COUNTDOWN TO THANKSGIVING. I PREPARE FOR THE FEAST. LIKE MOST AMERICAN HOUSEWIVES (THAT IS, like most women employed both in and outside the house), I begin weeks ahead of time, hoping the most perishable items will survive the freezer. There will be, as usual, a turkey so plump and breasty it resembles a giant's basketball. This year there'll also be a dozen side dishes of greens, tubers and fruit, all carefully meat-free for the several family members who have become vegetarians. I rejoice in the plenty -- and feel guilty about being so far from hunger in a world where hunger is a permanent guest at countless tables. I rejoice especially in the family members themselves, at a time when so many U.S. families are separated from theirs by the crisis in the Middle East.
I sift a lacy pattern of powdered sugar over the orange-peel cake. . . . They say Saudi Arabian sand is like powdered sugar. "It's nothing like the sand in Ocean City," young men and women write back to their families in Maryland. It sifts through every air filter, plugs every cranny of Western machinery. "Endemic cloggage" is what Lt. Col. Joseph Allred, an Army media relations officer at the Pentagon, called it when I talked with him ,, recently. "I know what it's like. I'm an artillery man myself."
For an instant I force myself to imagine being covered head to foot with powdered sugar, in a waterless land where the temperature reaches 130 degrees. The year I forgot to take the turkey out of the freezer til midnight Thanksgiving Eve, I put it into a 130-degree oven. The solidly frozen 24-pound bird thawed in a hurry at that temperature.
Thinking about poundage gives me an idea. In talking with Lieutenant Colonel Allred, I found out that the average basic pack load for an American soldier in the Saudi desert is 60 pounds, a figure that changes, almost always for the heavier, according to the nature and duration of the mission. Propped near the kitchen table stands a paper grocery bag full of Thanksgiving fixings I brought home earlier today. The bag contains two large cans of raw pumpkin, two cans of evaporated milk, one small can of sweetened condensed milk, a head of iceberg lettuce, a head of romaine lettuce, one small bag each of mushrooms and chestnuts, a box of raisins, a pound of fancy coffee beans. In other words, the bag is full but not stuffed; it was one of several I carried into the house simultaneously. Nevertheless, it's heavy enough to begin to tear when I pick it up by the edges with the tips of my fingers and thumbs, gingerly so as not to get powdered sugar all over everything.
I place the bag on the bathroom scale. It weighs in at just under 12 pounds. Five such bags stuffed my Tercel hatch on the way home from the supermarket. The American soldiers march around the 130-degree desert with a Tercel-full of baggage -- minimum -- strapped to their backs all day. And don't forget the water -- between two and four quarts at a time, "frequently augmented," said Lieutenant Colonel Allred, "by medical and logistical personnel." Four quarts of water weigh about 8 pounds. Add a whole medium-size Thanksgiving pumpkin to the load.
Realizing the weight still doesn't seem quite as daunting as what my husband has described carrying through the same terrain while stationed in Egypt several years ago, I query him about his experience. What accounts for the disparity between the basic 60 pounds and the total of 150-odd he remembers?
"Different weapons," he explains. "Grenades and ammunition. Radios, wires, chemical-detection equipment. When the infantry moves, it carries everything it needs on its back." He recalls, "The most difficult thing was an anti-tank missile called the Dragon. It came with both day and night sights. The night sight required a special rucksack of its own. Of course only one or two guys per squad had to carry the Dragon."
"Did you?" I want to know.
"It's usually the new guy in the squad that gets stuck with carrying it, because that's the most awkward, pack-mule type of job. Sure, my first assignment was 'Dragon Gunner.' "
Feeling suddenly light, I square my shoulders and finish decorating the cake.
Revulsed by the feel of the powdery stuff covering my hands, I rinse the sugar off with about as much water as a soldier in the Saudi desert probably uses for an entire shower "in the field," a rite of cleansing that, according to the lieutenant colonel, is "strongly encouraged on a daily basis."
Under rougher field circumstances, however, he told me, the daily shower tends to dwindle to an every-two-days dousing in the shower tent. He described this as a "canvas facility" replenished by containers originating at the base's water tower. "Medical personnel are in charge of sanitation. The Army is very concerned with maintaining the highest degree of privacy and cleanliness possible," he continued, and added with a chuckle: "The shower tent would remind you of Boy Scout camp."