Chapter 1 - January 17, 1991 (language warning)
Bombs fell in Baghdad. Bernard Shaw made his famous hotel room broadcast that rocketed CNN from a minor player in the television news market to the dominant force. American television was interrupted with the breaking news. I was sound asleep.
It may have been prime-time in the USA, but there in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, it was three in the morning. I was tired and had about a quart of homemade hootch helping push the fog of fear aside so I could sleep a little.
The phone rang.
It was my wife calling from Indiana.
“They’re on the news. Something’s happening.”
“They’re bombing Baghdad. The war has started.”
“Oh? Well, they did it, then.” I experienced the quickest transformation from half-drunk to completely sober in my file.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is there anything happening there?”
“Just a minute.” I walked over to the bedroom window with the phone still held up to my ear. All I could see was the light on at the top of the minaret of the mosque across the street. “No… wait a minute. I can hear jets flying over. Harriers, I think. I can hear a B-52. Oh, Jesus! Shit!”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Cruise missile, I think. Scared me. Sorry.”
“When are they going to send you home?”
“They haven’t said yet. I won’t know any more till I get back to work on Saturday.”
Hadeed – Saudi Iron and Steel told us employees that if and when the war started, everyone who wasn’t on the critical position list would be sent home until the war was over. I wasn’t on the critical position list. That was a list I didn’t want to be on. Those poor suckers would be stuck in Jubail, just 80 miles from Kuwait, until the war was over. We lucky ones would be sent home until the war ended and would be brought back to put the steel plant back online.
“Let me know as soon as you hear what they’re going to do. Have you seen Rudy?”
Rudy is my wife’s twin brother. By a quirk of fate, his Marine unit was sent to a base just 10 miles from my apartment in Jubail. I spent almost every weekend with him at the base for three months leading up to the war. I adopted his entire squad and I bought them things from town that they couldn’t get since they weren’t allowed off the base. I also baked them cookies, made them pizza, and took their clothes back to my apartment to wash for them. They were stuck in the armpit of the world – Saudi Arabia. I lived in that armpit but at least I had a little more mobility than they did.
“I saw him last weekend. He said I wouldn’t be able to get onto the base for a while once the war started.”
“Are you safe there?”
“I’ll be fine. I have the car packed and we’re going to go in a convoy if things get bad here. I have to call Stewart and Jim. They said to call them if I hear anything. They’re going to come over here.”
“O.K. I’m really worried. You be careful and let me know as soon as you know when you’ll be coming home.”
“Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. I love you.”
“I love you, too. Bye.”
I hung up the phone and went back to the window. I was worried. I wasn’t safe there. Everything was not going to be all right. Fighter jets were screaming overhead from Rudy’s air base. Bomber jets were high above. Cruise missiles were lighting the sky over Al-Fanateer bay. I could hear the sixteen inch guns from the battleships further up the coast. The anti-aircraft battery at the end of the peninsula had fired several times already. What was I going to do?
What I did first was run to the bathroom and puke. Stewart’s homemade wine went down a little rough and came up even rougher. Illegal alcohol and raw fear were coming out of my mouth so fast that my nose had to provide a relief valve for the pressure. Nose puking is the worst kind.
I was on the phone with Stewart when my doorbell rang. I finished the call quickly and rushed to the door. I was shirtless, barefoot, and hadn’t managed to get my belt buckled yet. Jim was standing there with a blanket, pillow, and a look of shock on his face. “Jesus Christ! They’re right over us. Oh fuck. They’re fucking going to kill us. Why the fuck didn’t we get out of here last week? Jesus fucking Christ! What do we do now?”
Jim didn’t usually swear much. I wasn’t a swearer either, but it seemed completely appropriate for situation. The words that came out of his mouth were what was running through my head. He came into the apartment and as I was closing the door behind him, I saw Stewart coming down the front sidewalk at a dead run. He had a gallon jug of his homebrew wine swinging by a finger, a carton of Marlboro Lights under his arm, and two one-liter bottles of Sidiki cradled in his other arm.
As well as his many buckets of wine and beer brewing in his apartment, Stewart also had a still in his kitchen. He manufactured ample quantities of what the locals called Sidiki. It was triple-distilled grain alcohol – 190 proof. It took your breath away to drink it straight, and we used it in our Zippo lighters because it burned better than lighter fluid.
Although alcohol is strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia, most of the local authorities looked the other way as long as we kept it to ourselves and didn’t try to sell it to any Saudis. They were even more lax about us westerners because of the upcoming war. Although they would never admit it, most major industries in the country would collapse if we left and didn’t come back. It was a begrudging tolerance in return for us running things for them.
Stewart rushed through the door, out of breath and sharing the same look of shock that Jim and I were wearing. He held the jug out for Jim and I took the bottles of fire water out of his arm. He bent over with his hands on his knees until he got his breathing under control. As soon as he got his breath back, he took a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt, shook one up, and lit it. He held the pack out to me and after I took one, he lit it with his still burning lighter. He knew Jim didn’t smoke and didn’t offer one to him.
As he was putting the smokes back in his pocket, Jim said, “I’ll take one.”
Stewart looked surprised but shook one up for him. “You don’t smoke.”
“They’re fucking going to kill us.”
“That’s why I brought the booze. If we’re going to die, we’re going to die drunk.“
I turned and walked back to my bedroom without adding my agreement to the death declarations. No need to say it again. We were going to die. Stewart and Jim followed me. Jim sat the jug on the dresser and I put the two plastic water bottles filled with Sidiki on the cases lined up against the wall. They both sat on the edge of the bed while I sealed the door with packing tape. Those were our instructions from the meetings we had with the American consulate in Dhahran. That little strip of adhesive tape around the doors and windows was supposed to keep the poison gas out. The poison gas they told us that Saddam didn’t posses. Launched in the warheads of missiles they told us couldn’t reach us in Jubail. US consulates are such fucking liars. That’s what they get paid to do.
I followed their survival instructions, though. I had enough food and supplies stockpiled in the bedroom to keep three people alive for two weeks. That is unless something else killed us first. I also had the gas mask they gave me in the bedroom. I had the one that my brother-in-law gave me that he “acquisitioned” from the marines in my kitchen. One of the five that I got from my employer was on the front seat of my car. The other four were spread out in the house.
I had five from Hadeed because they offered five – one for each member of my family. It didn’t matter that my family was safely back in Indiana. When in Saudi – do as the Saudis do. If something is offered to you free, you take it. It doesn’t matter if it’s something you could never possibly use. You take it anyway. If they offered free prosthetic legs to whomever wanted one, you would have a line of Saudis a block long waiting to get theirs. They would take it home and stash it in a closet – unless they could sell it.
Even if Saddam couldn’t hit us with chemical weapons, we lived three miles from a huge industrial complex. Sadaf had two million gallons of ammonia stored at their facility. Al-Razi had a half-million gallons of methanol. Ibn Al-Bitar had several thousand metric tons of potassium nitrate. Petra-Kemya had four million gallons of jet fuel. Sharq had huge quantities of chlorine gas. We were one explosion away from having our lungs dissolved into a chemical goo. Its hard to breathe when that happens.
We also had two hundred thousand soldiers stationed in and around Jubail. It was a secret. Saddam wasn’t supposed to know about that. CNN took care of letting the cat out of the bag until someone had the sense to bitch-slap them off the air. Journalists are assholes.
Stewart and Jim sat on the edge of the over-sized king bed. Everything was big in that apartment. It was huge by normal apartment standards. Three bedrooms, three bathrooms, two living rooms (one for the men and one for the women), a large dining room, and an equally large kitchen. 2,700 square feet in all – 900 square meters for you metrically inclined. There were also two separate entrances. One for the men, and the other for the women so neither one would be seen by the other. This was Saudi Arabia, after all. They call it tradition. I call it stupidity.
I turned on the television set and tuned it to one of the two English speaking channels available to us. There were only four channels in the country – two in Arabic and two in English. The government tightly controlled what went out on the airwaves and broadcasts from other countries were jammed. Satellite dishes were illegal. So were ham radios. Everything they allowed to be broadcast was heavily censored. The funniest one was during a National Geographic documentary when they kept bleeping out the word “Octopus”. Like I said, the Saudis are idiots. Maybe they heard some American infidel say, “I need to get myself a piece of octopus.”
I wasn’t very hopeful about the quality of news I would get from the Saudi station. I was surprised when I saw that they had replaced their regular news broadcast about the amazing benevolence of King Fahad – “Keeper of the Faith”, and the atrocities of the day committed by the “enemy Israelis”, with a live feed from CNN. I flipped to the other English channel and they had a live feed from the BBC. Both Jim and Stewart said, “Wow” at the same time. Jim swore again, “Fucking unbelievable. Real news.” I flipped back to CNN. We’d let Stewart watch the BBC for a while later. There were two Americans and one Brit there in the room. We were both a lot bigger than him too.
As is typical at the beginning of something major happening, the journalists and commentators knew absolutely nothing, but they kept telling us what they didn’t know anyway. We spent an hour listening to every word that didn’t tell us anything we wanted to know.
The one thing I neglected to bring into the bedroom was the coffee maker. I don’t know what I was thinking. I could go a week without eating but getting through a day without coffee was impossible. I was no longer worried about chemical weapons – it was caffeine deprivation that would kill me. Sure, I had four cases of Coca Cola in the bedroom and that has caffeine in it, but real coffee addicts know that’s not the same. I needed a fix and I would storm the gates of hell to get some.
I fastened the belt holding my bedroom gas mask around my waist so I could make it down the hallway until my kitchen gas mask was within reach. We were more spooked about chemical weapons than just about anything else. We had seen the pictures of the five thousand dead Kurds as a result of Saddam dropping mustard gas, Sarin, and Tabun on them in 1986. If he killed his own people with nerve gas, what would he do to us in a war?
I took the coffee maker and a stack of paper filters back to the bedroom and sealed the door again. I had five pounds of coffee among my bedroom survival supplies. It was just the maker that I forgot about. I suppose I could have found a way to make coffee in the bathroom using the sink or possibly that bidet that didn’t seem to have any other use. The idea of drinking coffee out of a butt washer didn’t have much appeal.
Our mood mellowed out when we had some steaming mugs of coffee to sip on. By the time I made the second pot, we were fairly relaxed. We even tried to put some Sidiki in the coffee. It was kind of like Irish coffee except it wasn’t whiskey, it wasn’t Irish, and it tasted like shit. We didn’t do that again.
Tension returned quickly after a report from Charles Jaco at the International Hotel in Dhahran. During his semi-hourly broadcast telling us that he didn’t know anything yet, there appeared to be a scuffle behind him in the lobby, he said in a panicked voice, “Something’s happening here! Something’s happening here at the hotel!” Then the feed was lost.
The anchors back in Atlanta proceeded to tell us what they didn’t know. They took it a step farther into baseless supposition by speculating that the Iraqis may have gotten to Dhahran and had taken over the hotel, and possibly the Saudi Royal Air Base that is located just a mile from the hotel.
That did more than pique our interest a little. It puckered our anuses into a knot of frightened muscle that you couldn’t squeeze a turd through if you got a hernia trying. Kuwait was 80 miles to the north. Dhahran was 50 miles to the south. The Persian gulf was a mile to the East. 200 miles of desert lay to the west of us. There were no roads out of Jubail going west. You had to first drive north to Abu Hadriah – 10 miles from Kuwait, or south to Dhahran.
Even those routes could quickly become impassable. The Saudis had wired all of the bridges and overpasses with explosives so they could blow them to slow the Iraqis down if they made it across the border. All of the pre-planned escape routes to drive me and my little Mazda 929 out of danger were eliminated.
Time to go to plan B. Stewart and Jim monitored the news – frantically flipping back and forth from CNN to the BBC while I got on the phone with Dave. The Americans at Hadeed (all ten of us) selected Dave as our representative in dealing with the consulate and he was the central contact point to coordinate our escape if it came to that.
Five of the Americans owned four-wheel drive vehicles. There were ten men, three wives, and three children. We thought Clyde was nuts to have his kids stay in Saudi with him and his wife – but I guess we were all a little nuts. We were there too. We had organized an alternative escape plan with each of us assigned to a specific vehicle. The vehicles were topped off with gasoline and had an additional supply of fuel contained in four 30-liter containers. Plan B was to convoy across 200 miles of desert to Riyadh. There was no plan C.
Seven vehicles owned by British expatriates and one by an Australian would join our international escape across the desolate landscape and sand dunes. The line was forming at Dave’s compound across town as we spoke on the phone. We decided that it would take at least three hours for an invasion force to reach Jubail from Kuwait and possibly as little as two hours from Dhahran. Dave would make the go or no go call in thirty minutes to give us time to get out before the Iraqis could hit us with chemical weapons.
By the time I rejoined Jim and Stewart watching developments on CNN, Charles Jaco was back on the air and explained that the “Something’s happening” was a panic fueled by a sonic boom followed by exhaust fumes from jet fighters that caused some of the people hiding there at the hotel think that they had been hit with a chemical weapon. People put on their gas masks and started running for the air raid shelter set up in the basement. An employee at the hotel shut off the electricity – for reasons unknown to everyone. Probably a Saudi. A stupid Saudi.
I got back on the phone with Dave and he had already cancelled the convoy after seeing the same broadcast on CNN. We laughed with each other even though there was nothing funny.
Stewart broke out his gallon jug of wine. We got buzzed but not drunk, because this was only day one and there was a lot more war to come.