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Political Animal

Radio Days

By Brian Morton | Posted 6/30/2004

The start of summer in southern Turkey begins a season of unrelenting Mediterranean heat. It was the June of 1983, and the scent of the adana kebab, the ground lamb-and-beef on a skewer version of standard shish kebab, wafted out of the kitchen behind the British Petroleum gas station on the edge of the highway outside of Incirlik Air Base. My co-workers and I would often repair there in the evenings after work on the flight line, as some of the best food in town was served up at a restaurant behind the gas station. Over cold Efes Pilsen beer, we’d talk about where we were from, where we had served, and when we were due to go back to “the world.”

I worked in a little brown Quonset hut just off the side of the flight line; a row of them flanked the airstrip in the northern part of the base. In 1983, no U.S. planes were permanently based there. As part of the agreement with the Turks, if an American plane stayed longer than 90 days it became property of the Turkish military.

I recall vividly the time a bird struck the canopy of an F-16 fighter jet and cracked the high-impact plastic so bad that it couldn’t be buffed out. My office was the liaison between the aircraft mechanics and the parts departments in Europe and the United States, and we were told that the $45,000 canopies were in short supply.

On the 85th day, a huge C-5 cargo plane was flown down from one of the bases in Germany, as the F-16 had long passed “Hangar Queen status,” so dubbed after a plane sits nonoperational for 60 days. The fighter’s wings were removed and the entire jet was slid into the cargo hold of the bigger plane and flown out before the 90-day deadline.

Our little office was pretty apolitical. The boss was a big black senior master sergeant from the South, genial in manner, conservative in belief, laid-back as an administrator. His number two was also a black man, from South Carolina, another military careerist deep into his umpteenth overseas tour. Since most of the time we had no planes to deal with, I remember us mostly talking about each other’s lives and histories. My immediate boss was a freshly minted staff sergeant, an E-5 whose last skill field was as a dental hygienist, but she changed to “logistics” (as we were called) for something different. She was attractive, blonde, almost overweight by Air Force standards, and, in a rare instance, married to the officer who headed the supply squadron. Both were liberal and white; he came from the Northeast, and she was a naturalized American born in Sweden.

In the year I spent in Turkey on that dusty flight line, working out of the little Quonset hut office, I recall not one political argument, despite the fact that die-hard liberals and conservatives were thrown together in an office the size of a bathroom, Ronald Reagan was president, and we all sat 20 minutes by air from the Soviet Union’s bombers. Our most passionate discussions were about music. Our lifeline to America, to “the world,” was the radio. Many military personnel look forward eagerly to the day they go home—their DEROS date (Day En Route Off Station)—and they can tell you the exact number of days, even after falling face-down drunk in the enlisted men’s club or off-base at the BP restaurant, they have left.

So the music pumped into our little room was the subject of the most heated arguments: why country music sucked (from the youngsters, both black and white, with the exception of a colleague from Dallas), why Prince had to sing about sex all the time (from the oldsters, who were more into classic soul and Motown), and whether Michael Jackson was a musical genius and why he was starting to look unnervingly like Diana Ross (remember, this was the early ’80s).

Now, I look back and think of how divisive and unproductive our office might have been if, instead our harmless bickering over music, we had to deal with the partisan nature of talk radio. Currently, Rush Limbaugh is the only American talker piped in to troops overseas over American Forces Radio. This is the Rush Limbaugh who described the shocking instances of torture at Abu Ghraib prison as “people having a good time” and troops needing to “blow off a little steam”; the Limbaugh who is under investigation for felony “doctor shopping” to illegally buy prescription drugs in Florida.

The Incirlik of today, I’m sure, bears little resemblance to the base I recall, what with its proximity to Iraq and Afghanistan. But if there’s one thing of which I am supremely sure those troops over there need, it’s the chance to have simple debates over something innocent like music—not a right-wing blow-hard who injects one-sided politics into everything.

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