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Upon becoming Iskenderunli

by Iskenderunli (12/31/2008)

Upon becoming Iskenderunli

After having had a voluntary statement to go to Southeast Asia on file for the entirety of my 18 months of duty at Barksdale AFB, I received orders to be transferred in July of 1967 to TUSLOG Detachment 181 in Iskenderun, Turkey. In the Ankara Airport on the way in we were greeted by an earthquake measured at 7.1 on the Richter scale. Those who knew what was happening when the building shook and luggage slid as if alive across the floor ran from the building. The rest of us sat there not knowing what to do until it was over. I arrived  in Iskenderun in the middle of the night on July 21st of 1967 having flown a third of the way around the world and then down the country to Adana where I was met and transported by Air Force personnel.. I missed the hoja´s midnight call to prayer that first night as we were traveling through the country side between Adana and Iskenderun. I never missed it again, though, through blackouts based upon concern over Greek/Turkish relationships on Cyprus (we could see the lights of Cyprus at night from our barracks atop the warehouse), storms, floods the call always came.  

 

I was a telecommunications/crypto operator. TUSLOG Detachment 181 provided radio transmitted teletype communications and crypto in support of the mission of the Army´s TUSLOG  33-3 a water port terminal with port supervision operations and transport/warehouse facilities in the town of Iskenderun.

 

Our facility was a walled warehouse facility with the main (and only) gate opening onto what I believe today is Ibrahim Karaoglanoglu Cadessi  (also highway D817) but was then not known to me by a street name but was the main highway thoroughfare passing through Iskenderun to the south and into Syria and the Middle East. The intersection nearby was called "Bes yol plaj" (Five road Plaza). The neighbors told me it was the only highway that ran from Europe to Saudi Arabia. Thousands of Moslem pilgrims obediently passed that way in trucks and busses on the road to Mecca and Medina.

 

The Army unit´s commander was a Lt. Col and they had another officer, several NCOs and enlisted personnel and employed perhaps 8 or 10 Turkish civilians. I will endeavor later to name several of those Turkish personnel in hopes that readers who were also there will remember them. They were permanent employees while US Air Force and the Army personnel were temporary. Our USAF contingent included a radio maintenance person and two telecom/crypto operators. The station was open 8am to 5pm but could open anytime by just running the signal up on the radio gear and putting the TTY equipment online. It operated in a barracks room/office atop the warehouse facility. All personnel had barracks rooms along both sides of a single corridor. They were single rooms, though the Army guys did double up during ingress/egress of personnel. When I arrived, I was a Sgt (buck Sgt at that) and my unit commander was TSgt Bailey. His tour ended in a couple of months after my arrival and his replacement didn´t arrive for about two months thereafter. I was the unit commander temporarily. Our radio maintenance guy was also there making a normal compliment of 3 USAF personnel in telecom. There was also a USAF guy assigned there whose duty was to manage the scheduling of transport and housing of frozen cargo in freeze lockers while awaiting shipment to Incirlik Airbase at Adana.

 

We had a chow hall - we funded it from our separate rations allowance.  It included a Turkish cook who spoke fair English, two maids who spoke little English and a young boy named Ramazon about 7 years old who was our shoe shine boy. Ramazon was exceptionally well cared for in that place. His clothing and education was funded by American personnel. We made certain he had his homework done. Sometimes I quizzed him or examined his work since his education was in Turkish.

 

Midway along the corridor of our barracks facility was a door that lead out onto the flat roof of the warehouses. Some of the guys had put together a weight lifting facility on the roof. One Army guy was a competitive power lifter and spent a lot of time working out there. The roof had a knee high wall running around it. At the back of the roof - adjacent to the window of my room - on the 2nd day I was there - I approached that edge of the roof and looked down into the yard of the family that lived right behind - the back part of the wall around their yard was our wall at the back of the warehouse. I waved to the children in the yard. They said something which I didn´t understand (I later discovered that they had a passing acquaintance with Sgt. David Teague of the Army contingent and had known some of the American personnel over several years).  I spoke no Turkish on that 2nd day and they spoke virtually no English. The next day I returned after duty to sit on the wall and begin learning about them. They had 11 children alive there and the mother was well along in another pregnancy at the time. We made motions and said our own language´s words. They pointed to the mother and said "anne" and to the father and said "babba". I got that. I made a sign with my fingers on the palm of the other hand like walking. They said "yurumek" - the infinitive form of the verb meaning to walk. It went rapidly from there. I learned from them and from the Turkish folks who worked with us. The teaching provided by my "Turkish family" at night regularly astonished my Turkish friends and co-workers during the day. Within a few weeks, I was speaking regularly in long and complicated conversations with that Turkish family Their last name is Dengiz and the father was an "arabaci" or horse drawn coach driver. I can still remember all the names of those children. Let me run them down here. Semir (the oldest son about 25 then), Semire (the oldest daughter who was married and had a daughter but came around everyday), Bedriye (daughter who was married and had a son), Bedir (18 or so a male), Vahid (15 male), Vahide (about 14 female), Ferid (12 boy) (skinny kid I named ´iskeletespor´), Feride (11 girl), Selma (6 girl), Selwa (4 girl) and Suheyla (1 girl). For some reason I cannot recall the name of the baby subsequently born into that family while I was there. The last one made 12 liv e children out of 21 pregnancies in that woman´s life. 

 

They taught me Turkish. They taught me life among them with their Arab culture, Turkish language and Alawi beliefs. Virtually every weekend I would leave the American military compound and disappear into the Turkish/Arab culture of Iskenderun and my friends. I was totally immersed in Turkish/Arab culture and language of the area and during many weekends I spoke not a word of English. Though I might not have been invisible to the Turks of the neighborhood during those times, I am absolutely sure no American could have found me.  I am dark skinned and was very tan in that climate, I have (or had) black hair and had a mustache some of the time which was jet black. I wore Arab clothing, spoke Turkish with an Arabic accent and went about among the Turks as they did. They taught me the customs and cultural behavior. They taught me the openness of loving what you have. I spoke Turkish well enough to be certified, later in my tour as fluent by the US Department of  Defense. They were Arabs by birth, Hatay Province having only become part of Turkey at the end of the British Protectorate of Syria in 1939. 

 

In 1967, everyone in Iskenderun over 28 years of age had been born in the country of Syria only to have their town and the entire province of Hatay become part of Turkey in 1939. Turkish was the official language, Arabic was the mother tongue for most folks there at that time. Though there were Orthodox Christians and Catholics in the town, and I came to know several of them, the vast majority of the populace was Alawi Muslims (not Sunni, not Shia´a).  I learned a bit of Arabic, but not much. My appearance was convincing however as I looked more like the neighbors than most of the neighbors and spoke Turkish with the Arabic accent since I learned Turkish from the folks around me who were Arabs by birth and native Arabic speakers. 

 

One late afternoon nearing supper time, the mother of the family asked me if I would walk across to the other side of our compound across the roof and tell Vahide and Feride who were window shopping across the street from our front gate to come home. I was pleased to and walked to the other side of the roof. Upon seeing them in the street I called out to them in Arabic "Vahide, Feride emme kal tai lahoni" - well that´s the phonetic for what I said. It means "Wahide and Feride, momma said come home".  They had to walk up a block, over a block and down a block to get home. Upon their arrival I was there talking to the family on the wall and the girls came in all giggles and chatters telling me that folks near them when I had told them to come home had asked if I was their brother. Apparently - perhaps they were flattering me - my appearance and pronunciation of the Arabic words was such that the folks in the street not only didn´t know I was American but thought I was their Arab brother, Semir. I did look like him.  

 

Among the Turks/Arabs who worked with us at the facility were Albul Hamid Sabaoglu (a beautiful name meaning "Slave of God Hamid Son of the Morning") (affectionately known as "Red" due to his red hair). 

Red was the most profane person in three languages - Arabic, Turkish and English - I have ever known, and there was Naim Koc, Ali Dipsakaci, Oktay Yaygili - who became my dear friend, Jimal ______. Mehmet_______.

 

 

We were told - and the traffic passing showed evidence - that the highway passing in front of our facility was then the single highway that ran from Europe down into Saudi Arabia and was the preferred bus and truck route for Moslem Pilgrims who must meet their duty of a pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime. Twice in my tour there I saw the masses of pilgrims with chartered buses piled high with their luggage passing - surely thousands of them.

 

Everyday, the highway carried major truck traffic. There is no telling how much an enterprising Turk can load on a truck. They loaded them back then to the point of turning the trucks over. They loaded them with everything from household baggage and people to heads of cabbage and everything in between. You can stack empty tin 5 gallon petrol cans close to 20 feet high on top of a Mercedes diesel truck with "Masalla" painted decoratively above the windshield. Dumb American me, in my first days there I though that "Masalla" was the manufacturer of the truck body. One day I asked "nerede bu Masalla kamyon fabrikasi?"  where is this Masalla truck factory? Laughter reined down. "Masalla" means in Arabic "God is generous or good to me". It is transliterated into Turkish with the same use. It was on every truck. Each truck owner considered his truck to be proof of God´s blessing upon him. They were right, of course.

 

Most of our American personnel preferred not to venture quite so aggressively into the town and countryside as I did. Then, I had determined to learn the language and see everything I could, participate as much as possible and learn. I made an appearance - scored the first basket - in a game with the city team against a team from American University from Beruit. It was played on an outdoor court in a nice park in the heart of Iskenderun. I was in regular attendance at the first season of Iskenderunspor´s move into professional soccer at the 3rd division level. 

 

When I use the term "we" in this context, I am almost always talking about my Turkish friends and I. We went out together. I dated some modern Turkish women. I very seriously dated one. Everything was of the utmost propriety.  I could talk to them - amazing. They were just like folks think of women in America. They did not all wear their heads covered and if they did, not all of them wore veils and black clothing.  We went to nice places in the town and along the fabulous seashore. We went to a fabulous beach at Samandag. It was a rocky shore then but fabulous water and weather. We bought fresh seafood off the boats in the harbor. We went to nice restaurants in the resort town named Sogukoluk some 15 miles or so up into the mountains along the Antakya Road. 

 

One of my Turkish friends was a fairly accomplished guitarist. I sang with him in public places just for fun. Once we ventured into a large pavyon where he knew the proprietor fairly late on a Saturday night. My friend convinced the owner to let him play and me sing "House of the Rising Sun". We entertained over 1000 people that evening. It was just for fun. We wouldn´t have taken a single lira for it.  I could easily have lived like a king, but chose not to be visibly a tourist. I would have been as happy to be unidentified as an American by the citizens of Iskenderun and surrounding areas as I was invisible to non Turks in those times.  I made - wages, separate rations and pay for operating the PX (little military store) for a while - about $400 per month. The average Turk did well to make that in a year. In the villages and among those not in the "upper crust" of Hatay´s social scene my income would have gone a long way.  I chose for it not to.

 

Oh, there was need from time to time. I did things to help my Turkish family but unobtrusively. They had 12 children after all. I did something helpful for them regularly and helped each unmarried child individually over the course of time.  Selma Dengiz - the 6 year old girl in my "Turkish family" - suffered a very bad laceration on the bottom of her foot while playing barefoot. All the kids of that town played barefoot almost all the time. The family - without medical resources or money - bandaged it. She played and walked mostly barefoot. The wound was looking bad. With her parents´ permission, I took her in a carriage to the hasta hane (literally "sick house") which passed for a hospital there in those days to have a doctor attend to her in the emergency facility. It wasn´t much then - windows open and insects around illness and wounds - but the doctor there did clean, close properly and bandage the wound. I paid cash. Selma was frightened of everything she saw in the hasta hane and would have fled but for my holding her in my arms the entire time. I had long before asked the children of my Turkish family not to bow and put the back of my hand to their foreheads as was the custom of showing fealty top older people or persons of higher status. Selma insisted on putting my hand to her forehead and kissed my hand as well. She became my favorite from that day forward, though each of them was so special to me in their own way.  She clung round my neck as I carried her the whole time and thanked me profusely. That was early in the fall of 1967. When I left in summer of 68, Selma was the first to shed a tear. I was the second. It was a 15 way tie for 3rd.

 

This is, perhaps, more detail about the interaction of one American Air Force Sgt. with the local Turkish neighbors than is found in other narrative at this site. My interaction, however, was principally with the folks of Iskenderun. It was a remote site with a normal party of 4 Air Force and 10 Army personnel. Every American who was there when I arrived left before I did and every American who came after me was still there when I left. The constant that I was with every day of my time there were the Turkish personnel who worked there and the Turkish neighbors who became my friends and "Turkish family". They were what was unique about my time and what made it so memorably and worthwhile. 

 

Now, fully 40 years later, I can close my eyes and see everyone of their faces. Though I may never pass that way, I shall never forget them.

 

 





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