That Summer on Tattooine

by Domenika Marzione

Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia | July 1997

 

Tuesday

"You are not in hell," a sign on one of the tents in Ops Town announced. "Hell: 15km" another one read, with an arrow helpfully pointing the way.

Cam was pretty sure hell was a little further than fifteen klicks, although there were some afternoons when it was hot enough that all he had to rely on was the fact that in a place as big as PSAB, fifteen klicks didn't even get him off the base. Fifteen klicks didn't even get him to the fucking showers and with as little to see as there was here in this flat wasteland, Cam was quite sure he'd have noticed the entrance to hell if he'd passed it en route.

Saudi Arabia did not, as a rule, have much to look at. The women were covered up and hidden away, the land was flatter than his momma's pancakes, and there was even less to do now that they were an hour's drive from Riyadh. Not that that was exactly a party city, but even Al Kharj proper felt like it was in the next time zone compared to life on base, which was too often reduced to flying missions, bitching about the heat, sitting in pre- and post-mission briefings bitching about the heat (and the sand and the bugs and the UN and Big Air Force), and actively trying to avoid the heat. Saudi Arabia in July was not Cam's idea of a must-get deployment. Aviano was lovely this time of year and the lucky fuckers up in Turkey were raving about the food. Cam raved about the food, too, but not with the same meanings of the words "rave" and "food."

The bombing of Khobar Towers had meant that everyone had to pack up and move further away from Riyadh. He hadn't lost any friends in the bombing, thank God, but the move had come before the amenities had arrived and so, a year after the fact, Cam was living out of a tent in the middle of a desert with poisonous snakes, scorpions, spiders, and sand in everything. It was uncomfortable and boring except for when he got to fly and he was very worried that he'd lose that joy -- not to mention the sole reason for spending his summer in the desert -- because of one of those stupid screw-ups that probably happened all of the time in the rest of the world but didn't take a week to unscrew when it happened to someone other than the Air Force.

It had been dark and it had been late and, yes, loadmasters are mean and nasty sumbitches with entitlement issues. But when you rotate as many people through a base as get shunted through here, you didn't have to be either terribly brave or terribly bright to not designate the just-offloaded trunks for reloading back on to the fucking Herk. And then blame it on the poor airmen who were just following orders eighteen hours into a twelve-hour shift.

The obvious solution -- simply turning the Herks around to bring back what they shouldn't have taken away -- had been deemed too easy. Meanwhile, Cam could've made enough trips to carry back the missing gear in the (non-existent) cockpit space of his Viper by now and that still would have been more practical than waiting for new equipment to be authorized and issued from the States, the forms run off in triplicate, approval by a foundry full of brass and a congressional subcommittee, plus the proper signatures from the USAF, NATO, RAF, and whichever idiot thought it would be a good idea to invite the French.

Cam wasn't sure if it was more funny or pathetic -- Operation Southern Watch brought to its knees not by Saddam or the sand or the fucking camel spiders, but by the fact that there were currently ten lug wrenches in Saudi Arabia.

Anyone wearing officer's rank was taking fire from all sides these days because of Logistics, but Cam was thankfully not yet high enough on anyone's totem pole to be required to do anything other than commiserate with the maintenance crews. And not be stupid enough to bitch at the maintenance chief when something wasn't pretty because it had been fixed with what was to hand and not with what they'd have liked to have used if someone hadn't slapped the wrong stickers on the pallets of just-arrived parts and tools. But not everyone could be as stupid as Bowzer, which was why he was the only one consistently getting his piss bottles and water bottles switched on him.

Somewhere in mid-rumination on the necessity of Mirage pilots and wondering whatever happened to the guys from Sha Na Na, Cam got where he was going, which was the Two Shop. He stopped by the lee side of the tent to shake off the worst of the sand before heading in and nearly collided with the main man himself when he moved to go inside. Which in the case of Colonel Beaverton was something like walking into a wall. Beaverton liked to joke that it was lucky he'd never become a pilot because he'd never have fit in those tiny cockpits, but it wasn't much of a joke; Cam was always banging something getting in or out and he was tiny next to Beaverton.

"Water check, Captain!" Beaverton bellowed in a voice commensurate with his size and the fact that he worked near a jet runway.

You were supposed to drink a bottle an hour, which in the heat of daytime wasn't usually enough and Cam had no trouble obeying that directive. But it was getting near to dark now and the air was starting to cool off from the surprisingly comfortable 110 (after two weeks of 120, it had almost felt like fall) and he had chosen valor over discretion -- or over having to spend any additional time near the sun-heated pissers.

He pulled out his mostly-empty bottle, holding it up. Beaverton looked at it and looked at Cam.

Man should've been a preacher 'cause he could read sins on your forehead like they were the Times Square ticker. "How long've you been carrying that around, Shaft?"

He could lie and say only a few minutes, but Beaverton would grab the bottle and feel that it wasn't at all cold. Beaverton was very serious about the water thing. He'd had to evac an airman because of complications from severe dehydration a couple of days before Cam's squadron had shown up and she'd been working in one of the air conditioned tents; he water-checked generals.

"Too long, sir."

Beaverton frowned at him, then pointed imperiously to the mini-fridge, which was full of bottled water. "Empty one now."

Cam had never done well on the chugging contests back at the Academy and cold water wasn't any easier than warm beer, but he finished it, then tossed the empty into the trash.

Beaverton smiled at him, suddenly reduced from tower of anger to cheerful staff officer. "Now, what can I do for you?"



Wednesday

"Tell me again why I'm doing this?" Cam prompted, adjusting the heavy night vision goggles on his nose. He'd been walking around with them for the last fifteen minutes and his depth perception was still off, plus he was starting to get a headache.

"Because you're our favorite pilot, sir," Rodriguez told him seriously, giving him the same wide-eyed innocent look he gave their CO when he came by for 'spot inspections' that were never the pop quizzes he thought they were. Rodriguez had these freaky blue eyes that, coupled with the sand and location, made everyone want to quote Dune. They weren't blue with the goggles, just green like everything else.

"I'm going to remind you of that next time you wait until after I'm in the sky before telling me that you didn't check my cockpit for bugs."

Laughter from the others, since that was pretty much their favorite comic set piece ever.

Five days into the Great Tool Shortage and there were starting to be thefts. The thefts had started earlier, but now it was starting to get serious. Cam wasn't quite sure about where in the chain of someone-bitching-to-someone-else the urgency had gotten dropped, but apart from completely unenforceable threats printed out and posted in all of the usual places, nothing was being done. Nothing could be done except post guards and the folks in charge, rightly or wrongly, still considered building-bombing wackos from the outside to be a greater danger than airmen in need of tools. Which meant no additional forces dedicated to protecting each unit's toyboxes and that, by way of cause and effect, explained why Cam was currently stumbling around with night vision goggles and a flashlight. It wasn't a great combination (as Cam had discovered when he'd turned on the flashlight), but these were the guys who kept him in the sky and everyone knew that if the blatant flattery didn't work, well, they could get less pleasant. Better to volunteer while it was still a favor -- it made him look like a good guy and, somewhere down the line, he knew they'd repay the capitulation. Because even if he wasn't their favorite pilot, they liked to keep the ledger balanced.

"It'll be nothing, sir," Rodriguez assured him. "You won't be alone -- most've the boys'll be sleeping on their trunks. You just have to make sure nothing else walks away."

Six hours later, however, and Cam was cursing Rodriguez's easy assurances. The air was cool and pleasant, although after the heat of the day, eighty-five felt like autumn, and it would have almost have been enjoyable except for the fact that he was up in the middle of the night playing guard. He'd been half-dozing, since falling asleep on the job was sort of the only way to fail at it, but he was starting to suspect that maybe leaving a radio and a work-lamp on would have been just as effective. Except then the four guys sleeping on or next to the giant trunks might've had their slumber disturbed. So Cam, whose slumber was definitely getting disturbed -- good thing he wasn't flying tomorrow -- got to sit, bored off his ass, in the dark. He passed the time wondering about how many creepy-crawly critters were coming near, wondering if he could see them with the night-vision goggles if he'd put them back on, and wondering whether he was really a good guy or just a patsy.

And then he heard a noise from outside. Definitely a person, at least unless Sorenson hadn't been joking about the hyenas.

Picking up his flashlight and putting the goggles back on -- the headache had proven too much -- he crept over to the opening of the tent. There was definitely someone poking around and Cam found him, whoever it was, crouched near the side of the tent.

"Jesus Christ!" the guy yelped when Cam turned his flashlight on. "Turn that fucking thing off!"

Cam did, mostly because he was afraid he'd blind himself again.

"Lost?" Cam asked, since the guy pretty obviously wasn't. Not stripped down to his black undershirt and BDU pants and carrying a backpack while wearing the same goggles Cam had.

"No," the guy said, standing up slowly. "Doing the same shit you are."

Cam doubted that. "Uh-huh."

"What," the guy went on. "You're not out here because your maintenance chief said 'jump' and you asked 'how high'?"

Okay, so maybe he had a point.

"I'm not sure our guys haven't sent us on a collision course," Cam said. "'Cuz I'm going to cease being their favorite pilot if I let you take their toys."

The guy chuckled. "Don't worry. This wasn't my final destination. I'm off to go pillage the Frogs' tents."

Cam shook his head, then realized that the guy had taken off his own goggles and maybe couldn't see him. There were lights strung up here, there, and everywhere and regular security sweeps -- Khobar was not only not forgotten, but also not about to get repeated -- but this was the heart of the base and there were large swaths of darkness where the lights didn't penetrate because keeping out of the sun was not an option during the day.

"I've heard that they don't have what we need," Cam said instead, since that's what he'd been told when he'd asked why his crew didn't steal from the French.

"It's all propaganda," the guy said. "They just don't want to have to sleep on their crates like our guys are. I'm John, by the way."

"Cam," Cam replied, accepting the proffered hand to shake. He didn't miss the lack of last name or unit. There were some special ops guys floating around, some CIA, some Delta, some Centra Spike (or whatever the fuck ISA was calling itself these days) and a half-dozen other groups that you didn't ask about and just pretended that they weren't there. He was curious, but knew better than to ask. Of course, that could have been part of the point -- everyone knew to leave the dark siders alone. Or the guy could've just been friendly; Cam knew plenty of people who didn't bring rank or rep into an introduction because everything changed once you knew who had to be called 'sir'.

"So what're you going to do if the Army of the Air doesn't have what you need?" Cam asked.

John shrugged. "Go steal from the Brits."

Cam chuckled. "What about the 'special relationship'?"

"If they're our special friends, it means they should loan us stuff," John said primly.

"You're planning on giving it back?" Cam arched his eyebrow, but he was pretty sure the doubt was clear in the dark anyway.

"Eventually. Whenever our stuff gets unscrewed."

They end up chatting for a few minutes about nothing in particular before Cam wished John luck and told him to report back if the French had anything worth stealing. He returned to his spot in the tent and waited until Picasso replaced him -- a half-hour late. Which was early for him, so Cam just glared at him in the darkness before hitching a ride back to his tent.



Thursday

"You've gotta be fucking kidding me," Cam sighed, rubbing his face with his hands.

"It wasn't your fault, sir," Carhart said earnestly, Georgia accent making it sound heartfelt. "Could've been on Picasso's shift."

Cam had shown up, still groggy after two cups of coffee, to find out that they had been cleaned out during the night. Not completely cleaned out, just a few things -- but they were important things.

"Picasso didn't hear anything," Cam pointed out, appreciating the offer to shift blame, but not taking it.

"Picasso may have been asleep like the rest of us, sir," Rodriguez said. "Call sign should've been Dozer."

While that was true -- Painter had fallen asleep during a briefing with a three-star sitting next to him -- Cam knew in his heart of hearts that it wasn't.

"He might have been, but this one's on me," he said. "I got duped."

The back of the tent had been sliced open, real neat and professional-like, then a quickie tape job after the deed was done to keep anyone from noticing the flapping edges. Probably when Cam had been talking to John. If that was really his name.

He explained his middle-of-the-night visitor, repeating John's line about the Brits being obligated to share, and Mancuso just shook his head and grinned.

"Wasn't the spooks, sir," he said. "It was the operators. Been showing up the last couple weeks or so -- they've got their Pave Hawks bedded down off in a corner, but it's pretty hard to hide anything out here and they're not looking too bothered about the current shortages. And what we lost works perfectly fine on a rotor vehicle."

Cam knew Mancuso meant it to be exculpatory, but he didn't really think that getting taken for a fool by someone out of AFSOC was much of a bone to be thrown.

Ultimately, it didn't matter much. Later that day, a pair of Herks landed -- to a rousing ovation from pretty much the entire population of PSAB -- with brand new tools and spare parts for everyone. Cam got to go up into the sky two days after that, make a good faith effort at pretending that avoiding the Iraqi air defense wasn't something he could do blindfolded and asleep, and the maintenance guys still liked him enough to always promise him that they'd checked for spiders before he strapped in.

In his databank of memories, it went down as the "fun" rotation at PSAB because his next time through, even though he got to live in the awesome new barracks with the Hollywood showers and gym everyone took pictures of, he also slaughtered a truckload of civilians and that pretty much left sharing the crappy tent with snakes and a guy with a deviated septum as the better experience.

A couple of years after his second stint as a target for the Iraqis, he accepted one of those offers to join the dark side and found himself shaking hands and not giving his last name or his unit and knowing that the other person knew better than to ask. He never stole tools, however, and he never did learn who the operator was. But he was pretty sure the guy wasn't chasing aliens, so he was pretty sure he ended up laughing last.

feed me on LJ?


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1 October, 2007