Glowing green and yellow street lights illuminated the outline of the Nile thousands of feet below the C-141 Starlifter as it carried its cargo of trucks and Utah National Guard soldiers south through a "safe" Egyptian air corridor en route to Saudi Arabia.
Weary and bored after 22 hours of travel since leaving Fort Carson, Colo., most of the 14 members of the American Fork-based 120th Quartermaster Detachment had stretched out to sleep on the nylon webbed seats or in the cabs of the four equipment-filled pickup trucks chained in the belly of the Vietnam War-vintage cargo jet.The wee hours of the day Sunday passed quickly as the jet swooped east and raced across the Red Sea and Saudi desert toward the morning sun.
Four tiny, clouded porthole windows in the cargo jet's fuselage obscured the view outside. Not until after the jet touched down and dropped open its rear cargo loading doors while taxiing down the runway did the soldiers get their first real glimpse of Saudi Arabia.
The heat and humidity quickly funneled through the large, open doors to greet the new arrivals.
The plane rolled to a stop, and the passengers stepped out onto the flight line for several minutes while waiting to unload their trucks. From there they could see an insignia recently painted on the fuselage: "Sandbox Express."
A crew member speculated Bart Simpson would become the Kilroy of the Persian Gulf conflict - another tanker, he said, sported a picture of the cynical cartoon character saying "Hey, don't have a cow, Saddam."
The airport might have come out of a James Bond movie: The displaced Utahns were greeted by a multinational display of fighter jets, cargo planes and other military hardware whose engines shrieked and whined and moaned in a military chorus that was punctuated by the thump of helicopter blades.
Talk was small while the group waited to board a chartered Saudi bus. But the hourlong ride away from the airport and along a highway where the sign over the left lane said "KUWAIT" and pointed straight ahead left the men speechless. Not a word was spoken.
Trash piles lined the road that led to a tent encampment called "Cement City" that had been assembled for American soldiers who awaited transportation to their assigned duty stations.
The name fit. Besides the scattered, dry weeds, the only sign of plant life was a struggling, 6-inch-tall palm tree near the aid station. Silence persisted as the bus passed through a gate and passed row after row of green Army tents whose flaps shook in a hot, dusty breeze.
Cement City has no store or theater. The only entertainment is what the troops brought with them - cards, cassette players and an occasional volleyball or football.
Several members of the group had to get off the bus as soon as it stopped inside the gate to keep from getting sick. Effects of the heat were setting in already.
After checking in, the group was issued cold, bottled water, Turkish pears and locally made raisin rolls the shape of hamburger buns. The food and water were a more welcome sight than the dirt floor of the tent where the Utah soldiers were directed. The only other food available in the camp was the MRE field rations the soldiers brought with them. MRE stands for "Meal, Ready to Eat," but MREs are also known among the troops as "Meals Remotely Edible" and "Meals Rejected by Ethiopians."
Conditions were better at camps known as Dragon City and Blackjack, the soldiers heard - Cement City was the worst.
"When we pulled in I didn't know what to say - it was pretty bad. There were rows and rows of tents and just a lot of sand, and chicken coops for toilets," said Sgt. Gary Boren of Alpine. The rows of plywood latrines at the end of each tent row were open to everyone's view from belly level up. Women soldiers had their own latrines with "females only" spray-painted on the outside.
Easily the most frustrating part of moving in to Cement City was not knowing when the group would be moving out - or where they would be going.
Staff Sgt. Verl Shelley, from Springville, sat on his bunk, pouring water over his head. "Next week when you drink that Big Gulp, think of us," he told a reporter, whose stay in Saudi Arabia would last less than 48 hours.
Evening temperatures had dropped enough for members of the group to sleep comfortably. The tent was quiet until about 4:30 a.m. - which, back home, was 7:30 p.m. the previous evening. Shelley was a little more optimistic the next morning. "It felt good to sleep on something that wasn't moving."
"It seems a lot better after a good night's sleep," said Staff Sgt. Rick Brown, from Salt Lake City. "My first reaction of it was pretty bleak."
By 5 a.m., almost everyone had scouted out a truck mirror to shave in front of, while other units in the camp jogged by in ranks, doing their physical training before the sand began to blow - and before the temperature started rocketing to a midday high of about 118 degrees, according to the thermometer Sgt. Michael Kidd from Lehi had hanging over his bunk.
"I want to get where we're going," Sgt. Stewart Wilson, Lehi, said while eating an MRE for breakfast.
The detachment's assignment is to run water purification equipment. The soldiers didn't know yet whether they'd be treating sea water on the beach or whether they'd be at an inland well.
They all knew they wanted to get out of Cement City. None of them knew when that would be. And the best news - which at this point could just as easily have been a rumor - was that another water purification group out of California could be on its way in seven weeks to replace the Utahns.
Thinking there was an identifiable ending point to the Saudi Arabian desert experience gave the men something to look forward to. "I'll plan on eight (weeks). Then if that doesn't happen - I'll think of something else," Wilson said.
The National Guard unit's callup was for 90 days - a call that could be extended to 180 days. Sgt. Steve Willingham of Springville said he was encouraged by the possibility of replacements coming in seven weeks. "That's our 90-day window."