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.

43 Comments

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  2. Hello Cathy,
    How wonderful for you to write. You’d be amazed how many of us have gotten in touch on Facebook. I’ll write you on Yahoo (I am also on yahoo so you can send photos). I’d love to have more Tripoli photos. There are a bunch of Italians who were born and grew up in Libya in the old days. They have a group on Facebook, but they all write in Italian. Anyway, would love to get in touch and have more of a conversation.
    Victoria

  3. Cathy Katkus says:

    I loved your blog. I too lived in Tripoli Libya. I was younger, 8, 9 and 10. We arrived late at night In the year 1957at Wheelus Airforce Base. I remember my time Libya like it was yesterday. It made me the person who I am today. I have many old pictures of Libya that I can share. Let me know

  4. Can’t blame you for not being enthusiastic. Hope you had a better time in Turkey. If you’ve read some of the experiences on this blog, perhaps you got a better idea what Libya was like if you were able to enjoy it.

  5. J.R. Ashworth says:

    I was at Wheelus from August 1956 to May 1957 I was in the 1950th A A C S sqdn. at site6 out in the Libyan desert.Then in 7272nd A.I.O. Worked in the base PWR plant by the main P.X. Only spent 10 months there and was shipped to Turkey. Only thing for a young A/2c to do was drink, which plenty did, and go to the beach. Didn’t care much for Libya.

  6. Hi Sidey,
    Thanks for the compliments and for your Tripoli tales. My sister was your age when we lived there. I remember the beach at Kilometer 13 — we had a July 4th Independence Day celebration for the Americans one year there. It’s amazing how much so many of us remember of those days. Thanks for sharing. If you have any photos you’d like to share, please send.

    Victoria

  7. Sidey Timmins says:

    Victoria:
    I lived in Collina Verde in 1956-57 before the Suez crisis. We had a small house with a garage and a walled garden in the back – with a big field behind. The house faced North. My father was in the British army – my mother an artist and mother ! There were some Americans across the street. I was only 6-7 and went to the British army school. Since you were a teenager you probably got to do more but we enjoyed going to the beach. Often we went west to maybe Km 13? I went to Wheelus once and watched baseball with my cub friends. It seemed awfully serious. We loved Libya, it’s climate, the people, and its charm. I acted on the stage at Sabratha in Oedipus Rex. We had wonderful friends VHW (Jeff) Dowson and his wife Joy who worked for the FAO on dates. They had a beautiful daughter named Camilla. I wish I had gone back at sometime.
    You look really cute as a teenager! My parents used to host parties on Saturday night with Scottish reels – bagpipe music with Jimmy Shand on the record player.

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  12. Ron Curtis says:

    Hello from one of those English boys living in Tripoli around the same time as you 🙂 I lived with my family in Colina Verde, just a short ride outside the town.
    I often visited Wheelus with my American friends, Flip Foulds, the Neil family, and more. Thank you for bringing back some great memories from when I was a hot blooded 14 year old.
    Ron

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  14. Clyde Harms says:

    I’m writing a series of articles for two Aruba newspapers on my experiences in Tripoli as an employee of Esso Libya 1966-1973. I found yor picture of Longomare exceptionally beautiful and it shows Hotel Libya Palace where I stayed over a month when I arrived in Tripoli. May I use the picture, giving you credit of course as its source? I will also send you copy of the paper with the article containing the picture.
    CRH

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  32. Victoria says:

    Thanks, blog readers, for sharing your comments and experiences relating to Tripoli. I appreciate and welcome them all. It seems to have been a positive and fascinating experience for most of us lucky enough to live in or visit Tripoli and Wheelus AFB.

    Victoria

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  36. Murray LaHue says:

    My experiences were different (for obvious reasons), I arrived at Wheelus at about 3:30PM on a June day and stepped out of a fairly cool airplane into an extremely warm environment with some wierd smells permeating the air. There was a haze in the air that almost never went away.
    They took us to the “transient quarters” (several very small buildings with 4 to 6 bunks and no A/C. Needless to say it was a rude awakening for those of us who had never been in that part of the world. After 2 days in that “hut”, I was finally taken to my new organization and settled into a room of my own (with A/C). Actually for a young NCO, it was not a bad assignment – good NCO club and I had a good job – it was an 18-month tour of duty. I was in charge of the “Commercial Transportation Office” (later changed to “Traffic Management Office”) and handled all of the travel arrangements for personnal as well as baggage, household goods and military freight. About half way thru my tour, I met a young Italian girl who was a teller at the American Express Bank, and after a typical “old world” courtship we were married and here we are – 54 years later – still married. My first daughter was born in the base hospital. I made many friends at Wheelus and (as is pretty normal with “lifers”) am still in touch with many of them. It sounds as if this young lady discovered what most of us did – life can be great no matter where you are – it’s all in how you accept the situation and adjust.

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  38. Ernie says:

    As I read your past few blog entries, I am again struck by our parallel universe type similarities. You arrived in Tripoli by air just four months after I left there by naval vessel. We completed the Med Tour by ship on the way to a new duty station. We disembarked at Naples. Your first experience in Tripoli was an American Thanksgiving. Mine was an American Independence Day. The locals, including the Brittish military, Italian Ex-Patriots and Libyans probably thought we were significantly insane. Why shoot fireworks off in the middle of the insufferably hot summer, and whoever thought of eating a big meal just because it was the fourth Thursday in November? Try explaining those behaviours to someone not familiar with Americans while living as a guest in their country.

    I do have to say that the 30+ days I spent on the MSTS transport ship USS Hodges travelling to Tripoli as a military dependent along with other similarly disenfranchised dependents prepared me more for life as a displaced military brat than anything else could have. A flight would have been, as yours was, simply long and a bit less than comfortable. I arrived in Tripoli as a virtual stranger to my Mother who shared the trip, but spent most of her time shepherding three somewhat older dependent girls when she was not suffering from motion sickness. I was inactively shepherded by a very shell shocked young second lieutenant. I think he was more unworldly than the three teenagers he was charged with shepherding. I sincerely hope our behaviour had no lasting effect on his military career. We had a ball! Mealtimes I should have seen Mom, but she seemed irrevocably seasick. First landfall was Morrocco, and the stability of the ship for most of a day while tied to the pier allowed her to calm her stomach enough to eat heartily. She also found touring Casa Blanca with her charges to be satisfying, since her girls insisted on eating everywhere they found, and they dragged Mom along. She had regained her strength and personality by the time we cast off for the first half of the Med Tour prior to hitting Tripoli. The Straights of Gibralter reduced her to a light green color and once again delicate stomach. She was saved by stops in Florence (including a tour of Pompeii) and Naples on the way to the shores of Tripoli. Life as a military dependent did not dissapoint. It was awesome!

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  40. Jim Reisinger says:

    Enjoyed reading your story, very well written and I especially enjoyed seeing that beautiful picture of the seaside drive. I think they called it, in Italian, Lungo Mare, but not sure of that.

    Similar memories. I arrived at Wheelus AFB in October of 1953 and departed June 1956. I ended up marrying an Italian girl and our first born [son] was born in the hospital at Wheelus. So, I was able to spend 3 Thanksgiving Days in Tripoli.

    I must say that my many months at Wheelus AFB are some of my fondest memories.

    And BTW, if you don’t mind my saying so, you were a VERY pretty young lady.. Even from these eyes of 76 years.

    Thank you for sharing..

    Jim

    PS. I have posted many pictures of my time in Tripoli on my facebook if you are interested in seeing them.

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  43. Pat Thelander says:

    You brought back memories of my first (and only) Thanksgiving in tripoli……..arrived at Wheelus in Aug ’56 from Alaska. Thanksgiving just blew my mind – riding our bikes in short sleeves, and even ate dinner outside! There were 6 of us living in the 8×40 trailer and had about 4 more guests for dinner. What an experience. What a life we have had :))
    Pat

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