Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wheelus Air Base--Part 2

Blogs are funny things. You never know exactly what is going to make an impression out there in the wide wide world, and for the most part, I assume I don't make much of one anyway. But every once in awhile, it turns out that your posts do count for something, and such is the case with the blog post I put up in March of 2011 on Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli.

The reasons for putting up the post were twofold--my mother had died the fall before and my sisters and I were all still in the process of sorting through her things and recalling her life. Then too, there was the little matter of a civil war in Libya that was unfolding just then. I simply wanted to find out a little more about this place where my parents had met, which we had heard tales of all our lives, and where, it turns out, I was actually conceived.

And now again, I have a twofold reason for revisiting the topic. One is that my sister left me a message last week, wondering if I too didn't feel a particular sadness and depression over the tragic deaths at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The second was that I got an email, or actually several from a woman whose father had been in the military, but who had actually been in Libya after that, involved in oil exploration. Barbara (I'll leave it to her to identify herself more fully if she chooses) had known the base growing up because her dad was entitled to use the officers' club. She informed me that there were many American families living and working in Libya who led their lives outside the safety of the base, which was new and interesting information to me.

Anyway, I'll share some links she gave me at the end here, but what I'd like to emphasize is that she is far from the only person who has gotten in touch with me by comments or email in the intervening time since I put up that post. It is the post that has gained by far the most comments from people I didn't already know in some fashion. (But if you're reading this blog, perhaps you do know or remember them--go to the link and check them out if you're interested.)

What struck me in reading the comments over time, is that blogs and websites and the like are really the only way people who knew each other there can now help reconstitute it in memory. Because Wheelus, a once thriving, very solid place in the lives of many Americans--more apparently than even statistics for the base itself might convey--is gone. Utterly, totally gone.

In my first blog post about Wheelus, I mentioned that I had met a man who had grown up on that base for a time and now lived in Santa Cruz, California, as I do. I eventually ran into him again in the bookstore I work in and he happened to have his mother with him. He told me that she would have loved to show me her slides of Libya, but that they had burnt in a fire some years ago. This seemed sort of doubly unfortunate--the memorabilia of the place that had vanished now vanished too. When he introduced me  to this now little old lady, she came up to me and hugged me and said, "Bless you!" and began to recount her days there. I believe she told me that the military families didn't tend to go into Tripoli much, but that she and some of her friends rented a cab and stole out to a district where they could watch belly dancing. She must have been a  bit of a firecracker in her day.

When I first heard the news about Ambassador Stevens and the others who died in Benghazi, my first reaction was a kind of flippant, "You're welcome, Libya." And I was kind of happy to hear Secretary of State Clinton voice exactly this initial sense of an ungrateful nation, turning on the U.S. after its help. But then she went on to say that the perpetrators of violence represented such a tiny portion of the Libyan people. Which of course is true.  The peaceful protest that is said to have been going on initially is not the same thing as the armed assault that followed, and is in fact free speech of the kind we say that we value.

It's not just in the Islamic world that peaceful crowds are being exploited by small groups with more violent aims these days. It's an odd thing, but the town I live in now, a university town, not particularly a war zone, except sometimes between gangs, experienced exactly this sort of violent assault under the cover of a peaceful activity just a couple of years ago. I wrote about it here a while ago, and there's a grainy video clip of what that night was like if you're interested at the end of that post.

In any case, I would hope that people who have an actual connection to Libya through Wheelus Air Base might still long for a positive evolving relation to the Libyan people rather than retracting in a hardened and hurt position.

If you haven't discovered Bahrain DC and you have memories of Wheelus, you should hop on over. From the time I first posted their link, when there were about 160 comments, there have now grown to be over 1200. And just scrolling down them right now, I came upon this site, which has video and photos from that era that you'll get a kick out of.

Barbara has given me the link to a trailer of a documentary about military brats, which I'll post below.
She's also shown me a site  called TCK World: The Official Home of Third Culture Kids , which might be useful to a lot of people who have that neither fish nor fowl sense of identity. Actually, a commenter in the last blog post, "circuitmouse" mentioned the book that connects to this in the comments there:  The Third Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up among Worlds by David Pollock & Ruth Van Reken. I remember thinking that, though I'm not a military kid per se, my family's history of moving around a lot during childhood in some ways mirrors that reality.
And finally, here's AOSHS--American Overseas Schools Historical Society. The group is attempting to document the lives of over four million American kids who were educated abroad during their parents' military service. It has a cool archive of first hand accounts, though I haven't looked at it enough to see if you can sort by country.



  1. What a thoughtful and informative post, and how wonderful to know of the connections and kindness going on out there, even when we hear all the bad news.

  2. I know, Kathleen. As someone who has no personal memories to share, I can only hope to facilitate a bit and maybe direct a few people to where the real action is.

  3. Seana, this is so interesting. Thank you, Janet

  4. If you aren't blocked by a pay wall, there's an interesting if provocative piece by Stanley Fish in the New York Times. I don't entirely agree with it, but it's worth thinking about.

  5. wow this is good, from the heart writing...i likee!

  6. Thanks, Dan. Every once in awhile, I like to take the blog a bit beyond its scope.

  7. I am late to the post here, but so glad to read it. I didn't know that about meeting your friends mother who told you stories about leaving the base and going off to watch Belly Dancing. I bet you anything mom did that! As we know, she was a bit of a firecracker herself!

    BTW, Liam's favorite Sensei is Chris Wheeles. I wonder if there's any remote connection. He was a military brat, as they say.

  8. Glad you liked it. I think Mom probably did get off the base more than some of the military wives did, if only because she was single and carefree.

    You should ask Chris where he spent his military childhood sometime. I'm sure it would be interesting.