Before the Storm

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

At the end of August, I was writing this memoir and realized that it had been thirty-one years since I experienced the events that I was writing about, and that many of the events, and the time line on which they happened, were very foggy. What I did write was to the best of my recollection, and I hope that I wrote it in a way that was enjoyable. There will probably be more remembrances in the future as I sort them out, but for now I hope you enjoy this piece.

 

Before the Storm

The Saudi Arabian desert is monotonously beautiful from 35,000 feet. The blanket of light tan soil seems to ripple and flow to the horizon where the cloudless, blue sky caresses it lovingly. The only disturbance to this view is where the Persian Gulf laps languidly at the desert’s shores and stretches out luxuriously to the purple mountains that make up the farther shore. The Sun, for its part, glances its light expertly off the surface causing the entire area to glow with sunglass intensity.

At ground level, however, without the advantage of a pressurized, climate controlled cabin of a 747, that beauty is quickly forgotten. Upon exiting the plane, the first hint as to the hostility of this part of the world is the 90 plus degree dry heat that seems to forcefully extract anything that remotely resembles moisture from the body through the pores in the skin. The afore mentioned Sun, scours the eyes with shards of light that cause the surrounding facial features to collapse in upon themselves in vain attempts to provide protection.

This was the environment in which I found myself in the month of August,1990, as part of Operation Desert Shield in response to the Republic of Iraq’s hostile invasion of the country of Kuwait. We were sent there to convince Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, that it would be in his best interest to vacate Kuwait and play nice. No one gave Hussein the benefit of the doubt that he would listen, thus the positioning and preparation for more forceful arguments.

Having spent three and a half years in Okinawa, Japan, I thought that I was well acquainted with severe heat, but was quickly re-schooled that dry heat and humid heat were vastly different variations of the same animal, like setting out to hunt Lions after shooting a feral cat. A Marine staff sergeant, standing on the tarmac next to the aircraft as we debarked, continued my education by barking an order in a voice that had all the caressing tones of a chipper/shredder running at full capacity.

“You WILL proceed to the first staged pallet on my tarmac. You WILL take six bottles of water. You WILL drink one of those bottles completely. You WILL stow all bottles, empty and full, someplace on your person. You WILL then proceed to the next staged pallets You WILL de-palletize your sea bag and back pack, after which you WILL  proceed to the transportation that has been provided for you. Welcome to Dhahran, Marines, Semper Fi!”

If anyone had doubted that this was a military exercise, the reduction in guess work quickly quashed that doubt. As I proceeded to the next pallets, I realized that my name began with an “A” and that I had been one of the first to place my gear on the pallets, meaning that my gear was at or near the bottom of the two 4x4x6 foot palletized heaps. I now had to wait as the rest of the alphabet rummaged through, threw around, and stepped on my gear.

Upon retrieving my, now, disheveled and misshapen sea bag and back pack, I looked around to see the rest of my squadron filing onto a bus that made me think that the Partridge Family bus had been commandeered by Cheech and Chong. On the outside was a patchwork of different colors and from the luggage rack on the roof were hanging various types of bells totaling about twenty. The first thing I noticed when I entered the bus was the pair of giant, fuzzy, florescent green dice hanging in the middle of the front windshield. Around the windshield was fastened strips of deep red bangles that jiggled and shook as each person entered the bus. Looking for a seat, I noticed that the ceiling, walls, and seats were covered in a deep red velour material and that every window and the entire luggage rack was trimmed with the same bangles that lined the front window. Taking this all in, I expected to see a 60’s flower child in the rear seat with a hookah and flashing a peace sign with her fingers.

The Driver, who looked as if he had welcomed T.E. Lawrence to Saudi Arabia, tried to make us feel more at home by putting a “Sly and the Family Stone” tape in the eight track player that he seemed to take great pride in. So, for the next 2 hours we boogied, jiggled, and jingled down the highway, across the King Fahd Causeway and down the length of Bahrain to our new home away from home at Sheik Isa Air Base.

After 26 hours on an airplane, and 2 hours on a rolling Picasso painting, the only thing that I, and a majority of those with me, wanted to do was to find a nice, shady rock to crawl under and sleep. This strong craving for slumber was not to be answered, however, as we were obligated to reacquaint ourselves with the members of our squadron that had been sent as the advanced party to set up operations.

Our squadron area consisted of three large “General Purpose” tents, constructed end to end, in the bottom of a large trench that had been dug (or worn, it was hard to establish which) next to a large, open sided building meant to wash aircraft. It was large enough to accommodate two F-16 Fighting Falcons parked side by side but was hard pressed to fit one of our medium range bombers. Some in our group broached the question as to why such a large ditch was needed next to the wash rack in a desert. Those of us that had been in the military for a while and knew that everything done in the military was done for a reason, saw the large ditch, next to a source of water, running to a series of street drains, with our tents and equipment in the bottom of it, put two and two together and chose to ignore the answer.

Once we were reacquainted with our squadron, we were given our billet assignments and directed toward our tents that would be our homes for the foreseeable future. The billeting area was strategically placed as far from our work area as possible. The terrain between the two was specifically chosen to maximize the affects of fatigue and dehydration on the body.

The tent that I was assigned to was another “General Purpose” type, commonly called a “GP,” which I would come to affectionately refer to as “The Pressure Cooker.” When eighteen grown men are expected to fit in a sixteen foot by thirty-two-foot oiled canvas, dark green tent in a desert, and told to prepare for war, the limit of fun and mayhem that can ensue is affectively lifted. When that tent is placed in the third row of four, each row consisting of thirty, with this tent being number fourteen in that row, the fun and mayhem degree limit increases to an exponential degree.

This situation was further exacerbated when we found out what was located just three tents and a fifty foot walk away from out tent. To a Marine this structure is called a “Head,” To a Soldier it is a “Latrine,” and to a Civilian it is an “Outhouse.” “A Rose by any other name….” you get the idea. If the wind was right, we would be privy (no pun intended) to the ultimate destination of the previous month’s meal selections at the base dining facility, what Marines wistfully refer to as the “Chow Hall.”

To add insult to injury, fifteen feet from these olfactory irritants was an asphalted road that was completely covered with, at least, and eighth of an inch of sand that was so finely ground that it made Baker’s flour look like an abrasive. Couple this with the primary use of the afore mentioned structures, and the parts of the human anatomy that were exposed in them, and it is not hard to come up with a more descriptive definition of discomfort.

Even though I was drop dead tired and only wanted to sleep, I was given a mild boost of energy by finding out that one of my tent mates was Corporal Brian who had been sent with the advance party. He took it upon himself to be my guide until I knew more about the base. He showed me where the Chow Hall was, the showers, and the Special Services.

When the term “Special Services” is mentioned among those that have not served, the immediate image their minds go to is Navy SEALs, Delta Force, and John Wayne wearing a Green Beret. Anyone that has served knows that these are “Special Forces.” Though not as glamorous as “Special Forces,” “Special Services” fills a just as important role. It is the job of Special Services to make available opportunities for the service men on base to have some sort of seizure activities while they are serving overseas. These may include day trips to local points of interest, sports equipment, books, movies, anything to distract a young mind from the stress behind their purpose for being where they were in the first place.

Corporal Brian swept by me and went to a corner of the Special Services tent and looked at a pad of paper on a table.

“Good,” he said, looking up at me, “There’s still a couple of spots left. D’ya wanna go to Manama with me, Ewok?”

“Manahuh?” I asked blinking and shaking my head, trying to rid it of the Sesame Street song that began to reverberate through it.

“Manama,” said Brian, as if he could not believe that I had missed that National Geographic special on Bahrain, The Capitol of Bahrain, the biggest city. There’s a day trip going there this Friday and there are two places left.”

“Uh, I don’t know, Brian, I had better find out from Sergeant Ring if I can be gone. I just got in Country and I’m not sure of a schedule Yet.” I said, not wanting to make waves on my first day in country.

I know there is nothing going on Friday, there’s a revolving schedule of Squadron stand downs for the whole wing. Each Squadron suspends operations for a weekend. Our Squadron’s weekend is this weekend, we show up for Morning Formation at oh-six hundred, dismiss, and be on the bus, in civies, at oh-eight hundred, then off to Manama-na-ma-na.” his voice trailed off as if confused about the number of “ma’s” and “na’s.”

I hesitantly put my name down on the list along with my Squadron name, noticing at least fifteen others from our squadron on the list also, and we made our way back to “the Pressure Cooker” for some long sought-after sleep. I spent the night alternating between sweating profusely from being wrapped in a sleeping bag that was engineered for sub-arctic environments, which I peremptorily kicked my way out of, and shivering, because my slumbering mind did not realize the degree of temperature drop from daylight to night time in the desert.

The rest of the week was spent getting acclimated, learning the work routine, working in one hundred and ten plus degree heat, getting used to drinking at least five quarts of water a day and because of this, learning the locations of every urinal within sprinting distance. Eventually I fell into a routine, and even found opportunities to read and write letters home.

Finally, Friday came around, and true to Corporal Brian’s word, it was our squadron’s turn to stand down. We went to Squadron Formation, were dismissed, ran back to “the Pressure Cooker,” changed into civilian attire, and jogged leisurely to the Special Services tent to catch the bus.

As it happened, it was the same bus that I had arrived on, and Methuselah greeted us from the driver’s seat with his, now familiar smile, showing his rows of alternating white and Gold teeth. As everyone sound a seat, he reached into a compartment under his eight-track player and pulled out a cassette with as much reverence as one would if they were uncovering the Holy Grail.

He injected the cassette into the player, and soon the whole vehicle was reverberating with the echoing sound of Dan Fogerty singing with Creedence Clearwater Revival about seeing “A bad moon a-rising.” Soon the whole bus was tapping their toes and singing along, some without knowing the lyrics, which was a gift I came to admire.

Corporal Brian, it turned out, had been to Manama on several occasions, all vehicles dealing with the American Forces had one location to let off, and pick up passengers. This lot was across the street from a small restaurant with a make shift “KFC” sign on its front. Brian was not sure if it was an actual KFC franchise because he had asked several times if they had any fried chicken, and the answer had always been “no.”

“You also want to watch out for the Bahraini Artillery.” Said Brian with a serious look on his face.

“Artillery?” I asked, taking the bait.

“Yea,” he said, “there is a herd of pterodactyl sized Pigeons that sit on a ledge just to the right of the ‘KFC.’ Their aim is perfect. I’ve had to relaunder two uniforms and three civilian shirts because of my confrontations with them.”

We both started laughing and were still chuckling as the bus pulled into a large sand lot with three more buses and a couple of military five-ton trucks. Brian and I made our way out of the bus and immediately looked for some where to escape the heat.

Brian looked to the right and up, then straight and suddenly snapped his head back to the right.

“Where’s the Artillery?” he asked in astonishment.

I looked where he was looking and saw a sedge that looked as if someone had tried to fry a couple hundred eggs on it and some of the whites had dripped over the side. On the pavement below it looked as if Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso had a paint brush duel.

When I looked back at Brian, a small man, dressed all in white and tan except for the red and white checkered head scarf that made me involuntarily look at the large “KFC” sign across the street, and check to make sure all the tables had table cloths.

“Corporal Brian, Corporal Brian,” he said excitedly, “I am here to make you very happy!”

“Hey, Colonel,” said Brian, pulling his attention to the short man in front of him, “How are you going to make me happy?”

“Corporal Brian, we now have chicken!” he said, then stood there with his hands splayed apart and an “Allah be praised!” expression on his face.

Brian looked at him, letting the information sink in, blinked twice, looked at the now vacant ledge and then at me. I must have had an “Oh, Hell no,” look on my face because Brian turned to the Colonel.

“That’s great, Colonel,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “tell ya what, we’re gonna do a little shopping and then we’ll come back for some chicken, you like chicken, right, Ewok?”

My mouth dropped pen upon hearing my name and I could feel my eyebrows knitting themselves into a worried sweater as I nodded my head slowly in agreement. Though we had no evidence that Colonel Sanders had eliminated the pigeons to provide us with “chicken,” in a country that had any number of plant, animal, reptile, insect, bird fish and human with the potential to cause us harm, or even kill us, we decided that playing it safe was our best option.

After extricating ourselves from Colonel Abdul Sanders’ mystery meat delicatessen, Brian and I wandered the streets of Manama to see what the city offered. It was obvious that Saudi Arabia was not the only country to benefit from the relatively nascent petroleum industry in the region. It seemed as though every block of this capitol city contained at least one jewelry store. The predominant material used for these wares was gold, with a scattering of silver to add contrast. We never did go back to partake of the Colonel’s “chicken,” choosing instead to eat at McDonalds. The deciding factor was not the cuisine, we didn’t think this McDonald’s used “beef” any more that the Colonel used “chicken.” We saw the familiar arches of the stylized “M” on the McDonald’s sign and felt that our chances there were better than at a place that picked three random letters from the Roman alphabet and hoped that they meant something to Americans.

We had heard, through the scuttlebutt channels, that Islam forbade the drinking of alcohol. To most of the American servicemen this was unheard of, and to Marines, it was akin to sacrilege. The running joke of the time quipped that “where ever you found four Marines together, you usually found a fifth. I’m not saying that all Marines were drunks, I myself was not a heavy drinker, and neither was Corporal Brian, but we were not averse to having a cold beer on a hot day, and in Bahrain this constituted three hundred and fifty of them.

With this in mind, we were joyfully astonished to find a small hole-in-the-wall that had all the earmarks of a makeshift drinking establishment that Marines were notorious for patronizing around the world. With the outdoor temperature playing tennis over the hundred degree mark on the thermometer, thirst overcame caution, and we descended the five steps to our newly found Satan’s lair.

As we stood inside the door and waited for our pupils to painfully expand from their near molecular sized pin points, we heard the comforting, familiar screeches of AC/DC’s lead singer belting out the words to “Hell’s Bells.” The room was dimly lit with a four foot long bar to the right of the entrance with four swivel top stools positioned along it. To the left, there were three tables, one of them occupied by two gentlemen that looked as if they had just returned from a camel train from Timbuktu.

Since no one immediately stood up and proclaimed us to be infidels, we concluded that the place was safe and chose a couple of seats at the bar. When we had walked in the door, the bartender had acknowledged our presence with a litany, that soon became a chant, of the word “welcome!” I found it some what humorous to hear Brian order for us.

“Welcome!” said the barkeep.

“Hi!” said Brian.

“Welcome!” with a nod.

“Thank You,” taking a step forward.

“Welcome,” waving a hand in front of the bar to show that they have stools to sit on.

“Thanks,” said Brian as we straddled two of the stools.

“Welcome?” said the bartender using the greeting as a question as he handed us a laminated, one page menu.

“Whada ya got?” asked Brian as he took the menu.

“Welcome,” said the barkeep with an affirmative tone.

“Budweiser?” asked Brian, hoping for a different response.

“Welcome,” was the response, with a wave of a hand over the menu. As if showing of an expensive piece of jewelry.

Finally, Brian gave up, closed his eyes, and pointed at the placard. The barkeep held up two fingers to which Brian responded with a not and holding up his own two fingers.

“What are we having?” I asked, trying to see what Brian had pointed at on the menu.

“Welcome,” said Brian as he looked around the room.

The Bartender returned with two cans of “welcome” and made a production of opening the cans and placing a napkin under the cans as he placed them in front of us. Brian and I looked at each other, each waiting for the other to take the first drink.

“No guts, no glory.” I said, shrugging my shoulders and grabbing the can in front of me. The can was cold whin I lifted it, but that saving grace was soon nullified when the beverage inside brutally assaulted my taste buds. It tasted as if isopropyl alcohol had been run through a used coffee filter with the grounds still in it. After the first two attempts, and the burning sensation had subsided, I did manage to swallow the concoction, but the belch I emitted shortly there after informed me of what a mistake that accomplishment had been.

Through tearing eyes, and with a throat that felt as if it would never swallow again, I looked at Brian and feebly squawked out “It’s got a kick.” Which caused him to carefully re-examine his own can of “welcome.” After nursing our drinks for about an hour, the bartender looked at us and held up two fingers as an attempt to ask us if we wanted two more. Brian and I looked at each other and I am sure that the look of fear that I saw on his face was more than likely mirrored in my own.

We vacated our stools and quietly made our way to the door, up the steps, and back out into the scorching heat. As we walked, we kept a weather eye for any form of cold liquid refreshment that preferably did not contain alcohol. We found a small store that sold carbonated beverages and fruit drinks so we each bought one and tried to soothe our ravaged throats.

We wandered a bit, stopping to peruse the wares of a few stores, and soon found ourselves on the coastal side of the city. As we walked along the waterfront we experienced a little relief from the heat as there was a cool breeze coming off the Persian Gulf. Both of us had grown up in the Midwest, me in the North, and Brian in the central, so it was always interesting to us to contrast the mottled blues and greens of the Persian Gulf with the darker more somber colors of the fresh water lakes and rivers that we had grown up with.

It also intrigued us that, where the lakes and rivers where we grew up seemed to blend in to the landscape, in this part of the world there was a sharp, almost scar like, delineation between the soft blues and greens of the water and the bright tan, almost white color of the ever present sand. To a Midwesterner, the contrast was like an assault on the senses, like calling into question all notions of aesthetics.

As we sat there, pondering the world, and its largesse, we decided that we had better return to the sand lot, and the bus, as the sun was dipping closer to the horizon. Even though the sun was leaving, the air was still warm. As we walked, we noticed that the buildings themselves were radiating heat, having been roasted through out the day. On some of the narrower streets, where the buildings had less distance between them, it felt as though we were strolling through an oven that was set on a medium setting.

When we got to the lot, we purposely avoided looking at the KFC sign, as if the mere act of doing so would summon the Colonel and we would be obligated to partake in a meal that had the potential of causing more traumatic stress than any combat situation. We half jogged to the bus, stumbled up the steps going inside, tripped down the center aisle to the midway point, found two vacant seats, and plopped into them, slouching like two school boys evading a bully.

After waiting for a few minutes, and a few more passengers, the bus began moving and Methuselah, the bus driver, had chosen “Black Betty” by Ram Jam to set the mood for the ride back to base. After listening to the entire 1977 top ten and watching the dusty contrails form behind the bus as it made its way South, we finally came to a stop at the Special Services tent.

The Sun, that had brutalized us for most of the day, had relinquished its place in the sky, making room for its more docile counter, the Moon. We also found that the temperature had dropped at least ten degrees, but to our super-heated skins, it felt more like a hundred.

Between the sun and the walking, much of our energy had been depleted, so by the time we returned to our tents. It was not a far crawl to our cots and slumber. We caught up on the day’s events, heard that Sadam Hussein was still indignant so we would be staying for the near future.

Most of our days were spent in what was called “PMing,” a short form of the term “Preventative Maintenance.” This consisted of cleaning and function checking all the various systems that the aircraft used to carry out its designed function. I often thought, as I walked out to the aircraft that our squadron was responsible for, that the planes often resembled marshmallows that were discarded near an ant hill. The plane was no sooner parked when a swarm of humanity would burst from the tents in a line and surround the aircraft. At first they would touch it, then crawl underneath it. One would discover a latch, then there were people on top of it. The canopy would open, and then there would be people inside. Any opening was filled by at least two busy “ants,” one to do the work, and at least one, sometimes three or four, to give directions. When all of the required work was completed the swarm would either file off to the next marshmallow or return to the hive.

It’s been over thirty years since I was in that part of the world. Memory, like everything else, deteriorates with age, so some of the things I write about now may be a bit skewed in regard to chronology, but I’m not writing this to be an historical record of a major event. I am writing this to share an experience. I’ve changed names and left out unit names because this is not a tell all exposé. This is an experience from one perspective, if it brings back memories for others, I hope they are pleasant, I found enjoyment recounting them. I hope to write more about my experiences and in return, I hope they provide enjoyment to others, but for now I will leave this where it stands. To those that read this, especially to the Marines, and Desert Storm vets, Semper Fi!”


Submitted: September 04, 2021

© Copyright 2022 J.D. Anderson. All rights reserved.

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