Saturday was a day much like the previous two days, but with an important exception: I left the hotel. Twice! In the morning I went out as sound technician with Chester as shooter and reporter Jim Hill. According to Saudi procedures, we were accompanied by an escort from the Ministry of Information: Salaah, a quiet, friendly young man who admitted it was his first day on the job.
Our destination was King Fahd University, to interview several professors who are using satellites and computers to track and predict the flow of the oil spill in the Gulf. The story was interesting, very impressive computer models of currents and flows, plus high-resolution satellite imagery. The spill is an exercise in opposites compared to Valdez: tropical vs. arctic, a shallow enclosed sea vs. Alaska's strong Pacific currents, and of course a very light, high grade oil vs. Alaska heavy crude. It seemed like a fascinating story, maybe one I could edit as well. Halfway through the shoot Jim Hill mentions it's not our story-it's elements for an L.A. science piece. Oh, well.The trip offered my first glimpse of Saudi Arabia in daylight. All is sand, except where the landscape has been meticulously manicured. Along the boulevard, rows of short, squat palm trees and grassy lawns, bordered by bright flowerbeds of marigolds. The University campus was a stunning oasis, built on a limestone rock outcropping with fountains and a huge pool, a tower at the center surrounded by buildings lined with arched promenades. Very cool and shady with well-watered lawns and palms. An organic whole worthy of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The satisfaction of actually going somewhere and doing something took some of the sting out of watching more personnel depart for Kuwait--including a camera crew that just arrived from the U.S. in the middle of the night. We met the second crew that also just arrived, and during a very slow afternoon we managed to go with them on a shopping trip into town. My second excursion in one day! Employing my experience as an international tourist, I immediately negotiated a deal for an Arab headdress1. The other guys, learning from my example, bought their own at other shops for half the cost. But what I have learned is, if I see it and want it, I shouldn't wait to try to find one elsewhere, cheaper or better. I applied this also at another shop, where I picked up a small brass hookah and a copper coffee urn for 12 dollars each. (My headgear cost me $18.00.) This particular shop was loaded with very nice craftwork: a rosewood trunk with brass studding for $700, an inlaid wood camel saddle for $250, and all size and style of brass and copper artifacts.
The shopping area we went to could have been transplanted from Tijuana or Oaxaca. Lots of tacky bootleg items from electronics to jeans, in shops lining an indoor mall. Across the street were stalls under corrugated steel roofs, containing clothing and shoes, native or imported. We also strolled past many jewelry stores, which I would like to see again if I get the chance. Seeing a heavily armed soldier on every street corner did not register with me at first, because in Mexico every jewelry store and bank has the same thing. But as I took more notice I realized it was an odd assortment of Saudis, American MPs, even what seemed to be Egyptians. The checkpoints along the roads, with their concrete tank barriers and sandbagged bunkers, are even becoming commonplace. Seems you can get used to war, if it doesn't hurt you.
The evening was a continuation of socializing, as the new crews met the old crews, the returning heroes filled with stories of their days in the field. Those of us who are new envy them their experience, in the comfort and safety of the imminent peace. But in conversations with the other replacements, we've found a shared psychic effect, a letdown, even a depression--coming to terms with the very real prospect of facing death, preparing mentally as well as physically, and then never taking the test. Is it something we'll always wonder about? Or will we yet find out? Be careful what you wish.
After a hot bath, I got three hours of the soundest sleep I've had in 4 days. Then I got up half past midnight for the graveyard shift. We did a live shot with Carl Rochelle, then as everyone prepared to hit the sack except me, we had a crisis. The army in Kuwait reported that our flyaway2 satellite crew never arrived at the airport for their chopper flight to the desert. Without them, the surrender could not be televised. Panicked phone calls ensued--to Atlanta, Riyadh, Kuwait, and the military information bureau here in the hotel. A Colonel Icenogle conferred with us and the search was on. I suggested the scenario that it was the army's SNAFU and not ours: the crew arrived on schedule and caught an earlier flight, and some soldier in Kuwait didn't know about it. After an hour of phone calls, our supervising producer was ready to make the call to CBS, begging them to bail us out with a dish of their own. Just then the brass called back; their mistake, the dish had left on schedule six hours earlier. Everyone went to bed except me, and I'm left alone with my pipe and the comforting sound of Ernie, our Filipino driver, snoring on the couch.
1Editor's note, 2011: It's called a "keffiyeh", which I didn't know or couldn't spell at the time. Like a cowboy hat, it's a highly functional piece of headgear in the desert. And like a cowboy hat, it looks pretty silly on a tourist. I recently found my keffiyeh in the bottom of my foot locker; the label says "Made in Korea."
2Editor's note, 2011: A "flyaway" is a portable satellite uplink assembled like a six-foot-diameter jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are packed in two dozen trunks, which can be loaded on a plane and flown anywhere. Just add electricity and you're on the air.