At first, there was some debate at Baltimore's Glen Avenue fire station about how to incorporate Operation Desert Shield into the station's annual Christmas garden.
"We knew we wanted something in here for people who are over there," Lt. David Joeckel says. The firefighters wanted to honor those on duty in Saudi Arabia, but they did not want to inject a warlike scenario into their traditional, peaceful holiday creation, now in its 36th year, Joeckel says.
Together, the firefighters decided to devote a small portion of the Christmas garden to the massive Persian Gulf deployment.
But when the crew member who was supposed to fashion an airport for the Christmas garden was injured on a ski trip, more space became available in the garden. The firehouse's tribute to the troops in Saudi Arabia grew dramatically until it abutted the brand new Pimlico Race Course in the garden's sprawling topography.
In the desert panorama, jets, attached by wires to a flat, circling bicycle chain, continually take off from a lighted runway, practicing a "touch and go" maneuver. Tanks, trucks, troops and camouflage tents supported on thin wooden dowels populate the plaster desert. An American flag flies, perhaps in defiance of Saudi regulations.
An electric train, in true, illogical Christmas garden fashion, weaves through the desert encampment. With a timed light, day turns quickly into night, marking many months in the desert. A phone booth is inexplicably surrounded by trucks in the barren landscape. "You gotta call home," a firefighter quips. For real soldiers at real camps where there are no phones, this addition would make an ironic, make-believe luxury.
An oil truck, parked in the sand, is perhaps a sarcastic counterpoint placed by an anonymous firefighter who feels that the point of Operation Desert Shield is merely to "protect our oil fields," Joeckel explains. (In fact, the entire Christmas garden contains such personal statements. In the plaster mountains, Joeckel planted plastic flowers in tribute to his daughter, Lauren, whom he calls "my flower." And in the sand of a tiny Ocean City, he has written the name of his other daughter, Pamela.)
A handmade plaque planted on the desert says: "This garden is dedicated to all members of the Armed Forces who will not be with their families this holiday season -- especially everyone participating in 'Operation Desert Shield.'"
"There is no real fighting, so to speak," Joeckel says of the scene. "Because we don't want fighting over there."
In a certain light, Desert Shield could be considered a controversial addition to a pastoral Christmas garden tradition. But in another, it is completely in keeping with what a Christmas garden is supposed to do. In its juxtaposition of the old and the new, the near and the far, real life and fantasy, it recognizes the huge variety of activities that take place on Earth continually and concurrently. At one end of the garden, circus performers walk the high wire. At the other, armed men stand their ground. It is all part of the same planet.
"We just hope the people don't object," Joeckel says of the model encampment. So far, "People have been acting favorably to it, and are thanking us," he adds. Several visitors to the fire station have mentioned to Joeckel that they have relatives stationed in the faraway desert.
As he came upon Desert Shield, Richard Dix, 48, said, "I think it's a good idea to show support. It's something you gotta face up to every day." Dix, who had grandchildren and a son in tow, served in the military during the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War.
A woman visitor liked the miniature Desert Shield well enough, but the prospects it conjured up were disturbing. "I'm upset about it," she said. If there is war, "Our way of life will be gone, if you're dependent on oil."
The fire station was crowded with children who seemed to regard Operation Desert Shield less raptly than they did the rest of the cacophonous scene. A circus, the Simpson family in mindless motion, Ninja turtles, a raging fire, jousting tournament and bungee-jumping from a railroad trestle, among other attractions, held their attention in this odd, miniature world. But they did not seem to connect with the troops in the desert.
The Glen Avenue fire station's Christmas garden is on view 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. through Jan. 6, at the station, 2700 Glen Ave. Call 396-5680.