So its 1965 and young soldier Toritto was in the Army, a part of the U. S. Army Security Agency stationed in Asmara, Eritrea on the Horn of Africa.
My new bride was at home in Brooklyn, New York living with her parents while I was away. I was 22 and she was 19; we had been married for 16 months and separated for half of that time. There was no internet; no iPhone; no Snapchat. There were only letters and periodic tape recordings.
I was serving at the A.S.A ‘s Kagnew Station in Eritrea for 18 months and was planning to take a month’s leave in June 1965. And indeed I did.
The A.S.A. doesn’t exist as an independent military unit any more. The Agency existed between 1945 and 1976 and was the successor to Army signal intelligence operations dating back to World War I. ASA was under the operational control of the Director of the National Security Agency, located at Fort Meade, Maryland; but had its own tactical commander at Headquarters, ASA, Arlington Hall Station, Virginia.
We liked to call ourselves “snoops”. Asmara was located on a plateau some 7,600 feet high and we could listen to everyone’s regional communications. The ASA had bases all over the world..
It’s been 55 years since my tours; much has changed. Kagnew is no more nor is the A.S.A. The N.S.A. goes on.
Back to my leave home.
I applied to take leave and go home for a month in April of ’65. My commander knew I was newly married and had actively discouraged any of the lower ranks from bringing their wives over, although it was not strictly forbidden. A number of troops did just that, renting apartments downtown in Asmara where the left over Italians from Fascist colonial days lived. They ran all of the businesses in town; the movie theaters, clubs, auto repair shops, jewelry stores, cafes.
My wife had decided not to come over, wisely thinking of the future. We would save our money and buy a home when I got out. After all, I was not a “lifer” and no intention of re-enlisting. She worked and I sent her allotment checks from my pay.
We planned the leave at the 9 month mark instead.
The first obstacle to approval of my leave was proving to my C.O. that I had the money for the trip. I had to show evidence that I had enough cash in the event I had to take commercial flights back to Eritrea. He wanted to see a bank statement from my wife and she had to send me enough funds so that I didn’t leave Asmara penniless.
Letters flew back and forth between me and home until I finally was able to demonstrate financial responsibility to my commanding officer.
Leave approved. “Have fun! See you back here in a month Toritto!”
“Yes sir! Thank you sir!”
It was then time to visit the Military Air Transportation Service (MATS), leave approval in hand, to see it I could hop a flight toward home. No guarantees. Then to Personnel to pick up my passport. We could not travel to Eritrea on an Army I.D. card; I carried a passport. A diplomatic passport, red in color which always got me waved through at the front of the line.
“Yes Toritto! You are in luck! We have a flight leaving on your approved date, stopping in Cairo, Jeddah Saudi Arabia and overnighting in Beirut Lebanon! Next morning it would be on to Adana, Turkey (where the A.S.A had a base) and Chateauroux, France. That’s as far as we can get you; you will have to pick up another flight from there to the States.’”
So on the appointed day, filled with youthful excitement I got a ride from my buddies to the air base and there waiting for me was a Hercules C-130 four engine turbo-prop military transport plane. I was in dress uniform, carrying my civilian clothes in my luggage.
“Welcome aboard young trooper! Take any sling seat in the back. We’ll check on you now and then. Sorry; no windows and no stews. Got your lunch? Good!”
And so I took a sling seat in the back with the cargo, stowed my bags and off we went for Cairo. About half an hour from our destination the commander came back to see me.
“You got civvies? Good. Put them on. The Egyptians don’t like to see any foreign military walking around their airport! Nasser was ruling the country. And so I changed clothes.
Upon landing we taxied to a remote part of the airport and upon opening the doors were met by Egyptian military, with guns, who escorted us to a private building – all done with utmost courtesy. We were out of sight of anyone.
The cargo for Cairo was unloaded, some items destined for elsewhere were loaded and we were off to Jeddah. When the cargo doors were opened in Saudi Arabia I thought I was standing in front of a blast furnace at U.S. Steel. I had never experienced such heat.
The only thing unloaded from the plane was liquor and beer for the U.S military. The crew was laughing as we delivered our precious cargo to a young American lieutenant.
Then it was on to Beirut and a night in the town. And what a city it was!
Beirut was then the “Paris of the Mid-East;” – under French influence for decades. Beautiful women in the latest fashion walked its streets in high heels, speaking fluent French. It’s bars and cafes decidedly European. The crew and their young charge took a cab to the Hotel Phoenicia where we were staying the night – at government expense.
To this young soldier just coming from the Horn of Africa this place was a revelation. And my room (which I didn’t have to share) had a bath tub! I hadn’t sat languorously in a tub in more than a year! I filled it up, ordered a scotch and indulged. That night I went out with the crew to a couple of bars. Nice.
Next morning it was up early, breakfast and a box lunch and on to Turkey and France. Uneventful. Chateauroux was my last stop. After good byes to the crew it was back to the MATS office.
“Anything going to the east coast?”
“Put your name on the list.” Ouch. It might be a day or two before I got a flight. I found an empty bunk for the night and ate in the mess hall. Flashed my diplomatic passport and took a quick tour of the city.
Late next afternoon I was notified of a flight toward America – going to the Azores. I took it; there was nothing scheduled to be flying the entire Atlantic in the next few days,
Went out to the runway and there it was – a vintage two engine prop Douglas C-47 Sky Train, the military transport version of the DC-3. No windows. I was going to cross the Atlantic in the back with the cargo at a blazing 200 miles per hour.
“Take a sling seat in back; got food?” We were off.
As I sat in back listening to the two engines I thought of those WWII paratroopers who might have sat here in this very spot. Chutes at the ready; preparing to jump out of that door over there into the darkness and the unknown. I was a very lucky soldier so far.
We landed at Lajes Air Field, a Portuguese base with an American detachment on Terceira Island in the Azores. Checked in with MATS. “No more flights today. Check in tomorrow – or the day after. “Find an empty bunk, eat at the mess or the enlisted men’s club.
Two days later I grabbed onto another C-47 headed to Newfoundland and then to Dover, Delaware. Yaay!
After long hours in the air, a quick stop to refuel in Canada, I was in Dover. Called the wife.
“I’m taking the bus from Dover to the Port Authority Bus Terminal! Will grab a cab to the house! See you tonight!”
In civilian clothes, baggage in hand I took the bus (more hours) and got to New York. I arrived at her front door at 2 A.M. She was in her sheer nightie and embraced me at the door. “You’re so tan! And skinny!” I was in shape!
We took to the convertible sofa bed in the living room where my in-laws found us the next day. We moved to my parents place where they had an empty bedroom for us. But we still had little privacy. I vowed next time we would have more of our own space.
The time was filled with family and friends while we tried to get to know each other again. It was awful knowing we had to part but we vowed that by the time I was discharged we would have our own home.
Our first house in center purchased in 1966 – $24,500 with ten percent down!
I had to go back to Eritrea and as the time approached there was nothing but tears and anguish thinking of another nine months apart. While I was home, the crisis in the Dominican Republic broke out and all MATS planes were going south.
I had to buy a ticket. TWA from New York to Athens to Eritrea. $516.20. A lot of money in 1965. I still have the ticket stub. At least I was on a 707 taken care of by the hot stews of the 1960s.
“Welcome back Toritto!” as well as “Why the hell did you come back!” Snark.
I went back because duty called.