Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why war torn Beirut and GI Joe beat peacetime Athens and ruins any day

When I was a boy our family moved to Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi in 1968 was not the skyscrapered 'city of international destiny' that it bills itself today. It was a sand blown pile of nondescript concrete block buildings that smelled vaguely of sewage. Perhaps because a common place for people to defecate was the side of the road. There is nothing quite like coming from chock full of toilets America to a place with casual open air dumping. For a boy of six it was….liberating.

Needless to say back then Abu Dhabi lacked some of the 'finer' things in life. There was the "Beach Club" which really was on a beach, hell, the entire island was a beach. It was composed of a quonset hut with a bar, dartboard and snooker table. And about a dozen air conditioners. I submit that Willis Carrier is the true founder of the modern Trucial States. Trucial States was what they were known as back then. Known as that because the British Empire told the Saudis and the Persians and the French to 'sod off' and wrote 'sod off' in genteel treaty language. Besides it sounded so much better to call them that than the "Sod Off States".

So in order to get its technical experts to move to Abu Dhabi my Dad's oil company had to let their wives and kids move there (this being in the dark days when sexists roamed the land) and to get the wives to go had to promise them that they could 'get out' for two weeks every fall and spring and 'really get out' every summer. This perplexed the burkha clad native women squatting by the side of the road who - considering the recent innovations of electric lights, potable water and in particular St. Willis' air conditioners - thought things couldn't possibly get any better.

Nevertheless we got to go to Beirut. Now I know what you're thinking: what a cool place to go for a young boy what with all of the incredible inter-communal violence, mayhem and what have you. And I confess that back then we boys, having been raised on a constant diet of Vietnam firefights on Walter Cronkite were definitely down with that famous song: "All we are saying is give war a chance". I mean the rest of the nightly news was just old dudes yammering at each other. But war….war was well, you know. But tragically for us, though not for the Lebanese, war had not yet come to Beirut. No, back then Beirut was known as the 'Paris of the Middle East'. And unlike most of the places that call themselves the "Harvard of this and that" it really was. The French have many flaws but creating really nice cosmopolitan Mediterranean burgs that are then progressively destroyed by third world socialists and radical Muslims is not one of them. Everyone agreed: Beirut was way cool. We stayed at the Hotel Phoenicia - a gleaming modern 30 story tower a few blocks from the beach not that we ever went - after all we lived in a bloody beach. But they had a pool that had a window in the bottom that looked into an elegant bar and we never lacked for new and controversial ways for making the bar's patrons spill their Kir Royales.

The only real flaw of Beirut was that it was all in French. I had a great love for Hergé's Tintin graphic novellas but they only sold the Francophone versions in Beirut. That didn't stop me as I simply pretended I could read French and surprisingly the stories became more interesting for it. But no flaw, no lack of salutary military violence, no silly French argle bargle could take away from Beirut's most dazzling, brilliant attraction: toy stores. Beirut back then had at least one (and maybe more, in my enraptured state I didn't notice details) toy store that rivaled FAO Schwarz - if President Eisenhower had given a speech about it he would have called it a Toy-Industrial complex where one awesome toy store begat another until toy stores ruled. I think this was because at the time Beirut was the only truly civilized city in the Middle East and so everyone who was anyone came there - hence the awesome toy-age. This store kicked Tulsa toy stores into the toilet - they not only had every possible variant of GI Joe (and this was back when GI Joe was big and had articulated arms that could wrap around Barbie so that he could be her boyfriend unlike that faker Ken) they also had GI Kraut and GI Jap back when those guys were just our allies and not the politically correct whiners that they are today. Needless to say, it was almost heaven on earth.

Which was why we were so excited when we came back for a visit in 1969. The first thing we noticed when we landed was that quite a few of the Middle East Airlines Comets were parked off of the tarmac. In blackened pieces - I mean they were pretty old and spectacularly dangerous planes to be a passenger in but still I didn't think all of them would crash at once. Apparently the PLO had done this and then the Israelis had done that and then the PLO had said "oh no you don't" and then the Israelis had gone "oh yes we do" and then the PLO had said "so's your old man" and the Israelis in righteous response had blown up Lebanon's airline. Which seemed a bit tangental to us but nonetheless it was cool. Blown up planes, tanks and militias with AK47s at checkpoints, desultory firefights chattering in the distance, the entire city locked down - I mean what more could bored boys ask for?

What we didn't ask for was being forced to hunker down in the apartment of my Dad's company's local representative while he furiously worked the phones to get us the hell out of there. We couldn't even look out the windows because the namby pambys were terrified of snipers. Talk about boring. Well, except for the chatter of the AKs and the booms of the heavier 'ordinance' as we liked to call it.

So to make a long story short, Dad got us on a flight out to Athens - Greece, the cradle of Western Civilization, the birthplace of Democracy, the font of something else that I can never remember. And the absolute most crapulous place for young boys to be stuck in the entire world. First of all the hotel was one of these old 'prestige' piles with all the guys dressed up like midget generals and tea time and absolutely no swimming pool with or without the moon window. And on top of that, in 3,000 years of civilization the Athenians had never figured out how to make a bloody toy store. The entire country was apparently a giant toy desert. No GI Joe, not even the basic one was to be had in that dark, benighted corner of the world.

And that left us to the tender mercies of archaeologists. In our naïveté we had not imagined that such dark, evil men existed. People who spent their entire life digging up old fallen down buildings and teacups and such so that our parents could drag us from one desiccated white pile to another while ceaselessly wah, wah, wahing, about 'the glory that was Greece'. They dragged our keisters to the top of the Acropolis and force-wandered us around that execrable pile for the better part of a day. They then put us on a tour ship - which was great until we figured out that the guys that ran the ship had no sense of adventure and wouldn't let us do a damned thing except sit like old people or walk up and down two flights of stairs over and over again. Which is what my brother did because he's weird that way.

And to add brutal irony to cruel insult when the boat got to where it was going what did we see? Another bloody Greek ruin. We were dragged from Doric this to Ionic that and don't talk to be about the gosh darn Corinthians. It was a dark time for the Reeves boys, let me tell you. We would much rather have been back in Abu Dhabi making fun of all the roadside crappers.

I can't speak for anyone else but at least in the late 60s for young boys like us, Beirut kicked Athen's ass. Hard.

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