“I do not believe we have a more remote station of our armed forces than Kagnew Station in Asmara, Ethiopia.”
—U.S. Army General William Westmoreland
<featured photo Kagnew Station by asalives.org
I had no idea what to expect. Before I left the 447th Battalion to Frankfurt Am Main Airport on reassignment my C.O. had said, “Take care of yourself. I understand Eritrean rebels are stirring up trouble around Kagnew Station. Asmara, Ethiopia is one hell of a remote place.”
Hours later I said goodbye to my army buddies and boarded a Lufthansa flight to Rome, changed planes, and flew Ethiopian Airlines non-stop to Asmara. When the pilot began his decent into a bleak mountain range I suddenly had reservations.
The nondescript airport terminal looked deserted except for the arriving passengers. An Ethiopian guard in a worn uniform and sandals with an old rifle slung over his shoulders yawned.
“You going to Kagnew?”
I recognized the chatty kid who had sat behind me on the plane. He was a dependent who bragged that his dad worked at a top secret radio communications station where humongous satellite antennas pointed up into the heavens.
“Yeah, I’ve been reassigned to STRATCOM Asmara, I replied.”
“Come on, I’ll share a cab with you.”
The young man dressed in jeans and a knit shirt looked like he was getting ready to go to high school in Anytown, U.S.A. As the ancient Fiat taxi ambled off toward Asmara the guy who was a couple years younger than me introduced himself as Jay. The wholesome American kid looked me over and said, “Single-status, huh?”
Jay smiled and said, “You’re not going to believe this place.”
While I ruminated on what he had said, Jay added, “You mind if we make a short detour?”
“I’m in no hurry. How long have you been here?”
“Three years. If my dad get PCS’d, I’ll go AWOL and return.”
“Asmara seems pretty backwards.”
“Ethiopia’s one of the poorest countries in the world, but the people are great. You learn to live with the poverty once outside Kagnew’s gate.”
This kid sounded more like a twenty-some year old. The taxi driver had to stop as a farmer herded his goats across the road. Jay spoke to the driver in a language I had never heard before. The driver laughed.
“It’s Tigrinya,” Jay said to me, “the local Eritrean dialect.”
A few minutes later we pulled up to a house painted pastel yellow with chalky blue trim. Dirt replaced areas where you would normally find grass. A young lady flew out the door. Jay got out and yelled out a name that I didn’t comprehend.
The cinnamon skin girl with high cheekbones jumped into Jay’s arms.
“I missed you Jay, I MISSED you.”
Her long copper tinted brunette hair flowed over the dependent’s short-cropped flat top. She smothered him with kisses. Jay pushed her hair aside, turned toward me and said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it to Kagnew right now.”
I smiled. The pleasantly endowed girl with huge brown eyes gazed at me. As she smiled it occurred to me that she was part European. I had heard that the Italians had occupied this region and had built up Asmara after WWII.
Jay said something to his girlfriend in Tigrinya and handed her Ethiopian money. She ran over to the taxi and leaned into the passenger side. Her breasts heaved on the open window. In the back seat I collected the faint odor of incense that nearly put me in a trance. The taxi driver nodded and slowly reached for the money. She leaned toward me and said, “He take you to Kagnew.”
“Thank you,” I said, and yelled to Jay. “I’ll pay you back when I see you on post.”
“Forget it,” Jay said.
As the taxi pulled away I turned behind. Jay and his girlfriend had already entered the house.
* * *
The STRATCOM company clerk assigned me to the Kagnew barracks. My name was on the waiting list for a room that held a maximum of four occupants. The large dormitory type room reminded me of basic training: a cot, a footlocker, and the standard gray cabinet. The floor was abandoned at two o’clock in the afternoon. I signed for everything. The clerk handed me an envelope and said, “Kagnew Station’s one of the best duty stations in the world.”
He nodded at the envelope. “Any questions, let me know,” he said, and returned to the STRATCOM HQ office.
As I unpacked my duffel bag the door at the stairwell slammed. A black soldier’s heavy, spit-polished boots took out their aggression on the floor.
He stood next to a duffel bag and an old suitcase. “You a newbie?”
“Yeah, I got reassigned from Germany.”
He laughed. “You musta fucked up big time.”
“No, it was my choice.”
He looked at me sideways and said, “Welcome to Shitsville.” He waved a paper at me and added, “I’m headed to ‘Nam. Finally get to see some action.”
Sounded like he was the one that fucked up big time. I had to get some air. “I gotta go get some chow. Nice meeting you…”
“Name’s Laroy, not Leroy.”
“Have a good tour in ‘Nam Laroy,” I said.
We shook hands knowing that we would never see each other again.
I wandered around outside. Above, the clouds seemed close enough to touch. Growing up in L.A., occasionally the Santa Ana winds would chase the smog out of the basin. We would marvel at the crisp detail of the surrounding San Gabriel mountains. But the clarity of the air here, like the natural beauty of Jay’s girlfriend, took my breath away.
The mess hall wouldn’t open for a couple hours. I found a small cantina near the front gate. I ordered two slices of pizza and a beer from a large older woman. I guessed her accent was Italian.
“Are you new at Kagnew?”
“I can always tell. The pizza was made a few hours ago. It’s good.”
“What kind of beer is this?” I asked her.
“Melotti. It’s brewed locally.”
I read the material in the envelope. Kagnew Station, housing nearly four thousand military personnel and dependents in the southwest part of Asmara, was much larger than the base in Germany. It supported various radio communications stations called Tracts. They called Asmara, “The Land of Thirteen months of Sunshine.” It sat atop the East Africa plateau at about 7,500 feet in altitude.
The information booklet said to take it easy on alcohol because of the high altitude. This beer didn’t have the smooth taste of Lowenbrau, but it would do. I raised the glass toward the Italian woman who offered a hint of a smile. The pizza wasn’t bad either.
The woman offered me a coin for the jukebox. I punched three selections and sat back down at my table. As the Fifth Dimension’s extraordinary Marilyn McCoo sang, “One Less Bell to Answer,” I ordered another beer and thought to myself… Yeah, this might be the place…
(to be continued)