Burch, Leslie A.: My Introduction to the Overseas Dependent Schools in 1960

(The beginning of an improbable career)

I became aware of the DoD schools in the 1950s during my military tour in Stuttgart, Germany. I noted that there were many school-aged dependents on the Kaserne, and I was curious about their education, so I asked a married colleague who lived in family housing about their schooling. From him I learned that many locations in Germany had schools, and that many teachers were recruited from the US. Before my tour was over, I knew enough about the dependent schools to be interested in working in one for a couple of years.

Upon returning to the US, I sought information about applying to teach overseas. Since it was in the summer, it was too late to apply that year. Additionally, I needed teaching experience in a public school, so I accepted a position in a rural high school in New York State.

In the 50s, each military service had its own schools instead of the combined DoD system that evolved later. I decided to apply with the Air Force, because it had schools in more countries than the other services. Also, my main interest was to work in England which had many Air Force bases at the time. During the spring of 1960, I had an interview in Boston. While there, one of the recruiters noted that I had previous experience as a resident hall supervisor when I was a graduate fellow and also in a military academy where I taught before being stationed in Germany. I learned that some of the high schools had resident halls for students who lived in locations with no high schools. Most of the staff for these residences were educators like myself. When asked if I would consider such a position if offered, I replied that I was open to almost any offer. A short time later, I received a telegram offering ma the position of administrator of new resident halls that were opening in Ankara, Turkey that September. I accepted.

My parents were happy for me, but were curious about my willingness to live in a totally different culture. A few teaching colleagues were excited about the assignment, insisting that I keep them informed about my experiences. Most, however, couldn’t understand why I would leave my present position, especially to go to a place like Turkey.

After completing my initial processing, I was encouraged to get to Ankara a few weeks early because there would be a lot to do before the students arrived. Little did I know that the “lot to do” was a gross understatement.

In early August, I flew by military aircraft from McGuire Air Base, New Jersey to Rhein Main Air Base, Germany. After a day of more processing, where I met several newly hired teachers going to Ankara, we flew to Istanbul on Pan Am. In 1960 Pan American Airlines was the largest U.S. carrier with the largest aircraft. I was ticketed in first class, on a plane which had an upstairs lounge and bar, definitely a new experience for me. Shortly after the takeoff the bar opened, and that’s were I enjoyed the remainder of the flight.  Any memories of the uncomfortable flight across the Atlantic in a military aircraft soon passed. The good life continued when we arrived in Istanbul, because our flight to Ankara was the next day. Our overnight stay was in a first-class hotel in a beautiful setting on the Bosporus where I enjoyed a swim the surprisingly clean water off the hotel dock. Later, our group went into the old city where we had a wonderful meal accompanied by a Turkish orchestra, in formal dress, and a belly dancer. So far, Turkey was looking pretty great.

The next morning, we were introduced to Turk Hava Yolari (THY), the Turkish airline. Pan Am first class, it wasn’t. In fact, it was a crowded DC-3, the civilian version of the military C-47. Fortunately, the flight to Ankara was short and uneventful.

Despite being Turkey’s capitol, 1960 Ankara was pretty much a provincial town. The surrounding country was barren, and being early August, with no rain since early spring, it was little more than a desert. When I stepped off the plane, I was immediately struck by the hear which was probably close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. An Air Force bus, sans air conditioning, after all, this was 1960, took us into the city where we met school officials, did more processing, and received briefing on what we needed to do to get settled. Finding living accommodations before school started was paramount. We were then taken to hotels that were reserved for us. My hotel couldn’t compare with the previous one, but after a long day, the heat, probably jet lag, and Ankara’s high altitude, my bed was a welcomed sight.

My night’s rest came to an abrupt halt sometime around 5 am, which was sunrise in Ankara, by a loud wailing that was coming from a distance not far from the room’s window. I jumped to see what was going on at this hour to experience my first encounter with the Islamic faith. Lucky me, the hotel was adjacent to a mosque, its minaret about 10 meters from my window, and a piercing voiced man was standing on its balcony beckoning the faithful to prayer as their first order of the day. I quickly decided that my first order was to find a different hotel, and the second order was to find permanent accommodations.

I considered living in one of the dormitories before school started, but that wasn’t an option, because they didn’t exist! Suitable properties were yet to be found. Fortunately, the base commander and the commanding general were both actively interested in making sure that the incoming students had comfortable and safe accommodations. The base commander told me that his procurement officer had a few properties to show me that might be readily available. My idea of having separate buildings for male and female students was soon abandoned, because available possibilities were too far from each other to be okay. Within a week, we found a new nearly finished seven story apartment building within a short walk to the airman’s dining hall where the students could eat. A dining facility in the resident hall was to be our best option. The design of the building enabled us to house the females on the top floors and the males on the lower levels with a floor in the middle as a common area. It wasn’t my perception of a students’ dormitory   with its location across the city from their school, and in an unfinished residential area of multiple storied apartment buildings, but I was learning to live a common term I would hear often, “Be flexible”.

In the 60s it was common for single people, of the same sex, to combine their housing allowances so they could afford a decent place to rent. I met a newly assigned high school math teacher who was looking for a roommate. We found a comfortable furnished apartment a couple of blocks from the resident hall. It was very convenient for me, but to get to the high school required some sort of transportation. Unless on brought a car to Turkey, acquiring one was very difficult. Fortunately, public transport, including taxis, was very cheap. My roommate planned to rely on the bus, and I could easily walk to my office. Neither of us decided that a car was necessary.

The Air Force took occupancy of the building a week before the students were to arrive. I was now manager of a brand-new apartment house full of totally bare rooms. The military support group assured me that new furniture and furnishings were “on the way”, but there was no firm date on when they would arrive. We did have a firm date when the students were arriving, and I was nervous. With electricity and water, our spartan setup was bearable for the office, but my main concern was that the students would be facing nothing but bare walls and a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling with two wires. Heat wasn’t a concern in August, but hot water was, which would be provided by a device new to me, the infamous flash heater fueled by city gas. The gas company had yet to inspect the building, which meant no gas and hot water. However, we were assured that all would be in order before the students arrived.

Student arrivals were scheduled for Sunday, the day before school started. On Friday, there was still no information on the arrival date of the furniture and furnishings. The gas company needed to inspect the new flash heaters before they could be used, but they couldn’t do that until the gas company turned on the gas. The inspectors didn’t know when that would occur. For some reason, that Saturday was a holiday, so it was probable that our arriving teens would experience cold showers for a while. About the same time, I received information that one of the male staff would be delayed a couple of weeks getting to Ankara. Not to worry, we were flexible.

On Friday, the Base Commander came to the rescue by ordering the beds in the airman’s dorm to be delivered to our building with fresh linens and blankets. Extra sheets and blankets were used to cover the windows. Field cots and sleeping bags were issued to the airmen, which to their credit, most took well. A variety of tables and folding chairs were provided until proper furniture arrived. On Saturday, a parade of beds and other furnishings were carried by a detail of airmen the two blocks down the street to the dorm while a large number of local residents acted as spectators to this bizarre event. The airmen, my staff, and I worked through the night to get what we had into place shortly before the first students arrived. We still had no gas, so sweating teenagers in the 100-degree heat had to suffer cold showers, but if they were half as flexible as we thought we had become, everything would eventually work out.

The stall and I were bushed. Even though our welcome was far different from our original plan, it was warm and genuine. The students, remarkably, were very accepting. Two returned to their home base after a couple of days, but everyone else struck it out. Most of the furnishings arrived in the first month. The American community became involved in welcoming students to their homes, especially on weekends. The dorm staff did an outstanding job in planning activities, as well as assuring that everyone was comfortable and safe. The last staff member arrived nearly four weeks late. No one was happier than I, because I could now devote full time to the job I was hired to do.

My introduction to the overseas schools was far different than anything I could have imagined when I decided that a couple of years aboard would be fun. Those couple of years stretched to thirty. The many ups were unexpected bonuses and the downs were surmountable challenges. I would trade few if I were to do it again.

By the way, the gas was turned on and students could enjoy warm showers within the first month. September 1960 was one of the hottest on record. Gas and water bills were high that first month.

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