Bridging the Gulf

A chance reunion with a photographer who covered the war helped put the year in focus
December 30, 1991

THE NEW YEAR: I stood on the roof of the Hyatt Regency in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Jan. 27, Super Bowl Sunday. A reporter and a photographer from the Minneapolis Star Tribune had taken me there to watch for Scud missiles. The reporter and photographer said this was the best vantage point in the city. I asked why this was so.

"Do you see that green building across the street?" Paul McEnroe, the reporter, said.

Yes.

"That's the Pentagon of Saudi Arabia," Jeff Wheeler, the photographer, said. "That's the one building Saddam Hussein would like to hit more than anything else in this entire country. We're standing at ground zero. This is where he is aiming."

The afternoon was warm. I was told that at night the roof was crowded, filled with cameramen and still photographers, their lenses pointed north, everyone waiting. This was only the 11th day of the war, but already patterns seemed to have been established. Scuds were fired mostly at night. Only one cameraman was at his post now. Just in case. The others would run up the 20-odd flights of stairs from the fourth-floor press headquarters if the sirens sounded.

"You've seen a Scud from up here?" I asked.

"Two nights ago," McEnroe said. "It was amazing. It came right over us, landed about three blocks away. Have you seen that big government building? It was leveled. I'll take you there later if you want to see."

I was the strangest of visitors to this scene. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. The sergeant in the fourth-floor office, looking at my application for a press credential, had muttered that this was the latest absurdity in a long list. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED? My job was to fly halfway around the world, watch the Super Bowl television broadcast at two o'clock the next morning with some of the troops, write the story, then turn around and come home. I would be at the war for a total of four days.

"We're going to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and drive it all the way to Kuwait," Wheeler said about his own plans. "We're here for the whole thing."

"I suppose we should take the extra insurance, huh?" McEnroe said.

The ground war had not started, and there still were a lot of questions that had not been answered. Was Saddam going to use biological weapons? Did he have nuclear weapons? What was going to happen? The early results seemed encouraging—the Iraqi air force did not seem to be a factor and the Patriot missiles had knocked out most of the Scuds, the one that had landed two nights earlier being an exception—but no one could predict the future. I noticed that McEnroe had written his blood type on the top of his press credential.

"Nothing's going to happen now," McEnroe said. "You should come back tonight. That's when the missiles will come. They'll light up the sky. That's when everybody'll be here."

"We'll be here," Wheeler said.

We sat for a while longer. The hotel was also directly underneath the landing pattern for the airport. Giant planes of all shapes flew over us, killer planes, some with a big AWACS radar system on the top of the fuselage, planes that looked as if they were attached to a giant mushroom. I said I would like to come back to the roof later, but I had to watch the Super Bowl. The New York Giants were playing the Buffalo Bills. That was my job.

"Have you heard much talk about the game?" I asked.

The reporter and photographer said they had not.

THE OLD YEAR: I stood in the hospitality tent outside Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Oct. 22, after the third game of the World Series. The Braves had beaten the Minnesota Twins 5-4 in 12 innings. A band was playing. The food was free and the beer was free, and the tent was packed with people. I spotted the photographer, Wheeler, as he came off the buffet line. Minnesota. Sure. He was taking pictures of the hometown team in the Series.

"Hey," I said, "I've been wondering what happened to you guys."

"We did what we said," Wheeler said. "We rented the four-wheel-drive vehicle, and we drove it to Kuwait. Then we came home. McEnroe's back in Minnesota now."

In the midst of the baseball party noise, Wheeler chronicled his trip through the war. He described traveling with an Egyptian unit into action. He described a close call that occurred while he and McEnroe were driving on a road to Kuwait City. They found out later that the road had been designated by American-led forces as a killing zone, where all vehicles would be automatically destroyed on sight.

He told the story of another photographer we had met, a dark-complected guy from the Bronx. That photographer's wrong turn had dropped him into the arms of a unit from the Alabama National Guard. The unit captured him, thinking he was an Iraqi spy. He was blindfolded and held for nearly 40 hours before he could convince the Alabama Guardsmen he truly was an American. Wasn't that something?

"Now you're doing baseball," I said.

"The whole city's going crazy," Wheeler said. "The Twins."

One year. Less than a year. The cameras were focused in the familiar direction again. I found that fact more amazing than anything I saw on any field or in any gymnasium or ice rink in all of 1991.

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)