EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA — Eastern Saudi Arabia--In a country where the landscape is as monotonous as sand, the eye looks upward.
crescent moon hangs upside down. The desert sun hides behind a sheer curtain of dust. The stars glitter on a black veil.
And one day a bank of fluffy, cumulous clouds floats on a bed of blue. And a soldier finds the time to notice.
"When it's always blue sky, blue sky and you get a cloud, it's something different here, a change of pace. It made me happy," said Sgt. William Brownell, 47, of St. Paul, Minn. "Being here from the U.S., I notice more the little things of life."
Like a cloud.
But nothing is as it appears in the desert. A cloud is not only to be appreciated, but also studied.
"It's big and fluffy like a rain cloud. Weather is something I have to keep an eye on because I'm the NBC [nuclear, biological, chemical] officer," said the sergeant, who prepares soldiers for chemical warfare. "Certain conditions make for a better attack for the enemy. Cool weather would mean some of the [chemical] agents he [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] would use might last longer. In extreme heat, they would dissipate fast."
* Scalloped potatoes and ham. Pork in barbecue sauce. Chicken with rice, or in a stew or a la king. A ham omelet, corned beef hash, beef and beans. Cheese and crackers, peanut butter and jelly, cherry nut cake and chocolate-covered graham crackers.
Those are only a few of the entrees available to the soldier when he picks through a box of MREs, "meals ready to eat." The reviews have generally been poor. The critics uniformly have dubbed the MREs "Meals Rejected by Ethiopian."
To enhance flavor and just be able to get the meals down, many soldiers will heat them up. While visiting here recently, Lt. Col. Howard S. Freedlander, a public affairs spokesman for the Maryland National Guard, decided to do as the soldiers do.
He kneaded the MRE packet, twisted the top, tied it with a string and then lowered the brown plastic pouch into a garbage can filled with water heated by a propane burner.
"Hey sir, it's a little bit like chicken necking," said Capt. Ronald G. Chew, commander of the 200th Military Police Company of Salisbury.
The prisoner's face was in the sand.
Sgt. Ray Staniewski, 35, of Catonsville and Spc. Michael Adams, of Denton stood on either side of the prisoner, their M-16s pointed at his head.
The prisoner had tried to break away from Spc. Roderick Day, as the 24-year-old soldier from Woodlawn patted down the prisoner, removed his belt (to keep the man from killing himself) and searched his pockets, retrieving three pens, a green memo pad, a WPOC bumper sticker.
"That was a dirty uniform, wasn't it, Ernie?" Sergeant Staniewski said to his prisoner, a.k.a. Sgt. Ernest V. Roe, 32, of Baltimore.
The exercise on Christmas morning was just one of many training sessions the members of the 290th Military Police Company have participated in since they arrived in Saudi Arabia on Dec. 9 as part of Operation Desert Shield.
At one point during the mock search, Prisoner Roe had his hands on top of his head, his fingers interlocked. Specialist Day held him in place by grabbing two of those fingers: "You squeeze them to the point where you can break them if you have to."
More dreaded than the fly-infested latrines were the shower stalls at Camp Sahik. With water at a premium and no hot water at that, soldiers had three minutes to shower up. They could only do so between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. or between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. -- when the desert temperatures were a chilly 50-ish.
It was the question most asked a group of journalists visiting the Maryland National Guardsmen here -- "Have you taken a shower yet?"
In the last week, the camp's water supply -- delivered by the Saudis under a contract with the Army -- had increased. The time restrictions on the shower were lifted; showers could be taken at any time. And an experiment was under way: One of the water boxes on top of the showers was painted black in an effort to retain the sun's heat and warm the otherwise frigid water. The experiment appeared to have worked, but the camp needed more black paint to coat the other boxes.
"It takes four-five days to get it," said Lt. Col. Cotton W. S. Bowen, the camp commander, who heads the 400th Military Police Battalion. "If we were back home, I'd just send somebody down to Hechinger's to buy it."
Voices from the desert camp of the 290th Military Police Company from Towson, the thoughts of police officers and electricians, law students and mothers, secretaries and security guards, gun salesmen and wallpaper hangers who now live each day wondering if there will be another:
"If it hadn't been for the National Guard, I wouldn't have finishecollege. I'm paying Uncle Sam back now."
"Those of us with children, time lost is never found. My daughter's report card, I told her to Xerox copies. I want to know" how she is doing.
"Mail is it -- that's our only contact. It's like your lifeline back home."