Written by Allen Skyler - firstname.lastname@example.org
When Liz and I left Karamursel, Turkey, in the summer of 1975, we were not sure if we would ever return, though we shared the sentiment that the prospect was not such a remote possibility.
Al and Liz Skyler
Sure enough, we found ourselves back in Turkey nearly a quarter century later in August of 1999. Our daughter, Kara, who was born in the Karamursel Common Defense Installation base hospital (never made it to Adana) in July 1974 (right in the middle of my two-year tour of duty at KCDI), had been working at the headquarters of Princess Cruises. We booked a Mediterranean cruise for our family (including younger daughter Becky), a voyage that was to begin in Istanbul. We flew to Turkey two days early so we could revisit historic sites in Istanbul one day and head back to the old neighborhood in Karamursel the next.
Our lodging reservations were at a Best Western hotel in the old part of the city about three blocks downhill from the south edge of the Grand Bazaar. The staff members were all very friendly and helpful, and the accommodations were nice, though with a couple of problems (wimpy air-conditioning, mildly rusty water). Also, the one double bed in our room required Liz and me to sleep more or less at attention. But there was a nice round pool on the roof/patio level of the hotel, which was a real treat. The water was fairly cool by American pool standards, but we weren’t complaining after our hot, humid day of touring in Istanbul. Also, how often do you get to lounge in a roof-top pool, serenaded by a call to the faithful to prayer from a nearby mosque?
The next day we took a taxi to the ferry terminal for our voyage to Yalova. The ferryboats had been upgraded considerably since the mid 1970s, with comfortable padded seating and the best air-conditioning we enjoyed over the two-day pre-cruise period. From the ferryboat dock in Yalova, the four of us piled into a small taxi (was there any other kind? — no) for the drive to the former KCDI (now a Turkish naval training base). As I sensed we must be getting close to the base, I began watching for the “Elephant Cage” — the huge cylindrical grid structure that served as our communications antenna — on the shoreline. Suddenly, the taxi was almost past the base! We learned later that the antenna had been dismantled for scrap not long after the American forces left. So much for our landmark!
We managed to communicate to our taxi driver that we wanted to drive back to the base gate, which he did. It was time now to discover yet another change: two open gates. The main and only open gate during my tour of duty was toward the east end of the base. Now a secondary gate, which was in existence but locked tight the entire time I was stationed there, was open again, and it was there when I spoke to two gate guards.
Armed with my military/student photo ID (issued when I took a couple of graduate-level extension classes), I began telling the guards about having been stationed there. Fortunately, one of them spoke a fair amount of English. He took my old ID into a booth and made a phone call. He returned with good news: we were going to be admitted to the base, which exceeded any reasonable expectations I had. It must have been a really quiet, boring Wednesday (don’t ask me how I remember the day of the week), and the base commander probably welcomed a break in the routine. He assigned a lieutenant to bring us to his office for a chat, after which the same lieutenant gave us a tour of the base in a nice minibus, and later dropped us off in Eski Fabrika for the walking tour on our own.
The base commander’s office was in a troop dormitory building. Given the length of the office, it was clear that walls were demolished to make it the equivalent of three or four dorm rooms long. The commander was a very congenial fellow, with a very good command of English. I asked for his address so I could write him a proper thank-you letter when we returned to the U.S.
One of the stops on our base tour was the base hospital where our older daughter Kara was born. It looked about the same inside and out, though I recognized that one of the hallways had been walled off. I had not spent much time at the NCO club, but I still recognized during our tour the same gauche red paisley carpeting that had been adorning the club in the mid-70s. The white picket fencing near the base family housing area had not been up close and personal with a paint brush in many years.
But, on the plus side, the Turkish navy had added a very nice, large outdoor swimming pool right in the middle of the base. Otherwise, the base overall seemed the same with respect to buildings and other features.
The kind lieutenant then drove us through town to drop us off in our old Eski Fabrika neighborhood. We had been a little surprised that he didn’t seem to recognize the Eski Fabrika location when we described it. This meant we had to stay alert and tell him where to turn off the main highway.
You know how it is: when you go back to some place after an absence of many years, your mind’s eye forces you to picture it as it was when you last saw it. What had transpired in Karamursel was a construction boom that made parts of Karamursel far more congested than it had been when we lived there. (Remember that — there will be a reference to this phenomenon later.) This made the side street down to our neighborhood difficult to recognize, and we had to backtrack just a bit. After thanking the lieutenant for the tour and the ride into town, we began our walk down Memory Lane.
Our Apartment Building
There were so many new buildings that I had to look twice to recognize our three-story apartment building. We used to have an unimpeded view of the shoreline, but the building boom had eliminated that. Still, the old homestead looked to be in good shape. We saw a young woman on a balcony, and I realized later I should have asked her if our old landlord Hayati Ozturk still lived there.
Kara, Becky, Liz, and Landmark Chimney
The landmark Old Factory chimney was still there, now with a gold-colored plaque added since we lived virtually next door. The military bus to the base had been our transportation lifeline for two years, so Liz and I made sure we showed the girls our nearest bus stop at the corner. Then it was time for the hot walk back to the downtown area to catch a taxi back to the ferry dock in Yalova.
The only downside of our base tour had been that we were not allowed to take pictures. During the return taxi ride I managed to sneak some Super8 film footage of the exterior of the base.
We caught the late afternoon ferry back to Istanbul by a very narrow margin. Part of the problem was the time at which our taxi arrived at the ferryboat dock. The real dilemma, though, was that I thought I had purchased round-trip tickets that morning, and apparently I had not. The dude who was casting off the last ropes didn’t know English, and I didn’t know enough Turkish to do much good. He finally just waved us on board. Sometimes playing the role of the Stupid American isn’t such a bad thing.
The next morning we checked out of the hotel for our short minibus ride to the pier where our cruise ship, the Grand Princess, awaited us. The jovial, heavily-mustachioed doorman had arranged for a nicely sized vehicle (for the six of us and all the cruise luggage!). Yes, six of us — Jennifer, a college friend of Kara’s, and her mother Bobbi were part of our band of travelers, though not to Karamursel.
Our route from the hotel began in a congested neighborhood, eventually transitioning into a more wide-open part of the city as we rounded a rather sharp curve. We suddenly had a commanding view downhill to the Galata Bridge that would take us to the cruise pier.
There she was: the Grand Princess. The largest cruise ship in the world (at least, at that time)! Familiar food, and lots of it! Consistent climate control!
Those thoughts (especially the last two) were too much to keep bottled up. All of us broke out into a restrained round of applause and “yayyyy!” From the suicide seat I occupied, I looked over at our driver, who seemed to understand the reason for the enthusiasm, and he gave us a little smile. Cool dude.
Our Mediterranean cruise itinerary ended in Barcelona 11 days later, and it is our approach to our disembarkation point that provides the final and regrettably sad chapter to our Turkish adventure.
In the very early morning hours of August 17 as the Grand Princess approached Barcelona, I was jolted awake by what felt like a large wave. Not a series of them — just one. Later that day, we heard about the Izmit Earthquake that hit just east of Karamursel in the towns of Kocaeli and Golcuk. Did this 7.6 earthquake create a wave that rocked our ship at the west end of the Mediterranean? I still suspect that such was the case.
We heard on the international news in the aftermath of the earthquake that many buildings in the quake zone collapsed. Some buildings were many decades old and were not designed to be earthquake-safe. However, many newer buildings had been built to shoddy construction standards. When this news spread, many Turkish citizens became outraged and demanded that the construction companies be taken to task for their misdeeds.
I realized that if this quake had hit a week and a half earlier, while we were visiting Karamursel, it would have been quite a chore to make our way through what must have been a chaotic aftermath to return to our hotel. Our good fortune, to have made our way safely to our ship and enjoy the luxurious good time it afforded, was in harsh contrast to the tragedy suffered by many citizens near our former home.
Not wanting to end my story on such a downer, I’ll finish by emphasizing what a memorable time we had. We met a lot of nice people, and Liz and I enjoyed comparing the old memories with what we saw in our Return to Karamursel.
Base with Antenna
Al and Camera
Liz helping Al change the camera lens as Beth looks on.
Beth, Liz, and Al walking back down towards the base. The Antenna is in the background.