Once Upon a Time in Ethiopia (Part One)

In 1971, if I were to have written a fictional account of Kagnew Station, Asmara, Ethiopia it might have begun… “Once upon a time on an island above the clouds in a land far, far away…”

After seven months into my assignment at the U.S. Army installation at Kagnew Station, Asmara, Ethiopia the rest of the world had ceased to exist, except by letters from home. As far as my family was concerned Asmara was a mere APO address, not a fairytale land ruled by the “Conquering Lion of Judah,” Haile Selassie, who had presided over descendants of the Queen of Sheba for the past forty-some years.

kagnew-front gate
Kagnew Station photo by YouTube

The 1930’s Fiat Balilla glided through the Kagnew Station gate and immediately absconded into a world thirty to forty years past. At the bottom of the avenue, in the roundabout, the obedient Fiat banked to the left, toward downtown Asmara (pronounced, “AS-MARA,” as in the title of an enchanting song).

On the opposite side of the street the futuristic Fiat Tagliero station, commissioned by Mussolini’s “tranquil fascist designers,” but mistaken for Italian Art Deco, appeared ready to take flight.

photo by pinterest.com

On the right the Fiori Bar, a soldier’s dream, would serve up Melotti beer and Ethiopian girls later tonight.

Further down stood the Nyala, Asmara’s premiere hotel and nightspot. Other nightclubs around town owned the exotic names of The Caravelle and the Mocambo Nightclub, with thick atmospheres that suspended a thousand war stories, like clouds ready to rain given the right thunderclap.

The Fiat nicknamed “Sophie” ambled along with more aches and pains than an aged Italian war soldier. I passed no grocery stores. No delicatessens. The Impero Cinema played Italian movies, sometimes with subtitles in English. On a side street Rino’s restaurant offered a simple plate of spaghetti. The overall effect was so deliberate it could stop time.

photo by zuckerfabrik24.de

Down Queen Elizabeth Avenue Sophie managed fifteen kilometers per hour, in competition with a “Jerry cart,” a donkey driven one seated carriage. When the Fiori Bar closed its doors after midnight the clop-clop-clops would signify that the Jerry cart races were about to begin—last one to arrive at the Mocambo Nightclub paid the bill.

The Italian dictator Mussolini called Asmara “Little Roma.” Huge palm trees, another feature of Mussolini’s “tranquil fascist designers,” overlooked pedestrians along Queen Elizabeth Avenue downtown during passeggiata, an evening time for strolling and window-shopping on sidewalks wide enough to drive a US Army deuce-and-a half truck. The rich aroma of cappuccino gave the American soldiers from Pocatello, Idaho; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Torrance, California an excuse to sit at a sidewalk cafe and check out the beautiful women—Eritreans, Italians, and café-lattes (half and half)—as they sauntered past.

Kagnew Station Military Installations

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of town the US military base Kagnew Station, despite its remoteness, had it all—a movie house, swimming pool, bowling alley, a commissary, library, and a PX. The base even operated its own KANU TV Station. It played the old Sherlock Holmes’ movies starring Basil Rathbone on Saturday nights (I would watch them at my off post house).

For the regular Army folks with families the base at Kagnew Station provided all the comforts of home, including a house, a school for the kids, and a haunting culture just beyond the gate.

STONEHOUSE photo by malachis.wordpress.com

The main base at Kagnew Station, Tract E, supported Tracts A through D—all involved in relaying radio communications to and from Europe, South East Asia, and CONUS. Although Kagnew’s purpose was a radio relay station everyone knew that the huge satellite dish antennas at STONEHOUSE went beyond “deep space research” and tracked Russian satellites for secret Soviet Cold War messages.

photo by YouTube

Emperor Haile Selassie occasionally visited Kagnew Station to confer with American military leaders and to get his teeth worked on at the first class dental facility on post. If it weren’t for him Kagnew Station wouldn’t be there. I wondered: Did the emperor know about what was going on at STONEHOUSE?

My duty station was out at the remote Tract D, about fifteen miles southwest of Asmara. The STRATCOM Transmitter site relayed information from the Tract B STRATCOM Receiver site (near Asmara Airport) over a critical microwave radio link that a group of us techs maintained through shifts.

The remote Tract D seemed the easiest target for the “Shifta” bandits or the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) separatists although we never felt vulnerable.

MW tower
microwave tower by wikihow.com

I’d climb the microwave tower at night and stand on the platform just below the large parabolic dish pointed toward Tract B. The moon hung, close enough to touch. It illuminated the desolate plains that surrounded Tract D. In the distance light hovered over Asmara, like fluorescent clouds.

Kagnew barracks life wasn’t for me. I joined the US Army to avoid Viet Nam and to experience other cultures (Boy, did I hit the jackpot in Asmara!). After five months into my assignment I had moved off post into a faded yellow two-bedroom Italian bungalow a few blocks down from the Kagnew Station gate…

(to be continued)

Author note: if the reader would like to learn more about the lives of soldiers stationed at Kagnew Station during the 1950’s to 1970’s feel free to visit: KAGNEW STATION.

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