS TV IN LIBYA

Pete Remmert was only eight years old when he lived with his Air Force family at Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli, Libya, but he was already an aspiring guitar player.   When Pete read my blog, Words on My Mind, his memories of life in Libya motivated him to get in touch with me. He sent me several stories and photos to share. I put the story about King Idris and Queen Fatima in last week’s blog.

This week’s story, written by the “mature” Pete Remmert, concerns the Wheelus TV station.  “Early-on during my family’s time in Libya, I became interested in learning to play the guitar. When Dad was on TDY in Rome, Italy, he bought a guitar for me and gave it to me for Christmas. I took guitar lessons on base and after learning about three chords; I was ready for the big time!

Western Swingsters on Wheelus TV

Western Swingsters on Wheelus TV

“A group of enlisted personnel formed a country-western band and called themselves The Western Swingsters. Every Wednesday night the Swingsters would perform live on American Forces Radio Service-TV to bring a little slice of home to the people stationed at Wheelus. Although I was quite young, I just HAD to be a part of that, so I took my guitar down to the TV station and begged the band to let me play and sing on their show.

“The bandleader was a fellow by the name of Don Quesenberry (he’s the guy with a guitar on the left of the photo).  It didn’t hurt my cause any that I had a crush on a girl from elementary school named Jennifer Harvey, whose mom and dad, June and Lloyd Harvey were band members. Jennifer isn’t in the photo, but I remember a duet that I sang and played with her—I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.

“Jennifer’s mother June is in the photo, but her father Lloyd, who was the drummer, is not visible in the picture. I don’t remember the name of the other guitarist in the photo. The band also had a fiddle player and a bass player, also not pictured. I never got to be a regular on the show, but I did get to make a couple of appearances.

“The experience at AFRS-TV  spawned a 38-year career for me in the commercial television industry and a life-long hobby playing the guitar, which I enjoy to this day.  (Pete has an original composition on guitar—Baja Surfer—which he sells on Amazon!).

“Not long before my father passed away a couple of years ago, he told me that he always worried that we kids might have resented having to live overseas. I assured him that nothing could be further from the truth!  In fact, I would love to have the opportunity to go back there someday. “

 

 

AMERICA, HERE WE COME!

On July 1, 1958, the USNS General Rose left the port of Gibraltar and sailed into the Atlantic Ocean. Destination: Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York City on July 8. There were approximately 160 passengers from Wheelus/Tripoli and about 15 of those were teenagers. In Turkey, I’d documented we’d picked up 22 more teens, which made a grand total of 37 of us traveling across the Atlantic. That’s quite a party!

The Aft Lounge was essentially headquarters for the large group of teenagers. We played games, listened to rock music: “Who’s Sorry Now,” “Pretty Baby,” and “Purple People-Eater,” and expended lots of energy dancing. As I wrote, we “goofed around,” and if there wasn’t enough to do, we could go to the main lounge and “pester the grown-ups.”

An 18-year-old named Bill, who was coming home with his family from Ankara, Turkey, was interested in me and I enjoyed the attention and the opportunity for a skilled dancing partner. He taught me “his special little dip,” and we spent some time star-watching out on deck.

There was a party for everyone the evening of July 4th. I noted that Bill picked me up for the dance and I wore a “red print, off-the-shoulder dress.” When the lounge proved dull, the teens persuaded the seaman in the control room to put on snappier music. “We livened things up…bopped up a storm, and did The Stroll, which the grown-ups thought was real cute,” I commented. The chaplain, who was a “marvelous” dancer and usually squired my mother, invited me to do the polka with him and we danced for ten minutes! I had discarded my fabulous Italian cork heels from Naples and was barefooted. I felt like the Belle of the Ball.

Our last night on board, July 7, featured a farewell dinner and I saved the menu. The offerings included: Fresh Halibut with lemon and butter, Grilled Beef Steak with Mushroom Sauce, or Baked Virginia Ham with Pineapple Sauce. Besides a choice of potatoes, yams, corn, rice or peas (so typical of American food then), there were salads: Hearts of Lettuce (iceberg, of course), Hard-boiled Egg with mayo, or Cottage Cheese on Lettuce Leaf. Dessert was a choice of cookies, ice cream, fruit compote, Danish pastry or a Chocolate Nut Sundae. Babies had their choice of Pablum, carrots or apricots! We were served coffee, tea, cocoa, iced tea with lemon or water to drink. I was too young and distracted with other interests to notice if there were any alcoholic beverages. To celebrate the end of the cruise, our waiter took a Polaroid.

Mom, Me, Joan, and teachers: Ed, Marilyn and Becky--our table

 

 

As we got near New York, a stinky fog rolled in and we started to pass other ships going our way.  One distinct memory was listening to a shipboard radio catching all the latest rock n’ roll tunes from a New York radio station. We hadn’t heard the current hit, “Charlie Brown,” and it was wonderful to contemplate all the Stateside surprises coming up. Libya and the other countries in the Middle East had been quite an adventure for most of us, but being back home in the USA and sailing past the Statue of Liberty was even more exciting.

I paid no attention to the world news on our souvenir Rose Report. Russia was threatening to withdraw from the UN, the Soviets were set to release nine American airmen whose plane had been forced to land in Soviet Armenia, and Cuban rebels were releasing five American civilian prisoners to be flown to Guantanamo Bay. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was on his way home to talk to President Dwight Eisenhower. Dulles had been trying to discourage France’s Premier Charles de Gaulle from insisting France become a major nuclear power. As the French like to say, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

My departing gift from my shipboard beau was a 50-cent piece to buy a banana split when I got to Northern Virginia, where my family would be living. I thought I might see Bill again since his family was also relocating there, but when my dad saw me with a guy’s arm around my shoulders as we pulled into the dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he was on alert. When Dad discovered Bill was 18,  that was the end of that!

 

 

 

ITALY, O ITALY…ESSENTIAL FOR A MED CRUISE

The two-day cruise from Turkey to Italy gave ample time to hold a teenage dance in the Aft Lounge of the General Rose and a chance to get to know the nine teenagers who’d embarked in Turkey, plus the thirteen who’d come aboard in Istanbul. I was diligent in putting down first and last names of almost every teenager. My early newspaper experience must have influenced me! It’s unfortunate those skills didn’t extend to using my fairly simple camera. I took plenty of black and white photos but the lighting is off in most of them, or it was too overcast focusing from the ship and the backgrounds look blurry. Coming into Naples, we sailed past the island of Capri, which my photos depict as lumps in the mist.

We would only stay a night and day in Napoli but it was time enough to explore after dinner and then again the next day. A small group of us, including two mothers and three teenage boys, walked from the ship to a nearby downtown area and bought a few items. I was evidently slightly disgusted and wrote in my scrapbook, “Charles (an Explorer Scout) was paying too much attention to me and I ignored him. He’s a slob. He bought an icky gray tie. We went in about every store. The boys were very bored with it all.” So much for my teenage opinions!

The next morning there was a bus to take us to famous Pompeii  and a guided tour, although at the time I thought that Leptis Magna, the Roman ruins in Libya, were much better. Apparently, the continuing excavations have since made Pompeii more outstanding.

I was annoyed when our tour guide took us to an almost completely restored house in Pompeii, but as a young female, I wasn’t allowed to enter. It was an ancient whorehouse with explicit graphic paintings and ceramic tile artwork. Some of the younger fellows who’d been able to go in told me the pictures on the walls were obscene, but they were too embarrassed to explain.

A street in ancient Pompeii

One of the Explorer Scouts from Tripoli was my companion for the Pompeii tour. David was a couple of years younger and very entertaining and energetic. When we lagged behind the tour guide by stopping to buy  postcards (the photo above is one of those postcards), we had to run to catch up. In my scrapbook I commented, “If we didn’t look a sight running through the streets of Pompeii.” I must have borrowed that phraseology from my Southern mother.

After the tour, our group was taken to a nearby restaurant for lunch. After all the exercise, we enjoyed the spaghetti.  Many of us got up to leave right after we’d finished what we thought was lunch. The waiters hurried to usher us back to our tables: the pasta was just the first course, they were already beginning to serve the second course of filet mignon. Unsophisticated military personnel and their dependents, especially in the 1950s, weren’t used to two-course meals, especially ones starting with spaghetti.

 

 

ON TO TURKEY – MED CRUISE

Our US Navy ship, the Rose, left Greece on a Sunday and headed east across the Aegean Sea to Istanbul. That night there was a teenage farewell dance since the families we had recently met, who had boarded in New York long before we had gotten on, were getting off in Istanbul to travel inland to their new homes in Ankara, Turkey. I wrote that we passed through the famous Dardenelles at 10:30 p.m., but since that famous narrow strait is 38 miles long, I’m sure it took us a while. The ship’s daily report probably informed us that the ancient city of Troy is near the western end of the strait and we would be sailing along the peninsula of Gallipoli (site of a famous WWI battle) until the ship entered the Sea of Marmara and kept going east to the port of Istanbul.

On Monday morning, we woke up in the harbor of Istanbul. Greece and Turkey weren’t on good terms and my mother was concerned we’d be caught up in it somehow. She’d also heard that Turkish cab drivers were erratic and drove too fast. Rumors about  driving talents were rampant in the Middle East. The British, for instance, were considered dangerous in Tripoli. Despite being an enterprising and usually fearless Army wife, Mom did worry, probably more so because she was in charge for this trip, not my absent dad.

Mom, my sister Joan and I were meeting up with Army friends who either lived in or were visiting Istanbul, and we had to catch a taxi to take us up to the city from the harbor. Listening to the angry Turkish voices on the cab driver’s radio didn’t assuage Mom’s fears, but we did make it without incident. Our friends made sure we hit the hot spots in that large bustling city: the Sultan’s Palace, the Blue Mosque (we had to remove our shoes), and the exotic Bazaar filled with hundreds of shops, where I bought a Turkish towel. There was nothing terrycloth about it: the material seemed like linen. Through the mists of memory, I can still see the fancy embroidery depicting a frog highlighted with shiny pieces of metal.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul

 

The ship left Istanbul that night and by the next morning, we had already sailed back through the Dardenelles and south to dock in Izmir, once called Smyrna. Per usual, military passengers and dependents departed while new ones embarked. Wanting to document everything about this voyage, I kept track of all the teenage passenger names.

Diana, a friend from Tripoli, and I hung out together during the cruise. I remarked that her  shipboard romance was getting off the ship in Izmir, and that the new kids, who’d gotten on in Istanbul, weren’t very friendly. It didn’t take long, however, for all of us to get acquainted. One of the new fellows, Bill, was the ripe old age of 18, and he and I got very friendly. He didn’t seem to mind that I was only 15.

In Izmir, Diana and I ventured out on our own. We took a tour of the city and saw a Roman fort, a market and Kultur International Park. “We met two cute American sailors who bought us a Coke at the snack bar after the tour,” I wrote in my scrapbook. From the ship, I had taken two blurry photos of the mountains bordering the city and two clearer ones of the harbor area but didn’t take the camera on our excursion. My camera skills in those days were pitiful.

Izmir seen from USNS Rose - my amateur photo

The two of us didn’t understand the Turkish currency, or the language, but managed to figure it out enough to take a gharri ride.  The familiar horse-drawn carts had two horses here; in Tripoli they were pulled by a single horse. The ride was quite bumpy over cobblestone streets but we made it back to the ship safe and sound. The ship pulled anchor that night and headed west to Naples, a two-day sail.

 

LIBYA – THE DRAMA INTENSIFIES

Let’s pretend the Barbary Pirates avenged the Libyans!

 

On this day of the Academy Awards here in Los Angeles, my mind leaps to the dramas going on around the world, especially in the Middle East. The Oscars will be presented this evening at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, about a 20-minute drive from my home. But my heart is tugged by my connection to that fascinating faraway country where I spent several pivotal years of my youth, Libya.

 

As Libyans fight for their respect as human beings and to rid themselves of a madman, I can’t help but think of Shakespeare’s immortal words that best  explain some of life’s contrasts:

 

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts.”

 

Isn’t it time for the main player/villain of the moment to make his exit? I would love to see all Libyans being able to play the parts in life they choose instead of those designated by a dictator who is creating a nightmare, which brings to mind another Shakespearean quote, concerning an idiot (my interpretations, of course):

 

“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools 
the way to dusty death…Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
 that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
 and then is heard no more.  It is a tale 
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

 

I found some interesting connections between the Academy Awards for Best Motion Picture and the Libyan tragedy. Wouldn’t it be lovely if Gaddafi’s  self-appointed throne would be destroyed in “127 Hours” or even sooner? If he killed himself (his swan song, so to speak) as in “Black Swan?” I think we will eventually see Gadaffi’s opposition attain the skill and win out as in “The Fighter.”

 

Are Libyans in a multi-layered violent dream as in “Inception?”  Hopefully, all “The [Libyan] Kids are All Right.” Gadaffi is no George VI, as in “The King’s Speech,” but I would wish him to be silent entirely, not to be plagued with a mere stammer.

 

“The Social Network” plays a fascinating part in very recent history. Facebook and Twitter were integral players in the success of the Egyptian uprising in Cairo, and are important to Libya’s struggle as well.  The Gadaffi opposition must continue to hold onto their “True Grit” since this uprising is no “Toy Story.”

 

And the last film, “Winter’s Bone,” lends itself to a slew of comparisons: Gadaffi as a winter’s bone of contention, a bone like a thorn in the side of the Libyan people. Let him become a wintry pile of bones and trouble us no more, etc.

 

Millions of us living all over our lovely Blue Planet are sending positive loving thoughts to those struggling for a better existence in Libya, and in the entire Middle Eastern world. May blessings rain down upon you and give you peace.

 

A SAILING WE WILL GO ON A BIG NAVY SHIP

As a frequently sentimental woman, the following description of the Rose, which I found on the Internet, reads like an obituary and brings tears to my eyes. There are many of us former military dependents and military personnel who probably have fond memories of the old ship that gave us not only transportation, but pleasure.

The General Maurice Rose operated out of New York in the Atlantic and Mediterranean from 1950 to 1965. Steaming primarily between New York and Bremerhaven, Germany, she completed more than 150 round-trip voyages. In addition, the Rose was deployed to the Mediterranean 17 times. Between January and March, 1957, the Rose made three trips to Europe in support of transporting Hungarian refugees back to the United States. The Rose departed New York August 14,1957, for transport duty to Southeast Asia and returned to New York October 18. For the first eight months of 1966, she made eight round-trips to Europe and back. She sailed again from New York on September 8 for troop-lift duty to South Vietnam. The ship returned to New York in late January 1967 for overhaul and was placed in Ready Reserve status at the James River Reserve Fleet, Virginia. The General Rose was scrapped in Texas during the year 2000.

On a Thursday at 2 p.m. in June 1958, about 160 passengers boarded the US Navy ship, General Maurice Rose. My mother, my sister Tupper and I were sharing Cabin 0116 on the port side of the boat deck, which were quite nice quarters. We were to have the third seating for meals at Table 18 in the dining hall aboard ship.

Family passport circa 1955 -- Joan Tupper, me, Darby III, and Mama Garnette Williams

The young people who’d lived in Tripoli or on Wheelus Air Force Base, who came with me, according to my “meticulous” records were:

Diana, Merle and Russ Darling; Jon Jorgenson, Charlene and Chuck Montgomery, Judy and Kathy Jones, Diane Penn, Pat Sabo, Wilnetta Edwards, David Crabtree, Mike Branham, Willy Maguire and Ronnie Yarbrough.

I know all these specifics because I kept, for lo these many years, a scrapbook of our Mediterranean Cruise. It’s one of those cardboard photo albums with black pages; I used the old-fashioned corners, in this case pink, to hold photos, postcards and odd bits like tickets, the Rose daily newspaper, a menu for the farewell dinner on July 7, and the wrapping paper from a box of Italian shoes (sexy backless cork wedge heels) my mother bought for me in Naples.

My reduced family had a terrific time, mainly because my strict father had flown home with my little brother. Since my mother was fun and indulgent, I knew I was going to have a fabulous trip and I would document it in detail, in white ink, mind you, so I’d never forget.  I listed every teenager getting onboard with me, every teenager seeing me off (including three Italian boys), and the fact we actually left the harbor at 6 a.m. on a Friday. After sailing to and docking in Athens, Istanbul, Izmir, Naples, Leghorn (Livorno), and Gibralter, we would finally arrive at Brooklyn Navy Yard on July 8.

Stay tuned as I share adventures in the coming weeks.

Tripoli Memories

Celebrating Thanksgiving in 2010 reminds me of a long ago Thanksgiving in an exotic country in the Middle East. Since I am so blessed with great memories and am in touch with many of those who shared similar adventures in Tripoli, I am sharing this blog post once again.

Tripoli—an ancient city on the shores of the Mediterranean with unique  smells, sounds, landscape has never lost the magic it held in my heart. I notice 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.

Teenage me on Via de Gaspari, 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, fairly 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.

The boulevard along Tripoli Harbor

My excitement turned to apprehension as I surveyed the tiny bedroom 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.

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.

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.

SCHOOL LIFE AT WHEELUS Air Force Base By Victoria Giraud

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.

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