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Andrew's Unique Story:
The year was 1979. I had been stationed at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, for over two years when I got what every soldier either looks forward to or dreads, PCS orders. I was pretty excited when my orders said I was going to Greece. After all, I had studied Greece a bit in school and it has a long and amazing history. I'm the type of person who likes to know ahead of time what I'm getting myself into, so off to the library I go to absorb everything I could about Greece. Let's back up just a second. Why was I so excited to leave Ft. Polk? I was a SP4 Finance Specialist. I had spent almost all of my time there as a cashier. Sounds gravy, doesn't it? Well, I was at the office before the mess hall opened, I couldn't leave the building for lunch and I often worked until long past the time the mess hall was closed. I didn't drive so, if I was lucky, I could shoe-leather-express the mile or so to the bowling alley before it closed to get something to eat and then hoof it back again. Sometimes, somebody would bring by an extra slice of pizza or bring something back for me if they went out for lunch. Basically, I worked, slept a little and lived on a liquid diet. I definitely needed a change. But wait, this is supposed to be a story about going to Turkey, isn't it? Well, about two weeks before I was ready to leave Ft. Polk, I received revised orders. Goodbye Greece, hello Turkey. Turkey, where the heck is Turkey? The only thing I knew about Turkey was that I enjoyed it on Thanksgiving. I'm busy packing, I have no time to learn anything. Or, so I thought.
I had decided that, before I head to Turkey for a year, I would take a two week leave at home in Pennsylvania. My flight into Harrisburg included a layover in Pittsburgh. I had a friend who was going to college near Pittsburgh so I decided to stay there for a couple of days and visit. While there, she and I decided to go see a movie. In the theater at the time was a new movie that had just come out, Midnight Express. All we knew from the advertisement was that it was a true story and it took place in Turkey. How fortuitous. I was going to learn something about my new home away from home. For anyone not familiar with Midnight Express, it's the story of a young man who got caught trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey and his subsequent jail time. At Ft. Polk, I had a lot of friends who did drugs, but I never did. NEVER, PERIOD, END OF STORY! If I had, this movie would have scared me straight. Even so, I saw nothing about Turkey that looked welcoming. Now I'm getting nervous about this whole trip. But, after a few days at home, I figured "Hey, how bad can a Turkish prison really be?". I was still nervous, but it would be okay.
The flight from Harrisburg to Vicenza, Italy, was a nightmare. I was sitting right smack in the middle of a crowded plane filled with people who reeked of garlic and who chain smoked unfiltered cigarettes made from what I can only assume was a mixture of the worlds cheapest tobacco and dog turds. Sitting to my right was an old lady who only spoke Italian. The entire flight she talked to me. Did I mention I don't speak a word of Italian? Anyway, she would ramble on about something for a few minutes and laugh hysterically at her "joke?" all the while leaning into me so I could fully enjoy her three toothed smile and garlic/cigarette smoke breath. In retrospect, maybe they weren't teeth, maybe they were actually cloves of garlic. This went on the entire flight. Not sure how many hours this was, but it was pure torture. The trip from Vicenza, Italy to Istanbul must have been pretty uneventful because I don't recall it at all.
When I departed the plane in Istanbul, I was "greeted" by a Turkish soldier who was waving what I believe to be a submachine gun at me and barking orders in Turkish. My two years of high school German didn't prepare me for this! Visions of Midnight Express flashed in my head and I literally thought I was about to die. Luckily, a few seconds later, the Staff Sergeant that I was there to replace came up and greeted me. Then he proceeded to rip me a new one because I was wearing jeans and an OD Green t-shirt. The explained that the jeans were okay, but the OD shirt let everyone know that I was an American soldier. Why was this bad? They were on a high alert status because, just a week earlier, there had been a drive-by terrorist attack on a group of American soldiers standing outside the motel where new arrivals into the country stayed while they were being in-processed before being sent to their respective detachments. One soldier, Private Thomas Moseley, was killed. "Okay, maybe that last week at home wasn't so bad. At least nobody shot at me". Then the SSGT told me they were surprised I had shown up. It seems nobody told them I was taking a two week leave so they all assumed I had gone AWOL. This was not getting off to a good start. We tossed my duffle bag into the olive drab van (so much for being inconspicuous) and heading toward the hotel. On the way, the SSGT pointed to a large field with quite a few large mounds of dirt. He explained to me that each one of those mounds was someone's home. My whole concept of how I viewed the world was beginning to change. It was a sight everybody should experience so they can realize just how lucky they are to be born in the USA.
The next few days was pretty boring, just hanging out at the hotel waiting to be in-processed on Monday. A few days later I moved into my bunk, at my new home, Det. 67, Cakmakli.
Being that it was so many years ago, the day-to-day grind is pretty much faded from memory. But, there were a few random days that stuck out that I would like to share.
The day the ration truck came in was always a glorious day. Sometimes the mess hall would run out of real food and we would end up eating powdered pretty-much-everything or maybe C-rations left over from God knows when. One time I got to help unload the ration truck. It was a lot of work but it was worth it because as soon as we were done unloading, the cook made us pretty much whatever we wanted. We ate like kings. One time, they couldn't send us chicken, so they sent us rabbit. Everybody seemed to like it, I know I did, so they just kept sending us rabbit. I know it probably wasn't nearly as long as it seemed, but it sure seemed that rabbit was on the menu for about six months.
I remember we had a three-day holiday weekend. It was in the summertime, probably the 4th of July. Anyway, it was as hot as, well, it was as hot as Turkey in the summertime. Miserable, hot, humid. Somebody got the bright idea we should have an officer versus enlisted softball game. They came in and asked me if I wanted to play. Sure, after all I had only been drinking heavily for the last 36 hours and could barely stand up. Why not? So, they scrounged together just enough baseball gloves that there was one for each position. When the half inning was over and it was your team's turn to bat, you would drop the glove on the field and the opposing team's player would pick it up when they came out to use it. I was playing right field. The chaplain was playing right field for the officers. Growing up in the country, I was accustomed to playing ball in fields where you could step in the occasional cow patty; however, playing ball on this particular field had its own unique challenge because there were always soldiers from the Turkish battalion attached to us patrolling the field. These guys were serious. They would not move if you were coming their way. So, not only did you have to determine the trajectory of the ball coming your way, you also had to factor in the path of the psycho with the bayonet. I don't remember much about that game, but I do vividly recall one particular play. As I said, I was playing right field. Used glove on my left hand, a drink in my right. The chaplain was up to bat and he hit one over the 1st baseman's head. I remember everything going in slow motion as I ran in. No one knows how I made that impossible catch, but somehow I made the catch and didn't spill my drink. The only reason it was memorable was because, as the chaplain passed me on his way to take his place in right field he said to me, "I don't know what you're drinking but, if it makes you play like that, maybe I should have some too". It was a cool moment.
Another cool thing I got to do was one night when I was NCO of the day. I got to work the switchboard. This was the old type switchboard with the plugs and the crank like Radar and Klinger used on MASH.
Of course, boredom was always an issue. The movie theater/chapel was always packed when new movies came in. This was around the time when VHS tapes were just starting to become popular and buying a VHS movie could be $80 or more each. Somehow, though, someone got tapes every once in a while that someone recorded off of TV. Everybody would get excited when we got episodes of Dallas. The biggest event, entertainment wise, was the episode where Bobby punched J. R. Epic! People would sit there and watch it rewound time after time after time. Music was important. At the time most people's favorite song was Freebird by Lynyrd Skynard. Freebird was what they called the plane home. My song was Spread Your Wings by Queen.
I mailed away for a Strat-O-Matic baseball game. We would set up a schedule and do an entire season, including playoffs, in one weekend. Who knows, the game might still be there. Speaking of baseball, I got up every morning around 2 AM during the 1979 World Series so I could listen to the Pirates beat the team I hate the most, the Orioles. Many years later, I met Kent Tekulve, who was the closer for the Pirates at the time. I told him about this and he told me that someone had actually sent him a Turkish newspaper with a picture of him in it from the World Series. He wanted to know if it was me. I wish I could have told him yes, but it wasn't.
As you went into the finance office, my desk was the first one you would come to. Beside in-processing soldiers, we also took care of any other finance issues that arrived. After pay day, there would be vans coming in from every detachment with soldiers with finance issues. Now, the next thing that I'm going to say is not meant to offend anybody, or belittle anybody, but sometimes these guys could be a bit amusing. I always took their concerns seriously, but sometimes I did have a little fun with them. Often, someone would come up to my desk, take one look at my name tag, see a long name (Mansberger) and immediately decide they weren't even going to attempt it and would, rather than risk insulting me by mispronouncing my name, ask to speak to someone else. I would send them to SSGT Gramelspacher. They would usually take one look at his name and asked to be sent to someone else. He would send them to SSG Grzandziel. At this point they would just come back to me. There was one young man I truly felt sorry for. I sat down with him to do his in-processing and, while trying to retrace his steps of how he got there, it came to light that he had no clue. He couldn't read or write. I asked him where he started his journey, where he was from. He only knew he came from the hill of Kentucky (or maybe it was Tennessee). He didn't come from a town. He had no idea where his last duty station was. I have no idea how he even made it to Turkey. Being that every slot is vital when your post is that small, there was no place to hide this guy for a year. It took them a few weeks to get a replacement for him. In the meantime, his job was to paint the basketball court and the tennis court. He did a great job and was so proud. I can only hope that life turned out well for him.
One of the first people I met in our finance office (there were only about six of us) was a gentleman named Charles Peck. Some called him Chuck, some called him Charlie. He was our cashier. He took me under his wing and took me downtown to show me the Grand Bazaar and the Mosques. He taught me how to exchange money and ride the trains. He taught me many helpful lessons. He introduced me to a friend of his who owned a shop in the Grand Bazaar. He was a nice guy, not much older that we were. He knew everybody and he introduced me to a lot of people. This was invaluable when, a few months after arriving in country, I was promoted to Spec 5. When I got promoted, it afforded me the opportunity to move into an apartment off post. I shared the apartment with several other guys. I loved getting up on a Saturday morning, going around the block to the bakery and getting a fresh loaf of ekmek (Turkish for bread). My favorite thing to do was to take the train from Yesilkoy to Istanbul. It was a boring little ride so, to amuse myself, I would do bird calls and then stare at the ceiling of the train and watch everybody else try to find the bird. I would arrive in Istanbul, depart the train and start walking along the Bosphorus Sea and start my journey by buying a fish sandwich from a man who would catch the fish fresh, cook it right on the boat and put it between two pieces of ekmek. It was the best. That is, until one morning, after getting my fish sandwich, I walked about 30 feet and saw two guys taking a leak into the sea. That was my last fish sandwich. The ice cream in Turkey is the creamiest I've ever eaten, just amazing and the pastries were to die for. I remember one time two of us old timers took a new guy out to eat at a nice restaurant. We ordered our food. Two of us sat there and started eating when our food came. The new guy's food didn't come and didn't come. Finally, I got hold of the waiter and asked about the other guy's food. It turns out that two of us ordered in Turkish and the new guy ordered the same thing in English. We had just eaten his meal.
One of the things that drove me a bit crazy was the cats. Yes, I understand that Ataturk told his people he was going to come back as a cat, but that place is just overrun with cats. I was looking in a shop one day and I saw something I didn't recognize hanging in the window. So, I asked. It was a cat. It was skinned and ready to cook. So, you can't kill a cat but, if it dies, you can eat it because it obviously wasn't Ataturk. Okey dokey.
One of the first things we learned when we got there was to not step on any papers or cardboard and don't kick a soda can. Plastic explosives were all the rage back then. To this day, 37 years later, I still will not step on a piece of paper or kick a soda can.
I got to take a TDY trip to Italy and I took a tour of The Holy Lands in Israel. While in Israel, our tour visited a spot where the Israeli soldiers and, I believe, it was the Palestinian soldiers, called the friendly wall. It's where the two sides agree not to fight. We got word after we left there that, about 20 minutes after we visited, fighting broke out. I swear I had nothing to do with it.
Thanks to Chuck Peck showing me around, I got to know Istanbul quite well, maybe too well. After a while, I had guys come up to me on a weekly basis and ask if I could show them around Istanbul. I would show them how to exchange their money, getting something good to eat, show them around the mosques, show them where to get carpets or gold or whatever they wanted. But, invariably, they would want me to take them to "The Compound". I knew where The Compound was, I watched and learned how to deal with the guys who handled the money; however, I'm a bit of a germaphobe. This was just not the place for me. I never asked anybody for any money to give them tours, but most everybody would give me a few bucks for my time. I would show them around the compound, send them off to do their thing, and I would go off to find a nice meal. I would come back. They would be happy, I would be happy, it was all good. Except once. When I first arrived at Cakmakli, there were no women soldiers there. We eventually got a few. There was one girl who I was friends with. She was curious about the compound and wanted to see it for herself. I explained to her that women weren't allowed in there and that there were guards, big nasty Turkish guards with guns, at the entrance to stop them. Of course, she talked me into it. It was sometime in the fall, so it was starting to cool down. We put a heavy coat on her to cover her attributes, stripped a hat on her head and off we went. I told her to keep her head down. We made it past the guards with no problem. But, she looked up once too often. One of the ladies in one of the buildings realized she was a woman and started to scream and point. We immediately took to running. We ran past the guards before they realized what was going on. Once they realized what was going on, they chased us for a few blocks until we finally got away. Hopefully, somewhere, she is alive and well and telling this story.
I have one last story to tell. I have many fond memories of my time in Turkey. But there are those that are not fond. As I told at the beginning, there was a terrorist attack in May 1979 right before my arrival. This would not be the last. I was stationed in Cakmakli when the Iranians took over the American consulate, November 4, 1979, and took the 52 Americans hostage that they would hold for 444 days. We were on alert, planes ready to takes us somewhere, anywhere but Turkey. It was strange, sitting at my desk, M-16 by my side. It was a scary time. But, for us, it was just a prelude to what was to come.
For those who lived off post, there was a huge OD green bus, like a school bus, that would transport you to your home. If you missed the bus, there was a smaller van that left a couple of hours later. Wednesday December 12, 1979, I walked into the NCO club to get a quick drink before heading home. There, I was introduced to MSGT James E. Smith, Jr. As I recall, he had just arrived in country. We exchanged quick pleasantries and I went on my way. He seemed like a good guy, laughing and joking, and he had a crowd around him. Two nights later, Friday December 14, 1979, was payday. Typically, I would take the bus home, but that night I needed to work late. The US Army, in its infinite wisdom had screwed up more paychecks than usual and it was my job to fix them. By the time I had helped the last person, the bus was gone and the late van was leaving soon. I decided to stay later and try to catch a few hour's nap on somebody's bunk or floor and then go home on the morning bus. I'm not sure what time it was, but it was dark, I was thirsty and decided to walk down to the NCO club to get a drink. When I walked out the door, I saw flashing lights at the medical building. That's when I got the news. The van that was carrying MSGT James E. Smith, Jr., and three civilian contractors Jim Clark, Elmer Cooper, and Robert Franz, was ambushed by terrorists. There at the medical building lay MSGT Smith, the man I had met just two nights before, dying. The three civilian contractors died at the hospital. As small as The Cak is, word spread like wildfire. I remember being in the NCO club, men twice my age crying on my shoulder, men ready to fight. It was devastating. This went on for a few hours and I decided, exhausted, that I needed to lay down. I had just crawled into someone's bunk and was only there for a few minutes when somebody came in and told me I needed to go down to the finance office. It was my job to sit there and wait for a phone call from the hospital to confirm that MSGT Smith had passed away. It was then my job to sit down, figure out and type up his final pay and call the main finance office in Ft. Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, and tell them what happened and give them his final pay details. As I sat there alone in that office waiting for the phone to ring, it finally dawned on me that, had I not decided to work late, I would have been in that van. That's when I broke down. When the phone rang, I did my job but I am not ashamed to admit that, when the main finance office got the paperwork I typed up that night, there were tear stains on it.
I had missed a terrorist shooting by just a week. I had been there for the uprising when the Iranians took over the consulate. I avoided an ambush because I worked late. I even barely missed a battle in Israel. I had survived the worst summer heat I had ever experienced and the coldest winter I could imagine. My time in Turkey was up in June and my ETS was in September. If I didn't reenlist, or at least extend my enlistment by three months, I would have to stay in that horrible place for three more months. I extended my enlistment and got out of there. I took a week to visit a friend in Germany before heading back to the states. All of my stuff got to my mom's house before I did. She told me that, when she opened it up, everything smelled like fish. She washed things several times and nothing could get the stench of Turkey out of my clothes. After a couple of weeks at home, I went to Ft. McClellan, Alabama. When I got there, people were passing out from the heat. It got up of 105 degrees. But I was cool as a cucumber. I had just left 110 in the shade in Turkey with unbelievable humidity. I have fond memories and some not so fond memories. I'm glad I had the experience. I'm even more glad I survived it. I would like to go back some day to Istanbul for a visit. I think I'll pass on The Cak.