Kemal Dagtekin. Photograph by Michael Cervantez

Big John’s World

As an American air base in southern Turkey sheds troops, Kemal Dagtekin puzzles over the future of his once-thriving souvenir store.

By / August 2012

“Welcome to the world of Big John’s, where you can browse or buy and have a glass of çay.” So says the little card on the counter in Kemal Dagtekin’s two-story souvenir shop outside of Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. Dagtekin, who goes by the nickname Big John after the famous Jimmy Dean country song, is something of a local legend. He has been selling Turkish memorabilia to Americans stationed at Incirlik for four decades.

The showroom at Big John’s is a farrago of woodwork, jewelry, clay pots, and copperware. Hand carved jewelry boxes from Gaziantep sit alongside chess sets pitting Crusaders against Saracens. There are antique rifles, brass semavars, and porcelain ceramics from Kutahya.

But as drawdowns bleed Incirlik of troops, on-base facilities improve, and post-9/11 security concerns deter the remaining 5,000 military and civilian personnel from straying too far from the gates, the future of Dagtekin’s business is precarious. Judging from the empty windows, some broken and others boarded up, in the shops to either side of Big John’s, Dagtekin has faired better than most. Still, the lights in Big John’s wink on only after a patron walks through the door, a way of saving on electricity.

On the sidewalk outside, a band of bored shopkeepers awaiting customers who aren’t coming, play backgammon over çay (Turkish for “chai”). A ghost town, a movie set after the film wraps. It is difficult to picture the Alley, as this retail strip is called, bustling with Americans eager to experience a foreign culture and support the local economy by buying gifts to send back home.

The Alley outside of Incirlik Air Base. Photograph by Michael Cervantez

But according to Dagtekin and Carlyn Small, the 78-year old Air Force retiree who mans the counter at Big John’s, “bustling” doesn’t even begin to describe how things used to be.

When Dagtekin set up shop in 1971, Incirlik was on the uptick. Opened in the 1950s, the base had been home to the CIA’s U-2 spy plane until pilot Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. Incirlik figured prominently in the Lebanese crisis in 1958. President Dwight Eisenhower deployed a task force of F-100s, B-57s, RF-101s, RB-66s, F-86Ds and WB-66s to Incirlik to perform reconnaissance and make show-of-force flights over Beirut. Well into the 1980s, the US continued to stock Incirlik with fighter and attack units made up of aircraft like the F-100, the F-16 and the A-10.

Dagtekin, who grew up in nearby Adana, welcomed hundreds of visitors a day. The cash register rang. The chai flowed. A 1992 article in a Turkish newspaper called Big John’s the “second address for Americans at Incirlik Air Base.” The nasal-voiced country music singer Randy Travis left behind an autographed photo after making a sizable purchase during a trip to entertain troops.

The photograph now hangs over the stairs in Big John’s, a few inches away from a speeding ticket from Gaffney, South Carolina. “What’s this all about?” I asked Dagtekin on a recent visit to the Alley. He called for his buddy Mr. Small. Apparently the story was too good to tell alone.

In 1990 Dagtekin, his wife, and Mr. Small spent six weeks dropping in on friends from the Alley who had returned to the States. After a few days in New York they boarded a Greyhound bus to Ashville, North Carolina, where they rented an Oldsmobile.

Dagtekin drove. His wife slept. Mr. Small sat in the back and read mystery novels. The trio angled west for California, with a few stops along the way. They dropped in on friends in Tennessee (where they took in a Brenda Lee concert), Kansas, Colorado, Montana, Utah. In Tucson, Arizona, an old pal recognized Dagtekin at a café where they stopped for lunch.

They made a detour through Las Vegas, a stopover in New Orleans, and a quick jaunt to Disney World before veering north through Georgia and South Carolina to turn in a rental car that now had 10,000 more miles on the odometer than when they picked it up.

Finally, we were getting to the ticket. In Gaffney, a patrolman stopped Dagtekin for speeding. The officer told Dagtekin he could pay the $60 fine or appear in court later that night to contest the ticket. “I don’t have time to wait around to appear in court,” Dagtekin said. “Would you take $20 instead of $60?”

“No,” said the patrolman, “I can’t do that.”

“No?” asked Dagtekin. “How about $40?”

“This isn’t Turkey, Big John,” Mr. Small piped up from the backseat. “There’s no haggling with the policeman over the fine.”

The old friends laughed as they recounted the story, a story as if from another life, from a time when they could return to Incirlik confident of a warm reception and a crush of American airmen clamoring to get through the door. In the skies over Incirlik nowadays the deep rumbling of American KC-135 aerial tankers and C-17 cargo jets mixes with the higher pitched screeches of Turkish Air Force F-4 and F-16 fighter jets.

I asked the friends whether they had done any traveling together recently. “Someone has to watch the shop,” said Dagtekin. Then, looking around the dim store with no customers in sight, he added half-jokingly, “Why does someone have to watch the shop?”

 

Michael Cervantez, formerly a logistics officer in the Air Force, is a writer living in Turkey.

 

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