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Life as a Kid in Eskişehir, Turkey

John Shumway

2007-2011 by Author

I was in Eskişehir from late 1974 to mid 1976. So many memories. I was a 15 year old kid, the son of a civilian contractor who's company contracted to the Turkish Air Force. As such, dad had det privileges but we did not. The two times we got to go to the base were with the specific permission of the Turkish commanding general.

My first morning in Eski was in Decmber, 1974. We had no furniture in the apartment yet and had been sleeping on the floor. When I looked out my window, the people in the house across the alley were killing a sheep. After I got over this bit of culture shock, Mom told us she had read that it was a holiday observance and the meat would be given to the poor. I was relieved that this was not going to be a daily occurrence.

Furniture was very expensive and not very high quality, so except for beds and the kitchen table, dad decided to save a buck (ok, a lira) and have us make our own. We went to a plumbing shop and got enough pipes and tees to make freestanding clothes racks. The end tables were footlockers covered with fabric, and our night stands were similarly covered boxes. Mom had a flair for making these things look like legitimate furniture, and we did not feel deprived.

There was a minaret about a block away from our back porch door, and as is Islamic tradition, the faithful were called to prayer five times a day from its balcony. This was the big city, however, and the holy man (imam) used a very powerful PA system. It did not take long for my little brother, who had a gift for mimicry, to be able to imitate him almost perfectly. We occasionally had to slap him upside the head to keep him from doing it in public.

By late December, 1974 it was clear we weren't in Kansas anymore Toto. The prospects of finding a pine tree to use as a Christmas tree were pretty slim, but we wanted some tradition from home. I created a Christmas tree out of coat hangers and we put some little lights on it and home made decorations. Mom still thinks it was great. I look at the pictures now and wonder how anyone kept a straight face.

There were two other families with American kids there, so that's who we hung around with for the most part. Another American guy (a year older than me) and I would walk a specific route almost every day, which we had scientifically determined had the most great looking girls out shopping or going to school. This route went by the basement shopping area under a hotel, past the Buyuk Hotel, through the gold district and the college tea house by the Safari Park, and then by the girls' school. After that we would retrace our steps and stop at the little restaurant by the boat rental place on the Porsuk River and have lamb stew and rice for lunch. We did hoof a lot of miles back then.

There was a shopkeeper near our apartment who only knew one phrase in English: "I should like to have my washing done as soon as possible, OK?" He would not let us out of his store until we agreed to do his washing as soon as possible. We guessed that he memorized this from a card at a hotel, but have no idea if he even knew what it meant.

My little brother and I would sometimes rent a boat and row upstream on the Porsuk as far as we could go. Once we made it outside the city and into the farm country. It was a long day and my arms hurt pretty badly by the time we got back.

There was a little sewing shop on the main drag where three very pretty girls used to work, all three about the same age as we were. Every time we would go by the place, these girls would smile and wave and just make my heart race. So one fine day I went in to meet them. It was a disaster. Try as we might, there was just no communication. I spoke bits and pieces of a couple of languages, but none that they spoke. Then the boss came in and from the tone of his voice, they were not being paid to socialize. It seemed prudent to leave.

Once we took a baseball and a bat out to the soccer field near the college. We were just hitting the ball around a little and all of a sudden a group of Turkish teenagers showed up. Nationalism (and anti-American sentiment) was pretty high back then, and they asked the oft asked question in a thick accent "Do you like Turkey better than America?" Then they noticed the other guy with the ball bat in his hand and quickly retracted the question. They did seem to enjoy hitting the ball around with us though.

One day the other American guy and I were waiting for his girlfriend outside the girls' school. A group of male teenagers approached and we figured we were about to get stomped, as it had happened once before. Much to our surprise, a 30ish year old blonde haired Turk stepped out from behind a building and stopped the group. He was wearing the requisite blue turtleneck sweater and a dark suit coat. He spoke to them for a few seconds and then they all turned around and left. We had been hearing rumors for months that we were being followed at all times to make sure we stayed out of trouble, but never saw any evidence of it until that day. We often looked over our shoulders after that, but could never spot anyone in particular and never again saw the blonde guy.

We used to stop frequently in a meerschaum and gift shop that was owned by two brothers. One was married to a reputedly domineering woman and didn't say much. We called him "Henpeck". When this got translated to them they both laughed till they were hyperventilating, and even the other Turks started calling him that. The other brother was single and had hair that any woman would kill for. It looked every bit like the paintings of Louis XIV. He was quite proud of this hair and didn't mind when we named him "hippie". Between his broken English (famous phrases..."eh, not, abi." And "eh, not first quality.") and our broken Turkish we could usually carry on a conversation. The wind got taken out of his sails when he got his draft notice and knew he was going to be an asker, minus the mane. He was never quite the same after that. After he left for the army, the store was never quite the same either.

I ran into a couple Americans that had no military or government connection. One was an English teacher at the local college. He was an expatriated hippie who had seen enough "love it or leave" bumper stickers during Vietnam that he took the advice and left. He borrowed my Cheech and Chong albums to play for his classes because he said some of the comedy bits gave unique insights into what it was like to live in a commune. We did not see him often, but he seemed like a nice enough guy.

The other was an American woman (probably no older than 20) who had married a Turkish man while he was in the states. She was not prepared for the culture shock of moving in with his family. In addition to the language barrier, she especially seemed disturbed about having to bathe in the river, which ran behind their house outside town. She also was not too pleased when her mother in law handed her a razor and demonstrated what she was supposed to shave. We only met her the one time.

Sometimes we would hang around in the apartments rented by the American GI's there. We would listen to the nice stereos and occasionally have a drink or three and if we could, scam a carton of smokes off someone's ration card. They were great guys to put up with bored teenagers. I have since found out that ALL of our parents were aware of our activities but chose not to react. We thought we were being sneaky. Boy.

There were two sisters we occasionally hung around with who were kind of interesting. They were quite a bit older than us (19 and 21), and while their father was Turkish, they had been raised since infancy in Canada and come back to Turkey with their father a few years prior. They spoke English pretty much like we did. The thing was, their hair was bleached blonde, they wore mini-skirts that barely covered their belly buttons, and the make up and perfume was done pretty extreme. Although they were completely respectable girls, one might have doubts if opinions were based strictly on appearances. When we would go shopping with them, it usually involved testing every perfume, lipstick, and eye shadow in several department stores. It made for very long afternoons. They liked to tell the story of when they visited relatives in eastern Turkey not long after an earthquake, and as soon as they got off the bus people started throwing rocks at them because their immoral dresses had angered Allah and caused the quake. For the record, I thought those dresses were just fine. Exceptional, really. We never got around to taking them home to meet the parents.

The last apartment we lived in was one floor above ground level just behind the city bazaar. When there was nothing else to do, sometimes my brother and I would lean on our balcony railing and watch the people shopping or hawking their wares. One day after a heavy snowfall, we were looking over the rail and some guy went into the alley below us and began relieving himself against the side of a shed opposite our building. My brother made a snowball and said he was going to hit the wall above him and splatter snow on the guy. His aim was off, and he hit the tin roof of the shed, causing a six inch deep sheet of snow to slide down the roof and cover the guy up to his waist, with anatomy still in hand. Passers by laughed at him like crazy but we got paranoid and hid for a couple hours.

By the time late 1975 came along, the family with the guy my age had left and I was going stir crazy. We would sometimes take the zoomer (Zumrut bus line) to the Ankara air base just to hear people speaking American in the snack bar and the BX, and to do a little shopping. There were a lot of stressed out complainers there. We couldn't understand why anyone wouldn't be thrilled to death to be where there were so many other Americans. They even had an American high school there, and I was more than a little envious.

We sometimes went to KARAMURSEL too, for the same reason. I bought a little cassette/radio at the Four Seasons store and recorded The Wolfman Jack Show on AFN Radio every time we got up there. I had maybe 8 hours of it recorded and would listen to it ad nauseum back in Eski. I just recently found those old tapes and still remember which song comes next, and what Wolfie's comments will be. Pathetic.

One of my most troubling memories is from Christmas season, 1975 in the KARAMURSEL commissary. There was a very large woman in stretch pants actually fighting another woman for the last bag of walnuts. In a place where they could buy American books, listen to American radio, shop for food without making animal noises, see American movies, and have American neighbors, they want to duke it out over crummy nuts. Sad.

One day in the late spring of 1976, we loaded up the station wagon and headed to Izmir, pretty much abandoning everything that wouldn't fit in the car. The contract was up, it was time to split. We took a ferry to Italy and drove to Frankfurt, where we caught a plane to New York. My first introduction back to the US was watching TV for the first time in two years (The Rockford Files), and seeing people drooling over a curly haired blonde woman in the hotel lobby. Someone told me she was an actress named Farrah Fawcett. I had never heard of her and just wandered off.