Our new home was Peshawar Air Station, (don’t tell anyone I told you this) a CIA listening post for communications coming out of Communist countries. The Soviet Union was to our north and the Peoples Republic of China was to our east. We were surrounded by distant mountains. The Hindu Kush mountains (Hindu Killers) stretch between central Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. The mountains harboured passes that have been used for centuries on the “Silk Road”. Today, they make up the porous border that is much loved by the Taliban.
The station covered about 100 acres and was a low-profile slice of Americana. We were protected by a high brick wall with broken glass cemented into the top and a 24 hour Pakistan Army guard patrol. The American flag was not flown.
On one side of the wall there were mud huts and dry farm fields. Our side was a combination of military operations buildings, bowling alley, commissary, PX, “pitch and putt” golf course, Chapel (also serving as a movie theatre) and an Olympic sized swimming pool.
There was a limited amount of family housing available. The TPF was fortunate to have a four bedroom ranch style bungalow complete with gardener (mali), laundry man (dhobi) and inside servant (bearer). But the most valued feature was six window air-conditioners. The drone of air conditioner motors was part of the fabric of life. With outside temperatures of 126F (52C) we soon learned to love the cooling “drone”. During frequent power failures, the silence was deafening!
School for me, was a correspondence course overseen by the University of Nebraska. Working at my own pace, I stretched a nine month school year into twelve months. To my credit, I managed to get a solid C grade in algebra.
My Dad was the Commissary/PX Officer and he made sure the station was provided with the best food and goods possible in a remote outpost. Diseases like typhoid and dysentery were endemic in the local population. Practically everything we consumed was shipped in from outside. Air Force Flight Surgeons tested local produce as a safety precaution and rarely managed to pass any food items as fit for consumption. For instance, there was an attempt to source salt locally, but it was found to be contaminated or adulterated (I don’t know which) with camel dung. We had to make do without perishable foods. Even today, I relish lettuce and never take fresh vegetables for granted.
The North West Frontier was (and still is) a tribal region. We were told that once off the main road the Pakistani government’s jurisdiction ended and Tribal law was in force. Tribal law or “Pakhtunwali” is a non-written code which is still used today. The Pashtuns (aka Pathans) inhabit the Pakistani tribal region and neighbouring Afghanistan. Men carry fire arms and are not considered properly dressed without wearing a bullet bandolier. A basic tenet of the code is a belief in “an eye for an eye”.
US residents of the station were not allowed to drive motor vehicles because of a concern that if involved in an accident and a civilian was injured, the driver would be held responsible. Restitution could only be achieved by giving “an eye for an eye” or the equivalent of the damage suffered.
Opium poppy cultivation was a common sight. Kidnapping for ransom was also a popular line of work. This was brought home to us crazy kids when my brother Dan and I rented two Arabian horses from a tribal gentleman who had the horses tied up outside the station gate one day. Dan and I thought it would be fun to circumnavigate the station on horseback. The Pathan insisted on going with us on foot. He gradually led us farther and farther away from the station walls. We soon got worried by his pushy attitude and tried to turn our horses back toward home. Suddenly, he pulled a pistol and waved it at us demanding that we ride further away from the station. We quickly dismounted, and ran back towards the station gate. I was just waiting to hear a loud bang. Thankfully, the guy must have felt that murdering us was not going to accomplish anything and let us go. Rudyard Kipling might have described it as we, “brassed it out”.
Not that I learned my lesson, the exotic city of Peshawar was a frequent destination. There were two parts to Peshawar, the Cantonment, and the old city. The Cantonment had a strong colonial look and feel from the time of the British Raj. The old city was enclosed by ancient walls and was made up of a labyrinth of narrow streets and an impressive fort and mosque. As foreigners, we drew crowds of beggars and the curious, wherever we went. You could buy anything imaginable in the bazaars. The spice bazaar was an explosion of enticing smells which mixed with the hot air and dust of the narrow passages. The hardware bazaar carried a nice range of switchblade knives, automatic weapons, ammunition and even some actual hardware.
There were three ways to get to the city; shuttle bus, three wheeled motor scooter driven autorickshaw, or horse drawn Tonga cart. My favourite was the Tonga cart. It was cheap to hire and it moved at the speed of a trotting horse. This gave you a chance to observe Pakistani life up close. There was always something to see – like barbers squatting on the side of the road cutting hair, or an impromptu butcher shop with fresh (or at least recent) meat hanging from the limbs of acacia trees.
I heard that you could climb the minaret of the mosque in the old city; so one day I gave it a visit. After removing my shoes, I was directed by an old caretaker to a narrow staircase which seemed to reach up forever. As soon as I started climbing the stairs I heard the door slam and a bolt being slid into place. It must have been over 120 degrees inside; the only way to go was up. When I eventually made it to the top of the minaret, I was rewarded with fresh air and a view looking down on courtyards of houses which at street level were hidden behind high walls.
In the closest courtyard, there was a beautiful girl in a silk sari brushing her long black hair. In a land where women were always behind a full length veil, this was a forbidden sight. Suddenly, she looked up, flashed a smile at me and disappeared into the inner sanctum. With trembling knees, I descended the stairs to discover that I was locked in the tower. After what seemed like forever, the old caretaker slid the bolt back and released me from confinement. My shoes were returned after payment of a security fee to the old guy for his diligent care.
The station ran a shuttle bus which would stop at the famous Deans Hotel and then on to the airport. The shuttle bus was a typical American style school bus painted Air Force Blue. It was free and convenient and we often took it to the airport for some fun. Incredible as it seems today, no one ever questioned or stopped us kids from going out on the flight line and climbing into the cockpits of parked military planes.