In August 1968, I flew from Florida to Libya in the company of my mother and my little brother and a largish puddle of moisture, owing to the diuretic effect of the monumentally huge jet’s roaring takeoff. I had never flown before. We’d driven cross-country to Florida from F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and after several calming beachfront months on Treasure Island there, a quaint Gulf Coast getaway of crystalline waters and powdery white sand, it was time to go to what would be our last assignment as an Air Force family: Wheelus Air Force Base, outside Tripoli, Libya. My dad had traveled ahead to Libya some months before to arrange for our housing and to get things in order.
After hours of damp flight and a layover in Frankfurt, we finally descended, quickly and in complete darkness, over what many passengers nervously opined was open water. A couple minutes before landing a rag-tag collection of lights tilted weakly up out of nowhere, and a day later I was an eight-year-old living somewhat obliviously on a sovereign walled bastion of the U.S. on Libya’s Mediterranean coast. Wheelus Air Base had originally been built as Mellaha Air Base by the Italians in 1923, was briefly borrowed by the German Luftwaffe in the early years of WWII, was captured by the British in ’43, and finally came into possession of the U.S. that year as a bomber base.
The juxtaposition of Florida to Africa was not as jarring as that of Wyoming to Florida, and it’s safe to say I had no working idea at first that we were now in North Africa. Soon, though, the uniqueness of the situation became apparent. In the wee hours before daybreak, the morning prayers would be tinnily broadcast from a mosque to the approximate west of our base and about a half-mile away in the countryside, the haunting airborne singsong a seriously freaky wake-up call to a kid recently of Cheyenne.
Our quarters, and those of our four immediate neighbors, surrounded a dusty, date-littered semi circle of palms and desert scrub, the common area anchored by an enormous branching tree of some kind that chattered constantly with birds. All over the base, the ground was covered with smashed dates and, wherever you went, the sickly-sweet smell of them filled the air like an unwanted perfume. Each house had an incongruous white picket fence enclosing a small embattled grass lawn and, in a perhaps ill-advised colonial gesture, each service family was assigned a native gardener.
Ours, a strenuously smiling young man named Mohammed, became a friend of the family, though we could scarcely understand his tattered English, which anyway bettered our complete ignorance of Arabic. But for a few words, “kafalik” (hello), “fulus” (money), and the untranslatable shrug-attended “malesh” (which in today’s argot has its analog in “whatever!”), we knew nothing of the local tongue. A sort of tea break in the late morning would find Mohammed and his counterparts from the neighborhood hunched in the dirt around a small fire in the common area, boiling tea in a decorative little pot, chatting feverishly and dumping in what were crazy amounts of sugar, per the local taste. Their otherwise radiant smiles generally revealed teeth that looked like candy corn. There was a whiff of the old unfairness about it, these grinning, hardworking obsequious young men toiling in the employ of a walled sovereign U.S. outpost in their own country. My mother often lectured my brother and I about it. The effect was to cause us to treat Mohammed with a condescending, overweening solicitude, which can’t have helped.
Our house on the base, Quarters 4G, was a stone’s throw away from the Mediterranean. My mother and I would walk two or three blocks through our dusty neighborhood of military-issue housing, cross a street and then a shaded dusty palm grove past colonies of thumb-sized black ants, and find ourselves atop a short bluff overlooking a sea that was the pale, almost cornflower blue of an iris struck by full sun. A path hewed into the soft side of the bluff would take one down to the beach. Digging into the bluff face with one’s bare hands would reveal pottery shards and sometimes intact cups and bowls, and so on, all stone-colored and with the finely grooved texture of work done on a wheel. I don’t know if these would have been relics of the ancient Roman occupation or stuff of more recent provenance. We saved boxes of the things, which we left behind in our hurried departure from the base some time later.
Our grade school had two camels penned in the courtyard. There was a contest to name them. My submitted names were Sam and Sabrina and they were not chosen. The school went with Adam and Eve. During recess we would hang about and frolic warily with these tame creatures, which despite all this cross-species conviviality were not above spitting on us. We learned that a camel could launch a ball of warm slime 30 feet or more with ballistic accuracy. If you’re paying attention you can see them pursing their lips in preparation. The movement across the courtyard between classes found us all, grades 1 to 6, running across the quad in a war-zone crouch. I was pegged once in the neck.
As is often the case in these situations, our relations with kindly King Idris, who had benevolently ruled the country since 1949, was a bit more benign than our relations with certain locals, who were understandably miffed to find an American outpost of the Strategic Air Command screwed down into the middle of their otherwise bucolic seaside reverie, jets noisily taking off at all hours to waggle a warning finger at the Soviets. Wheelus, by 1968 a community of about 4,600 Americans, did not endear us to everyone there. Razor wire and jagged green glass shards frankly surmounted the wall that wrapped around the base like a stone-age battlement, describing in one unlovely architectural gesture the uneasy truce between the service families and the mostly friendly locals.
One of the two local baseball fields was across a narrow street from a stretch of the wall, and our frequent foul balls would routinely go sailing over into Libya proper, from our vantage a wilderness of date palms. Moments later a skinny, enterprising Libyan kid would shimmy up the trunk of a palm tree just outside the wall, the same tree every time, appear over the barbed wire brandishing our baseball and yell “Fulus! Fulus!” Being young and duplicitous and free of any moral compass, we kept a healthy supply of bottle caps in our pockets for these occasions and would mime for the inept little merchant to throw us the ball to initiate the transaction. The ball would invariably be hurled over the wall from the treetop; we would toss a fistful of bottle caps in return, which the boy would hurriedly shimmy down to collect. Inevitably an older man would shinny up some minutes later shouting indecipherable but unmistakable invective. The pattern repeated itself many, many times; to this day, the wonder is how this famed bartering culture never caught on to our shameless little scheme. One could suggest that these episodes were a foreshadowing of unembarrassed American foreign policy to come, writ small. We were not racist, but we were capitalist, with roughly the same results in that setting, I’m afraid.
While the crudely designed wall around the base screamed “isolate and protect!”, we arguable intruders were in fact free to roam outside the confines of Wheelus and did so with some regularity and in complete safety. Just outside the east gate of the base could be found the Souk, a cinematically bustling open air bazaar and market with sulfurous public baths and many robed figures squatting on the ground or manning their shaded stalls to peddle inventory. All manner of things could be bought, from textiles to jewelry to camel meat. The butcher could be spotted at a glance, as his stall featured a row of fly-covered severed camel heads hung from a beam by their now vestigial esophagi. The prospective customer would inspect the teeth to ascertain the age of the animal and thus the tenderness or toughness of the meat; a kind of Bedouin product label.
Many were the times I saw golfers leaning patiently on their one-woods at the tee, waiting for a pair of unhurried camels to traverse the fairway.
Leaving via the same gate and driving for about 20 minutes would bring one to the Sea Breeze Golf Course off-base, notable for having ‘browns’ instead of greens, the putting surface comprised of a very fine dark-brown dust. Immediately following a putt, a robed local would stoically drag a welcome mat by two ropes around the “brown”, smoothing out the grooves plowed by the putted balls. Many were the times I saw golfers leaning patiently on their one-woods at the tee, waiting for a pair of unhurried camels to traverse the fairway.
Further off base and closer to Tripoli proper were the oil company employees and their families, and we were acquainted with a family with the unlikely last name of Barron. Their child Buster (I don’t know if this was a nickname or his unfortunate birth name), a fellow eight-year-old, had in his room a collection of WWII memorabilia. The ’60s were perhaps the first flowering of overpoweringly commercial WWII homage, with shows like Combat!, 12 O’Clock High, and the Rat Patrol dominating the TV ratings, and moviegoers crowding theaters for such fare as Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, the Sand Pebbles, etc. Most boys at that time had a G.I Joe or two, and free afternoons would find us skulking around the neighborhood foliage, gunning each other down with plastic store-bought weaponry made in the previously vanquished China, who now cornered the global market making toy knockoffs of the very stuff that had done them in a generation earlier.
My friend Buster’s room was a WWII museum of German military stuff: helmets, bayonets, boots, guns, all caked with dirt and crowding the shelves and floor. He’d dug this stuff up from a barren dirt field across the street from his house, souvenirs from the war’s North African campaigns and Rommel’s failed attempt to secure the region for the Fuhrer. I’d dug around in the field with him several times and you could stick a shovel in and plow down about eight inches and unearth things that you would more likely see behind glass in a museum. I didn’t find any of this particularly remarkable at the time. It was crazy, and looking back now it seems ever crazier. My plastic tommy gun was no match for Buster’s collection.
One day very suddenly, the adults were all talking with some concern about a “coup” that had taken place. Overnight the “coup” was all anyone talked about, but there was no sense of alarm. I saw the word “coup” in the little newspaper the American and Brits followed, the Tripoli Trotter. Coup. My sketchy command of English gave me the vague sense of some chicken-related crisis. Had they flown the coup? This was my stumbling introduction to dictatorship.
Kindly King Idris (or so was he always portrayed to me by my parents and their friends, his benefactors) had been toppled by an opportunistic Colonel from his own army, a Mr. Gaddafi, whose young followers welcomed the ouster of so autocratic a character as a King. In news footage, Gaddafi could be seen striding around the celebratory Tripoli crowds in a dress-brown uniform and cap, shaking his fists victoriously and smiling. He seemed like a nice enough guy. King Idris had been visiting Turkey to see to a health issue (he eventually died in exile in 1983, in Cairo of all places) and was caught out in the worst way. Or perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, His Majesty had made his propitious doctor’s appointment abroad in a moment of regal cowardice. In either case he was out.
And so were we. In short order we were unceremoniously asked to leave. We had till June of ’70 to do so and families were placed in a departure rotation and given their fly dates. For some kids this meant a foreshortened school year and many of us found ourselves attending school on Saturdays to try to cram in the remaining 5th grade curriculum. Two Libyan acquaintances disappeared, Hadi Turkey, the Tripoli chief of police and a friend of the Americans, and, from my life, an exuberant young Libyan from the city named Omran who used to come to our house and pal around with my brother and me. Omran was tall and handsome, and always laughing. His outfit always included a Stetson and cowboy boots. He was an enthusiastic celebrant of the U.S. and all things American and his dream was to move to the States, which he talked about often with us. He was always at our house. I don’t know anything about his work or what his relationship to the American presence was, but after the coup we didn’t see him any more.
In November we boarded a plane, what base personnel called the Freedom Bird. When the wheels left the tarmac there was spontaneous cheering aboard, and when we touched down in the states the celebrations in the plane were absolutely uproarious. I remember hoping that Omran had made it out.