Few things in life is more humorous in retrospect than unashamed terror.
I was sitting in the hooch one night when Rob came up to me and told me that they had just opened up “Scuds and Suds.” Naturally, my reaction was along the lines of “What the Hell are you talking about?”
Rob was standing there wanting me to join him at the new “night club” they had just opened up. Because of the “dryness” of the country, I wondered what kind of nightclub this could be? A junior high dance?
As most people know, Saudi Arabia, like most places, is a dry country. Only the hedonistic Americans and their satanistic allies partake such aberrant behavior as drinking. Oh, and Middle Eastern countries on holiday, away from their homeland. Ok, I’ll back away from that slowly…
Borne from the ingenuity of a very bored Marine force sitting in the desert, someone came up with this wonderful concept. Let’s put up some tents, string it with lights and whatever else we can scrounge up, build a bar, and make a night club sans the alcohol. As strange as this concept sounds, it had a certain appeal. A place to almost forget where you are and to interact with others.
So Rob and I grabbed the usual gear (gas mask, chemical protective suit, rifle) and headed out into the desert. It was about a one mile walk and we located the hopping grand opening. Sad as it sounds, we were actually excited that it was something new.
As we walked into the tent, we were immediately hit with many sights. There were lights, a bar, loud music, and Queen Bees sipping soda. Let me explain.
A Queen Bee is a woman who, no matter what level of ugliness she has managed to attain, tends to have the male species gravitate to them like drones. And the Queen Bees were in force; little hovels of uniformed bodies with the inevitable female at the center of attention. We of the male persuasion are so easy! And to make things worse, there was a calliope of nations represented so now you had the “mysterious foreign woman” adding into the equation. The end result: similar to any other bar but with more wall flowers than normal due to the lack of inhibition inhibiter that alcohol provides.
Rob and I bellied up to the bar feeling like Radar O’Reilly ordering a Grape Nehi. Rob ordered a Near Beer (for those who just like to piss) and I had a Pepsi that had Arabic scribbling on the side that likely translated "We pissed in this can." I had not thought about bringing money since the soda they were selling was widely available for free. But they were charging and to keep up the façade, I decided a small price was necessary to complete the illusion. Although standing there, I could not recall many bars where the patrons were sporting M-16s on their backs and gas masks on their hips. Surreal to say the least.
We were not there but a few minutes and had found an open spot near the side of the tent. I had just popped my can and was laughing at Rob because his had fizzed out all over the floor. Apparently they charged their soda with more than just money.
Then, it happened. Through the tent flap exploded an Australian soldier who yelled, “SCUDS INCOMING!” There was an eerie pause in everything to include sound, movement, and reality. No one knew what to think and then like a bolt of lightning, everyone scattered. The problem was that we were in a tent with only one opening.
I will be honest, I was scared. We were in a bad situation: in a crowded tent with panicked, armed people trying to escape, a mile away from our base. What was my reaction in this time of crisis? The same as Rob’s: where do we set our sodas so they do not tip and we know where to find them? You might think this is the brave reaction of a trained Marine, but you would be wrong. We were scared, I mean really scared. But for some reason I still do not understand, the focus of effort at the time was finding a flat surface for our sodas.
Upon completing this strange mission, Rob and I crowded for the door. I came extremely close to getting the business end of an M-16 rifle right in the face when the Marine in front of me stopped and backed up, probably from the same scenario in front of him. Like the trained, disciplined fighters we were, we pushed and yelled like idiots trying to get out of the tent. When we finally did, we fanned out and then it was a foot race.
I love Rob like a brother. He was and remains one of my best friends in my entire life and I was even his best man during his wedding. But that night, as I hit the opening, Rob was pretty much on his own. Sorry Buddy but I am highstepping and I will say nice things at your funeral. It may sound crass but it was true. Not a person in that crowd had anything on their mind except escape and I am sure Rob felt the same way. In fact, I know he did, as you will see below.
I have never ran as fast in my life. I was in the frame of mind that a missile was going to hit at any time and I was the Corporal of the Guard for the perimeter defense. That means that I was a mile where I needed to be to hit the fence and guard against a possible simultaneous attack on the perimeter. Everyone that was not on the defense force was supposed to hit the bunkers and only come out if needed to defend. So it was imperative that I get there and provide the leadership needed to make that perimeter stick.
Like a bad dream, I could not go as fast as I wanted to. I was running fast but light speed is the only acceptable pace in the situation and while I was burning sand beneath me, the flopping gear and banging rifle was making my progress a bit slower than I wanted. But, Lord, was I moving, hyped up on adrenaline and unmasked fear. I felt light as I zipped across the desert with only the my rhythmic, shallow breaths to keep me company.
As I looked over to my right, I could not believe my eyes. I had beat Rob out the door and thought I would see him after the fight. But as fast as I thought I was running, I saw Rob pass me on the right as though I was taking a nap. I run faster than Rob. Always have, always will. But that night, all I saw was outstretched legs and arms as he blew past me at Mach speed, taking my ego with him like a trailing piece of waste paper.
After what seemed like an eternity, I got to the guard tent and burst through the flap. Sirens were going off and people were running a yelling everywhere. It was organized chaos as everyone was trying to get to their assigned places for defense or safety.
As I entered, I saw one of the most frightening sights of my entire life. There was the rest of the guard force in the tent with ripped open chemical suit bags putting on their MOPP gear. The sergeant looked at me and simply screamed “MOPP 4!!!”
My bones shivered and my very soul turned ice cold.
For weeks we were threatened by our chain of command not to open these suits. They only have a certain amount of time that they are good once you open them and because they were extremely expensive, the opening of one, intentionally of not, was cause for severe punishment. I would feel less worried after my rifle accidentally discharged than I would if I poked a hole in my suit.
With that in mind, you can imagine my reaction to a tent full of Marines opening these things willy nilly. Not unless some serious badness was going down were those suits allowed to even come close to being opened. What’s worse is that I was behind the power curve. Time took an immediate half step and I was surrounded in mental syrup.
I grabbed by suit bag and, like a bag of chips, tried to pry in open from the sides. It stretched but did not tear. I tried again. Nothing. A little yelp escaped my lips as I tried again, remembering to stop breathing for fear of contamination. Staying with the chips analogy, it popped open and gear went everywhere. This was like a scene out of the Keystone Cops but with a slightly more serious flavor. My thought at that very moment was that I was being exposed to chemical agent and I was not going to be protected. My training served me well and I got the suit on in record time and ran to my assigned position on the fence line, ready to lead the defense of our perimeter.
I cannot describe in words my feelings at this moment. Only those who have actually truly believed and fully expected immediate mortal danger can relate; and to those people no explanation is necessary.
Luckily, the enemy never materialized and we were stood down from full MOPP. It was by no means a false alarm because we got word that there were detections of chemical agents up wind from us but our reaction was to the possible accompanying attack which never came.
Because the inside of the suit is lined with charcoal (which absorbs any chemical agents), my cammies were ashen colored. But I did not care. I had once again faced my deepest fear and came out not lacking. I was proud of myself, my Marines, and our reaction time under the circumstances.
Meeting back up with Rob, we returned to the Scuds and Suds to continue our drink. We found our cans right where we left them and had a few stories and more laughs about our reactions. It never ceases to amaze me that we always look for and find the humor in such situations.
“Jason, you ran like a little bitch.”
“Yeah, well who was the littler bitch that passed me?”