Wheelus Field Dependents School

As I get older and being a writer and editor, I think back to the adventurous days of being a military brat and living in exotic places like Tripoli, Libya. The Middle East seemed to be changing for the better in the 1950s. Libya was ruled by King Idris and there was great potential of finding oil in the desert.  Tripoli was a small but international city of various nationalities besides native Libyans. There were Italians, British and Americans from the Air Force, Army, State Department and oil companies. Memories of those unique times will always be with me.

I’ve been writing my blog: Words on My Mind for over five years but had to stop recently   because of spinal surgery. It was a challenging time but I’m healing nicely. My mind still needs some challenges and the blog has brought me new friends and reconnections to old friends from Tripoli. It was an alluring and unusual place to learn more about the world: Roman ruins, the gorgeous Mediterranean, the Sahara desert, camels, gazelles, Libyan women almost totally hidden by Barracans.

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. My 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 after picking me up in Garden City. 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 the smell.

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.

There are more adventures in Tripoli in many other blogs on this site.


  1. Hello Jennifer,
    Thanks for the great post. My family was stationed there from 1955-1958. My dad was Corps of Engineers (they built the airfield). We lived in Tripoli on Via de Gaspari across from the Egyptian Embassy. I’ve posted many stories on this site since this blog is mine and contains lots of my adventures at different times of my life. I went to 8th-10th grade at Wheelus but my brother and sister were much younger –my brother a toddler, my sister in elementary school. I remember the camels and sheep herded down some main streets. My site has lots of stories. Many of us keep up with each other.

  2. Jennifer L Halsey says:

    Just discovered this blog by Googling Wheelus AFB. I was born there in December 1956. My parents left in 1958. i was always told that the base was closed shortly thereafter, so I am surprised to see people reporting living there in the 1960’s. I have many stories from my parents of their time there. They loved it and did not want to leave. they lived off base in an apartment with other “foreigners” My mother said my first word was “goat” I asked why- she said the goats were herded to the market right past my window, I stood up in the crib and could look out the window.

  3. Stephanie “Conger” Fischer says:

    I think about Wheelus, Tripoli, and surrounding area often. When I do I smile, my eyes tear up with happy tears. Wish clicking my heels together three times I’d be there again 1966-1968. I was 6 when my Dad was stationed at an AF communication site. We lived off base on an Italian farm. What a wonderful time! Swinging from the grapes vines that covered the patio, cooling off in the irrigation ditch, running around the orange groves. Trips to the beach, cookouts at the com site, trying to catch the silver ants….if only religion and politics hadn’t ruined it all. My mom baby brother and I were evacuated in 1967 due to the 6 day war. We did return. No more living off base, we were housed in an 8×30 trailer. It didn’t take long to adjust to our new normal. My pararents say the assignment at Wheelus was their favorite in the more than 20 years my dad was in the AF.

  4. The town’s name was spelled Suk-el-Giuma — I think I spelled it right. It was known as Friday Market. When it rained, it stunk from nearby tannery. They are quite modern now but still have their troubles. Victoria

  5. Anne Bjornson Parkinson says:

    Hi! Thank you for writing out your memories. I was a military brat who lived on base. Our family was evacuated out in 1967 in the 6 Day War also. I was 5. For years, my father always said “Sook-a-juma,” and danced a little when he was being silly. I never knew what he meant- I just thought he was happy. Then last year, my mom told me that was the name of a real town near the base in Tripoli. I could not find it on a map without knowing how to spell it. How great to hear about it! I always think about Tripoli and Libya this time of the year. What a beautiful country and beautiful people as it was. Always praying for it to rise again.

  6. I would love to share my memories with AOSHS. You can use them from my many blogs on this site, or you may buy my kindle version for 99cents on Amazon – AN ARMY BRAT IN LIBYA by VICTORIA GIRAUD.

  7. Rebecca Dunn says:

    I am the historian for American Overseas Schools Historical Society (AOSHS) and we would like to publish an except from you blog or web page in our quarterly magazine. We are trying to preserve the history of overseas schools through first hand accounts from brats and teachers. Please contact me if you are interested in sharing your adventures with us.

  8. I bet you enjoyed your time there, despite the war. I remember our school bus always going thru Suk… I have so many memories, but that’s why I’ve written so many blogs about my time there. I hope Tripoli figures out how to keep peace and be prosperous. Thanks for reading.


  9. Betty Ramos says:

    Hi. I was in Tripoli from 65-67. Evacuated during the 6 day war. I lived in Suk el Guima.

  10. gary griffin says:

    Glad you are back!

    I still would love to see the mimeograph copy of the bus route.

    Does it still smell like vanilla extract? (I bet not!)

    Could you take a jpeg of it and email it to me? I lived in an apartment compound VERY close to Garden City Circle (and not at all far from where you lived).


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