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BECOMING A RUSSIAN LINGUIST

Keith Kitchens
US Air Force 1971-1975

© 2003-2011 by Author

I couldn’t have arrived in KARAMURSEL in August of 1972 without having experienced some important, recent history that led me to the enchanting town on the Sea of Maramara. To me, the foreign language school that I attended before coming to Turkey was what set the stage for my 18 months in KARAMURSEL. One reason is that my best friend in Turkey had been stationed with me since we completed basic training, and his name is also Keith We went through foreign language school, Goodfellow and KARAMURSEL together. And of course, Monterey was where I learned the language that I would eventually use in the “elephant cage” in KARAMURSEL.

My journey to KARAMURSEL began, quite typically, a few months after high school. I had spent a year at Memphis State University and a semester at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (not really sure where I was headed). After a lot of thinking (the kind you do at age 19), and with some influence from my dad, I enlisted in the Air Force from my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee (though I was born in Miami). I entered basic training at Lackland in April, 1971.

My recruiter in Memphis had told me about the foreign language school. In his explanation, they would teach me Vietnamese and then send me to Vietnam to teach Vietnamese children. (I guess he never read the brochures.). So I thought I would help the war effort by educating poor, starving children. Well, that’s not quite what I did after foreign language school. A little more on that later.

Apparently, I did very well on the language aptitude test in basic training (I think I got all the questions right on the made up language they had created for the test), because the next thing, they were literally offering me a contract to be a foreign language specialist. So when they asked me what language I wanted, I requested Vietnamese (remembering what my recruiter had told me). Then I found out that the school for Vietnamese was in El Paso, Texas and it would be in the summer. I also learned that we were not going to be trained to be teachers. Things were starting to get interesting. And I began to worry.

I was feeling pretty bummed out at this time. But then I got my orders and they sent me to Monterey, California to learn Russian! What a surprise! A bunch of guys who requested Russian got Vietnamese, and those who selected Vietnamese (me) got Russian. It was at this time that I learned, as most guys in the service eventually do, that you almost never get what you ask for in the service. This “fact” was helpful to me at this time, but proved to backfire later on.

After basic at Lackland, I spent a month or two in “casual control,” eating at Hell’s Kitchen and working on crews at Lackland until July classes began at the Defense Language Institute, West Coast Branch, Monterey, California (cool, no Texas summer after all!)

The language school was 9 months long (1,110 classroom hours; I still have the diploma they gave me). Several of our instructors were Russian nationals, and they were really nice people. They were really cool, and we had parties and picnics with them, and they would go to the beach and go drinking at the NCO club with us after classes and have vodka drinking contests. One of our instructors owned an authentic Russian restaurant in San Francisco (Boris and Mary’s). Once we went on a field trip to San Francisco in an old Army bus. We attended a graduate Russian class at the San Francisco State, went to a Russian Orthodox Church and ate authentic Russian cuisine the restaurant.

But language school was very difficult for most of us. A large percentage of guys who started the school never finished; they entered other career fields like being X202s (Russian morse intercept) and security police. Over all, I think most of us enjoyed the school, especially since it was in Monterey and we had very little duty other than classes. After a while, school got a lot easier. But we had 3 hours of homework almost every night in order to learn the course. So we would sit in the coffee shop outside of base and eat the day’s leftover donuts (free), drink a pot of coffee and study, completely in Russian, for at least 3 hours every night.

Now this was great duty!! The temperatures in Monterey stayed between 60-80 degrees almost every day I was there. All my buddies and I bought big motorcycles and had a lot of fun traveling around on weekends. Getting a bike or car was very convenient because the First Sergeant ran the credit union on base.

For us it was an awesome assignment and we were treated very well, considering we were enlisted. Five days a week, 6 hours of Russian classes a day (8-11 a.m. and 1-4 p.m.) and limited duties. We got a 2-hour lunch break every day. We only had to run the mile once, and we had only one KP in Monterey! Well, maybe two max. That might sound cushy, and it was! But learning and being tested on 150-200 Russian words per day; memorizing a 2-man dialog each day, learning and being tested in a lab setting every day, was no easy task. We had two written or oral tests and a lab session and test each day, and there was a big final at the end.

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It was definitely like school. When I eventually got to college after my enlistment, they waived my entire foreign language requirement with 16 hours of credit in Russian. But actually, we attended the equivalent of 60 college credit hours in 9 months, plus the subsequent 3 months in San Angelo in order to enter the highly classified world of Russia. It was all very intensive and I am very proud of that achievement. In fact, potential employers always asked about it in job interviews.

In San Angelo our clearances were upgraded to Top Secret. (After language school I went home on leave and learned that all my friends had been visited by “guys in black trench coats asking questions about me!”.)

The San Angelo assignment was in the summer (they finally got me to Texas in the summer!) That part of training was 6 hours a day for 90 days (and no 2-hour lunch!). Then I got a month’s leave before shipping out to KARAMURSEL. During my time in both Monterey and San Angelo I was studying karate, also. So it wasn’t all school and studying. And there were other diversions in Monterey.

I was stationed in KARAMURSEL from the fall of 1972 until Spring of 1974. TUSLOG Det 94 USAF Security Service. I was a 203X1 voice processing specialist. I guess everyone knows by now that we worked in the elephant cage intercepting Russian military voice transmissions. (Why else were we all walking around carrying those headphones to and from work every day?) It was a very interesting assignment. In fact, one night at work I got to intercept a spaceshot from Kazakhstan where I translated Russian scientists communicating information and data back to Earth. They were actually conducting an experiment when I was picking them up. It was the most exciting thing that happened to me at work. Nothing really earth-shattering ever happened there. Except that I remember a Russian pilot defected over Turkey one day, but that was during another shift. We had a very large map of Russia over our work area, that read “We will copy you,” reminiscent of Khrushchev’s “We will bury you.”

Before the trip over to KARAMURSEL, I remember getting off the plane and seeing soldiers with machine guns all over. I thought, “uh oh, culture shock.” And other men running around holding out their hands saying “abi, abi !” They all wanted to carry our bags for tips.

Shortly after I arrived on base in KARAMURSEL, within about a month, my best buddy and I moved off-base with one other guy and got an apartment in Yalova. Since we were all three on different shifts, we could share a 1-bedroom apartment. Which costs us $35 a month, split 3 ways. We had an extra cot in the living area for days when 2 of us were home.

This arrangement got old fast, and eventually my best buddy and I got a place in KARAMURSEL. This also cost us $35 but also a carton of Marlboro’s. Higher rent! It was a second story, and it was so cool to get gas (kerosene) brought in from town. This old man would arrive with his horse-drawn cart (just like the movies, clippy clop down this cobble stone road) and throw a hose to me up on the balcony. I would insert it into my 55-gallon drum and fill it up. He would pump up the kerosene while trying to keep his horse still. I later heard that the cobble stone street I lived on had been built by the Romans. I don’t know is that’s true, but it sure looked like it.

We enjoyed taking the ferry over to Istanbul whenever we could. That was always an interesting experience. I remember on our first trip a guy trying to sell us a magic carpet in the Grand Covered Bazaar. Sometimes we would stay in the Evropa Hotel. I loved ordering chai off the streets wherever you happened to be. And going to the shops to buy brass, jewels and meerschaum. I still have most all of my purchases. My brother’s wife turned a water pipe into a vase to disguise it!

Upon leaving, I remember telling Turkey “good bye” as the plane circled Istanbul before flying to Frankfort on the way to New York and eventually home to Memphis. Actually, I guess I was glad to return to the real world. But the unfortunate thing was that I had a large lunch of borek in Istanbul before the flight, and got fairly sick on the plane! Thanks, Turkey. My final memory was appropriate.

While at home on leave after Turkey, the Air Force called and said I could apply for an early out. Well, I applied, but then they didn’t approve it for some reason! Sort of held out the carrot and then pulled it away. I should have said I didn’t want to get out early and they probably would have discharged me! (remember what I said about it backfiring later on?)

So they sent me to Kelly AFB in San Antonio for my final year doing boring clerical work. I continued to work in Security Service but not as a linguist, since they didn’t have 203X1 at Kelly. They told me they were fading those out. I ended up staying in San Antonio after discharge, because I had a lot of friends there by then. I eventually moved to Austin and lived for 13 more years before moving to Tallahassee Florida 12 years ago. I never returned to Memphis to live.

Now I live in Sarasota, Florida on the Gulf of Mexico, and would enjoy hearing from anyone who had been a language specialist, lived in Turkey, or anyone, for that matter.
Keith Kitchens



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