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Friday night means malaria pills. There's no swallowing them fast enough to avoid that horrid bitter aftertaste. At least there have not been any of the other dire side effects predicted earlier. But whatever the drawbacks, it must be worth it--I would hate to come down with malaria in this fine hotel where I've been staying.

Friday is also the Saudi Sabbath, and that means no stores are open in the entire country. Lucky for me I spent the day on a U.S. military base. It was another drive today 100 klicks1 up the coast to Jubail. This time it was the Marines who were flying home. We arrived early to catch a speech to the troops by an officer with the wonderfully apropos name of General Boomer. When he had finished his pep talk, we inquired about the troop departure and learned it would be a three hour wait. I was all in favor of bailing out and heading home--after all, we had done the same story twice the day before. But our producer, John Fiegener, overruled me. He had just arrived the day before, this was his first story on his very first road trip, and everything was new and earth-stopping to him. So we compromised. We sent the tape of the General's speech back by courier, and hung out the rest of the morning waiting for something to happen.

Zit cans
Out in the Saudi desert, a great way to beat the heat was to pop open a Zit! Canned by Al Jabr Trading Co.
under license Afri-Cola, Cologne, West Germany. West Germany ceased to exist in October 1990.
To his credit, John came up with the idea for a new approach to the story--all natural sound with no reporter's narration. It was enough encouragement to inspire us, so Sergei shot a mile of tape during the next few hours. We got marines marching, marines sitting, marines packing, waiting, loading, and most of all celebrating. It turned out to be enough good stuff that we knew we could make the piece work. We dashed back to Dhahran and I went to work editing it. We came up with a nice, tight, almost touching tribute to the U.S. Marines and their indomitable naiveté. I kind of felt guilty doing such a rah-rah piece, but it was certainly well done. Just the same, I suspect it won't get that much play, for the very reason I was against it in the first place. It was, quite simply, old news.

I did enjoy the drive, though, even if it was the second time. It covers a monotonous stretch of wasteland, mostly sand dunes and salt marsh, a few palms studding the flat terrain. But it is real, and that is what I hoped to see--the real Saudi Arabia. Adding to the authenticity was the foreboding weather; a gray-black haze obscuring the horizon in every direction, filtering the sun into a glowing ball and tinting the light with an eerie yellow cast. John and Sergei insisted it was smoke from the oil well fires of Kuwait, but I say no. Those are still a hundred miles away. And besides, there is no odor of smoke or fumes--only dust. The wind was picking up and lashing out, carrying with it the occasional sting of sand. From what I hear from the locals, this is nothing new at all. It is the "shamal," or what we would call simply a desert storm. And what, I wonder, could be more appropriate? And what might the whirlwind bring?

1Editor's note, 2011: For those who don't know military jargon, a "klick" is a kilometer, equal to six-tenths of a mile. For those who don't know math, a hundred kilometers is equal to sixty miles.

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© 2011 Chuck Afflerbach for The Hick Town Times