Arabian Days

            I didn’t know it yet but I had just transitioned into a long period where things were destined to go steadily downhill for the next year and a half until culminating in me strapped to a hospital bed, yellow and insane, with doctors standing by eager to call the time. I’m getting ahead of myself when there are so many more antics to share, explosive unfolding drama, along with great instances of hilarity and tragedy. Ah, I don’t miss those times in the least but it’s been long enough now that they make good story fodder and give others the opportunity to jeer as fate lubed up the anal intruder.

            As I’ve mentioned before, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to do in Saudi, so we found interesting ways to make our own fun. One of them was to fuck with the wildlife. The easiest prey and the least dangerous were the giant dung beetles that could be found crawling here and about especially at night. Their presence was no great surprise as the entire base smelled vaguely of poop for reasons I was never able to ascertain. In any case, the beetles were very large, about the size of an old Eisenhower silver dollar, and slow moving. We took to capturing them and writing messages on their backs with whiteout and turning them free again. I caught one that actually had a ‘If Lost, Return to Metal Shop’ message, which I did and they were happy to see him once again.

            We also discovered that it was also possible to glue little riders on them made of solder. One fellow had a particular talent for this and would make miniature cowboys with hats and saddles and set them off on the range. This of course was all forbidden under Air Force law as there was some statute about not annoying indigenous animals and whatnot, but much was overlooked on the midshift, and by day the beetles had tucked themselves away out of the hot sun.

            Most of the other critters were dangerous and in no short supply. There were several varieties of scorpion ranging from the kind that could fuck you up to the kind that could kill you. It was highly recommended that you shake out all footwear in the morning to avoid a surprise. My only interaction, however, was an instance in which about 10 of us managed to kill one that invaded the dorms. In addition we also had poisonous snakes and spiders to contend with; all very exciting.

            The best critter was the camel spider. These were fairly rare creatures that when seen left a lasting impression due to their size and speed. Wild tales of these things abounded, mainly urban legends that they ate from the belly flesh of helpless camels, that they dripped with deadly venom, and could grow as large as a toilet seat. Most lived in terror of encountering them; I of course sought them out.

            I got my chance one night at about 3:00 AM. Tiffany and I were out on the shop porch (a bunch of planks on the sand) when I spied near the edge a fuzzy brown mass a little bit larger than my hand. It was near the end of the rotation and I knew this might be my only chance. My intention, you see, was to capture it, kill it with some rubbing alcohol and cover it with epoxy as a grim souvenir as a testament to the size of these things. I sent Tiffany inside to get me a box while I took to the task of keeping the thing on the boards. She was happy to comply. I flanked it and engaged in an unnerving game with the creature. Wishing to depart and go somewhere creepy and unreachable to me, it made for the sand and I scared it back with my boot. It found this threatening and adopted a surprising tactic. It reared up on its back 6 legs and rushed forward waving the front two, longer than the rest, back and forth in the air while making a loud hissing noise.

            I’ll be honest; it was very tempting to let it just be, but Tiffany, along with a bevy of other interested lookie-lous, had come out and I’d be damned if I’d take the cowards way now. Each time it rushed me, I’d use my boot to flip it back to the center of the porch, hoping each time it wouldn’t consider an exit strategy up my leg, which would have been brilliantly effective. Tiff tossed me the box and I managed to drop it over the beast. I was half way there. I grabbed a clear garbage bag and asked for a volunteer to flip the box while I pounced to secure it in the bag wherein I would poison it.

            Volunteers were short in coming and I finally managed to shame the largest fellow present into nervously performing the task. He flipped the box and I pounced. Where was it? Just as I looked over at the box, the crafty pseudo-arachnid leapt vertically out it causing my poor chickenshit volunteer to screech like a 4 year old girl and run away. I dove for it with the bag open but it took off in the opposite direction. “Stop it!” I yelled at those in the circle of spectators whom it was coming towards. The delicate flowers of our irresistible force instead quickly opened a wide corridor through which my prey easily escaped into the darkness. In retrospect probably a good thing as I would probably not be married today had my wife encountered it as a display on my shelf years later.

            Those of us working in the backshop were really pretty lucky compared to some. Due to the sensitive nature of our equipment, air conditioning was essential, thus guaranteeing us comfortable working conditions. The poor bastards on flight line, especially the day shift, had a raw deal. Most of them walked around sporting burns on the palms of their hands from picking up metal tools that had been sitting in the sun. Being in a comfy shop, however, wasn’t enough to save many young airmen from drawing the dreaded TCN duty. I was exempted this tragedy to my designation as ‘essential personnel’, being capable of maintaining output and training others.

            TCNs or Third Country Nationals are poor sots temporarily imported by the rich Saudi’s to perform any jobs or duties considered beneath the Saudi citizenry. Most were from Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia and other parts of South East Asia and were a despised class by their hosts, especially the native Tagalong speakers who were more likely not to be Muslim. They received a princely sum of $8 a day and were quartered in camps dotted about the desert to be bussed in to wherever needed. Although the wages seem very meager, they were used to subsisting on a dollar or two a day and took these assignments to send riches back home to support their families.

            Because the TCNs were not particularly trusted by either the Saudis or the Air Force really, airmen were selected to TCN duty on a week by week basis. The duty mainly consisted of keeping within arms length of the slave labor as they dug ditches, picked up trash, and cooked our meals and other undesirable tasks. As I gather, the worst assignment was to be stuck with the ‘Dooky Ninjas’, a pejorative term coined to describe the TCNs saddled with the heinous job of cleaning and vacuuming out the ‘Cadillac’s’; a term used to describe the trailer based bathroom facilities. The DN name originated from the fact that this task somehow usually fell to women who wore Islamic head and body covering plus a scarf tied over the mouth and nose to guard against the offending odors. I was told it was far more desirable to be stuck with those digging ditches in the hot sun then this lot.

            Since no one particularly wanted to be there, tensions tended to run high amongst the troops who were forced to spend so much time together. At work this tension was usually between the different shifts, much like it was back home. Tif and I followed Suggs and Pellicano on swing shift and didn’t have much issue with them. We were followed by Kyle and Grigsby on days, however, and that was a different story, at least on those days Kyle wasn’t there. Although considered to be ‘new’ airmen like Tif and Suggs, he took to leaving detailed instructions for the other shifts in the log books; something Pellicano and I felt comfortable ignoring completely given his relative lack of experience. Somehow this sent this normally quiet unassuming, deeply religious young man into towering fits of fury.

            Apparently Grigs had been unhappy from the get go being paired with Kyle who liked to torment him. Back at Langley Kyle enjoyed pretending to be gay and coming on to Grigs, who given his beliefs felt such things to be inherently sinful. Kyle even went so far as to smack him on the ass a few times for which he was formally reprimanded when Grigs complained of harassment. Although in Saudi Kyle abandoned the gay routine, he found another way to offend his sensibilities by saving a bunch of chicken wing bones from the chow hall, bleaching them in the sun, and creating little voodoo artifacts that he would hang about the shop. He also took to reciting mumbo-jumbo incantations and throwing the bones at malfunctioning equipment and later making the claim that his god’s powerful juju cured the cranky electronics and offered it as proof of primacy over Grigs’ fundamentalism. Grigs worried aloud that he was hell bound for even being in such an environment.

            In any event, Grigs tried to reclaim control of his environment by leaving explicit and somewhat smarmy instructions in the log books for the rest of us that frankly; I never even bothered to read. In the morning he would come in and get very upset when he found they were ignored and stomp about the area predicting dire consequences until Kyle finally came in and told him to simmer down. One evening I came in after a day that Kyle had been out and found a long nastrygram written in big block letters directed at me. This ticked me off and I left what I felt to be a brilliant sarcastic reply. When Grigs came in and read it, he lost it, kicked things about the area, and finally ran off with the log to the shop chief demanding justice. What it really came down to in the end was that I had rank and my methods had positive proofs of better results. Grigs was sent home for the day to calm down and spent the rest of the tour avoiding everyone in the shop. The desert had a way of making a man crack apparently.

            Grigsby wasn’t the only one to raise my ire either. Before work or on evenings off, there was a group of us who liked to drag out the old Risk board and try to conquer the world. It’s a game I’ve always been good at; understanding the quick and early capture of North America as being the key to winning the game. After a while though, I finally gave up playing because of Manny. Manny was an idiot who I couldn’t believe passed the rudimentary testing needed to enter the military. His “strategy” was to set up his largest army right next to wherever mine was and attack on the first round, laughing his imbecilic horse laugh at his cleverness until we were both reduced to a few pieces each which were quickly devoured by the other players. I made attempts to have him banned from the game, but the other douche bags apparently liked the easy expansion opportunities he gave them, so I ended up hanging out with Tif even more instead, leaving her boyfriend to contend with the braying fool.

            All the time spent with Tiffany created a very uncomfortable situation. Given plenty of experience in the area I understood perfectly that I was in the role of the ‘substitute boyfriend’ and that she was crazy about Harley and his backwoods ways for some reason. I also realized that Cupids bone crunching kick in the balls also didn’t seem to be going away either and how could it spending almost 16 hours a day with her? I followed standard masculine logic and went ahead and just bottled the whole thing up and tried to ignore it all together. Avoiding her was impossible and even when I tried to sneak off somewhere to read she would track me down to go do this or that.

            To make things worse, as her best friend she would share with me all of the details of her relationship with Harley, taking on her hopes and dreams of a big family with him. That, however, was not nearly as bad as when she was pissed at him for something or another and would go on and on in a manner that holds out a perverse false hope, especially when comparisons were being made and I seemed to present a better overall package. The worst was when after a particularly brutal fight, she asked me to go talk to him for her, which as a sucker, I did. Sitting there trying to convince this hillbilly what a great thing he had like some second banana pathetic best friend in a John Hughes movie I finally realized the bitter price of being a good guy and promised myself to be much worse in the future.me-and-tiffany-on-saudi-shop-porch

            Poor Bell was having a hard lot of it as well. He proved to be a good roommate there; neat and absent most of the time. About a month into the rotation, however, Hurricane Floyd who caused Dan such consternation, managed to cause Bell even more. Floyd made it way up the coast line and slammed into the VA Tidewater area, producing high winds, flooding, and a few tornados. Bell received notice from the high ups that his apartment had been struck by one of these and for all intents and purposes destroyed. His wife and annoying dog were OK, but the place was done and most belongings wrecked. Despite this natural disaster, the Air Force deemed it unnecessary to send him home to deal with the aftermath, leaving his wife who had only relocated down there 2 months prior, alone to arrange temporary accommodations, deal with insurance and storage of unbroken items. While the shop willingly helped, I found the situation disgusting and jovial old Bell became angry and morose.jay-bell-and-me-saudi2

            The days wore on as such and everyone was eagerly waiting the day when it would be announced that the plane was coming to take us home. Being a war time-ish thing, everyone was kept in the dark as to when the mission would really end. While it was supposed to be a 2 month mission, the actual end date was a closely guarded secret and could actually vary from the target by as much as a month or more. As such we really never knew when we would be leaving and each day without an announcement ended in bitter disappointment. Moving targets can be maddening.

            One welcome diversion was the bazaar that came though. Outside the perimeter of the dorm area, the Air Force arranged to allow a caravan of authentic Bedouin traders to set up shop for a day. They unpacked their wares and lay them over tables for us to peruse and haggle over. Haggling was the fun part of the day as American’s we weren’t used to it, though in our secret thoughts believed that no one came close to our crafty skill in the art of the deal. Given the exuberant mood of the traders, they were fleecing us right good for the various knick knacks and authentic Middle Eastern doohickeys. I came away with some Bedouin knives, an Aladdin style oil lamp, a small hookah that comes apart if you touch it, a WWII era British compass and a few other goodies for the low price of a hundred bucks; probably just $97.99 more than the traders bought them from the Taiwanese for.me-at-saudi-bazzar1

            The day finally came when it was announced a plane would be coming in 2 days! Oh how moods lifted then; even old Grigsby cracked a wry smile or two at the thought. We packed our gear with glee and I was thrilled to be escaping, or so I thought, constant proximity to a very sore situation that wore at me incessantly. I resolved to see much less of her when we got back and allow the feelings to run their course and begin new pursuits if at all possible. We all out processed with great relief.

            The day we left was just as frustrating as the day we came. As before, we assembled a good 12 hours before anyone intended on letting us on a plane. Although this time we were better fed as they made MREs available, we were in a large warehouse that was not air conditioned and sitting on a concrete floor. After 8 crushing hours someone wheeled out a TV and VCR that was in there for some reason and put on the movie ‘Mimic’. It was truly bad but a great deal better than the hours long “when do you think they are going to let us on the plane?” discussion. It was decidedly much worse waiting to go home.

            We finally did board and found with dismay that they booked a smaller jet going back. While we were not sitting cheek to cheek, we couldn’t take up a whole row either and I endured the flight with Kyle next to me who delighted in recounting his torture of Grigsby to my satisfaction. There was a moment of sheer panic when the plane took off, circled the runway once, and landed. It was not unknown for the military to cancel something on zero notice and we cursed at the possibility. It turned out to be nothing and we took off without incident. Things really turned for the better when the plane stopped to refuel in Shannon Ireland. The Irish were less fussy about American troops than the French and let us out to go smoke in an unused terminal. Oh what a joyous bunch we were puffing away and chaining the smoky treats one after another until called back to the plane.

            Deplaning at Langley was a wonderful thing! A contingent from our shop, the residents of the House of Shame, led by Kent and Josh came storming up with a big cooler filled with ice and beer. From there we all changed into anything without the stink of the desert on it and met up at the Animal House welcome home party for a raucous good time. Tiffany hung by my side the entire time and truly, I didn’t mind.

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3 Responses

  1. The dung beetle, often used in movies such as “The Mummy” to play the part of the flesh-eating scarab.

    I remember some of the knives and other crap at your apartment near Premier Liquor.

    Do you have pictures of any of these people? I assume you have told Tiffany and Molly these stories lest they find them here and kill you.

  2. You are correct on the scarab! In reality they are very harmless, slow and don’t bite.

    As for the pics, I have been working on scanning in all of my pics for this era and should have that done possibly this weekend. What on-line photo host do you recommend?

    Molly has heard all of these and Tiffany knows them all as well. Molly actually reads this blog though I would be surprised if Tiffany found it given the common nature of her name, but even if so I don’t feel there is any cause for concern.

  3. Use flickr.com. You can also link your Flickr account to this blog.

    Do you know who the guy who just commented on the “Official Disclaimer” page?

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