The Desert Mercury

If you look at a map of the Mediterranean area, you can see that the country of Libya lies along the bottom. A land of desert, mountains and seacoast, Libya was an important province during the Roman Empire with large cities and seaports. During Mussolini‚s reign in the 1920’s and 30’s, Italy modernized some of the old cities and began to restore the ancient cities as a way to justify its North African holdings. Mussolini also began but did not finish a huge irrigation system, now in ruins covering many square miles of desert. After WW II, Libya was given it’s independence and King Idris began his rule. The British and Americans maintained military bases here, so here I was in 1958, a musician in the 17th Air Force Band.

Wheelus AFB was about three miles from Tripoli, the major Libyan city. The road to town was narrow and filled with donkey carts and foot traffic. Most of the city streets were very narrow where a bicycle was the fastest way to travel. The only highway in the country runs east and west along the turquoise Mediterranean Sea, dropping down into dry washes to bypass bridges bombed out during the war and never rebuilt. The nearest town west of Tripoli is 85 miles away, adjacent to the Roman city of Leptis Magnus, with only a few sheepherders and herds of camels to be seen. In this environment I bought a car, a 1951 Mercury light gray four-door sedan.

A sergeant was returning to the states and sold it to me for $450 cash, or script, as American money was not used on this base. I had no idea how many years the car had been in Libya, but the paint was well sandblasted and the speedometer and horn didn’t function, could it be plugged by fine sand? But it ran just great, a typical flathead V-8. Driving with donkey carts and camels meant that I very seldom shifted into high gear, much less dropping it into overdrive. Compared to Fiat 500’s and Lambretta scooters, the Merc was a huge boat. Some of the narrow streets were just wide enough for it to fit. My Italian friends thought I was rich, cruising up in this big American machine prior to our nightly walk/promenade down the main street.

I discovered Leptis Magnus after playing a dance for a British Army tank unit stationed near there. I made many trips with the Merc to explore this wonderful ruin. I could get into overdrive and really go. Without a working speedometer, I couldn’t tell how fast, but I noticed that it started to smoke when I wound it up, somewhere around 60 MPH. The only traffic on the Trans Libyan Highway was a few oil company Thumper‚ rigs and an occasional army truck. The Thumpers‚ were used in oil exploration. They dropped a large concrete block; the weight hitting the ground would give geologists a picture of the strata deep in the earth. At this time, oil had not been found but everyone knew it was there. For a Seattle kid like me, the fact that almost all of these trucks were Kenworth’s, built in Seattle, almost made me feel at home, almost.

The highway police were another hoot. Gripping the wheel tightly, engine purring, blue smoke trailing, in the middle of No-where, a solitary figure would come into view, standing on the side of the road. In full official uniform, this cop would wave frantically at me to slow down. And slow down I did, until it occurred to me that he had no police car, no phone, and as far as I could determine, was miles away from either. And since I saw no gun, I sped up and whizzed by several more of his buddies, who were placed miles apart but, still policing No-where.

For two years, I drove the Merc around Libya, even making a trip to the Tunisian border. We brought our horns and played Night in Tunisia‚ in honor of Dizzy Gillespie, the few witnessing Arabs must have thought us crazy. Returning to Tripoli, we had to stop to allow herds of wild camels to cross the road.

Never did the Merc show any signs of pooping out; it was always ready to go. The graceful lines, toothy grill and classic taillights together with a very cool dashboard made these models so much fun to own and drive. Once again, it’s “sure wish I had this car today!” Before I left to return to the States for discharge, I sold her. Who knows, maybe Kadahfi is driving her now.