State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
The summer of 1967. Hoo boy. They called it the Summer of Love, because even then the Branding geniuses in the National Archives knew that calling it “That Summer the Kids Went a Little Crazy and Had Lots of Public Sex Against Trees” would cast a sorry light on an epoch they already knew to be one for the ages. (Note to Millennials; those doddering older folks you spot across State Street as you swagger out of the Abercrombie and Fitch cologne chamber? Someone who is 69 years old today was 18 in 1967; tree-tending age. And you can bet that hunched older gentleman you gaze briefly and pitiably upon did not go to the city parks that year to hunt for Charmander…)
In 1967 I was not making love to beautiful Grace Slick lookalikes against trees. I was a jug-eared, chronically shy Air Force brat with a crew cut and the approximate personality and facial expression of a tree. I lived with my family on Warren AFB, outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. I took the school bus every day to Clark Elementary school in the city (Cheyenne, that is), and an MP would salute our bus as it departed the base’s gate. My best friend in school was Kim Daifotis, who lived across the street from the school, on House Avenue. We each had a lazy eye, and I think Kim’s, like mine, was the left one. That year my dad received what would be our family’s last Air Force assignment, after which he would end up retiring from the Air Force and entering civilian life.
Wheelus Air Base, outside Tripoli, had been built as Mellaha Air Base by the Italians in 1923. In the early days of WWII the German Luftwaffe made use of the base until it was captured by the British in ’43. That same year the popular and much fought-over little outpost on Libya’s Mediterranean coast came into possession of the U.S., and in 1945 it was renamed Wheelus Army Air Field in honor of a pilot who had died in a crash in Iran that year. In early 1968 my family drove across the country to Treasure Island, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. We would sojourn there for 6 months while my dad went on ahead to Wheelus and made preparations for us. Florida, and the approach to Florida, would mark the first time I ever saw the ocean. I remember the moment. The scale of what I was seeing filled me with an awe that was actually a strange species of fear.
Then in August of ’68 my mom, my little brother Patrick and adventurous sister Jill (ahead of whom lay many scuba adventures in the crystalline Mediterranean; she’d already conquered Wyoming’s Tetons) and I boarded an airplane that to my nondescript little Cheyenne eyes looked like an enormous sideways building with wings and wheels. I’d spent the whole of the previous night sleeplessly trying to invent in my mind something that might approximate the horror of takeoff in an airplane. I didn’t succeed, and in the actual event I violently wet myself as the terrifying rocket left the runway.
We lived in quarters 4G on the base. You could walk out from our front door, turn left, cross a bumpy little field full of stunted foliage and huge black ants, and be on a short bluff overlooking the “Med” in about 5 minutes. The water was cornflower blue and as transparent, even at some depth, as glass. Libya was hot, but I don’t remember it being dreadfully so. I do remember that the warm air was redolent with the smell of the smashed dates that fell off the palm trees and were mashed by pedestrians into a fragrant mush that to this day I can still smell if I concentrate.
I can vividly picture standing with a couple of my friends in a small park in the middle of the base, and a young Libyan guy in fashionably tailored pants and shirt laughing heartily about something one of us had just said, shrugging through his own rippling laughter. “Malesh!” We were laughing, too.
The change from Florida to Africa was not as freaky to my little bug-mind as the culture jolt of Wyoming-to-Florida, but for one smallish new experience that entered my daily life on Wheelus. In the wee hours before sunrise the morning prayers would be broadcast from a mosque about a half-mile away in the countryside, on the other side of the base wall. The weird singsong prayers and the Rudy Vallee bullhorn effect of their broadcast – it freaked me out. Our grade school on the base had two penned camels in the courtyard; Adam and Eve. There had been a contest to name them and my entry, Sam and Sabrina, had gone unchosen. When I much later named my son Sam, a name I have always loved, I felt vindicated.
Each house in our section of the base had a plain white picket fence enclosing a scrubby lawn that reached around the side of the quarters to a fenced-in back yard. In what should have been at least briefly pondered as an ill-conceived gesture, each service family on the base was assigned a native gardener. Ours was a shy, smiling young man named Mohammed. He became a friend of the family, though his mostly incomprehensible English could sound like someone trying to talk around a mouth full of toast.
My Arabic was worse, of course, except for a few words; “kafalik” (hello), “fulus” (money), and the truly untranslatable “malesh”. When spoken, malesh was always attended by a sloppy, happy-go-lucky shrug, the word’s closest English analog a peaceable and accepting “Whatever!” Malesh is still one of my favorite words, and I remember very sentimentally its use by Mohammed and some other Libyan friends on the base.
I can vividly picture standing with a couple of my friends in a small park in the middle of the base, near the high school and practice baseball diamond, and a handsome young Libyan guy in fashionably tailored pants and shirt standing on an unmoving merry-go-round in the sun, laughing heartily about something one of us had just said and shrugging through his own rippling laughter. “Malesh!” We were laughing, too.
Per the quasi-colonial template, our relations with kindly King Idris, a guy who had benevolently ruled Libya since 1949, were quite copacetic, surely due to whatever sweet deal the U.S. had struck with Libya’s leader, and in likely perpetuity. The base was not widely embraced by everyone in the area, though all Americans regularly went into Tripoli to shop and drink and ogle the old city and the beautiful boulevards there. As for the base itself, razor wire and jagged glass shards topped the 11-foot wall that surrounded Wheelus. It was a somewhat uneasy time but the inertia of American hegemony was still considered inviolable in some ways.
Little Big League
Naturally I was made to join the base Little League, and of course I was terrified of being hit by the baseball. On the Athletic Continuum I was a couple notches south of Winnie the Pooh, and I couldn’t have made a worse show of it if I’d gone to bat like Pooh; naked but for a yellow velveteen vest, open at the front. I was positively maddened with fear every time I was made to shuffle up to home plate in my crushed purple baseball hat and ill-fitting, sackcloth-like jersey, the huge wooden bat propped leeringly on my stooped non-shoulder, like a dare. “Go ahead, you bruiser of a pitcher. Throw Abner Doubleday’s inexplicably angry little ball at me with all your strength!” Absolute terror.
One kid on my team, an English kid, was so stricken with fear at bat, he would simply lay down at the plate during the pitcher’s wind-up. Not jerkily, like a guy flinching, but very smoothly. He would smoothly lay down the bat and in a synchronously fluid bit of choreography lay his entire body gently down on the chalky dirt next to home plate. It was like a weird modern dance move, very balletic, or like someone being gunned down in Sam Peckinpah slo-mo. It was almost dreamlike. I used to watch him from behind the backstop and marvel, envious of his technique. I would lean against the chain link with my gloved hand against the metal so in the event of a foul ball my fingers wouldn’t be hurt. I was THAT kid. I’d bought a leftie glove at the base commissary, one of the ones with a famous player’s signature manufactured into the leather. It didn’t get much use because I played outfield. Photos of me out there show an indistinct dwarvish figure with his arms slack, in purple. The glove was in mint condition the whole time I had it. To this day the smell of a baseball glove fills me with dread.
Capitalist Piggy Bank
One of the base’s two practice diamonds was across a narrow street from a stretch of the wall that surrounded the place. Foul balls would fly over the jagged top of the glass-festooned wall, out of our bastion of sovereignty and into the mysteries of Libya proper. A few minutes later a skinny little kid in white Ghandi shorts would shimmy up the trunk of the palm just outside the wall, clinging expertly to the palm tree with one arm while with the other he would energetically brandish our baseball and yell “Fulus! Fulus!” Pre-incarnate capitalists and swindlers (no, I do not believe the terms are interchangeable), we never went to the practice field without a bunch of bottle caps, and at his signal we would begin the transaction, earnestly gesturing and showing our bottle caps on the flattened upturned palms of cheats and typhoid merchants. The kid would throw the ball to us over the wall, we would throw a fistful of bottle caps in return (I can see them flashing in the sun as they sail over the wall like chaff) and the boy would hurriedly shimmy down to collect his dough. At the count of about 6, an older man would shimmy up the tree shouting indecipherably and waving his free arm. We had no shame, but neither did we take any particular pleasure in the arrangement. Our moral compasses were spinning like little propellors.
One day very suddenly, the adults were all talking with some concern about a “coup”. “Did you hear about the coup?” Suddenly the “coup” was all anyone talked about, but there was no sense of emergency. It was as if something possibly interesting had happened, but nothing too concerning. The word “coup” appeared in the little newspaper the American and Brits followed, the Tripoli Trotter. The word didn’t look quite right. Coop, maybe? My bean-headed command of the King’s English made me wonder if something chicken-related had transpired, and I couldn’t figure out what mildly anxious situation would involve chickens in that setting.
Kindly King Idris had been toppled by an opportunistic Colonel from his own army, a Mr. Gaddafi, whose mostly young followers welcomed the removal of something so antiquated and undemocratic as a King. Then Gaddafi was all over the Libyan news, striding around Tripoli amidst wildly cheering mobs in his dress-brown army uniform, cap and sunglasses. He was young and handsome and energetic. It had been a laudably bloodless coup, Idris being locked out of his own country while away seeing to his health in Turkey. Gaddafi then asked us to leave.
We had till June of 70 to get every last man, woman and child off that base. Gaddafi took the gloves off and his regime began attacking Jews in the city. The base’s H.S. Principal, our next door neighbor, Mr. deCarlo, was caught on the tarmac at the Tripoli airport trying to spirit a Jewish friend out of Libya in a Tuba case. The plan failed, and Mr. DeCarlo was sent out of the country, to Okinawa, where he would await his wife. I don’t know what became of his Jewish friend. deCarlo’s wife Genevieve, a French academic, was placed under immediate house arrest and subjected to heated but non-physical questioning by Gaddafi’s thugs, day after day after day. Gaddafi’s plan was to strip the deCarlos of all their belongings, everything they owned, before sending Genevieve packing to join her husband in Japan – a situation my mom and her crazy BFF successfully schemed to prevent. That has been written about elsewhere.
Our Libyan friends from the city stopped coming around and were rumored to have been killed or arrested. We went to school an extra half day Saturdays to try to finish the academic year before we had to go home to the U.S. Our accelerated departure from the base was particularly bitter to me because I’d developed a completely mad crush on a girl in my class, the daughter of one of the teachers. I hadn’t spoken two words to a girl before, and I wasn’t about to start now. I was rapturously, freakishly in love, was having unsavory dreams, and could feel my face getting hot whenever she came into the classroom.
I looked at the floor a lot in those days and once memorably tore the pencil sharpener off the wall with my shoulder while bolting through the classroom door in downcast haste. I was mortified of girls and pitchers, and when I looked in the mirror with my bean head and military haircut I saw a guy whose Venn Diagram did not include Davy Jones of the Monkees, and I knew I would never get the girl. Meanwhile, every day more and more friends left for the States. We all said teary goodbyes to each other, we kids and our parents and their bridge and drinking and golf friends. We knew we would likely never see each other again.
Near the end of my Little League “career” on Wheelus I did manage to summon a little courage, and even took a few hopelessly slow swings at the oncoming ball. The season ended and I felt I’d given it my best, which of course wasn’t true by a long shot. I began to stare more carefully at the long, nutty name in my glove and decided to look the guy up. I’d seen the fake scripted letters a hundred times but had never thought much about it. The factory signature in my baseball glove was that of a player named Tony Conigliaro, and I learned that in August of ’67 he’d been brutally hit in the face by a wild pitch that nearly killed him. The horrific injury compelled the redesign of the standard batting helmet. I’d picked up a Tony Conigliaro baseball glove. It still stuns me. Did this mean something? When our plane touched down in the States, at MacDill AFB in Florida, the passengers broke into spontaneous cheering. Two months later we were in Boulder, and I began to grow out my hair.