A 4th of July Memory…. 31 years later
Everyone gets these emails about stories or such regarding holidays. We read and enjoy them, but mostly pass them up as just nice fluff stuff pertaining MAYBE to some unknown person or made up characters. The message is always nice tho...
So I thought as I get further along in years, I would take this Fourth of July holiday to tell you all a true story about Rolf in 1979. It is pertinent...it is true...and it IS about someone you actually know...ME !!!
In the Spring of 1979, I received orders for assignment to the US Central Command in Riyadh Saudi Arabia. In those days, this outfit was known as the US Training Mission or USMTM, but the mission was the same and encompassed all of the Middle East from Iran through the Horn of Africa. It was during this tour as the adjutant to the Commanding General, John H Donnelly Jr, (you would have seen him as the talking head on McNeil-Lehrer of PBS during Iraq 1 some years later) that I had some of the wildest experiences of my military career. These included the hostage takeover of the holy Kabal in Mecca, and the attempted rescue of the Iranian hostages in Tehran.
However, probably the single most moving experience during that long tour, and one of the most moving of my entire action packed life, occurred on July 4th 1979...two days after I arrived in Kingdom...
Everyone entering Saudi Arabia comes in via Dhahran, and so it was with myself. As I approached the stairway of my Pan Am 747-SP non stop from JFK to descend into this desert country, the blast of heat and humidity was absolutely unbelievable. It was like a steam bath...over 120 degrees and more than 85% humidity there at the coast of the Arabian Sea near the Straits of Hormuz. It really hits you just how geographically different this place is...the Middle East....and I often think today, about what it must be like for our troops to be outfitted as you see them on TV in that incredible heat and humidity. But I digress...;)
I descend the steps and enter the air conditioned terminal, meet my sponsor, clear all the customs and passport bullshit, and walk across a melting ashpalt parking lot to the staff car. I watch as my sponsor puts on some light weight gloves so he can touch the metal and eventually the steering wheel, of the Saudi-provided Chevrolet Impala (Saudis never have Fords cause they do business with Israel. They also have no Coca Colas in SA for the same reason...only Pepsi or products NOT sold to Israel.) But I digress again...)
I spend that first night at the Officer's Quarters next to the O'Club and that night I remember my pre departure briefings and do not drink any tap water. I wisely order a coke with dinner. However, being the total moron that I am, I get that coke with ice...ehhhh...made of course with the local tap water and...
The next day I am wasted with Mohammed's revenge. It is now July 3, and I am trying to stay out of the head long enough to make a short flight to my post in Riyadh...in the central desert of the Kingdom. I finally muster enough strength to do that, and wing on to my base for the next many arduous months.
I give you these seemingly minute details about the place because it is important to the point to be made about the forthcoming holiday. If you have seen the Jamie Foxx movie The Kingdom, this is precisely what it was like. Important point as you will see in a moment...
I had a needlessly large 3 bedroom apartment, fully equipped with all the nicities, that overlooked a central quad of tennis courts and a huge swimming pool. All this was within a 10 foot tall walled compound, "defended" by Saudi guards at the entry checkpoint who couldn't pour piss out of a boot if it was half tipped and half full. I am struck by the fact that, altho this is an American military compound, there is no American flag; the Saudi flag flies at the checkpoint. Odd, that...
So there I am, in my 4th story loft, looking down at the evening lights of Riyadh, and the lovely grounds of our compound when a resurgence of The Revenge hits me. I thank G-d for having made it to my assignment, and drift into blessed sleep.
The next morning, it is a bright and sunny day (it is always "bright and sunny" in Saudi), and I am watching folk splashing and cavorting in and around the huge pool below me. It is the Fourth of July, and folks are preparing for a typical American celebration with hot dogs and stuff...Pepsis (no Cokes:)...and just a grand old time. Again, I note that the bunting hung about the place is very nondescript and non American....and NO FLAGS of any kind.
Feeling better, I leave my loft and head to the pool to meet new friends. I have my first contact with the Saudi Arabian Shitfly. These pesky creatures will take a bite out of you the size of Rhode Island and they absolutely will not leave you alone no matter how many time you swat at them. I came to see later after working with Saudi pilots, that these vicious aerial experts were clearly the most aggressive native flying object in Saudi Arabia.
After a while of beating myself senseless defending myself from these flying carnivores, I am approached by some guys who would later be my partners in much action over the course of this tour. They ask me if I would like to join them in a somewhat risky venture. I had no idea what it entailed, but was driven by the desire to be well liked, and a general compulsion to always do as many stupid stunts as I possibly could. I agreed to join them.
This apartment building for the bachelor officers, that was now my home as well, was a 4 story building with 4 apartments like mine on each floor. It was by far the tallest building not only on the compound, but around the immediate area of Riyadh what with the new RSAF (Royal Saudi Air Force) headquarters building just now being constructed next door to us. The fellas here with their families lived in one story duplex type quarters that were around the pool area.
The boys and I ascended to the roof where the dastardly deed was to take place. Our Saudi hosts had agreed to allowing us to play our National Anthem at high noon on this day. Wasn't that special, I thought to myself at the time. Afterall, it WAS our compound. Then I was told that, along with no Bibles, no religious services of any kind other than Islam...there were no flags of any country or any anthems allowed other than at the foreign embassies in Jiddah far to the west on the Red Sea.
So high above the compound now stood we seven outlaws. I almost expected to hear the Magnificent Seven theme piped over the PA system as noon approached. But alas, just good old American Rock and Roll and Country blasting into the oven-like pre-noon Saudi air. Even the gate guards, whom we could see clearly from our vantage point, seemed to be enjoying the music. That was, until noon came...
About 3 minutes before noon, the music fell silent. The folks around the pool stopped their splashing and frolicking and all became rather subdued. I watched as the guys removed a huge US flag from the bag we had hauled to the roof along with this rather large pole. At precisely noon on the 4th of July 1979, this enormous flag was unfurled as the National Anthem began to play over the PA system of the compound. To the top of this makeshift staff, the flag rose and unfurled. Hundreds of military folks and their families and our guests of other nations from around Riyadh, stood around that pool below us...dressed in all manners of attire..... and with hands on hearts...sang The Anthem.
So that same act is occurring as you read this around the country and around the world in US enclaves today. Why would this be different? Read on...
When G-d gave the Saudis oil, He really didn't give them much else, truly. In this G-d forsaken place, the novelty of the lovely desert and crap wears off quickly in the brutal geographical conditions. One tiny tree needs a full-time Yemini worker with a hose on it to keep it alive. The heat is just unbearable; the hottest place in the world is just south on the Yemen border in the Rub Khali...which correctly translates into "The Quarter of the End"...where absolutely nothing lives or grows
And added to this, the Saudi restrictions on women, dress, music, movies, religion, ad nauseum...it is simply unlike just about any place you would ever be stuck in for years on end
And in that climate of oppressive heat, shitflys, and restrictions...Americans stood in reverence and TRUE appreciation of what they had left behind and no longer had HERE in this little corner of the world...FREEDOM. As they stood in homage to their country, they fully realized the greatness...because here, women could not wear what they wanted, go where they pleased, or drive a car. They could not get a kiss on the cheek from their loved one in public, or hold hands with their husband off the sanctuary of this compound. They could not display a flag, worship as they pleased, or sing their country's anthem....only on this little spot of desert sanctuary...for a few moments...on this 4th of July in 1979.
And as I looked around me and down below at those folk, I saw something I will never forget as long as I live. I have, like James Taylor sings, "...seen flying machines in pieces on the ground...."-----I've seen death, destruction, glorious monuments and landscapes, incredible objets d'art around the world....I will NEVER forget that Fourth of July.
My comrades on the roof, and so many grown men and women, many of them hardened soldiers, openly weeping at the experience....the impact of what we as Americans had left behind but were now so poignantly reminded of...as further evidenced by the screaming, gun waving Saudi guards below, franticly racing toward our towering building which became the symbol, if but for a few moments, of AMERICA...as that huge flag flapped proudly above our compound.
As the anthem ended, and the guards hurled themselves through the crowd to the 4 story building, we quickly lowered and encased that flag in the bag and, like scurrying mice, headed for the privacy of our apartments. No evidence of this unlawful display remained, and the guards flitted around the complex like pissed off Texas fire ants .
But the deed had been done...America was honored, her freedoms cherished..
And tho we all may many times thereafter, pledge allegiance, stand for the anthem, or salute the Flag...nothing will ever top that special Fourth....
I am still in touch with a couple of those 7 guys. Too many of them have passed on. But to the few who remain, that day lives rather powerfully in our memories still...31 years ago today...
Because THAT Fourth of July in particular, seemed to bring the old adage "Ya never know what you got until you lose it !!" to full fruition. It was a living Fourth...which I doubt anyone there that special day will ever forget.
To America.......and those who appreciate her...
Shortly before I retired from CPS I was at a conference and talked to the principal of Horace Mann elementary school. At the time I was a coordinator in the department of professional development teaching teachers how to use technology in their classrooms.
Even though I forget his name I admire his level of excellence as an administrator and as an educator. In casual conversation I asked a simple question. Do you know the name of the most famous graduate from Horace Mann elementary school? He didn’t and I told him I would tell him if he promised to ask his faculty the same question.
Do you know the answer?
He graduated from Horace Mann in 1943. He is a Nobel Prize winner. He is the father of molecular biology. He is the co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA/RNA.
Thanks to brother Aaron Passman a long lost view of a beautiful graduating class.