"The Navy Houseboys" by Larry Bucher

When I arrived in 1959 three houseboys were employed in the navy’s Tract A barracks. Mahari, the head houseboy, was a businessman and somewhat of a wheeler-dealer; he owned the Navy Bar, a laundry which got all the navy business, and an apartment building. Later he turned the bar over to his brother Asmellesh (known as “John” or “Lush” in the barracks). But this yarn mainly concerns the third houseboy, Rossum (“Sam”), who was also related to Mahari in some fashion - brother-in-law I think, I can never remember for certain.

Sam was slim and gangly, mild-mannered and somewhat shy. He was the target of much barracks repartee and friendly harassment. One day he stood accused of having been seen holding hands with a girl in the Navy Bar. He denied the charge with unusual vigor, and with very little success.

(I am guessing here, but whatever was seen as handholding was probably nothing more than a prolonged friendly greeting or farewell.)

That night I was in the Navy Bar. Asmellesh was bartending. Malicious inspiration struck. I asked Asmellesh to show me how to write Sam’s name in Tigrinya - and how to write Tayesh (the girl’s name).

Returning to the barracks, I found a piece of scrap paper, drew a crude heart with an arrow through it, copied the names thereon, and tacked it to the door of the houseboys’ shack to await their early-morning arrival.

We awoke in the morning to find Mahari and Asmellesh wearing ear-to-ear grins. And Sam . . . it was not in his character to be really furious, but he was trying his best to be. He had no idea whom to blame. Before he finally uncovered the real villain he stalked the barracks, the drawing in one hand, confronting first one sailor then another with accusations and a soft-spoken but sincere reproach: “Xxxxing idiot. You xxxxing idiot.”

As of 1995 all three were alive and well. Mahari still has his laundry, Asmellesh still has the Navy Bar. All three have children scattered around Eritrea, Europe, and the U.S. Mahari had been on a visit to the U.S. (St. Louis) at some point. Sam has a white beard halfway down his chest, is a priest now, and spends a lot of time in Addis Abeba on churchly business. (Can you picture Sam playing miniature golf? We introduced him to it at the Addis Hilton.) Sam’s wife is the former maid for ETCM Leroy Dahm. We attended the 1995 Asmara wedding of one of his daughters, Saba (who had been studying in Frankfurt), to an Eritrean living in Maryland.

Larry Bucher


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©Copyright Rick Fortney 1998 All Rights Reserved