The face of a young united states marine appeared on the 23-inch screen. This was not new, certainly not, because the faces of various military figures had filled the screen for the past 11 days, around the clock. The difference was that this marine was in Tampa as part of a patriotic color guard. Super Bowl XXV had arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Live. At last.
"Look at that guy," shouted Major Jim Miller of Anaheim, Calif. "He must be the only serviceman left in the United States. Where'd they get him?"
"Must have bought him at an army-navy store," said Sgt. First Class Bob Norgren of Elmira, N. Y.
The time was 2 a.m. A pool had been started, not about how many points the New York Giants or the Buffalo Bills would score, but about how soon Saddam Hussein would send his first Scud missile of the night south from Iraq. The earliest guess was that Saddam would act precisely at kickoff, at 2:18 a.m. No one guessed that a missile would not come. Missiles come often. Mostly every night.
February 4, 1991
"Here are the updated standings," said Capt. Ed Cottingham of Mt. Pleasant, S.C., reading from a photocopied page, "from the Scud Control Office. Israel 17. Riyadh 13. Dhahran nine. Four have landed in the sea." Summing up his unofficial tally, he said, "We are still the favorite target in Saudi Arabia."
The edge had been taken off the terror of a week earlier, when the same men, officers all, had gathered in the same room as the warning sirens sounded. The men had not known what to expect that time. Would the Scud land on their heads? Would nerve gas or a biological menace creep underneath the door? Would this be a last breath, a last look at life? All of this was new. That night someone turned on the television. The men sat in their gas masks and chemical suits and shook and watched the second half of the Giants' 15-13 win over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
Nothing bad happened. The missile was intercepted in the sky by two Patriot missiles. The men were Scud veterans now.
"We go up on the roof now to watch," said Major Larry Daniels of Baltimore County, Md. "It's the feeling that if the missile lands on top of you, there's nothing you can do about it anyway. We have another television up there with a VCR. We usually watch cowboy movies. Movies and missiles."
The Super Bowl kickoff arrived. The first loser was eliminated from the pool. No Scud.
The war between the allied forces and Iraq had settled into a surrealistic routine. The 11 days had somehow lasted forever. Surreal. That was the word that was repeated often. The ground forces faced off across the border of Kuwait. Anything could happen at any moment. The allied planes continued to bomb targets in Iraq. Saddam continued to send out his missiles haphazardly. Most of the Scuds were intercepted by the Patriots in ground-shaking explosions in the night sky.
Danger had somehow become comfortable in Riyadh. No, perhaps not comfortable, but measured. The missiles were a fact of life. They had been destroyed over Riyadh, except for one that flattened a government building and killed one person and injured 30. The odds now seemed better, if not exactly wonderful. Accommodations had been made.
"I was trying to get a haircut at the International Hotel in Dhahran," said Lieut. Col. Troy York of Sarasota, Fla. "I was last in a long line. The warning sounded. Everyone went to the shelter. The barber went too, of course. The first week, I would have gone too. I just sat in the shop. The Patriot hit the Scud. The all-clear sounded. Everyone returned. I had moved up to the front of the line."
For sure, there were greater tensions for the infantry at the front as rumors of an imminent ground attack circulated every day. But the allied planes took off from their bases and mostly returned, and the war continued its strange course. Servicemen and-women did their jobs, working 12 to 18 hours a day, then returned to their quarters to watch television to see exactly what they had accomplished. They were watching the same CNN reports people in the U.S. were watching.
"It's weird," Daniels said. "I'm a guy in Riyadh, and to find out what's happened a few miles away, I have to watch a television signal that starts in Riyadh, goes across the Atlantic Ocean to Atlanta and then is sent back to me here. Everyone is just watching to find out what is going on. I mean everyone. All the big officers too. It's the Video War, all right, so far."
"It's like that scene in Broadcast News," said Major Bernie Pfeiffer of Columbus, Ga. "The guy says, 'It's amazing—I say it here and it comes out there.' "
Life chugged along at an off-kilter pace that had become normal. The desert was colder than expected, especially at night. The city was more beautiful than expected, modern and clean, sort of a new and improved Muslim version of Phoenix. The life was more boring than expected, with everyone restricted to the base during their free time. Alcohol was banned. Muslim women on the streets were covered in black, with veils obscuring their faces. In magazines bought in local stores, pictures of women had been crossed out by felt-tipped pen. Saudi television was edited to such a degree that in an old Lassie episode, Timmy was not allowed to kiss his mother good-bye on his way to school. Timmy moved toward Mom. Mom moved toward Timmy. The film suddenly jumped to the next scene.
The GIs mostly watched the same stories about bombing runs and Pentagon briefings that relatives at home did. There was not much else to do. Except wait for whatever came next.
"People forget that most of us were here a long time before the war began," Miller said. "We were here for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's. Now we're here for the Super Bowl."
"What was New Year's Eve like?" he was asked.
"Pretty much just like this," said Miller, sitting in a room full of tired men in uniform as the game began. "Except not quite as wild."
At the base where Miller was stationed, on the outskirts of Riyadh, the television sets had arrived on New Year's Day. An announcement was made that they could be picked up at the base supply room. Just like that. Brand-new TVs and VCRs. This was part of the Japanese contribution to the war effort. Televisions and VCRs and white Toyota staff cars. The wait in line for a television was 2½ hours.
"We got it," Miller said, "just in time for the bowl games." Hooked up to cable, satellite dishes or simple rabbit-ear antennae, the TVs got superb reception.
There had been a lot of sports on the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service before the war began, but little since. The day-to-day, hour-to-hour programming was war. The NFC and AFC Championship Games were exceptions. The Super Bowl was a big exception.
"How about Ray Bentley?" Capt. Tom Johnston of Batesville, Ark., said as the Buffalo linebacker appeared on the screen with war paint around both eyes. "Are you ready for the game, Ray? Got that Alice Cooper look, don't you?"
Everyone had slept earlier in the night so they would be able to stay awake for the game. There were corn puffs and chips and nuts on the coffee table. The prevailing sentiment was for the Giants, but it was not strong. The nine men in this first room of Super Bowl spectators were mostly officers in their 30's, reservists, lawyers attached to the Office of the Judge Advocate General. They were from all parts of the U.S. and had divided loyalties.
"I want you to do two editorials," Daniels, a judge in Maryland, said. "In the first, advocate the rotation of reservists home from Saudi Arabia. In the second, advocate the return of the Colts to Baltimore."
The room was part of an apartment on this large and strange base. Apparently the base was built in the 1980s by the government as a gigantic project to house the country's nomadic Bedouin tribes. The government wanted the Bedouin to have a home. They had given it a brief, very brief, try and returned to the desert and their tents. Houses were too confining. Now a large number of troops from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines had moved into the new complex. As many as 15 men or women and as few as six were housed in each three-bedroom apartment.
When the troops first began arriving, back in August, each person slept on a cot in an otherwise unfurnished room. Then trucks started to arrive. A bed was followed by a dresser, and then the TVs were distributed. A couch and a chair suddenly appeared at the beginning of last week. Absolutely new. Two end tables appeared on Super Bowl morning. Surreal. Around Christmas, someone delivered unopened boxes of Scrabble, Monopoly and checkers. A large box of Frisbees also arrived. Frisbees?
"There are unused buildings all over this country," Daniels said. "There's a whole bunch of apartment towers near here, totally vacant. A hundred thousand Iraqi prisoners could appear tomorrow and there would be rooms for all of them. I mean it. New rooms."
The Giants took a quick 3-0 lead. The Bills tied it. When it was time for a commercial, the screen went black, then the words "Spacing" or "Blacked Out" suddenly appeared. In place of commercials, the Armed Forces network showed short travelogues from different states in the U.S., a pastiche of pine trees and waterfalls and bustling cities against a background of New Age music. With each travelogue, the GIs tried to guess the nickname of the state university's teams. Idaho was correctly identified as the Vandals.
"Wait a minute," Major Joe O'Connell of Boston said. "Does this mean we don't find out who won the Bud Bowl?"
A replay of a long pass from Buffalo's Jim Kelly to James Lofton was shown. The ball hung in the Tampa air. Someone asked if that was a football or a Scud. The Bills went ahead 12-3. The Giants scored a touchdown at the half to close it to 12-10. No Scud appeared. Two thirds of the players in the pool were eliminated. Peter Jennings appeared at the half with news of the war. The room became silent.
The surreal quality is everywhere in this war. On the streets of Riyadh, Saudi soldiers can be seen at most corners, walking guard or squatting behind sandbags. Drive past a truck and there is a good chance that a machine gun will be mounted in the back, pointing upward. All this ammunition. All these bullets. No action. No sounds. Nothing.
The Super Bowl was also shown at the press headquarters on the fourth floor of a hotel. On the roof of the hotel, TV crews and newspaper photographers aimed their cameras directly north. Waiting for the missiles. Daring the missiles.
"I think they're crazy," Lieut. Casey Mahon, an Air Force public affairs officer from Plattsburgh, N.Y., said of the TV crews. "I said to one of them, 'What do you think when you see all of the military-head down to the shelters at the same time you're running up to the roof when the siren sounds?' He said, 'I think you're probably smarter than we are.' "
The commander of the allied forces, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, had appeared at the press headquarters six hours before the Super Bowl to conduct the daily military briefing. He had been surrounded by guards with automatic weapons as he entered and left. Pictures from the briefing were now the lead story at halftime, part of the halftime show. Football from Tampa and war from Riyadh and now, as the second half resumed, football again from Tampa. Crazy. The game that was being played far, far away could be interrupted at any moment by what happened here, here, here.
"I was on the Super Bowl host committee two years ago in Miami," said Major Joe Pagano. "I was standing on the field. That was how close I was. Now I'm here. I just thought about it. I was there, and now I'm here. If you'd ever asked me that day if I'd ever be somewhere like this...."
Crazy. The Defense Department estimated that 10% to 15% of the U.S. forces in the gulf region would be able to see the game live. The bulk of the troops would be able to hear the game on Armed Forces radio at even the most remote outposts. Videotapes of the game would be shipped for later viewing. A lot of GIs were simply too busy to watch.
"Figure that 50 percent of the people at this base are at work," Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ken Prince of Batesville, Ark., said. 'Then you have the people who are just too tired to watch. If a guy works an 18-hour day, he's not going to be able to watch the Super Bowl at night. There are days when you're just dragging."
Prince said this at the installation outside Riyadh, the failed Bedouin project where the lawyers were watching the Super Bowl. While the lawyers were settling in for the second half in their section of the compound, Prince, another sergeant and seven enlisted men were watching the game at a base Morale, Welfare and Recreation Office. They sat and stared at the screen. They, too, had made their accommodations with the nightly sirens. They had felt their own shivers. They had adjusted.
"I've only been here four days," Prince said. "The first day—first night, actually—that I was at work, a Patriot hit a Scud overhead. The son of a bitch went off over my head. There were two Army girls next to me who were just boohooing into their masks. It was terrifying, that first time."
"It was something, the first night," said Airman First Class Andrew Wilson of Dale City, Va. "Everyone was running around, not knowing what to do. It was wild."
Most of the soldiers in this room were rooting for Buffalo. They rode the tensions of the game as the Bills came down the stretch with a 19-17 lead. They faded when Matt Bahr kicked a field goal to give the Giants a 20-19 lead. They rallied as the Bills received the ball for one final shot. They cheered as the Bills moved up the field.
At the two-minute warning, Air Force Sgt. Jim Hogan of Fairview Heights, Ill., quietly pulled his wallet from his back pocket. He looked at photographs as some more New Age music was played and pictures of South Carolina were shown.
"What are you doing?" he was asked.
"Oh, I'm thinking of my family," he said. "I have a wife, two boys and a girl. My son, Nathan, he's 10 years old. He's old enough to be watching football. I know he's sitting there with my wife, watching the game. I know he's pulling for the Bills."
The game returned. The Bills moved to the Giants' 29-yard line with eight seconds left. The screen suddenly went black. The words "Blacked Out" appeared again. What? Blacked out? Now? The picture returned as Bills kicker Scott Norwood approached the ball. His kick went wide to the right. Hogan sighed.
No Scud appeared. No one won the lawyers' pool. Or maybe someone did win, the fellow with the time closest to the end of the game. Some matters have to be classified, as the Pentagon spokesmen would say. The important thing was that the sirens never were sounded in the night. No one had to run for cover. No one even had to run to the roof to see what was happening. And no one was hurt.
The Super Bowl was played, end to end. There never was a news break-in during the action. Not one. The soldiers never had to see new news about themselves. How do you figure?
"Oh, Saddam Hussein will find a way to use this, too," said one of the lawyers, Capt. Tom Frankfurt of Falls Church, Va. "He'll say that he didn't shoot off any Scuds for humanitarian reasons. Because he knew how much the Americans like football."
There was a moment when all the men in the room put-on their gas masks for fun, for a lark, to have their picture taken. A couple of them wore hats on top of the masks. They made jokes in muffled voices. They seemed, for all the world, like aging frat-house brothers, having a good Super Bowl time. But they knew how short the good time might be.
"If you're over here, you'd better know how to put on this mask," Daniels said. "And you'd better know how to use all of your equipment. I've heard the marines are running wind sprints in the desert, full equipment, masks and everything, getting ready."
At the gate to the base stood a sentry in full battle gear. He carried his M-16 at parade rest. The weather was still cold, but a thin line of light had begun to appear in the east. The time was 6 a.m. as the 12th day of war began. The sentry had written, in pen, the legend WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE on the olive strap across the front of his helmet.
"When did you do that?" he was asked.
"The day I got here," he said.
The Giants were the new champions of the world. Whatever that meant.