A CHRISTMAS TREE IN THE DESERT
By KONRAD LANGLIE
Convoy Support Center Vulture, Saudi Arabia, December 24, 1990
“Major, why is the Colonel screwing with us by sticking us out in the middle of the desert on Christmas Eve?’ Specialist Hector Torres, a 19 year old industrial arts student at Bronx Community College; asked the 38 year old Support Center Commander and high school history teacher. Major David Harris was asking himself the same question. A week earlier they had been sitting in a high rise housing complex assigned to US Forces as a temporary base in Riyadh. They were part of an Army Reserve Logistics support group from Queens, New York. They had just arrived in Saudi Arabia and had been looking forward to seeing the Bob Hope Christmas show in Riyadh. For the past week they had been setting up this Convoy Support Center (CSC) along something called alternative Main Supply Route (MSR) Dodge. They had dropped a fuel bladder and hooked up several fuel stations to it. They had also set up several GP medium tents complete with cots. They had even constructed a fast food facility to dispense hot chow in the form of hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries and coffee. They named the food facility Smittyburger after Smitty, the cook in charge. Working almost nonstop; the soldiers had completed the CSC in four days.
The soldiers’ morale had been high at first as the reservists were thrilled to be contributing to the war effort. Even if some of them were not sure who the enemy was. Sergeant First Class Dorothy Jones, a plus sized, municipal clerk and grandmother from Brooklyn; had discreetly asked Harris if that Saddam guy was on our side or the other side. For the last three days with little to do and no convoys in sight morale had sagged. The thirty odd men and women were quarreling among themselves and complaining about the mission. The latest theory was that the Army had called them up by mistake and this mission was a make work assignment along an imaginary supply route. Missing the Bob Hope Show was the primary complaint of his troops. Master Sergeant Wilson and Harris had tried to make light of it by suggesting the show would be pretty dull with the girl’s all dressed head to foot in burkas and the Saudis censoring Hope’s jokes. Not like the old Vietnam shows that Harris and Wilson had seen two decades earlier. Vietnam had been Harris’s and Wilson’s war and they had never expected to see another. The surprise and shock of being called up for a war from his sedate civilian life was still unsettling to Harris.
“Torres, this CSC is essential for the Army to get troops and supplies in place before the war starts.” Harris patiently explained the rationale for the mission to the skeptical Torres. He had been asked the same question by the rest of his soldiers over the past three days and given the same answer. Despite his pat answer; Harris was no longer certain the Army was ever going to send a convoy along MSR Dodge. Harris toured the CSC facility looking to see if he could find some finishing detail that would keep the men busy for awhile. “How are you doing?” Harris asked Sergeant Hinckley, the sentry on duty. Hinckley was a volunteer replacement fill-in from Syracuse, New York; who was a jeweler in civilian life.
“Just staying awake sir,” Hinckley replied. “Am I supposed to load my weapon on this duty?”
“I don’t think so; we haven’t received any authorization to carry loaded weapons yet.” “I think they are waiting till we get closer to real hostilities,” Harris answered. He wondered himself why the order to carry loaded weapons had not been issued, especially in remote locations such as this. Saudi Arabia might be a police state with tight border controls but he knew from his extensive readings that there were factions in this Country that were opposed to the American presence. “Just keep watching the road and pass the word on to your relief to get me if you see a convoy coming up the road.” Hinckley nodded his head in affirmation and at the same time rolled his eyes.
The stars shone brightly in the clear cool desert night; as midnight approached. “Just as they must have shown two millennium ago, not that far from here,” Harris contemplated as he gazed skyward. Nancy, his bride of two years, was probably sitting at home dreading every phone call. She would be wondering if the call was a notification that something had happened to him. Her dread might be justified. Iraq had a huge Army and Air Force plus missiles with chemical and biological warheads. Nobody knew what was going to happen if war started. There were thousands of body bags stored in Riyadh; waiting for the estimated forty thousand dead. Nancy was always full of surprises; he should check his duffle bags to see if she had planted something for Christmas. He began digging through the bag in which he had packed a huge supply of socks and underwear; items which he had always been short of in Vietnam. Sure enough at the bottom of his underwear bag; he found a wrapped package. “What’s this?” “There’s something else at the bottom of this bag!” Harris said to himself, as he removed the package. He reached back into the bag and pulled out an eight inch Christmas tree, mounted on a round wooden stand.
Harris covertly carried the miniature tree out of his tent and placed it in the middle of the recreation and morale tent. Then he called out to the troops to see his surprise. The faces of the thirty men and women gathered around the small tree broke into smiles and tears as they stared at the memento of the holiday and began sharing stories of other Christmases.
A shout from Hinckley interrupted the nostalgic reverie, “Something is coming up the road!”
The soldiers rushed out of the tent and watched as a Military Police Humvee with blacked out headlights drove into the support center. A line of trucks and busses followed the Humvee into the center. As the busses stopped dozens of soldiers wearing desert camouflage uniforms with the screaming eagle patch of the 82nd Airborne piled out of the busses. A major carrying a map approached Harris, “Is this CSC Vulture?” “We need fuel and the men need to eat.” “The other MSRs are at capacity; so the Army is pushing everything it can up MSR Dodge.”
“Merry Christmas Santa and welcome to Vulture!” Harris greeted the puzzled major. Harris then turned and yelled, “Smitty, get the burgers and fries started, you got customers!”