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In desert camp, stories wrote themselves, reporter finds


ABOARD A C-5 CARGO PLANE -- All of us in the Maryland media knew we would be roughing it when we visited the encampment of Maryland Guardsmen recently called up from civilian life for duty in Saudi Arabia.

But as we opened the flaps of our tent stretched over sand, learned about cold outdoor showers and found our way to latrines that looked like aviaries for flies, some of my media colleagues began forming a "Plan B."

One of my senior colleagues tried his cot for an hour, sat up and, when his feet hit the sand, he declared that Plan A would now be superseded by Plan B. He moved to a hotel an hour away.

Others followed, leaving me in sole possession of one of the few private accommodations in the 400th Military Police Battalion camp of about 700 people.

Wherever I went in the camp, conversation followed, often at the most personal level with the most personable strangers.

Soldiers approached to tell me more than I had thought to ask about what they might be fighting for, the pain of leaving home and family, their perceptions of vulnerability to attack and to fear. One combat veteran talked of losing bowel control in his first firefight in Vietnam. A younger, female soldier spoke of this phenomenon more circumspectly as the "pucker factor."

Certainly none of this conversation flowed my way for anything I had said. I hardly needed to ask questions. The soldiers kept coming because I had just arrived from Baltimore, where many of them were from, and because talking with me in my civilian clothes made them feel as if they were talking with someone on the street at home.

Sometimes I would sit in a camp chair, hunched over a portable word processor propped on a footlocker, wondering how I would begin or end the story I was making. And a soldier would appear out of the corner of my eye, over the brim of my sun hat, with a remark or an entirely new story that solved my problem.

Sgt. Bernard Williamson, a cook known mostly as B.W., was the most consistent of these writer's angels. In civilian life he was a mechanic at a Baltimore MTA yard, with a gold front tooth that gleamed like jewelry, which it was in the sporting way he wore it.

After I had listened all one morning to soldiers complain that their base position was unsafe and denounce the base command for choosing it, B.W. plumped his middle-aged bulk onto the footlocker to tell me: "I love it here."

What about the others?

"You know why everybody's complaining?" he said. "This is not no Boy Scout camp."

He said the higher-ups had confided to him that the troops would move out soon to be positioned for their mission, to staff a prisoner-of-war camp in the event of war.

"We're ready," B.W. said.

How do you know?

"We don't work together as a team anymore," he said. "We work together as a family."

The chapel tent was a busy place. More than one soldier said he had become more spiritually inclined of late. At an evangelical-style Protestant service, one soldier's spontaneous prayer was "that Saddam Hussein will become a Christian."

Chaplain Edward James, a Presbyterian minister from Hancock, said part of his job was as a morale officer funneling to commanders the soldiers' gripes about everything from uniform restrictions to shower tanks that might spout warmer water if painted black to retain the heat of the sun.

After sending my last story to Baltimore from a Desert Shield media headquarters phone in Dhahran, I joined a few other late-filing journalists for a cab ride to a hotel near the air base where we hoped to catch a C-5 cargo plane home.

It was 3 in the morning. After driving for several miles along empty boulevards lined with vanilla slab architecture, our cab driver confessed that this would be his first trip to the Park Hotel.

How long have you been driving a cab, I asked.

"Fifteen days," he said, with a shy giggle that came out as a shriek. He was a Pakistani making his way in a new country.

In the Park Hotel, next to an amusement park hard by the Persian Gulf, four Kuwaiti men were having my same problem. It was too late to bother sleeping for the next day.

So we talked; or rather, they interviewed me with all the sly techniques of reporters, looking for some indication of whether my countrymen would bomb their country and march upon the liberated rubble to hand it back to them. "You must do the war, you know?" one of them said.

I didn't know, but I couldn't suggest any other way of getting their country back, either. I asked if they understood that the Americans' bombs would rain upon Iraqi soldier and Kuwaiti civilian alike.

They assured me that Kuwaiti buildings were built solid enough to shelter friends and families left behind, and that the American soldiers marching in would distinguish between Kuwaitis dressed in flowing white robes and Iraqis in khaki uniforms.

What did I know. They knew more than I did about some aspects of American culture. They had watched the movie "Rambo." I had not. They had seen several installments of the "Rocky" series. I had stopped after the first.

They owned cassettes of Madonna and Michael Jackson, which they said were useful for practicing English. One said his favorite singer was Debbie Gibson, whom I had never heard of. Helping me out, he explained, "She's the really cute one."

We flew home as we had come, by knowing someone who could get us aboard a huge C-5 cargo plane sooner rather than later. One of the television reporters in our group bumped into a pilot friend at the military air hangar in Dhahran. Had she not done this, we might have sat for hours among the cots and chairs where military people wait for rides and thumb through "What they Say About Muhammad" and other tracts for newcomers.

Instead, our pilot friend pointed the air base booking authorities to his plane, hulking over the tarmac, and said he would take us.

From the flight deck of the C-5 we could see the khaki desert ripple into black mountains. But for a few squares of settlement along the gulf, the landscape was impinged by nothing, by no one.

Maybe that will change if war bursts from the poised guns. Many soldiers said war seemed inevitable. I came home wishing more than ever that I could think of a Plan B.

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