Wheelus Air Base

SCHOOLDAYS IN TRIPOLI – 1950s

SCHOOLDAYS IN TRIPOLI – 1950s

Barman Newspaper at Wheelus AFB

Barracan Newspaper at Wheelus AFB

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 people can relate to each other’s lives whether we grew up in the U.S. or the Middle East, and history continues to repeat itself.

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 photo 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 history) 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, 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.

Military brats attend school wherever their fathers are stationed, at least in the 1950s. Although the students are American for the most part, there were exceptions, like Ghazi Zugni, a Libyan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TRIPOLI MEMORIES FROM WHEELUS STUDENTS

An Army Brat in Libya Ebook cover

An Army Brat in Libya Ebook cover, published on Amazon

I started the Words on My Mind blog in May 2010 and have posted 476 stories since then. I’ve had lots of words to put down, apparently! My readers are growing in number — around 80,000 hits a month, sometimes more, at this point. Over 2 million people have stopped in or passed by Words on My Mind. Now if I had only sold that many books on Amazon! What pleases me most is that many readers leave comments (over 2,000 so far) and tell me something about their own personal stories. I love that kind of interaction.

One of my favorite subjects is the time I spent in Tripoli, Libya, in the 1950s. I even wrote an Ebook Single (shown above) detailing many of my adventures and published it on Amazon: An Army Brat in Libya. Since so many of my blog readers enjoy those adventures and have written to add some details of their own experiences, I am sharing their comments below.

Ernie Miller, now retired in Arizona, has responded from time to time. He recalls a great deal about his time at Wheelus Air Force Base. During the 1954-55 school year, Ernie relates, the high school “had a total population of 52, including all four grades. I left as a very simplistic 15-year-old and have remembered the experiences in Tripoli as some of the best in my life. It was fascinating to see the nomadic tribes continuing their lives as they were doing in the time of Christ. These wonderful nomadic people have remained unchallenged by the space age, the cold war and the exploration of outer space.” Ernie made these remarks before the recent war in Libya and the ensuing challenges Libyans have to remake their country.

Nancy lived at Wheelus from 1952-54 across from the school in barracks build by Mussolini. She remembers “cement floors, and two bedrooms for a family of seven with two dachshunds.” Backyard fences were made of palm branches, “an olive grove was on the side of us where we played in the trees and among pear cacti, finding lots of empty bullet shells from WWII. My dad was chaplain. The base was just being built up. When we got there we had gravel roads, and airmen were living in tents. We flew over in a C-76, an unpressurized prop plane, for which my ears are paying a price today.”

Noelle wrote to tell me her father was in the Corps of Engineers (as was my dad). “He was part of the team who were responsible for the building of the ‘new’ hospital and a number of airstrips during 1952-56 on Wheelus. We lived on the economy in an apartment downtown. From the apartment balcony, we could see Tripoli harbor, a huge local park and gharries that traveled up and down the streets. In the summer, I awoke to gharry bells that adorned the horses.”

“I, too, lived in Tripoli in 1953 and have great memories of that time. I was just out of high school and worked as a typist. Our Italian maid ‘made off’ with my many sets of different colored underwear. My mother’s favorite tablecloth disappeared from the clothesline and probably became part of Arab garb,” said Anne.

Paulette spent 5th and 6th grade at Wheelus. When her father lost his deposit on an apartment to be built in Tripoli, he gave up and moved the family into a trailer on base. “I liked it anyway, and it was only a half-mile to the beach, and we had a small zoo practically in our backyard. I could walk to school, the BX (base exchange), church and the movies. Quite an adventure for a 10/11 year old.”

As the years go by, more and more Wheelus High and Elementary School alumni have gotten in touch on Facebook. And the legend builds. Imagine military brats who got to meet John Wayne, Sophia Loren and Richard Nixon…

CRISIS, 1950s STYLE – THE SUEZ CANAL By Victoria Giraud

Crisis is an old word but it may never wear out its usefulness considering how often TV, the Internet, newspapers still around, radio, etc. use it. For a short word, it seems to get the appropriate emotion out there for a fearful reaction.

My first knowledge of the word probably came in Tripoli during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Although it affected Egypt more than Libya, it was a point of honor for a measure of self-rule for the Arab world.

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 Gadaffi didn’t seize power until 1969. According to some reports, the young Gadaffi took part in the riots in Libya. Good practice for his takeover later?

I’m going to share the comments from others who lived through the Crisis in Tripoli during those days. It was certainly nothing compared to Libya’s recent upheaval getting rid of Gadaffi’s government. Becky Rizek said: “I remember our house boy, Calipha, coming to work with bandages on his head and forehead. He said he was beaten because he was loyal to his American employers. He wanted to come to the States with us, which was impossible because he had at least one wife and three children. But for us, it was a day off from school. The kids on the base got to go to the Officers Club and wait on tables since the Arab waiters could not come in to work. I remember the MATS transports lined up on the runway at the base airport, ready to evacuate the American dependents should we have to go. I was all of thirteen and never forgot it.”

Elaine Frank recalled, “My dad’s car was stoned when he would come home from the base. We lived out on Homs Road and we lived in a duplex with a British family next door. They were shipped back (to the UK) and left in the middle of the night. We didn’t know what happened to them, but they eventually did return several months later. Like you said, this was just the way of life living in the military. We had to leave Morocco because of the French and Arab conflict in 1954/55, and we were in Japan during the Korean War. Kids just took it all with a grain of salt. People back in the States were scared for us but we were fine; it was just that the British and Americans looked alike, and that is why they would throw rocks at his car.”

“I recall the Suez Crisis, with machine guns on British and French embassies and King Idris’ guards beating heads with truncheons,” Mike Harris commented.

The Palace of King Idris long ago

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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