One of the few joys of growing up in a small, hick town was my willingness to leave it in a hurry and and never look back.
There was no longing, no saccharine sentimentality, no yearning for halcyon days forever lost. Nine days after someone handed me my diploma in 1977 on the scruffy turf of the high school football field I eagerly flew to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to begin basic training and life as I know it today.
The Army served its purpose well, exposing me to places, people and things that did not exist in that close-minded Midwestern backwater of my childhood. As undisciplined as my life had been to that point, military life suited me fine.
It helped that my job did not involve toting guns and living in tents. I was a finance specialist who worked in offices and almost always had weekends off. The ability to do my assigned work and manipulate a system ripe for exploitation made my four years of service tolerable.
Fort Hood, Texas, and its miles of desolate scrub brush became my first duty station. Deborah, a second lieutenant whom a 19-year-old enlisted man literally had no legal right to date, became my first real love. Her return to California after leaving the Army became my first, but hardly last, heartbreak.
One of my goals while serving in the Army was to be posted overseas. I made regular calls to a woman in Washington asking to be sent to South Korea. Friends had regaled me with stories of the good life there for young, dumb Americans who cared not a whit that several hundred thousand angry North Koreans encamped just north of the 38th parallel ready to spill good old red-white-and-blue American blood.
Then one day the woman in Washington told me "No" for the umpteenth time but asked if I'd be interested in going to Turkey. Lacking a better option, I pondered this possibility for at least two seconds before telling her "Sure."
My sponsor, the guy I replaed in Turkey, sent information about the numerous cultural do's and don'ts of life in the moderate Muslim world. Not long before my departure, a virtual travelogue was released in theaters -- "Midnight Express." A couple of buddies and I went to see it. I'm sure we were stoned on seedy Mexican weed. Afterward, they wondered if I'd lost my mind.
I left Texas in March 1979 and spent a few days in New York City before flying to Izmir, Turkey, a city of about a half-million people on the Aegean Sea. New York did not disappoint.
I accidentally (really) went to my first strip club after attending my first Broadway show and got ripped off for the first time by a “B girl” who sold me extravagantly priced champagne for the honor of her company. She then took pity on a teen-aged rube and spent two days providing a more wholesome tour of Manhattan before I took a gypsy cab to JFK for my flight across the Atlantic.
I arrived in Turkey on my 20th birthday, a stranger in a strange land. My job in Izmir would be the lone caretaker of several hundred soldiers' pay, from the three-star general at NATO headquarters to the communications specialists huddled on mountain tops intercepting Soviet communications. Our offices took up one floor of a small office building. I shared a comfortable apartment with a couple of co-workers in an upscale Izmir neighborhood.
The Turkish government devalued the lira a few weeks after I arrived, essentially tripling the buying power of my $1,000 monthly salary. Despite the cautionary tale of "Midnight Express," hashish was popular among servicemen. Charlie, the toothless shoeshine man and errand runner for our office, would deliver plaques of high-grade hash to our desks in exchange for a carton of Marlboro 100s that cost us $2 in the PX.
We paid our maids with bottles of Johnny Walker Red, sold old Penthouses at five times the cover price and black marketed Levis mailed from home for $50 a pair. Turkey proved profitable to a poor enlisted man willing to take a few minor chances.
My job required me to take periodic trips to Germany. On one of those flights home, I sat next to Semra, an attractive woman from Istanbul who had been studying accounting in Germany. We struck up a conversation that led to meetings in Izmir and Istanbul and, not long after, romance.
We spent time exploring the wonders of her hometown of Istanbul and soaking up sun at seaside resort towns along the Aegean coast. Discussions of marriage ensued. Her wealthy parents did not approve. Even my shallow soul-searching made me realize it was neither the time nor the place.
Turkey proved a study in contrasts. Kemal Ataturk, the George Washington of modern-day Turkey, used his iron will to Westernize the country during the early part of the 20th Century. He changed the written language from Arabic to the Roman alphabet, banned the wearing of the fez and reached out to the West, despite an abiding mistrust of its motives.
Thus, Turkey was a mix of cosmopolitan Western sensibilities, ancient customs and abject poverty. The gap between rich and poor ran wide and deep. The hills surrounding Izmir were dotted with small, sparsely furnished but immaculately clean homes. The Turks impressed me greatly with how much the loved their children and how clean they kept their homes.
It was a country in search of a political identity. Factions of the extreme right and left battled each other and the government daily during my 15 months there, committing terrorist acts, including killing American military personnel, and forcing the Turkish generals to once again declare martial law and take control of the government in a bloodless coup.
A small international incident called the Iranian hostage crisis kept things interesting for a time.
Poverty showed its face everywhere. Ragged beggars, some lame, some blind, some clutching bedraggled and sad-eyed children, were common fixtures on the streets of Izmir. Islam requires its adherents to care for the unfortunate, but it defies the imagination how these wretched mendicants survived.
One of the lasting memories of Izmir came on a warm and cloudless Saturday morning near the end of my time there. I had walked from my apartment to a section of the city where the PX and other military facilities were.
As I approached the military post office, I was taken aback by the sight of something that appeared barely human.
A man, maybe in his late teens, maybe a little older, stood in the middle of the street. His clothes were torn and soiled; blackened toes peeked from his shoes; his hair was matted and filthy. He drooled and smelled of shit; his eyes were black and vacant. Bedlam could not have produced a more desperate case.
Any sense of pity toward this God-forsaken soul was overwhelmed by revulsion at the sight of him pulling on his flaccid penis through the opening in his pants.
Despite how vivid the image remains, I still question whether what happened next was even possible.
This disgusting cretin tipped back his head, opened his mouth and began to sing -- not gibberish, but in the most hauntingly beautiful and expressive voice I I'd ever heard -- deep, mournful American blues. Blues that made you shiver, its roots so dark and penetrating.
How could this be? How could the most foul human being ever produce such wondrous sounds?
I cannot recall what he sang, but those notes -- rich, clear and sonorous -- soared over the still streetscape for maybe half a minute in heart-rendering splendor before fading to silence. He turned and ambled down the street as grotesque as when he arrived. His accidental audience noiselessly scattered.
The religion pounded into me during my youth had been largely lost by that point. This bit of ungodly street theater only affirmed my loss of faith.
What kind of cruel joke had God played on this man? To give him a brain of mush and the voice of an angel?
Years later, I struggle to understand what I saw and heard that day. Years later, I wonder what happened to that voice.