Edmonds man recalls childhood in Libya before Gadhafi’s coup

  • Thu Oct 27th, 2011 9:23pm
  • News

By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist

Chris Fleck remembers Easter egg hunts, school days, and watching “The Monkees” on TV.

In many ways, his boyhood was typical for an American kid in the 1960s. In one big way, it was anything but typical.

His family lived in Libya.

“It was a great place to be a kid,” the Edmonds man said this week.

The north African nation has been much on Fleck’s mind since longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was killed Oct. 20. Rebels had battled since early this year to oust Gadhafi’s regime.

“I was very much in favor of it,” Fleck said of the uprising.

Fleck, 53, said Tuesday he was 4 when his family moved to suburban Tripoli in the early 1960s. His father, the late Robert Fleck, was a personnel director for what was then the Oasis Oil Co. The family — one of Chris Fleck’s three siblings was born in Libya — stayed in Libya until 1969, when Chris was 12.

They left as Gadhafi came to power in a coup that ended Libya’s monarchy. It was Sept. 1, 1969, when military officers led by the 28-year-old Gadhafi staged a coup against King Idris. The king was exiled to Egypt.

According to the U.S. State Department, a big aim of Gadhafi’s new government was the withdrawal of foreign military installations. By 1970, U.S. facilities at Wheelus Air Force Base near Tripoli were closed.

By then, Fleck said, his family had moved to his father’s native New York. Within a year, they moved to Australia. Fleck spent his teens there, and his father ran a consulting company in Sydney.

What Fleck knew as the Oasis Oil Company became part of Libya’s Waha Oil Company, owned by the National Oil Corp. in a joint venture with three American companies.

With violent images of Gadhafi’s demise still in the news, Fleck’s incongruous memories of an idyllic boyhood in Libya have come flooding back.

His mother, Teresa, was a homemaker in Libya. Their home, called a villa, “was stone construction, limestone or sandstone, with a flat roof,” Fleck said. “We had a yard and a garage. It was proper living.”

One of Fleck’s snapshots from Libya show him with his brother, Kevin, hunting for Easter eggs in their yard. Another picture shows a family outing to Leptis Magna, ruins of a city built by the Roman Empire in what is now Libya.

Fleck remembers a Libya still greatly influenced by its history as a colony of Italy before World War II. Many Libyans spoke Italian and Arabic, he said.

Fleck, who runs a tax business in Edmonds, was a Boy Scout in Libya. He served as an altar boy at a Catholic church. As an American child, he wasn’t exposed to any political strife in Libya. He doesn’t recall seeing much poverty, but concedes the family stayed close to home.

“We had such a good time in Libya,” Fleck said.

He recalled watching “Combat,” “Gunsmoke” and “The Monkees” on a U.S. Air Force television station. His father drove a Fiat, “and all seven of us fit,” he said.

He attended what was simply called Oil Company School. “It was an excellent school funded by the oil companies. They hired new teachers and paid incredibly well,” he said. His mother volunteered at the school, which had baseball and soccer fields and a big gym.

Fleck recalled that the 1969 takeover was not a surprise to his father. “My dad knew this bloodless coup was going to occur,” he said. When it was over, Fleck said, “we had to spend a few days under curfew in our house.”

His father left the country within the month. The rest of the family stayed for much of the school year and packed up the house, which was owned by the oil company.

Fleck said his family later gave Gadhafi a nickname: “Colonel Goofy.”

When they moved to Australia, few people there knew where Libya was. “It was a nonentity until Gadhafi came along. It was a beautiful country,” Fleck said.

In the decades after Fleck’s family left, Libya’s reputation was sullied as Gadhafi was linked to terrorism abroad and repression at home.

Like the rest of the world, he is watching for what comes next. Gadhafi’s rule is history.

“His time had come,” Fleck said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.