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Chapter 38

A Day at An Shas

Two trips to Egypt, one in 1983 and one in 1984 for a total of eighteen months. This is the account of a typical day at An Shas Air Force Base located in the desert some 45 kilometers from Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo. During this time, I lived in three different places. The Heliopolis Sheraton Hotel, Building Four, where I stayed in a friend's apartment for thirty days while he was on leave and a couple of months with fellow workers at an apartment at 39 Beirut Street in downtown Heliopolis.

A typical day at the Beirut Street apartment began for me at 0500. First up, first in the shower and in the kitchen by 0515 where I prepared breakfast for myself, three roommates and lunches for all. We shared household chores and I was elected cook. The others kept the apartment clean, did the shopping except for meat and vegetables, and laundry. I had established a rapport with a butcher and a vegetable vendor and chose to purchase those items myself.

A bus that would take us to An Shas was supposed to arrive at 0700 for the one hour plus trip. This time could vary as much as an hour and on several occasions, it didn't show at all. Once we left the wide avenues of Heliopolis, we were on the narrow two lane desert road. It became a combination of Disney World, Six Flags and cheap carnival rides as the road was barely wide enough for the bus. Our driver delighted in a game of "chicken" with every automobile, truck or bus we met. If our bus left the pavement, we might be stuck in the soft sand on the shoulder. Better the other driver was stuck. The ride averaged an hour and thirty minutes.

The bus stopped at the main gate where it was boarded by Egyptian Air Police who checked ID and looked for contraband such as Playboy magazines, liquor and cameras. This usually took about fifteen minutes and we proceeded to our work area.

The crew consisted of some twenty-five people. It was broken down into two groups, Modification Technicians and Flight Line or Field Operations. I was a member of the five man Field Operations group. A general meeting was held each morning where we received the usual lecture about changing money on the black market and no cameras on the base.

If the Modification people were on schedule, Field Operations would have an airplane ready to prepare for a FCF. (Functional Check Flight.) The modifications accomplished involved removal of every Line Replaceable Unit on the airplane plus the engine, canopy and ejection seat. Operational checks were accomplished per Technical Orders that spelled out in detail the checks required to assure that everything operated as designed. My job was to check all electronics and weapons and to assist with other checks on the landing gear and engine run.

The last item on the list was the engine run. We had been assigned a tug to tow the aircraft and we also used it for transportation. To keep the Egyptian airmen from stealing it, I kept the distributor rotor in my pocket when we parked it at night. To make it a little faster, I also removed the butterfly in the carburetor which governed engine RPM. We had the fastest tug on the base.

Engine confidence runs took about four hours from the time we were on station. During this time, we also performed more confidence checks on flight controls and avionics. When we were satisfied, we notified the crew chief who accepted the aircraft and prepared it for flight by a USAF pilot. I am proud of our record number of Code One flights, no discrepancies.

We had a lot of spare time and one day I was watching a group of soldiers playing soccer. For a ball, they had rolled some old coveralls in to a wad tied with cord. I thought there must be a better way and that afternoon, I went shopping. I found regulation soccer balls for about three dollars US and purchased three of them. Next day, when the game started, I walked out and in the middle of the game tossed all three balls on to the field. The game came to a screeching halt and now I know how a king feels when his adoring subjects worship him. They crowded around me all wanting to shake my hand and several wanting to kiss me. I tried to discourage that kind of affection. Soccer games were really good after that. Amazing how inexpensive it is to make friends.

The air base was located on one of King Farouk's private airports. He had a small palace that served as headquarters building for the Egyptian Base Commander who bird dogged our operation. Field Operations personnel impressed him and we were often invited to tea in the building. The room where tea was served had been a large sitting room and the King's influence was still there. The furniture was very ornate, heavy brocade covered the chairs but tea was served in the small glasses seen in all the cafes in and around Cairo. The glasses reminded me of the old Garrett snuff glasses my grandparents used to buy. First a handful, literally, of loose tea leaves was dumped in the glass. To this, boiling water was added and then two tablespoons of brown sugar. The orderly would then stir the mixture and hand it to you. Perfectly acceptable socially to sift and slurp the liquid between your teeth to avoid the tea leaves. One had to be very careful not to drop the hot glass. On special occasions, cookies would also be served.

I am surprised the mortality rate for soldiers isn't higher than it is. On one occasion a couple of us were walking around the base when we came to a bomb storage area. These were open adobe buildings, walls about two feet thick. I looked inside one where 500 pound bombs were stored to see two soldiers brewing tea over a small wood fire within a foot of one of the weapons! We beat a hasty retreat.

Officers can be pretty cruel. I have seen men whipped with swagger sticks for petty offenses. One of the airmen assigned to us had his hand smashed in the tail hook on the airplane. It was pretty obvious he needed medical attention. We told his commanding officer he needed to go to the dispensary, possibly the hospital for X-rays. The officer told us not to worry about it, the Air Force had plenty of soldiers. We bandaged it as best we could and managed to have our PA look at the hand. After it healed, the soldier was never able to grasp anything or make a fist. That is when you want to do something to the officers. No wonder the soldiers take every opportunity to pray. This is the only way they can get out of unpleasant duty without penalty.

Work was usually over about four in the afternoon and we faced the long ride home, the most dangerous time. I cannot remember a simple "fender bender." Almost all of the wrecks involved injuries and many fatalities. I personally witnessed two policemen run down while they were directing traffic at a "roundabout."

If I was staying at the hotel, life was good. One of the maids, Fatima, would have washed all my clothes and have clean ones laid out. The pool boy would have two liters of Stella Local iced down in a champagne bucket. I taught him to add salt to the ice and the beer would be so cold it gave you a headache if you drank too fast. After a shower and shave, finish the two beers and chase Fatima from the room, I might sit on the balcony overlooking the pool area and finish another beer. If the Iberia flight crew was in town, I sometimes joined the flight engineer for flamenco guitar lesson. Dinner at seven in one of the five dining rooms in the hotel or might even order room service if it had been a hard day at work. To bed early because I always awoke at five.

While sharing the apartment with three coworkers, I would have taken the meat, [chicken or beef] out of the freezer that morning. All meat is sold boneless whether it is filet, T-bone, sirloin or what have you. Same price so I made chicken fried steak, stew, grilled steaks from tenderloin. Even had it ground for hamburgers and meat loaf. We managed real American butter, cheese, milk and eggs. Vegetables I purchased at the local market, treated them with salt and bleach before cooking. We ate plenty good!

One of the guys in the apartment was a bit squeamish. He loved fried chicken and it was on the menu pretty often. One day he accompanied me to the poultry market. I don't know where he was raised but he had never seen a chicken killed, drawn and plucked. I picked out two healthy fryers, went through the usual bargaining and paid the owner. He walked to the back of his shop, rang the necks, plunged them in to a pot of boiling water and plucked them. Took about five minutes and they were perfect. I always skinned them when I got home. I never could persuade the poultry man to skin them while I was there. Anyway, my friend never ate another piece of chicken while we were there. Said he didn't realize that is how they were butchered. I didn't have the heart to take him to the slaughterhouse. City Boys!

On weekends, we ate out or cooked steaks on the roof. Our cafe of choice was a place called "Chantilly." SWISSAIR purchased all in flight meals there and it was one of the few places where you could purchase pork products and wonderful bread. I missed a golden photo opportunity at Chantilly one day. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders came in for lunch. They were part of a USO troop that had been entertaining GIs in the Sinai with the UN Peace Keeping Force. From what I hear, they caused quite a stir. That's me, hour late and a dollar short.

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