In 1971 Kagnew Station Asmara, Ethiopia thrived despite its location thousands of miles distant from other military posts overseas. Kagnew depended solely on the welcome of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie who had ruled the country for forty-some years against much opposition both within the Ethiopia government and outside powers. Consequently, the military kept a low profile outside the Kagnew gate.
US Military personnel were under orders not to wear uniform in downtown Asmara. Despite the dress code the mostly fair-skinned, close-cropped hair personnel stuck out on the streets of Asmara like Ethiopian sheepherders at J.C. Penney’s.
Off Post Living in Asmara
The Italian bungalow that I had rented featured a long driveway that accommodated the ’49 Willey’s Overlander Jeep and the ’36 Fiat Balilla. Both vehicles had belonged to Johnny, who worked for the US Army Security Agency on the Kagnew base. I had bought the Jeep “War Wagon” from him for maybe fifty bucks. The ’36 Fiat Balilla nicknamed “Sophie,” bleeding oil, hadn’t explored the back streets of Asmara for weeks. Sophie’s ills gave Johnny an excuse to drop by to see his good friend Ghidey.
Johnny liked to laugh along with my Habesha landlady Ghidey at her usually naughty Asmara anecdotes. I don’t believe any soldier was as totally captivated by Asmara’s spell as the likable soul, although I suspected Asmara had threatened Johnny’s marriage.
Habesha: the Abyssinian peoples of Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia, mainly from the Aksum, Tigrea, and Amhara regions. The women wear muslin dress with colorful embroidery adorned by hand-made jewelry; hieroglyphic-like tattoos are often etched on their forehead and/or hands.
Ghidey liked to sit coiled up on the sofa in the living room and listen to the Beatles on a TEAC tape player left by one of her previous tenants. Her favorite song, Paul McCartney’s somber, “Things We Said Today,” was usually accompanied by Melotti beer (and occasional tears that left question marks on her cheeks as for whom the tears fell). The screened front door, always open, accepted any and all visitors.
Ghidey made up for Asmara’s subtlety. Soon after I moved into the house my limited Tigrinya vocabulary became riddled with profanity. She referred to her last tenant (who had PSC’d to Fort Huachuca, AZ) as Sargent Harae. I later learned that Harae meant “shit” in Tigrinya. It turned out that Ghidey’s housekeeper had to wash the Sargent’s soiled underwear, thus the nickname.
Her well-timed guffaws loosened up the most timid of PFC’s, the hardest of Sergeants, and guys like Johnny who had succumbed to Asmara’s spell soon after the plane landed. There were rumors (Johnny was good at perpetuating them) that Ghidey was a direct descendent from the Queen of Sheba (be advised that Asmara’s spell promoted excess). Other than the rent Ghidey asked nothing of me except for a couple bottles of Jack Daniels from the post Class VI store at he beginning of the month, and companionship.
Like Asmara, Ghidey cast a spell on those around her. A few nights a week I would scrub my hands well and sit down with Ghidey along with some of her girl friends.
They’d usually serve zigni, a spicy meat stew, over spongy injera flatbread shaped like a big pancake. It was eaten with the right hand only (the left hand was considered dirty from way back in time, before toilet paper).
Some of Ghidey’s girlfriends wore hieroglyphic tattoos on the palms of their hands and their feet. Their white muslin shammas soaked up the mesmerizing frankincense and myrrh that curled into the air from the fire in front of us. Ghidey translated the Habesha’s stories in passable English from the strange Tigrinya language.
In a moment of Melotti beer induced melancholy Ghidey confessed that her father, whom she hadn’t talked to in years, was a rich high ranking government official in the capital at Addis Ababa. He and Ghidey had opposite viewpoints on everything, including the future of Eritrea. I suspected that her father owned the house.
My POV Arrives in Massawa
After long last, my Privately Owned Vehicle shipped by Schenker from Germany was ready for pick up. The ‘70 Fiat 850 Coupe had been offloaded at the port of Massawa, on the Red Sea, 7,500 feet down the mountain below us.
In her current state, Sophie the ’36 Fiat Balilla wouldn’t make it past the roundabout down the street. My other not-so-reliable transportation, the 1949 Willey’s Overland Jeep sported a convertible top made of army “ponchos” (rain coats). When I had the “War Wagon’s” brakes worked on it received a thumbs-up from Luigi, a trusted mechanic. The Italian gave me a funeral parlor shrug when I asked if the old jeep could make it back up the steep zigzagged escarpment road from Massawa to Asmara. He left extra cans of brake fluid and oil in the backseat.
When I informed Ghidey of my impending adventure to Massawa she, of course, had to go along. Her friend Baghdadi, a Turkish merchant marine, had just docked there. I was eager to visit the exotic Islamic port that conjured up images of the Kasbah and the Arabian Nights…
(to be continued)