Outbreak Of War Explains Scowl On Stranger's Face

The Scene/County currents and undercurrents

January 23, 1991|By Erik Nelson

It was not a good night.

I was standing in the rain in front of the Columbia-Freestate building, pouring drinking fountain water into my car's radiator, imagining what I was going to tell my highly experienced mechanic after he tried to tell me a second time that that my car was not leaking coolant.

I needed the water to get to Oakland Mills Village Center, where I could get a bottle of antifreeze with which to nurse the car home from the pediatrician.

Besides having a sick car, I had a 21-month-old son wheezing from pneumonia and, it turned out, asthma. His breathing was getting worse, so we rushed to the clinic before dinner.

Escaping the hungry gaze of a flatbed tow-truck driver, I pulled awayfrom the Freestate driveway and drove to the village center, where Ipromptly soaked my shoes in a puddle.

Not a good night at all, I thought.

I saw flowers on the way in and decided to buy my wife a pot for our new house, then got my $8 jug of Prestone.

DiscoveringI had only $7.50 on me, I had to stop at the ATM (at a cost of $1.50per transaction), which did nothing to improve my spirits.

Luckily, there were only two people in line at the store check-out, but a guy who got in line behind me seemed somewhat impatient.

I studied his appearance for the split-second that is permitted between strangers. His lean, clean-shaven face was half-scowling, giving me the impression that he was annoyed with me.

What am I doing? Is it becauseI held up the cashier by saying I only needed a bag for the flowers and not the antifreeze?

Besides, what could he be rushing off to, with his coffee ice cream and bag of chocolate chips?

The cashier bagged my flowers (rather violently, I thought), took my money and asked the guy behind me the question that cashiers are always so good about asking the next customer.

"How're you doing?" the cashier said.

"Didn't you hear?" the man responded. "The war's started. Hundreds of jets are bombing Baghdad."

I don't remember the cashier's reaction, but I must have used some four-letter word.

The man said something about firebombs, and "I've got some friends over there," and the three of us stood there for a moment, sharing our disbelief.

AsI left the store, I thought about the insane look I misinterpreted on the man's face, and knew that I would see the same expression in myrear-view mirror.

On the way home, I thanked God for the rain, the leaking car and my sick child.

SOURCE: Erik Nelson


Few people will forget where they were at 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 16, when the first reports began filtering in, saying that the United States and its allies had launched theirmuch-anticipated attack against Iraqi targets in Iraq and Kuwait.

I happened to stumble into the role of messenger that night at MountHebron High School. Hebron was host to Howard in a girls basketball game, while the boys teams from each school were waiting to play their scheduled 7:30 game.

I heard the initial reports of the bombing of Baghdad on my car radio while pulling onto Hebron's parking lot at6:45. I walked into the school and, eager to spread the word, immediately told Hebron athletic director Mark Cates, who was seated at theticket table outside the gym. Cates thought at first I was joking, but he quickly realized this was no prank. He then ran into the gym topass on the news.

The girls game was nearing the end of the thirdquarter, and within minutes it was obvious that word of the bombing was spreading through the bleachers like wildfire.

The crowd's attention span regarding the game gradually diminished. Cheers and boos took on a half-baked, almost indifferent tone. It was clear that manypeople had ceased to care how the game turned out. Most people were talking to each other while pretty much ignoring the action on the court. And they weren't talking basketball.

After Hebron's girls team finished a 58-33 victory, even the coaches' focus had shifted from the court. Hebron coach Dave Greenberg, who usually hangs around to talk hoops for an extended period of time, cut off his postgame discussion abruptly. He wanted to get home to watch President Bush's 9 p.m.address to the nation.

Howard coach Craig O'Connell changed his perspective in the space of about 30 seconds. Initially discouraged over his team's 25-point loss, O'Connell quickly regrouped to say, "Then again, after finding out what's going on tonight (in the Middle East), this loss really doesn't mean much."

Before the boys game began some 20 minutes later, the crowd paused to offer an especially meaningful moment of silence. "The Star-Spangled Banner" then was played -- as always before sporting events -- but this time with a twist.

The cheers from the stands immediately following the anthem were louder than any I'd ever heard at a high school basketball game.

SOURCE:Gary Lambrecht


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