A Day On The Island Of Cyprus
Cyprus, an island nation located in the Mediterranean Sea, lies approximately 60 miles from the coastline of Syria, and about 40 miles from the shores of Turkey. Only Sicily and Sardinia, the two largest islands in the area, have more than the 3500 square miles that form this quaint island. Long Island in New York is about the same length but not as wide as the 60 mile north-south extent of Cyprus.
Much history has played a major role in the cultural background of this region, dating back to an era when Legions of soldiers rested here after battles they fought in the Middle East. Many other ethnic groups including the Greeks, Turks, Phoenicians, Egyptians and, most recently, the British, had an influence on or control of the people of Cyprus. The strongest contingencies have been the Greek Cypriots that formed a majority and the Turkish Cypriots that form the minority. They have lived in constant struggle for years and occasionally, their differences result in emotions that explode into local confrontations that don't make headlines, but form a part of everyday life.
The British relinquished control in 1960, and the Republic of Cyprus was created with its capital at Nicosia.
It was February of 1963 when I received orders to go from Bremerhaven to Cyprus. I was delighted to be going to a warmer climate and Cyprus was heralded as choice duty for a navy guy. We were attached to the
American Embassy and for all intents and purposes, we were working for the embassy and most ties to the navy were not evident. We traveled from Germany to Cyprus in civilian clothing. We would not don a uniform for the next 18 months, except for the occasional inspection that was conducted at the gymnasium at the American Club facility outside of Nicosia. We were housed at the
Cleopatra Hotel, a facility that was used exclusively for the marines and navy men that were stationed on Cyprus. The hotel was situated in the newer part of the city, separate from the walled city of Nicosia that would be a focal point in subsequent months.
Nothing of any significance occurred until December of 1963 when several confrontations between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots escalated the peacefulness to hostility. Battles were fought in all areas of Cyprus, day and night, but the most significant battles were fought at night when bands of men roamed the streets. No real battles were fought in the newer quarter of Nicosia. Most were confined to the old, walled city where small arms fired disturbed the still of night and could be heard for miles.
At our hotel, we could hear the noise and, as a precaution, kept the drapes drawn and lights off so as not to attract attention of a wayward sniper looking for a target.
Travel was restricted significantly and it had a dramatic effect on our work schedule.
Work for us was at the American Embassy Facility a long way from the Cleopatra. We were not going to maintain the schedule where we would work two eve watches (from 2pm until 10pm), two day watches (from 6am to 2pm), and, finally, two mid watches (from 10pm until 6am). Our watch schedule was changed to 12 hours on and 12 hours off. Then, to make matters worse, Turkey threatened to invade the island, so our government made a major decision. About 75 % of all equipment was crated for shipment off the island and the same percentage of personnel and their families were given orders to alternate locations.
I stayed as part of a skeleton crew that would maintain the integrity of the base on a severely restricted schedule. One other person that remained was a marine by the name of Lee Margaris. Lee and I were friends but it would be an event that would occur in the not too distant future that bonded our relationship.
Months passed quickly and because of the reduced American population on the island, supplies lasted for an unusually long period of time. Then, when checking reserve levels of supplies, it was determined that certain key items were nearly exhausted and it was necessary to replenish the dwindling surplus. Special Services, an entity that handled this task, was none existent.
Many services were enjoined under one roof following the exodus of personnel and in order to satisfy the replenishment, it was necessary to call for volunteers to make a trip to the storage facility in Famagusta.
Without going into great detail, my friend, Lee Margaris and I agreed to make the trip.
We mapped out a route that would keep us off the main roads because there were numerous roadblocks between Greek and Turkish villages on the more popular, paved, roadways. The blocked roads were maintained by local residents that were fully armed and a confrontation at one of these points could have dangerous consequences. It would take much longer, but we felt safer.
We gassed up and took some extra time to mount an American flag on a post that we secured tightly to the front bumper of the truck provided by the American Club Commissary. In theory, as we drove along at a comfortable speed, the flag would unfurl in the breeze and there would be little doubt as to the nationality of the inhabitants of the truck, or so we thought.
It was several hours of tedious driving when we approached what we discovered later was the halfway point of our trip. I asked Lee if he wanted to switch...he preferred to continue driving. Our progress was slowed by not being familiar with the route we were taking. I was concentrating heavily on the dirt road in front of us looking occasionally in the rear view mirror only to see columns of dust billowing up behind us obscuring the passing terrain. The road turned left, then right, then left again and was wide, then narrow, then wide again and it reminded me of a video game where you controlled a joy stick that would navigate you through many passageways.
I was unaware of the two cars that were following us. When I did see them through the dust, I commented to Lee that we had company and he explained that he had been watching them for a mile or so.
"Why didn't you tell me," I asked.
"There's no reason for both of us to be frightened," was his response.
We came to a wide point in the road and one of the cars accelerated rapidly and darted in front of us. The second car remained behind. We were not going very fast at the time, so when they started to brake, Lee did the same and it was only a few hundred feet until we stopped, the truck part way on the road and part way in a ditch that ran parallel to the road.
The next several moments of time are etched in my brain forever. Both cars emptied of people that raced quickly toward the truck with guns drawn. A swift analysis of their nationality...we, Lee and I agreed.... they were Turkish. I have never been up close and personal to a machine gun but the one pointing into my face was an introduction that chills my loins to this day. Lee was meeting a similar gun on his side of the vehicle.
We were being encouraged to get out of the truck by our
visitors and we were eager to please. I think I tripped over my own feet getting
out of the truck. What's that old expression...all ass holes and elbows....
I felt like saying to Lee, "I guess this is a hijacking," but my mouth wouldn't move. My other concern was not wetting my pants, but I think all bodily functions were shut down at the time...and I was breathless.
I noticed that one of the group remained standing off in the distance next to the lead car. He had a big gun draped across his chest and another bigger gun pointing in our direction. The others in the group relaxed the hold on their weapons and sorta had them dangling at their sides.
They forced us into the front of the truck and we were standing next to the American flag, now hanging limp on the post. I refrained from reaching out and holding it open so they could see the stars and stripes. I didn't have to because this scruffy looking dude who probably hadn't showered in a year said, in decent English, "Americano!?!?" I wasn't sure if it was a statement or a question.!!
The next utterance was a question.
"What do you have in the back of the truck," he asked?
Lee and I answered simultaneously, "Nothing,"
"Then you will be happy to show us, yes" was his comment.
"Absolutely,’ was our response.
They must have thought we were transporting Greeks from town to town because they positioned themselves behind the truck with guns at the ready as we opened the doors. Nothing happened. The truck was empty. All of a sudden, they were our best friends, patting us on the back and trying to be friendly. All we could do was smile.
We continued our drive to Famagusta, picked up the supplies and were now ready for the return trip to the commissary. We decided to forsake the back roads, the alternate route, the safe route, that caused us major concern and that created a fear for our lives. We would take the quickest and most direct route. with the road blocks...and that way, we would feel secure...or so we thought.
The return trip was slow, but uneventful. Not anything like the trip to Famagusta. We arrived to meet the crew that would unload the truck. The commissary chief was all smiles. He had stuff. We were all smiles. We were alive.
One of the guys unloading the truck called to Lee and me to come inside the body of the truck. Most of the supplies had been unloaded and we walked inside and toward the back of the box where the truck body meets the truck cab. It was a little dark even though there was a bulb in a socket at the top of the truck body that lighted the interior. Nighttime was approaching and the waning sunlight was being replaced by darkness outside the interior of the truck. There was sufficient sunlight, however, that was visible through five small holes that were now part of the truck body so close to the cab that Lee and I inhabited for most of the day. Bullets intended for the Americanos made the five holes!!!
p.s. this incident was frightening, to say the least. I never gave much thought to my bond with Lee Margaris and lost touch with him over the years. I ran a trucking business with my Brother in law, Otto Gabrielsen, and we worked out of a warehouse in Long Island City. There is a tremendous Greek community there and Otto and I frequented a gas station that was owned by Tony who was originally from Athens. A wonderful man, he helped us tremendously during the gasoline shortage of the 70's. Our last stop before heading back to the warehouse was at Tony's to gas up. I was pumping gas into one of the trucks one afternoon and looked between the pumps at a fellow pumping gas on the other side...it was guess who??? Lee Margaris. I never realized he was Greek until that day and thought about our "terrorists" and what they might have done had they known that Lee was Greek!!!