Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Of stinger missiles and sheep testicles

Friday, June 19th, 2009

In the 1980′s I had the pleasure of travelling all over the Middle East.  Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Egypt, etc.  Among the many interesting projects I worked on, I was particularly in love with a crazy experiment to slurp radar data from AWACS, E2C, and missile systems in the forward area (that’s where all the scary noise is) and munge all that radar data into one complete picture locating the bad guys and good guys and displayed neatly onto a metal suitcase version of a laptop.  I think it was made by Compaq and looked something like this.

Mind you, in 1988 “laptop” meant something very heavy and very lame compared to what it means today. We gave those 14 pound laptops (with a whopping 8Mhz clock and all of 16MB of RAM…) to stinger missile teams. Now those guys are each already packing at least 60 pounds of gear per person into the forward area. They weren’t too happy with this new piece of heavy gear to lug.  Until of course they saw what it did for them.  You see, a stinger missile team normally had to use binoculars (or their Jedi mind training) to anticipate where MiG’s or F15′s would appear in order to shoot them down. These jets were able to go from the horizon to over your head in about 1.5 seconds.  This new piece of iron showed the stinger teams where the bad guys were long before the bad guys were at the horizon and therefore long before they could pose a threat. Advantage Stinger Team, 100.  Bad Guys, 0.  The already heavily burdened stinger teams lugged the new iron.

So I was in Egypt.  My team was tweaking a missile firing test to show our hosts how well it worked in the desert. We had some down-time to visit the pyramids. That was very cool (and a story for another Friday…) Then we packed into transport trucks and headed well north of Cairo into an empty expanse of sand and dirt in the Sahara and we promptly shot down the test target. Extremely cool. The generals were impressed. We were elated.

By this time in my career I was an old hand in the Middle East.  I could read and speak and even write a bit of Arabic.  The food was familiar and so were the customs.  We finished off the trip with a well deserved celebration meal, held of course by the host.  The most senior host suggested we dine at the The President’s Club.  Of course we agreed. We had visions of arriving at The Intercontinental Hotel in a tux to eat and drink a first-class French meal. This was welcome especially after a week of eating MREs in the dirt and if we were lucky, local shawarmas.  Instead, we were hauled via a harrowing cab ride (another story for another Friday…) into a seedy section of Cairo.  The pub name was indeed The President’s Club, which was inscribed above the door not in English nor Arabic but as we had hoped, in French. Only bits and hints of the gilt and black lacquer that once adorned the creaking, carved, wooden sign (carved when Rommel still roamed these parts) were still there.

In this basement hole in the wall, we sat among wealthy, well dressed locals.  Some in fine Italian, handmade suits.  Some in a silk and wool dishdash, equally well tailored.  We were served Johnny Walker Black by a nice waiter in a tux and we skipped the ice or water because it was, after all, Cairo.  Not one bottle.  Not two.  We had three bottles of Johnny to serve five people.  That certainly took the edge off.  We ate a kind of Egyptian tapas.  Sheep’s brains served raw in lemon juice, or boiled in a bit of saffron broth, or deep fried.  Nice choice. We had goat skewers and mutton skewers. Better.  We ate tomatoes and cucumbers and hummus.  And then came a nutty, crunchy tasting substance that had the texture of a bamboo shoot in Chop Suey.  Except a little chewier.  After asking my host what it was, he slurred whiskily that they were yummy sheep testicles. They were like their sheep brain appetizer cousins served raw in lemon juice, or boiled with saffron, or deep fried. No tartar sauce.  Too bad.  Messr. Walker urged me to keep my mouth shut, jut my chin firmly, smile, and eat a second helping like my host. I chewed merrily and washed it down with some more Johnny.

The next morning, I was on a long plane flight back to the states. I had little sleep and was still reeking of whiskey and burping up occasional whiffs of nuttiness as my cab took me to a friend’s birthday party. We ate his favorite meal:  Maryland Blue Crabs steamed in the bushel, served with corn on the cob, cheddar cheese and a massive amount of Old Bay Seasoning leaving nothing but fire and thirst in its wake.  The sheep were long gone.

And it was indeed, good to be home.