The images of the "rebel forces" advancing into Tripoli mesmerized me this weekend.  It has been a surreal experience to see the "Green Square" in Tripoli filled with joyful Libyans celebrating the anticipated fall of Colonel Gaddafi. 

Tripoli LibyaIn 1965 my Dad took our family to Tripoli after he obtained a job as a geophysicist for a major U.S. oil company in Libya.  

Dad had worked for a couple of different companies in Texas and Oklahoma.  But our family’s proverbial "big break" came when my Dad accepted the new oil job and took my Mom, my older sister Robin, my little brother John, and me to North Africa, of all places.

Libya had a monarchy in place when we moved there in 1965.  King Idris was the leader.  Libya had been an Italian colony and had achieved freedom from Italy in 1954. In the late 1950’s oil was discovered there and U.S. and British oil companies moved in.  By 1965 there were over 10,000 Americans living in and around Tripoli.

Living in Libya as a grade school kid was like a dream.  We swam and snorkeled in the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, searched for Roman coins near the ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna, and collected bullets from World War II which we found in the sand.   The U.S. had a large air force base there called Wheelus, which broadcast U.S. television and radio shows.     

The images of living on the edge of the Sahara Desert remain with me today.  We lived around the corner from the tallest mosque in Tripoli.  The call to prayer which was broadcast from the top of the mosque is just one memory of the sights and sounds of Libya.  I remember driving downtown with my Mom when she would shop in the souk in the old city, buying sheep rugs, copper pots, and silver bracelets.

Tripoli LibyaLibyans were warm and friendly people.  But for reasons not clear to me now, as a child we got into a lot of "dirt-clod" fights with the Libyan kids.  As strange as an experience it was for us growing up in North Africa, it must have been even stranger for the Libyan children to grow up with a bunch of redneck kids from Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.  

On September 1, 1969, things in Libya changed profoundly. 

I remember that day well. It was the first day of fifth grade. My brother, sister and I waited outside of the villa for the school bus that would take us to the Oil Companies School (OCS). The bus never came. Our neighbors told us that there had been a "revolution" and King Idris had been overthrown.  My Dad returned from downtown and told my Mom the exciting details and told us kids to go inside and be quiet. We stayed in our villa for two weeks with the Ghibli blinds closed.  I remember being very happy that I did not have to go to school and got to play with my siblings.

When Gaddafi took over, he quickly forbid the airing of any U.S. television and radio and kicked the U.S. and British air bases out of the country.  The Italian stores were looted and burned.  He forbid any signs in English and imposed a curfew. 

Billboards of Gaddafi were then erected all over the city, like this one shown in this photo below I took as a youngster.

Gaddafi militarized the country.  He aligned Libya with every nut cake dictator like Idi Amin, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.  He linked Libya with the Soviet Union and bought MIG jets and Soviet tanks.  I will never forget the noise of a hundred tanks driving down Zavia Road, on one of the few asphalt roads in our neighborhood. I ran down to Zavia to watch the tanks, as they roared by tearing up the asphalt. The spectacle simultaneously fascinated and frightened me.    

My Mom and Dad stayed in Libya until 1988, when President Reagan ordered all U.S. citizens out of the country.  Like the thousands of other Americans who lived in Libya in the 1960’s and 1970’s, our fondest memories were those of Libya "before Gaddafi." 

Gaddafi lasted a long time.  After over 4 decades of secret police, it looks like Gaddafi has finally fallen. 

Has it really been 42 years since that first day of fifth grade when the school buses never arrived?

Gaddafi - Tripoli Libya

  • My parents became friends with quite a few Libyans during the time that we lived in Tripoli in ’60s. Omar was sitting on our rattan couch demonstrating how he could dance the twist one day. Another Libyan man, Salem, found a copy of the 45 rpm vinyl record, Sapore di Sale for me. Reading your easy-to-visualize account of life as a 5th grader in Tripoli a reminder of a priceless time in my life. Thank you so much,Emma Howard

  • Tom

    Now, James, don’t tell me the years are affecting memory already;) If you graduated from OCS after ninth grade in 1973…that means you FINISHED fifth grade in June 1969…and were about to start SIXTH grade when Qadhafi took over 1 Sept 1969.
    Don’t worry, happens to all of us;)

  • Dave Pratt

    Do you know what building the last photo is of? (the one with the poster)? The reason i ask is i have an almost identical photo taken during World War 2 by my Grandfather and no-one can figure out where it is – I think it is in Tripoli and it looks like your shows that the building has been altered from what was once probably an Italian construction. Any help would be much appreciated

  • Dianne Stuckey

    I have so many fond memories of my years in Tripoli. I taught at OCS from 1973 – 1978; then my daughter was born there in 1978 at the Oil Companies Clinic.

  • Scott Farley

    Jim, you and I were in the same 7th grade class and maybe some others as well. I believe you had an older sister named Robin if my memory serves me correctly. We left in 1970 to Venezuela at the end of the school year. Your writing brings back lots of good memories. What a great time it was indeed!

    Scott Farley

  • Ed Komin

    Wow, this sure brings back a lot of memories. My dad worked for Oxy and my brother and I went to OCS from 69 until moving back to Bakersfield Ca in 76. Remember the Libyan bread? Incredible! We loved spending all summer at the Oil Companies Beach.

  • Mike Midkiff

    Jim, thanks for the trip down memory lane. I just was a second grader at OCS when Qhadify took control. My Dad worked for Halliburton and we had just arrived in country that July . One of my fondest memories is playing little league baseball for the Oreoles and going around and turning on the lights for night games.

  • Linda Whitmore (formerly Williams)

    I was a year behind you (4th grade) at OCS. I could have almost written your memoir word-for-word. Living in Libya was a magical time for me. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one to have those memories of the souk, snorkeling in the Med, the tank brigade on Zavia road. Ever go to Chicken on Wheels?

  • Oussama

    @Dave Pratt ,,the building is that of the “Tripoli International Fair”,,so try to google it,,Better late than never 😉
    from Tripoli-Libya with love

  • John Davis

    Just wondering if you are the same James Walker that went to Notre Dame. We may have been in the same class if so. I was just googling something on Tripoli and came across your site. Hope all is well with you.

  • Steve Jones

    Wow Jim,
    It does sure bring back some great never to be forgotten memories.
    My Folks moved from the U.K to Tripoli in Sept 1965.
    I was in the OCS 1st grade and possibly 2nd and I believe Gaddfi took over after the 6 day war. My folks moved us to Malta and then returned after two years.I stayed on at boarding school until 1973.
    I used to return in the holiday periods. My sister and I along with my mother would hit the Teen club beach and grab a concrete pad for the day and be the last to leave.
    Used to dive off the fixed board at the end of the rocks, sometimes hitching a ride on somebodies sailfish boat.
    I returned for a year to the O.C.S in 1973 and spent a year in Junior High before returning to the U.K.
    My father worked for Oasis based in Dahra which we went to christmas ’71 &’72.
    The best years of my childhood.
    priceless memories thank you.
    Steve Jones
    P.S got the 173 and 1974 year books.

  • Sayeed

    Just got back from Libya, saw the school. It was far better under Kadaffi, alhamdulillah. Libya is a disaster now.

  • Matt McCloskey

    Hi Jim, hope things are going well. Your recollection of 1969 brought back a lot of memories. My dad put a ladder on the wall between our house and the one next door so we could climb onto our roof and watch the fires burn in downtown Tripoli. I don’t think I was frightened by the start of the revolution, probably because my mom and dad were calm and followed instructions from Oasis Oil. And then there was the Bat Patrol…… Regards, Matt McCloskey, Sylvania, Ohio

  • Robin

    What memories. I remember that first day of school when everything started. My sister and I had just left to go to OCS and an American came flying up in a jeep telling us to go back inside. We stayed in for days/weeks. Crawled across the walls to visit friends. My dad worked for GSI. We spent lots of time at the beach as well. And playing outside in the huge pipes – they were good protection from Ghiblis! I still remember the sand in my teeth, eyes and hair. Haha.

  • Mike Costello

    Sun, fun, sand, sunburns, ant lions, walking walls, Wheelus football games, clod fights, the souk, roman ruins, jumping & wheelie contests with bikes, comic books, driving at 9yo, washed out roads, ’67 evacuation, field day ribbons, teen club, bowling, spearfishing, rival school bus food fights, Tripoli fair, Gaddafi, tanks, homemade beer, wine, moonshine. Cholera shots. Uaddan movies, Xmas at Waha, Thanksgiving mopeds in Djerba, Easter in Davos. Summer vacations. Jim, you struck me out with 3 curve balls then hit a HR over my head & the “rope” wall! Anyway, my team, the HAWKS, went from last to first & won the World Series, summer of ’73. I still cherish that Little League trophy for its memories. A great bunch of folks to grow up with over there. We got to travel in the best of times & lived thru a revolution first hand. Thanks for reminding us. Oasis #30, 1963-1973.

  • Chris Fleck

    Jim (or as I knew you then, James) Scott Farley is right. It was 6th grade we were starting. All in the same class with Parker Jones, Mark and Susan Bernheimer and the other twins, Leslie and a Sheila Yates!

    We were kicked out (my Dad anyway) in May of ‘70 and moved to Australia.

    If anyone wants to reach me, is my email. Currently living near Seattle. I hope you are all well