Richard Nixon

SCHOOLDAYS IN TRIPOLI – 1950s

I’m a keeper of personal history; it’s a good resource for my writing and makes me realize what an adventure my life has been.

Being raised as an Army brat, another way of saying “gypsy” or perpetual traveler, has given me a different view on life. I think most people can relate to each other’s lives, whether we grew up in the U.S. or the Middle East.

I saved a few high school newspapers from Wheelus Air Force Base  in Tripoli, Libya. The Barracan was named for the durable white outer garment Libyans wore in the 1950s. In those days, women were totally covered except for one eye and their feet, as the front page drawing shows.

 

In reading these well-worn “antique” copies of newsprint, I find wonderful tidbits of how we teenagers were experiencing life in the days of bobby socks, circle skirts, loafers and saddle shoes. I don’t know how many students there were in the high school, but there were over 1,000 students from first grade to twelfth in 1956.

Some students related to the 1956 U.S. Presidential election. Student Jimmy Smith wanted to vote for Adlai Stevenson because the Republican Party had “pretty well messed up the government.” That remark is timeless for either political party! Student Janice Harkey, on the other hand, liked Ike (Eisenhower for those who don’t remember) because she wanted the Republicans to stay in office (they did).

Richard Nixon, who was Eisenhower’s vice president, showed up in Tripoli in 1957 for a goodwill tour, and a couple of Wheelus students skipped school to cover the news. He shook hands with them and smiled when they related they were playing hooky. On the day Nixon was leaving from Wheelus, a friend and I got up early to see him off. I was close enough to shake hands and was thrilled.

We weren’t concerned about being “politically correct” in those days, and besides, military schools were fully integrated. Nevertheless, there was a “slave” sale to raise money. Seniors sold themselves for small chores and the effort raised $12.95 for their treasury. That amount of money went a lot further in the 1950s.

Rock ‘n Roll music was popular but not predominant yet, according to the weekly “Platter Chatter” (when there were 45 and 78 rpm records for sale).  In December 1956, Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” was the number one favorite for the third month in a row. Hugo Winterhalter’s instrumental, “Canadian Sunset” was in 7th place and Bing Crosby’s “True Love” was in 8th.

We were attending school in a city that bordered the Mediterranean and was surrounded by the Sahara desert, but there were some students who would have preferred a white Christmas in December. No snow could be provided, even the fake kind, but I fondly remember the Nativity Scene at Wheelus  with its real camels and a real donkey.

 

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.

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