Wheelus High School Life

I started writing for newspapers when I was 14 and a freshman at Wheelus Air Force Base High School in Tripoli, Libya.  Lucky for me I saved several of those newspapers, delicate as they now are on newsprint over 50 years later.

Since there are many funny and interesting comments about high school life in this little newspaper, I’m going to bring a few tidbits to life again.

I arrived in Tripoli in November 1955. At that time there were only four high school seniors set to graduate in June of 1956. Each senior had an office—why leave anyone out! As the old saying goes, “All Chiefs, no Indians!” Russ Darling, the only male in the class, was president, Joan Du Dasko was Vice President, Diane Garza served as secretary, and Darleen Pannett was chaplain. None of them were slackers: they’d been busy during their school years with the yearbook, Chorus, Library Club, Dramatics Club, Student Council, and Russ was active in the Athletic Club.

There were twelve juniors to draw from for class officers, but Carol Kelley must have been more enthusiastic: she served as both secretary and treasurer. Mary Jo Cain (her father, Col. W.J. Cain, was the base commander) must have inherited her dad’s leadership abilities since she was class president.

Sophomores were more plentiful: there were twenty-one of them. The Freshman class was fairly large with thirty-two students. Junior High (I was an eighth grader then) had lots of students. The number of students from first grade to twelfth grade totaled the grand number of 1,090.

The school newspaper, THE BARRACAN, was edited by the very capable and congenial Myrna Gary. Like many of us who’d been service brats or had fathers involved with the State Department, she became a world traveler and is currently on duty once again about as far down under as you can get—McMurdo Station in Antarctica. I’ve enjoyed lots of penguin photos she has shared with former Wheelus students. The South Pole must hold an attraction for adventurers, Mark Davenport, who was once a Tripoli youngster, also works there for the National Science Foundation.

THE BARRACAN newspaper-- It Covers All!

A regular BARRACAN feature was the Ideal Boy or the Ideal Girl of a male or female student.  Jimmy Smith, who was a 10th grader in 1956, imagined such a girl would have long blond hair since he liked Sandy Rinear’s blond locks. She remains blond and lovely, as I’ve seen in photos. He preferred Ginny Stewart’s eyes and Sharon (Sherrie) Forsblade’s smile. I can attest to Sharon’s smile—she’s a friend of mine to this day and used to be a California neighbor of mine. Jimmy liked Linda Gray’s figure, and I can vouch for that as well because I enjoyed her company over the years when she visited Sharon. Unfortunately, Linda passed away last year.

Jimmy didn’t stop there: his ideal girl would be cute as June Ward, attractive as Diana Craft, as intelligent as Ann Shower and be as friendly as Mary Jo Cain. He didn’t want much!

There was a poll taken of students’ opinions of the 1956 U.S. election, even though no one was old enough to vote. Jimmy Smith told the paper that he wanted to vote for Adlai Stevenson because the Republican Party “has pretty well messed up the government.” Jimmy Smith went on to be elected to public office in Florida where he now lives. If anyone knows what office and if he still holds it, please get in touch. Janice Harkey, on the other hand, liked Eisenhower because she wanted the Republicans to stay in power. As the French say: “The more things change, the more they remain the same!”

Martyn Bacheler wrote a feature called “Platter Chatter” for the BARRACAN, and in December of 1956, Elvis’ song “Don’t Be Cruel” was first in popularity for the third month in a row. In seventh place was Hugo Winterhalter’s instrumental “Canadian Sunset,” and Bing Crosby’s song “True Love” from the movie “High Society” was eighth.

“Here Come the Teenagers” was a fifteen-minute chatter and records radio show broadcast from Wheelus on Saturday mornings. Miss Gobbi, my delightful French teacher, was its sponsor. I can remember requesting “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation” at one point, or was it “A Rose and a Baby Ruth?”

Although winter weather in Libya was nonexistent in that comfortable Mediterranean climate, just as I enjoy here in California, Susie Wisdom was wishing for a 12-foot deep snow for Christmas. Johnny Carlson, always a reader and not worried about the weather, was recommending “A Fireside Book of Yuletide Tales” for Christmas reading.

Watch for more “old” news in coming months.


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  15. Ernie says:

    In the 1954/55 school year, allowing for transfers in and out, we had a total WHS population of 52, including all four grades. That year we graduated one guy who seemed to have held on to his old desk at the school for some reason. I see Frank Macguire in the recent beach party photos from 1956. Gee, Frank would have been about 20 then … I hope the girls were being careful around the old goat.

    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. There seemed to be no changes from year 0 to year 1954 and certainly no changes from 1954 to 1955. These wonderful nomadic people have remained unchallenged by the space age, the cold war and exploration of outer space. Their largest concerns are food and water! It was also fun to step out of the picture for a moment or two, and see the experiences I had as a freshman in a wholly different high school in this very different country. By the time I graduated in 1958, I had been in three different high schools in three different countries on three different continents. Tripoli will always be where the best memories were found.

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