Wheelus AFB

TRIPOLI – WHERE ALL ROADS LEAD?

In Roman times it was said that all roads led to Rome and a specific monument there, which no longer exists. In my experience during the past decade or more, all roads lead to Tripoli, Libya, which is just a short journey south from Rome.

Tripoli is an exotic place on the edge of North Africa, settled in ancient times by the Phoenicians and the Romans and centuries later by the latter-day Romans, now known as Italians. World War II action attracted the Germans, the Brits, and then the Americans. And that’s just a brief history—I’m sure I left out civilizations, but I’m not writing a history lesson. It’s much more sentimental than that.

 

An Army Brat in Libya Ebook cover

An Army Brat in Libya Ebook cover

The Internet has developed like an enormous spider web connecting cultures and friends, old and new, from all over the world. And Tripoli has been part of that web. The American connection began when President Thomas Jefferson sent the US Marines over in the very early 1800s to fight the Barbary Pirates, and we’ve been connected one way or another since then. This “war” led to the words in the Marine Hymn, “From the halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.” The attraction is mystical, in my view.

My family landed at Wheelus Air Force Base in 1955. We found a home in the Garden City area of Tripoli while my Corps of Engineers father worked  at Wheelus. Tripoli was a much smaller city then but Libyans, Italians, British, Egyptians, and other Middle Easterners mixed and mingled in this strategic city noted for colorful bougainvillea vines, palm trees, donkeys, camels, bicycles, and cars from Europe and the US. What an adventure and privilege  it was to be sent there for three years.

Facebook has become a treasure of groups connected with Tripoli: students who had gone to school at Wheelus Air Base: Wheelus High School Ex-students, for instance; military personnel who had served at Wheelus, and even Italian folks who were born in Libya. And I may have missed some groups. Photos have been passed around, stories remembered, history remembered: the Suez Crisis in late 1956 and the evacuation of US civilians in 1967, for example. All sorts of details have been shared: from Mediterranean beaches to Roman ruins. There have been reunions of former students over the years, way before the Internet when telephones and snail mail was necessary.

What surprises me is the sentiment Tripoli arouses  among so many of us who lived there long ago. Because of the many blogs I’ve posted about Tripoli and Wheelus, I’ve heard from many people who had some kind of connection with the city. Terrence Sharkey, once a young British actor in “The Black Tent” that was filmed in the Sahara near Tripoli got in touch. A British woman who had lived there as a teenager contacted me with lots of memories; her mother had been an extra in “The Black Tent.” Mahmud Abudaber, who had grown up on the outskirts of Tripoli found me—we both live in Los Angeles. When we first met, he brought photos, old coins, and lots of tales of his large family. He had escaped Tripoli in 1980, just before Gaddafi would have drafted him into the Army.

I recently shared memories with Giuseppe Scalora, who started the Facebook group of Italians born there: Club Italiani Nati a Tripoli. They have posted dozens of photos I’d never seen before of scenes and people from all over Libya, from the Sahara to the Mediterranean. Most recently, Julie Yeh, now living in LA, who had been born in Taiwan but moved with her family to Tripoli, got in touch. I can’t wait to hear about her memories.

Camilla, a lovely and very personable Italian lady who now lives in North Carolina and belongs to the group Giuseppe started, was born in Tripoli. She got in touch with me on Facebook and told me something about the horrors of WWII, which forced her and her mother to spend the war in Italy while her father had to remain in Tripoli. When her mother decided to rejoin her husband, she and Camilla faced a perilous sea journey back to Libya and even imprisonment, even though the war was finally over. With some persuasion from her family and my own encouragement, Camilla recently wrote her story of those historical times. I don’t know any authors who have the talent to write versions in Italian, French and English! La Stanza di Camilla de Micheli Consuelos, which includes photos, can be read on: http://www.ernandes.net/demicheli/

 

There must be something in the Mediterranean climate, the sand, the mix of cultures, the magic of Africa that keeps us connected and curious about our fellow travelers.

MAKING MOVIES IN LIBYA – 1950s

Last year, Terence Sharkey, who had been a teenage British actor in the 1950s, sent me an entertaining story of his adventure at Wheelus Air Force Base in 1955. He meant it as a Comment, but it was too long and too interesting not to include it as a blog, and I’m publishing the story again. I made a few minor changes (like American spelling) for clarity.  Terry told me:
I was a guest at Wheelus almost sixty years ago and I still recall the warmth of the welcome which matched the 90 degree heat everywhere. In 1955 food-rationing from WWII in England had only just ceased, and for an English youth, my eyes had popped out at steak sizes I’d never seen, breakfast portions undreamed of, and chocolate bars in abundance. (I’d never heard of Hershey bars –but I soon learned). Suddenly England seemed even more austere when I saw the goods on offer in the commissary.

I was sixteen and had gone to Libya as a young actor for desert location scenes for a movie (The Black Tent) we were making at Pinewood Studios back in England.
A couple of days after my arrival at Idris airport the once daily flight from London’s Heathrow ended in tragedy when a BOAC DC4 Argonaut crashed in flames on landing, killing fifteen and badly injuring many of the forty-seven on board. Idris facilities were about what you’d expect of one of the world’s poorest nations with an international terminal that looked like it was the film set from Bogart’s “Casablanca” and the boys and girls at Wheelus had mobilised immediately, with helicopters ferrying the injured to the military hospital.

Terence Sharkey, teenage British actor

Terence Sharkey, teenage British actor

A few days later, at a break in the filming schedule, I visited the base with Rosemarie, a young woman survivor of the crash. American helicopter pilots honored her with a bouquet. Their tears turned to laughter when Rosemarie discovered the bouquet was swarming with ants, which had joined the consignment somewhere locally. (Where had they had come up with fresh roses in such a desert?).

The base was enormous. I had been fearful that the sight of aircraft so soon after the tragedy at Idris airport on the other side of the city would be upsetting, but my companion was enjoying the tour as much as I was. At one stage our jeep rattled its way over the tarmac beside twenty or more very business-like looking fighter jets with US Air Force emblazoned on each silver fuselage together with the big white star. “F-86 Saber jets” our driver told us proudly. “See them swept-back wings? They’ll take-on anything those Commie-bastards can throw at us – they’ll out-maneuver any of Joe Stalin’s boys.”
Stalin had died two years before and his successor, Nikita Kruschev, had appeared to adopt a more conciliatory attitude towards the West in an attempt to end the Cold War. Our driver, if he knew of the demise of the despot, cared little for the changes and continued to extol the superior virtues of the Saber jets over the Russian MiG-15s, which he told us he had seen in dogfights in the Korean War a couple of years before.

An international incident was narrowly avoided when this naïve British visitor took a photograph of his beautiful companion. I had not noticed that the background included some tents and several large aircraft. I still have the Zeiss camera, which I had bought cheaply a couple of days before, just a museum piece now in our age of digital photography, but I will always remember that day when I had to hand over the film to the fierce military policeman declaring us off-limits.

Actually, he turned out to be quite an affable sort who, having executed his official task, seemed more than happy to assist my companion, who had discovered that the ants were now invading her blouse. Uncle Sam’s Military Police are clearly up to anything the day throws at them and the fellow produced some magic mosquito cream, which he applied liberally to her neck. His enthusiasm for the task knew no bounds and soon it was the turn of the female visitor to gently point out what was off limits.

Apart from the loss of my pictures it was a memorable day with hospitable hosts, an air-conditioned day that offered a welcome contrast to the sweltering Sahara filming days that lay ahead.
Happy days! More are captured at http://www.lovelifeandmovingpictures.com/

MOONLIGHT MADNESS ON THE MED

Art Arrowsmith was a fellow student who attended Wheelus Air Force Base High School in Tripoli, Libya. He was Class of 1957 and I was due to graduate in 1960; we knew each other but weren’t friends. I got to know Art just a few years ago when he began reading my blogs about our time in Libya. An adventurous creative fellow, Art has done some writing and he shared a true story of his, which goes along quite well with my recent theme of ocean escapades. The story is too long to present in full, so I will use my editing skills to cut it down while preserving the humor. I am also going to divide it in two parts for some extra excitement and suspense.

Art A

Art Arrowsmith

Art and good friend and classmate Eric Norby, also Class of ’57, had discovered a pontoon boat on the beach near Art’s house at Wheelus: It was constructed from a modified F-86 fuel drop tank. The top half of the tank had been cut away, leaving a boat that resembled a bathtub with pointy ends. Attached to the boat by several rope-lashed two by four’s were two 50-gallon drums that provided an outrigger arrangement to balance the catamaran-type craft. Our plan was to wait until dark, launch the boat and paddle it parallel to the shore all the way from Wheelus to Giorgimpopoli, a distance of some 15 miles.

Their respective parents had been told the teenagers would be spending Friday night together since Eric lived in Tripoli and Art lived on the base. The parents didn’t ask for specifics: Eric’s folks thought he’d be at Art’s home; Art’s parents thought he’d be at Eric’s.

Eric Norby

Eric Norby

February in Tripoli isn’t toasty. The Mediterranean water is no longer warm and the evening breezes can be very cold. Had we considered such things as wind and tides, water temperature and coastal currents, reefs and time of day, perhaps we…

Eric was wearing his ever-present light tan leather jacket, imported from Germany: his trademark in those days. I wore my dad’s flight jacket that he’d had for many years, the only warm jacket in our house. It goes without saying that we both wore jeans; that’s all we ever wore. We were wise enough to have a couple of bottles of water for the long voyage, a loaf of bread along with peanut butter and jelly: all stashed in the boat over the last couple of days.

Launching the boat proved to be an incredibly arduous task. We tugged and pulled and lifted and rearranged and sweated and struggled and stumbled our way to the edge of the water. The fuel-tank hull of the boat was smooth and slid easily along the sand and over the seaweed. The 50-gallon drums dug into the seaweed, even though it was like walking over wet noodles. Our feet slid over the slippery sea weed but the drums parted the wet strands and clawed their way into the underlying sand. Eric proved to be the heavyweight lifter as we inched our way to the roaring waves. He lifted the forward drum and side stepped toward the water, pivoting around the boat hull, as I pushed the hull forward from the opposite side, attempting to match his progress. After a couple of these maneuvers we would trade places and repeat the process. Eventually we reached the water. We rested about 15 minutes, caught our breath and discussed our next move. We looked at each other with doubt etched across our faces, but wouldn’t admit to the doubt. Neither wanted to be the one to call it off. It was then I found out Eric couldn’t swim!

Art and Eric brazened it out and pushed the homemade craft into the cold water, despite incoming tide and a strong wind. The moon was nearly full, which equates to high tide they discovered much later, but they weren’t trained seamen. They had to clear the offshore reef and then head west to their destination. The moon gave them light to see and there were lights along the shore. How difficult could it be?

Look for the ending of this sea adventure on Wednesday, August 27.

1959 Wheelus Beach

Wheelus Beach in summer

INTO THE PAST–AUTOGRAPHS & MEMORIES

I save things from the past; somewhere, deep inside, I must have known they would interest me when I grew older. Or perhaps they helped me make sense of my gypsy life. They were fodder for my writing, if nothing else. I recently ran across my Autographs Book, which was popular in the 1950s. They were small: about 6 inches by 4 inches and filled with small sheets of colored paper. The front of the brown fake leather cover has already come off, but the autographs, many in now faded pencil have lasted.

Autographs

Inside, I wrote that Viki Williams, my name at 11 years old, lived at 1460B 5th Avenue in Ft. Knox, Kentucky from 1954-55 and my 7th grade teacher was Mrs. Wright. Cindy Brackett, who lived a few houses away in this area of typical two-story Army brick houses for officers, was my first signature. She and I had something in common besides our ages: our mothers had both given birth to little boys about the same time. We were still occasionally playing with dolls, but live babies were much more fun. I remember taking my brother, whom I gleefully nicknamed Doodles, in his stroller down to Cindy’s house. We fed “our” little boys together.

My Baby Brother
My Baby Brother

 

Cindy wrote that I was “the sweetest girl” she knew, along with typical poems like, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I know a bulldog that looks just like you!” In those simpler times, it was largely assumed that girls would get married and have babies shortly after high school or college and several autographs had the poem, “When you get married and have twins, don’t come running to me for safety pins.” (no disposable diapers in those days!)

I had a crush on a boy who played baseball, Ward Morton. Our first date was for a movie on the post, and my dad insisted it had to be a double date. Ward brought a friend and I brought a friend, and we all paid our own way, probably no more than 25 cents. In the summer of 1955, things must have heated up—Ward signed my book very simply, “I love you, Viki.” And he listed his Ft. Knox address! He sent me postcards when his family went to the family home in Wisconsin for vacation. Young love doesn’t last long in the Army; a few months later my family flew off to Tripoli, Libya, for a few years.

In 8th through 10th grade at Wheelus Air Force Base, we were so much more sophisticated! My friends wrote longer messages in the book to remind me how we had had fun together or to tease me, like Steve Gaynor, that I pronounced donkey as “dunkey.” William Maguire said I was a “real swell gal,” and Tom Henderson hoped we’d be within shouting distance when our parents were transferred to the Washington, D.C. area. I found autographs from Tanya Thomas, who reminded me of a hayride, Kay Ray, Sue Wisdom (who remembered us taking algebra together), Gail Carlson (who said “yours until Lassie marries Rin Tin Tin”) and Marla Bush among others. Karen Gamel recalled our climbing the wall around our villa one evening to spy on the British general’s party next door.

I had gotten to know a few Italian teenagers in Tripoli and they signed my book in Italian. I couldn’t read it then or now, but Enzo, who was half British, penned, “Ti voglio tanto, tanto, tanto bene…remember me.” Sounds romantic! I wonder how his life’s turned out. Stefano, Enzo’s good friend, wrote a message in German, which I can barely translate– something about being a good friend. As a footnote, Stefano visited my parents when they were stationed in Germany in the 1960s, and Enzo got my address and wrote me a few times when I was in college. The Internet has connected many old friends and classmates, but it’s not quite the same as looking at a friend’s written message and signature.

GARDEN CITY HOME – TRIPOLI, LIBYA

The view from our balcony

Just before Christmas in 1955, the five members of the Williams family left the Hotel Del Mahari when my dad found a home in Garden City, an upscale location for Europeans, Americans and wealthier Libyans.  Consisting of streets like spokes that branched off Garden City Circle, the area was a neighborhood of one and two-story, flat-roofed, square and rectangular-shaped villas surrounded by stucco walls as high as ten feet. The walls were as much for privacy as protection, and many of them had decorative, fret-worked sections. Flowering vines such as bougainvillea, lantana hedges, and palm trees were ubiquitous; Garden City was an appropriate name.  It was some time before I discovered that the vibrantly-colored pink and purple bougainvillea vines that seemed to cascade from countless rooftops were in actuality growing up from the ground to the roof and not vice-versa.

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

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

The family home, above the Bougainvillea

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

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

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

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

Me, Darby, Joan Tupper in the side yard

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

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

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

EXPLORING THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI – 1955

The Barbary Pirate Fort was the entrance to the Old City
A Libyan woman in her barracan

After about 24 hours of travel from Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey to Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli, Libya, my family and I spent our first night in Tripoli in the Hotel Del Mahari, which faced Tripoli Harbor. The long journey by airplane where the only rest was in an airplane seat on a noisy prop plane required some serious rejuvenation. Sunshine and new places to explore revived my spirits. We ate breakfast in the hotel dining room, a sizeable oval room that jutted out into Tripoli harbor and offered a view of ships and sailboats with the ocean in the near distance. Best of all, there was a tunnel under the street leading to the restaurant. My sister and I skipped through the tunnel, admiring the paintings and an aquarium filled with vividly colored fish, all of it relieving the white monotony of the tunnel’s well-lit walls. As I was approaching my thirteenth birthday, I was soon to admire the restaurant more for its attractive young Italian waiters than the view or the charm of the tunnel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMERICAN BASEBALL CARDS IN LIBYA

The world grows smaller every day with the Internet, satellites and other means of communication. After World War II, the US and other countries realized, like it or not, the world was connected, as English author John Donne said way back in a 1624 sermon: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…”

Wars, ironically, have brought people together, and as the US became more powerful, we sent our military with many of their families all over the world. It was surprising when we discovered people in these various foreign countries knew something about America from our movies and even from our sports teams.

Pete Remmert, who lived in Tripoli from 1958-1962, told me a fascinating story about his encounter and a friendship with a Libyan boy while his family lived in a nice area near the beach, a bit west of the center of town.

“I was eight years old in 1958. Before we acquired (Wheelus) base housing, we lived in Giorgimpopoli and occasionally when I walked alone in the streets of the neighborhood, I would run into a group of Libyan boys (a few years older than Pete) who sometimes liked to play a little rough. One of these boys didn’t like the way his companions were giving me a hard time, and he pulled me aside and offered me, in very good English, a deal I couldn’t refuse. He told me that he collected American baseball cards, the rectangular ones that came in packs of bubblegum.”

CHAD LANGDON in Libyan dress. Too bad it's not clear

American CHAD LANGDON in Libyan dress. Too bad it’s not a very clear photo

For those old enough to remember, I looked up some of the stars of that era on baseball cards. Though I’m not a typical baseball fan, I still remember a few of them.  Stars like Don Drysdale (I saw him play as a Los Angeles Dodger), Mickey Mantle (a Yankee great), Whitey Ford, John Roseboro, and Carl Yastrzemski, are a few examples.

Although he didn’t remember the boy’s name, Pete commented, “He was a couple of years older than me, of slender build and bald as an eagle. He wore typical Libyan clothing: white robes with a multicolored shawl-type wrap during the colder months. He usually wore a ‘beanie’ type maroon-colored cap but on occasion he would wear a fez. I was always impressed with his command of the English language and his knowledge of contemporary American baseball players was vastly superior to any of the American kids I knew. He also introduced me to those yummy dates that we pulled off the date palms and ate like candy.”

Pete continued, “I told him that I was only interested in the gum and that he was welcome to have the cards. From that moment on, he swore that he would be my personal bodyguard. Well, one afternoon he made good on his promise. A group of older kids decided to rough me up a bit, and my young friend immediately took off his cap, bent over at a ninety-degree angle and, like a battering ram, plowed into one of the kids. The boys scattered and never gave me any trouble again.”

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. “

 

 

MEMORIES OF LIFE IN LIBYA

In these times of upheaval around the world, it’s no wonder those of us who’ve lived into our senior years want to remember happier times. Like everything, memories are relative and dependent on who is remembering. Because I’ve written of my adventures in the Libya of the 1950s, I’ve heard from many Americans and also British who have stories to share of their time in Libya.

Pete Remmert, whose father, Lt.Col. Erwin Remmert, was stationed at Wheelus Air Force Base with Airways & Air Communication Service from 1958-62, took the trouble to share several stories with me and even sent photos. I’m going to share these memories in my next several blogs. Pete has a good memory considering he was only eight when the family got there.

Since Pete has a talent with words, I’ll share what he said mostly in his own words, “My uncle Col. Fred Easley had been base commander at Wheelus several years before we got there. Uncle Fred had established a wonderful relationship with Libyan King Idris and his wife, the beautiful and gracious Queen Fatima. (see photos below) As a result of that relationship, we had hardly settled into our new life when my mother and sister Melissa received an invitation to dine with the Queen at the Royal Palace! In 1960, my youngest brother Fred was born at the base hospital and Queen Fatima gifted him with an exquisite six-foot long, hand-made lace baptismal gown. My mother learned to make couscous after receiving the proper cookery…also a gift from the Queen.”

 

Col. Easley & King Idris

Col. Easley & King Idris – newspaper clipping

Pete remembered the old Aladdin kerosene heaters. “Prior to acquiring on-base housing, we lived in a villa that I remember got very cold that first winter we were there. Our only source of heat was a cylindrical-shaped kerosene heater. When the flame burned blue we knew it was working at full capacity. Later we lived in an area called Giorgimpopoli, a subdivision located to the west of the Tripoli city center, mostly occupied by Italian oil executives.”

 

Queen Fatima of Libya

Queen Fatima of Liby

Queen Fatima’s lovely and elaborate gift in the photo below continues to be cherished by Fred Remmert and his family.

I don’t recall ever seeing any photos of Queen Fatima. She is quite pretty and looks like many stylish American or European women would have looked in the 1950s. After seeing her photo, I was curious and discovered she was born in Libya in 1911 and was married to Idris in 1931, before he was king. They were related. They had one son who lived for only a day in 1953. No wonder she was interested in babies! She and the king, however, became foster parents to children of relatives.

When Gaddafi took over Libya in 1969, Fatima and Idris were in Turkey. Forced to give up the throne, they moved to Cairo where they stayed for the rest of their lives. Her husband, Idris, died in Cairo in 1983 at 94 years old. She died in Cairo in 2009  at the ripe old age of 98.

Baptismal Gown for Baby Fred

Baptismal Gown for Baby Fred

 

 

Since this is the month Muslims practice Ramadan, the following memory is very appropriate.

Pete continues, “I remember that we had a hired man who worked for us around the house. His name was Milad.  Every night he would cook his dinner over an open fire in the courtyard. He was very devout in his religious practices. He would often take out his prayer rug in the courtyard.  I can vividly remember the four-beat rhythms of drums playing in the distance during Ramadan. My wife and I went to Jerusalem a couple of years ago. We stayed in a convent located across the Kidron Valley on the east side of the Old City.  I mention this here because the sounds of drums and the calls to prayer that came the short distance across the valley flooded my head with the memory of the sounds of Tripoli.”

 

 

MOMENTOES – 1950s AUTOGRAPH BOOKS

I save things from the past; somewhere, deep inside, I must have known they would interest me when I grew older. Or perhaps they helped me make sense of my gypsy life. They were fodder for my writing, if nothing else. I recently ran across my Autographs Book, which was popular in the 1950s. They were small: about 6 inches by 4 inches and filled with small sheets of colored paper. The front of the brown fake leather cover has already come off, but the autographs, many in now faded pencil have lasted.

Autographs

Inside, I wrote that Viki Williams, my name at 11 years old, lived at 1460B 5th Avenue in Ft. Knox, Kentucky from 1954-55 and my 7th grade teacher was Mrs. Wright. Cindy Brackett, who lived a few houses away in this area of typical two-story Army brick houses for officers, was my first signature. She and I had something in common besides our ages: our mothers had both given birth to little boys about the same time. We were still occasionally playing with dolls, but live babies were much more fun. I remember taking my brother, whom I gleefully nicknamed Doodles, in his stroller down to Cindy’s house. We fed “our” little boys together.

My Baby Brother

My Baby Brother

 

Cindy wrote that I was “the sweetest girl” she knew, along with typical poems like, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I know a bulldog that looks just like you!” In the those simpler times, it was largely assumed that girls would get married and have babies shortly after high school or college and several autographs had the poem, “When you get married and have twins, don’t come running to me for safety pins.” (no disposable diapers in those days!)

I had a crush on a boy who played baseball, Ward Morton. Our first date was for a movie on the post, and my dad insisted it had to be a double date. Ward brought a friend and I brought a friend, and we all paid our own way, probably no more than 25 cents. In the summer of 1955, things must have heated up—Ward signed my book very simply, “I love you, Viki.” And he listed his Ft. Knox address! He sent me postcards when his family went to the family home in Wisconsin for vacation. Young love doesn’t last long in the Army; a few months later my family flew off to Tripoli, Libya for a few years.

In 8th through 10th grade at Wheelus AFB, we were so much more sophisticated! My friends wrote longer messages in the book to remind me how we had had fun together or to tease me, like Steve Gaynor, that I pronounced donkey as “dunkey”. William Maguire said I was a “real swell gal,” and Tom Henderson hoped we’d be within shouting distance when our parents were transferred to the Washington, D.C. area. I found autographs from Tanya Thomas, who reminded me of a hayride, Kay Ray, Sue Wisdom (who remembered us taking algebra together), Gail Carlson (who said “yours until Lassie marries Rin Tin Tin) and Marla Bush among others. Karen Gamel recalled our climbing the wall around our villa one evening to spy on the British general’s party next door.

I had gotten to know a few Italian teenagers in Tripoli and they signed my book in Italian. I couldn’t read it then or now, but Enzo, who was half British, penned, “Ti voglio tanto, tanto, tanto bene…remember me.” Sounds romantic! I wonder how his life’s turned out. Stefano, Enzo’s good friend, wrote a message in German, which I can barely translate– something about being a good friend. As a footnote, Stefano visited my parents when they were stationed in Germany in the 1960s, and Enzo got my address and wrote me a few times when I was in college. The Internet has connected many old friends and classmates, but it’s not quite the same as looking at a friend’s written message and signature.

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