Saturday, January 07, 2006

The sublime and ridiculous

One of the joys of growing up in a small, hick town was my willingness to leave it in a hurry and and never look back. No longing, no saccharine sentimentality, no yearning for halcyon days forever lost. Nine days after someone -- I have no recollection who -- handed me my diploma on the scruffy turf of the high school football field, I eagerly flew to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to begin basic training and life as I know it today.

The Army served its purpose well, exposing me to places, people and things non-existant in that close-minded Middle American backwater of my childhood. As undisciplined as my life had been to that point, the structure of military life suited me surprisingly well. I adapted and thrived, not as some kind of super soldier -- no one would ever have stuck my face on a recruiting poster -- but because the rules I had to follow were imposed by choice. That it was my decision to join the Army made those less appetizing aspects of military life seem palatable.

It helped that my job was not a grunt who toted guns and lived in tents, but as a finance and accounting specialist who worked in offices and had weekends off. My ability to do the work and to manipulate a system ripe for exploitation made life even easier. Fort Hood, Texas, and its miles of desolate scrub brush became my first duty station. Deborah, a second lieutenant whom a 19-year-old enlisted man literally had no legal right to date, became my first love. Her return to California after leaving the Army became my first, but hardly last, heartbreak.

One of the goals of my four-year enlistment was to travel overseas. While in Texas, I made regular calls to the branch in Washington that handled such matters asking to be sent to South Korea. Friends had regaled me with stories of the good life there for young, dumb Americans who cared not a whit that several hundred thousand angry North Koreans stood poised to cross the Yalu River, ready to spill good ol' red-white-and-blue American blood. Impatience in her voice, the woman in Washington told me no you can't go to Korea for the umpteenth time but asked if I'd be interested in another posting -- to Turkey. I pondered this possibility for at least two seconds before telling her, "Sure," barely aware of Turkey's location on the globe, much less what life there might entail.

My sponsor, the guy I was replacing, sent me some information about cultural do's and don'ts, but it just so happened that a virtual travelogue had just been released in the theaters -- "Midnight Express." Stoned on seedy Mexican weed, a couple of buddies and I went to see it. Afterward, they looked at me as if I had lost my mind, but having grown up where I did, Turkish prison looked like Shangri-La. (Okay, a bit of exaggeration.)

So in March of 1979, I left Texas and headed to New York for a few days before flying to Izmir, a city of about a half-million people on the Aegean Sea. New York City did not disappoint. I went to my first strip club after attending my first Broadway show and got ripped off by a cocktail waitress whose job it was to sit and talk with lonely men and sell splits of extravagantly priced champagne. But this woman, barely 21 years old, took pity on a poor rube and took me around Manhattan for several days before I gypsy cabbed to JFK for my flight across the Atlantic.

I arrived on my birthday, a stranger in a strange land, ripe for adventure. My job in Izmir would be the lone caretaker of several hundred soldiers' pay, from the three-star general at the NATO headquarters to the soldiers huddled on mountain tops, intercepting Soviet communications. Our offices took up one floor of an office building and I shared a comfortable apartment with a couple of co-workers in a stylish neighborhood. The Turkish government devalued the lira weeks after I arrived, essentially tripling the buying power of my $1,000 monthly salary. Despite the cautionary tale told in "Midnight Express," hashish was plentiful and cheap -- Charlie, the toothless office shoeshine man and errands runner, would deliver it to surreptitiously to our desks in the office in exchange for Marlboro 100s, which cost us only $2 a carton at the PX. We paid our maids with bottles of Johnny Walker Red, sold old Penthouses at five times the cover price and black marketed Levis mailed from home for $50 a pair. Turkey proved profitable to a poor enlisted man.

My job required me to take periodic trips to Germany, where our finance records were kept. On one of those flights home, I sat next to Semra, an attractive woman from Istanbul who had been studying accounting in Germany. We struck up a conversation that led to meetings in Izmir and Istanbul and, not long after, romance. We spent time exploring the wonders of Istanbul and soaking up sun at charming seaside resort towns along the coast. Discussions of marriage ensued -- her wealthy parents not altogether approving -- but even shallow soul-searching made me realize it was neither the time nor the place.

Turkey proved a study in contrasts. Kemal Ataturk, the George Washington of modern-day Turkey, demanded through his iron will that the country Westernize during the early part of the 20th Century. He changed the written word from Arabic to the Roman alphabet, banned the wearing of the fez and reached out to the West, despite an abiding mistrust of its motives. Thus, Turkey was a mix of cosmopolitan Western dress and tastes and the old Turkish customs and fashions. The gap between rich and poor ran deep. The hills surrounding Izmir were dotted with small, poorly heated and equipped but remarkably clean homes.

It was -- and still is, although for largely different reasons -- a country in search of an identity. Factions of the extreme political right and left battled each other and the government during my 15 months there, committing terrorist acts, including killing American military personnel, and forcing the generals to once again declare martial law and take control in an orderly and bloodless coup. Turkey's American minders apparently approved.

I found the Turkish people to be friendly, resilient and resourceful. I was especially struck by how parents doted on and adored their children. I can't recall anyone ever yelling at or striking a child.

But the government lacked the resources (and possibly) the will to take care of its most wretched cases. Ragged beggars, some lame, some blind, some clutching bedraggled and sad-eyed children, were common fixtures on the streets of Izmir. Islamic culture expects its adherents to care for the unfortunate, but it defies the imagination how the paltry alms these mendicants gathered were enough to sustain them.

My most lasting memory of my time in Izmir was a warm and cloudless Saturday morning. I had walked from my apartment to a section of the city where most of the military facilities were located. As I approached the post office, I was taken aback by the site of something that appeared barely human. A man, maybe in his late teens, maybe a little older, stood in the middle of the street. His clothes were torn and soiled; blackened toes peeked from his shoes; his hair matted and filthy. Drooling and smelling of shit, his eyes black and vacant, Bedlam could not have produced a more desperate case. Any sense of pity toward this God-forsaken soul was overwhelmed by revulsion at the sight of him standing there pulling on his flaccid penis through the opening in his pants. Even the Turks on the street that morning looked on aghast.

Then, in a moment that remains as deeply etched in my conscience as nearly any event in my life, this disgusting cretin tipped his head back, opened his mouth and began to sing. Not some foreign-sounding gibberish, but deep, mournful American blues in a voice hauntingly beautiful and expressive. It seemed impossible. How could the most foul human being ever to take breath produce such wondrous sounds? I have no idea what song he sang, but those notes, rich, clear and sonorous, soared over the still streetscape for maybe half a minute in heart-rendering splendor and then faded to silence. Finished, he turned and ambled down the street. No one spoke. People exchanged perplexed looks and resumed their lives, uncertain what to make of such weirdness.

I had already lost much of the religion pounded into me during my youth. That tableau did not help. What kind of cruel joke had God played on this man? To give him a brain of mush and a voice of the angels? Years later, I still struggle to understand. Years later, I wonder what happened to that voice.


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