Skip Dahlgren spent five years as an Archaeologist and Arabic linguist at Kagnew in Eritrea Skip Dahlgren spent five years as an Archaeologist and Arabic linguist at Kagnew in Eritrea

A tree at Kagnew Station Asmara in 1968 – my time in Eritrea and Ethiopia

This is the first of what I intend to be a series of personal reminiscences from the years I spent at Kagnew Station in Asmara, a well as my experience in Eritrea and parts of Ethiopia. My experiences may not be representative of the majority of those who were stationed there, but to the best of my ability I’ll endeavor to present an accurate & interesting picture of one man’s enduring memories of a very special time.

The arrival of the Christmas season in 1968 led to a flurry of activity on Kagnew Station a U.S. military base in Asmara capital city of Eritrea, which was at that time was considered a province of Ethiopia. There was no perceptible seasonal change to suggest the arrival of winter, but once Thanksgiving had come and gone on the calendar the preparations began. Garlands of evergreen and holly appeared, holiday music began to dominate the radio waves, and people commenced their feverish annual competition for the best decorations.

As it happened, in addition to the celebration of Western Christmas which falls on 25 December, the difference between the Gregorian & Julian calendars meant that the large percentage of Asmara’s population who adhered to the Orthodox Tewahedo Church observed the holiday two weeks later, generally on 7 January. This led to my observation paraphrasing an old saying: “Christmas comes but twice a year in Eritrea!”

One of my classmates from the Arabic program at Monterey, dissatisfied with his situation, had decided to apply for a direct commission. On his successful attainment of this promotion, he suddenly changed from the enlisted U.S. Army specialist rank 4 (SP4) to the introductory officer grade of 2nd lieutenant. This was accompanied by a change of uniform and insignia. He now wore the gold lieutenant’s bar on his collar instead of the SP4’s patch on his sleeve. Immensely pleased with his promotion, he would half-jokingly lord it over us, pointing first to his now bare sleeve & then to his newly adorned collar, proudly declaring “I don’t have it here – I’ve got it here!”

Simultaneously with his promotion, his duties also changed. He no longer worked with the rest of us as an Arabic linguist, but rather was assigned a series of command duties of questionable significance, marking time while awaiting the orders for his transfer to a unit in Vietnam.

The growing bustle of preparations for Christmas gave him the idea for a project that would keep him busy for a day or so while accomplishing a practical & enjoyable result. The idea involved the tall, shapely evergreen tree that stood beside the door of the concrete block operations building at Tract C, the secure site where we worked. His plan was to adorn this tree with lights and other Christmas decorations, a concept so unusual as to be almost outrageous, and highly unlikely to be authorized.

Tract C was a top secret secure operations site, and anything as frivolous as decoration was strongly discouraged. The building on the outskirts of Asmara was a solid, windowless structure, surrounded by a double security fence whose single entrance was guarded by military police. Security was taken so seriously that the various operations performed in the site were in separate areas, some of which were behind locked doors preventing access by any but those personnel who were cleared for that particular duty location. Any paperwork to be moved from one location to another was put in brown paper bags to keep them safe from view by any but those with the need to know. On the rare occasions when uncleared personnel entered the facility, such as when some of the Eritrean employees from the physical plant were admitted to assist performing maintenance on electrical wiring or plumbing, red lights in the ceilings would flash and an alarm klaxon was repeatedly sounded throughout the building until the all clear signal was given when these personnel had left the building.

As previously stated, this somber setting was unrelieved by ornamental material of any kind. However, while the senior officers and enlisted staff were rigidly committed to this status quo, those of us who were linguists, analysts, or other junior enlisted not likely to make a career of the military had a much more casual, informal attitude, and were much like the doctors on the television show M*A*S*H in our willingness to find unusual or unorthodox means of relieving the boredom or frustration of working in a concrete box.

Once a small group of such miscreants managed during a midnight work shift to smuggle into the site some curtains and curtain rods, along with a number of large tourist posters they had obtained from a travel agency in Asmara. Through the night, when no senior staff were present, they managed to hang the curtains on the bare concrete block walls, with the posters located behind the curtains, sufficiently visible as to simulate windows onto the outside world. Predictably, the command staff were highly distressed in the morning by this extreme breach of protocol, and the simulated windows were immediately ordered taken down – as if people could view the classified activities from the outside! Of course, even the commotion of their dismantling provided a welcome change from the usual drab duty.

Despite all expectations, the plan to adorn the tree was authorized.

The size of the tree we planned to decorate and the risk of falling precluded the use of ladders to complete its decoration. Instead, the new lieutenant arranged with the motor pool to requisition a cherry picker for the project – a truck with a man-sized bucket on the end of an articulated mechanical arm intended for use in servicing power or telephone lines. He then approached his former colleagues, asking if any of us would like a reprieve from our regular duties to help with this unusual project of decorating a Christmas tree.

Without hesitation, I volunteered. Unlike several others, whose inchoate acrophobia made them unwilling to take the risk, I had no such reservations. From early childhood, I had enjoyed being hoisted to the masthead of our family sailboat on the bo’s’n’s seat, a wooden plank suspended from the halyard that would swing back and forth as the boat rocked, so the far more stable cherry picker, anchored and braced as it was on terra firma, held no peril for me. Besides, any opportunity to escape the ennui of our regular duties was always welcome.

The cherry picker was brought inside the security fence and securely positioned next to the tree. Boxes filled with strings of lights & decorations were piled beneath the tree. When all was ready, I climbed into the bucket, taking with me the first string of lights. The operator raised the mechanical arm, moving the bucket next to the top of the tree, where I fastened one end of the string of lights. Then the operator would adjust the position of the arm, bringing me to another part of the tree where again I hung the light string on a branch. Slowly the operator and I coordinated to move the bucket around the tree so I could continue stringing the lights from branch to branch, moving lower on the tree. When one set of lights was completely strung, I would be lowered and handed more lights, then raised again to the spot where I had left off, until the tree was well covered with colored lights. The same slow process was used to hang decorations on the tree, and several carefree hours were spent completing the project. Finally the lights were connected to a power outlet, illuminating the tree in a rainbow of colors.

The festive yule tree welcomed all who entered Tract C, and stood as a beacon of color and light for the surrounding countryside. Sadly, I wasn’t invited to get back in the cherry picker when the time came to take the decorations down, and the young lieutenant who arranged this change of pace from regular duty was soon deployed to Vietnam. But for a brief time, the holiday season provided an excuse for a pleasant diversion which brought enjoyment to an otherwise somber location in the heart of Eritrea.

By Skip Dahlgren

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