Back end of Kangew's Chapel in Asmara, 1969. Image Credit: Terry Hicks Back end of Kangew's Chapel in Asmara, 1969. Image Credit: Terry Hicks

I arrived in Asmara in January 1968

I had flown out of JFK airport in New York, along with several of my classmates from the language school at Monterey California, where we had completed a 47 week total immersion course of the Arabic language.

We knew relatively little about Kagnew Station or Asmara, where we were going, but expected it to be an adventure. We had spent several hours sitting in a lounge at the airport with my parents and my girlfriend, waiting for the flight which didn’t leave until after midnight.

Our flight took us first to Frankfurt Germany, and then to Athens Greece, where we were to lay over for several hours before continuing the journey. We used the hotel rooms provided for rest during the layover merely as luggage repositories, & set out to see Athens.

We explored the Acropolis, enjoyed some Greek food & beer, & bought roasted chestnuts from a street vendor. Half of those that I bought travelled with me to Asmara.

We got on the Ethiopian Airlines flight late that night, made a stop in Beirut, and finally arrived in Asmara, Eritrea in the morning. Most of us had been awake for nearly all of the time since we left JFK, and were so exhausted by the time the shuttle bus which met us at Johannes IV International Airport deposited us at the Company B barracks that all we wanted to do was sleep. However, in the Army, one doesn’t always get what one wants.

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The company commander gave us orders to clear out a large bay in one of the barracks, moving beds, lockers, and other furniture, including a very heavy pool table, to the top floor of one of the other barracks buildings.

By this time, we were so worn out that some of us were starting to see things.

Eventually, we were allowed to fall out, & slept soundly. The next day, remarkably refreshed, and none the worse for the effects of Asmara’s high altitude, we set out to explore.

After a short visit to the Oasis Club, the combination restaurant and entertainment center provided for lower enlisted personnel, we headed out through the main gate & into the city.

Sadly, I must point out that our eagerness to get away from Kagnew and into our host country was not the attitude of everyone stationed there. There were many who were happy to remain on base for their whole time stationed there, spending their leisure time at the clubs, the movie theater, the PX, and the other post facilities.

However, such a self-imposed confinement was the farthest thing from our minds.

We eagerly immersed ourselves in the beautiful city around us, with its cafés, restaurants, cinemas, wonderful food, delicious coffee, outstanding architecture, including some of the world’s finest Art Deco buildings – & perhaps the most wonderful, beautiful, hospitable people we had ever met.

That first day was the beginning of years spent experiencing Asmara, as well as many other places throughout Eritrea, as well as Tigray, Gondar, & more.

Our circle of friends who shared our appreciation of this wonderful opportunity grew, and we spent as much time as possible outside of the little piece of the U.S. that was Kagnew Station.

I began learning Tigrinya, eventually becoming reasonably fluent. Having majored in archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, I made contact with the French archaeologist who had been excavating at Metera, and took part in several seasons of excavation there and at other sites.

When the time came to be discharged from the Army, I got special permission to remain there rather than be shipped back to the States, and lived in Asmara for another two years. In addition to the archaeological work, I continued my study of Tigrinya, travelled widely, spent time helping to build a school in a central Eritrean village, worked for a polio clinic, convinced neighboring women to teach me how to cook some of the delicious Eritrean food I had grown to love, and otherwise reached a stage where some of my friends began to call me Wedi Habesha – Native Son.

It’s been more that 40 years since I left, but the memories are still fresh for me and for those friends who flew with me to Asmara and shared in my travels so long ago.

Many of us wish for the opportunity to be able to return and once more enjoy the beautiful city where we lived so happily.

I wish I could be in Asmara for this 24th anniversary of independence, but my thoughts and memories take me there now as I send my congratulations and best wishes.

By Skip Dahlgren

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