It was with some trepidation that I received the news my family was going to Izmir, Turkey. It was late 1976, and my mom and I had immigrated to California from the Philippines only a couple of years before. We lived in San Francisco until my mom married my step-dad, who was a Staff Sgt in the Air Force at the time. I was just beginning to be comfortable living stateside and getting accustomed to meeting new friends at school in Vacaville, near Travis AFB in Fairfield, so the prospect of moving overseas was quite daunting. Nevertheless, the Air Force had spoken—the naturalization process for my mom and myself was accelerated, and before I knew it, March 1977 had arrived and we were off in our family station wagon on the I-80.
We took a road trip cross-country to Bayonne, NJ, which was the embarkation port for our household goods, and we took off from JFK airport towards Istanbul. I remember feeling very lonely during that flight, listening to the latest radio hits on the airplane’s headphones. We transferred to a Turk Hava Yollari (Turkish Airlines) flight to Izmir, and arrived at the Hotel Kordon—I seem to remember bare yellow light bulbs overhead and those ubiquitous hot-water radiators to drive away the early-morning cold. We moved into a multi-story apartment building roughly halfway between the elementary school and the old tobacco warehouse that served as Izmir American High School at the time, and I proceeded to resume 7th grade within a couple of days.
During those first few months, we were definitely feeling like the proverbial fish out of water. Our sponsor and my dad’s commander were very helpful, but during those pre-internet and pre-cable TV days, we felt terribly isolated as there was no English-language television or radio available. I had prepared somewhat by taping some songs off the radio before we left California, but selection of music (and goods in general) at the AAFES facility was limited in the wake of the continuing issues between Turkey and Greece. We played a lot of board and card games, I quickly wore a path to the American library located only a few blocks away, and we became regular attendees at the Karaca theater, which showed all the American movies on the AAFES circuit. And of course, getting the Stars and Stripes newspaper was a must, especially for the box scores of baseball games back home.
My family and I were mostly homebody types, but we did take excursions out to the beach and to Ephesus and other locations during that first summer we were there. We were motivated to go somewhere, anywhere, as our first apartment was on the fifth floor without any A/C, and there were occasional power outages that knocked our portable fans out of commission. We were finally able to move to a much better apartment roughly a half-block from the old hospital location, with the invaluable assistance of our Turkish friend at the housing office—he actually lived on the same floor in that apartment building. The difference was remarkable, and there was a small grocery store nearby where we could get fresh ekmek every morning.
And as I proceeded though my 8th grade year, I started to get more comfortable at school. I remember money being tight and having to go without glasses for a couple of weeks, otherwise academics were rarely a problem. However, I’d always been slow to make friends and I felt more than a bit intimidated by my fellow students who had been there longer and knew more about Izmir, knew more Turkish words than I did, and had formed fast friendships as if they had been classmates for years. Only over time did I find out that this was the way things went for most of the student population at IAHS —you’re the newbie the first year or so, then you’re the wise veteran the second year, and then it’s time for you to leave, so you learn to come out of your shell sooner rather than later.
As I didn’t participate in any sports activities, it took time to find friends who shared my interests. At the school library, I stumbled onto a collection of Strategy and Tactics magazines, which sparked my lifelong interest in board war-game simulations. And towards the end of 1977, I joined a junior-senior league at the (very) small bowling alley that served the American community—if memory serves, it was only a 6-lane facility! But I also very much needed my other lifelines back in the states, including snail-mail letters from family members, as well as the 8-track tapes (which barely fit in the small post office boxes) ordered from RCA and Columbia House. Listening to music actually became my touchstone during those 2 years in Izmir, as I listened to albums and learned about new music from the new arrivals at IAHS. My first listen of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors album was via an 8-track lent by a classmate, and in 1978, another classmate introduced me to Kiss Alive II. One of my regrets is not ever having a chance to watch Star Wars during 1977-1978 as the movie never made it to Izmir on the AAFES circuit, but I did listen repeatedly to the original double-album soundtrack to compensate.
I look back through the old yearbook scans here on the AOSHS Web site and recall so many things as if they really just happened yesterday. There were frequent bus rides to Bayrakli Park on the PE bus as we had double-length class periods most of the week—often some of my older (and to be honest, slightly “lit”) classmates were in the back of the bus listening to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin on their boom box. The high school itself operated quite efficiently—my 8th (and later, 9th) grade classes seemed to be split into two groups for the core classes, so I mostly got to know about half of my classmates in the same grade. Taking 2 years of Spanish was a highlight, especially the time when we were asked to sing “Cielito Lindo” in class. Chemistry class was also a favorite, as was the free period where I got to volunteer as an assistant at the school library. But the most important class was actually learning how to type—the high school was equipped with a large number of typewriters, both manual and electric—and I can’t think of any contemporaries who would not taking advantage of that skill even now.
The summer of 1978 arrived with some sense of anticipation as I would be entering my 9th grade year, and I tried to get in better shape by going on some early-morning runs around Kultur Park and the beachside walkway at Alsancak. I spent a lot of time in the late mornings and early afternoons at the youth center playing pool and listening to the 45s on the jukebox, and I still retain many of those songs in my iTunes playlists nowadays. I started to partake in the local cuisine, even risking tummy troubles by visiting the local sojuk stands, and feasting on various kinds of kebab while having dinner with our Turkish friends. We also had a new arrival in the family as my mom gave birth to my sister an Incirlik AFB in August 1978, so we now had a household of four. But mostly, I looked forward to being one of the “wise veterans” as the school year started. I did have a not so wise misstep at the beginning of the school year when I took charge of decorating the 9th grade school lockers and I over-eagerly used cutting pliers to sever the combination locks off a few lockers. This resulted in an admonition from the school authorities and a heartfelt apology in front of the entire 9th grade class, but in the end, all was forgiven and my 9th grade year proceeded quite nicely.
I was sent to the hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany, in October 1978 at the direction of the base hospital, as there was a potential issue in a liver x-ray that needed further examination. My dad actually accompanied me, and I received an entirely clean bill of health, so we spent quite a bit of time spending quarters on the video games downstairs in the hotel. My personal highlight was wolfing down 4 cheeseburgers at the hospital canteen after a 24-hour fast, and I imagine those were likely the best cheeseburgers I ever had. However, when we returned to Izmir, it began to dawn on me that our stay in Izmir was soon to come to an end. There was a winter break spent playing the old Starship Troopers and Squad Leader games by Avalon Hill. There was an unusual snow shortly after winter break that saw me making a (very small) snowman on the landing outside the library. And there was a chess tourney we held in Mr Heavener’s 3rd-floor classroom during a cold and rainy day back in February 1979. But the clock was ticking, and at the time I felt the same way that I’ve felt at other times I’ve had to move (even during my own Air Force tenure)—I had a very difficult time dealing with change.
To this day, I do not remember much about having to say goodbye to my classmates and teachers, though I do remember giving an Andy Gibb cassette tape to a classmate who had just arrived from the states. I was invited to a Saturday night dance at the youth center, learning that this was a tradition for students who were leaving, but as I’d never attended any dances there and didn’t really see the point, I slipped out quietly and went home. The move out of the apartment and back to the Hotel Kordon is also not something I recall clearly, but as we flew back to New York City, as on the flight to Izmir in 1977, I remember being very lonely. I attempted to stay in touch via snail mail with some classmates and a couple of teachers after I arrived in Kansas, but in time everyone moved on, and I guess I did as well, as finishing high school was yet another challenge and adventure I had to face. Still, I cannot imagine anyone in that situation having any less difficulty leaving friends behind, and I will always remember the words of an older classmate who was in a relationship with someone who was due to leave soon. He said that when that day comes, I’m just gonna go to the airport with her, say goodbye, turn around and not look back.
Now, more than 40 years later, I do look back on my 2 years in Izmir very fondly, and I consider my time there as the most formative years of my life. I got to know a little bit about the culture of the Turkish people, who even now are showing their fierce independence and pride in who they are. I learned from my classmates how to better meet unexpected changes in one’s life with a degree of resilience and a sense of adventure. But most of all, I was privileged to be a part of a close American community overseas, living “on the economy” within the confines of downtown Izmir. Away from the complications and distractions of being stateside, and without even a base to call our home, in the end we had only each other to depend on, and it was a feeling that I would always look for but never quite find in my future endeavors. For anyone reading this who shared my time there, thank you so very much for an amazing experience—all the good times and even the not so good times—and may my memories of you never fade.