All personnel assigned to Kagnew Station, Asmara, Ethiopia yearned for the adventure down the escarpment road to the port of Massawa on the Red Sea. However, the road was often closed to military personnel due to “Shifta” bandit or Eritrean Liberation Front separatist activity in the area.
In the spring of 1971, the Kagnew brass had opened up the road. Our convoy consisted of a half dozen vehicles accompanied by an official Kagnew Station transport. The vehicle was said to hold supplies for the Red Sea Hotel in Massawa, the official R&R designation for Asmara (which was like going from Disneyland to Knott’s Berry Farm).
The freshly cleaned 1949 Willey’s Overlander Jeep sported powder blue exterior with red painted wheels. I had considered painting it green until I examined close-up some of the nicks and scratches. They revealed coats of red, yellow, and yes, green.
The War Wagon idled proudly in third position. I had removed the three Army ponchos that had been haphazardly sewn together, posing as a convertible cover. In the back seat, Ghidey waved a pink umbrella at a few shapeless clouds. I adjusted myself in the driver’s seat while our newfound boarder named Eric, from the guard company kept glancing back at Ghidey’s friend. The fetching Nigerian beauty named Mala reminded of an exotic fruit. The high-cheeked Mala wore a peacock scarf, a wide brimmed hat and large round-lensed sunglasses above a dress that was more tropical than Hawaii. I’m sure Eric was just as curious as me about what swimming wear she would prance around in.
Behind us in a ‘56 Ford Hairline, Ghidey’s buddy Johnny from the US Army Security Agency, sat in the driver’s seat. Next to him his wife , an American gal, wore a baseball cap.
After dodging rocks and camels on the escarpment road we took a break about halfway down the mountain at a small oasis. Eric bought a big bag of oranges while I checked the War Wagon’s vital signs. Fortunately, there were too many turns to gather any speed. The brakes had performed adequately.
An hour later the unbearable heat hijacked us as soon as we came off the mountain. The plan was that I’d drive to the port to pick up my Fiat and let Eric take the War Wagon to Gurgusum Beach on the Red Sea. He had hatched a plan to spend the night on the warm sand with the Nigerian femme fatale, Mala. Tomorrow afternoon, the Kagnew crew planned a party at Gurgusom Beach. Johnny and the other Kagnew-ites were staying at the Red Sea hotel. He had brought a cooler of beer and several cases of C-Rations.
I asked the scoundrel to hold back a few of my favorite turkey loaf meals with the big dense chocolate cookie that weighed about the same as a Craftsman 8″ adjustable wrench..
* * *
My red Fiat 850 Coupe sat on the dock like it had just come off the assembly line. I learned that the total repair cost in Germany (paid by GEICO) ran about twelve hundred US dollars, which was above the current approximate value of the vehicle. Right after I had received orders for Kagnew (while in Germany) I totaled the vehicle on a slippery mountain road while attempting to evade a deer that had run out onto the road.
The German Schenker shipping company representative handed me the key and said, “Be careful,” as if he had read the accident report.
Massawa consisted of two islands connected by causeways. Temperatures got up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. I drove Ghidey over the causeway to the second island she called Batsi where we were to meet the Turkish merchant marine nicknamed Baghdadi..
Since the café was amidst small alleys, literally in Massawa’s answer to the Kasbah, I took Ghidey’s advice and parked the car at a hotel. Ghidey gave a street boy enough coins to watch over it for a week. We trudged along in the intense heat under Ghidey’s pink umbrella.
Ghidey told me that the narrow alleyways between the Turkish, Egyptian and Italian architecture led to bars and secret hideaways (she laughed when I asked her to elaborate).
When we entered the café around four p.m., I experienced another time warp. This was a world that I had only seen in old movies like Casablanca and Gunga Din. Ghidey, not one to understate greetings, screamed hello to her pal Baghdadi who sat at a table with a crusty old sailor who wore a Greek seaman’s cap (I know this because Ghidey had given me a similar cap).
The short, sinewy thirty-ish man who reminded me of Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin in “The Man From Uncle,” rose up and caught Ghidey’s full body thrust. Baghdadi held her in midair for a full few seconds; quite a feat for a man his size.
Ghidey introduced me to Baghdadi and his co-worker whose name began with the letter “K.” I was sure the name meant something in Turkish until Baghdadi, who spoke passable English, said the guy was Yugoslavian who spoke only his mother tongue and Turkish. A tall, half full bottle with the word Asmara on the label sat in the middle of the table. Baghdadi ordered two more shot glasses and Melotti beers.
Oh no, I thought. Was this going to be one of those macho-drinking contests?
Baghdadi poured the clear liquid into four shot glasses. He lifted his. We did the same. He gazed at me and said, “It’s called zibib. One swallow.”
It was an order. Ghidey guffawed. I smiled.
The liquorish flavored drink that tasted similar to Pernod (but if Pernod was gasoline, this was rocket fuel) was deceptively smooth. I followed Baghdadi’s direction and used the Melotti beer as a chaser.
A couple hours later things got cloudy, like the zibib when I sloshed some cold beer into it. I had been imagining a magic carpet ride when Baghdadi, after an intense conversation with Ghidey in Tigrinya (Boy, this guy was talented) dribbled zibib on the wooden table.
The Yugoslavian, who I had begun to call Fred, looked over at the bartender and smiled. Fred looked like he was one move from checkmate. From the looks of it Ghidey wasn’t enamored about Baghdadi’s impending action. By this time I gathered that Ghidey was the only person who called him Baghdadi.
When the mad Turk removed a silver lighter from his shirt pocket, we watched Baghdadi’s thumb rub the tiny wheel.
The small lighter flame gasped for air. Ghidey lost her breath. The bartender rushed over, his face flushed with complaint. Baghdadi wore a bedeviled grin as he slowly lowered the lighter toward the table…
(to be continued)