Puppies in the Desert

            My crew and I flew to Jeddah from Sicily, across a yellow-brown Egypt and a blue Red Sea. We went as part of the blockade-enforcement effort following the first Gulf War. At the height of the war the airfield in Jeddah bustled. During our operation it served only a Saudi helicopter squadron and our pair of P-3 Orion patrol planes. The airfield had a nice runway, a hangar, a terminal with a control tower perched atop, and three prefabricated buildings that housed our maintenance unit. And the airfield was home to some puppies.

            On our approach to Jeddah the landscape looked featureless. Only careful attention revealed details. First a hangar, then the concrete apron, and finally the runway condensed from sandy haze. We circled, landed, and taxied toward a group that looked like us.

            The outbound crew was eager to get us settled and go on their way. They put our bags into cars, explained local flight procedures, pointed out key buildings, and showed us where we could store our gear. as we walked to the maintenance shed, one of the guys whistled and pointed to a dog lying in the sand. D.D. wagged her tail.

            “D.D.” stood for “Desert Dog.” D.D. had short white hair. Her ears looked like a Doberman’s, but she was smaller than a Doberman and not as muscled. Instead she was emaciated. She had nursed her litter of pups far too long. Sharp puppy teeth had irritated her nipples and voracious appetites had drained her body. She raised her head when we knelt to pet her, but she made no effort to get up. We let her rest and we went inside to change.

            When we came out, D.D. lay disinterested as an ivory-colored pup suckled. To our surprise the pup looked healthy. So did a black-and-white puppy that lay just under the maintenance shed. It followed us with dark eyes, conserving its energy in the relative cool shadow of the building. Although listless, both puppies looked alert and happy.

            We wondered how many puppies sapped their mother’s reserves, their ravenous appetites destroying the source of their strength. They had no thought of what they would drink when the milk was gone. Their instinct focused on the immediate: if I suckle, I won’t be hungry. We turned from the puppies, walked to our cars, and summoned instincts of our own to navigate an unfamiliar city.

*      *      *

            The drive to the compound where we lived revealed Jeddah’s contrasts. While oil wealth pervades the city, it also shows plenty of signs of poverty. In the modern sections, streets stay lit all night; giant sculptures dominate traffic circles; palatial houses line busy streets; and expensive white cars dash through town. In the very same city poor women sweep roads to collect food. They sweep up rice burst from bags that have fallen off trucks. We often rounded a bend to see a woman stooped over in the lane sweeping. Once we saw a commotion where a car had hit a sweeper. Relatives swarmed around, dragged her off the road, and wailed. A gas station attendant explained the sight with confident nonchalance: “Insh’ Allah.” God’s will.

            It was also God’s will that our compound lay several miles from the airfield. On days that we flew, the predawn drive to the airfield took twenty minutes. The return trip in the afternoon took forty-five minutes. The commute was not convenient, but it allowed us to live in surroundings of almost Western character. The chance to feel at home justified the drive.

            On flying days we arrived at the airfield in the dark. Stars loomed overhead, patient, waiting for us. We moved about with preflight tasks until the sky’s patience wore and its cheek began to flush. Then, as the sun rose from beyond Mecca, we rose from the runway and headed out over the sea. Often we entered a morning haze that hung low on the water, but we didn’t mind: we were in our element, and from our vantage point we could see the things that interested us.

            Preflight activities took on a routine. We changed into flight suits in one trailer and read maintenance updates in another. The trailers sat near each other on cement blocks, and wooden pallets in the sand provided walkways between them. From the walkways we observed D.D. and her puppies. Someone had dug a den for the puppies under the maintenance trailer. All of the puppies slept in the den and D.D. slept out on the open ground to guard its entrance. Scraps of food from box lunches lay around the burrow. The puppies and their mother picked through each day’s scraps, scattering more than they ate. Although the food was not good for dogs, it was all these dogs had. The puppies nibbled but preferred their mother’s milk. While D.D. ate more than the puppies, she got little nourishment from white bread, cold French fries and shreds of salad. She had had no good food for a long time, yet she had fed the litter of puppies all the while. No one could survive on such a regimen. Not even a desert dog.

            We never woke the dogs during preflight because we couldn’t spare the time. After our flights we had time to stop and play. Most days when we came in from a flight we found the puppies napping. When we whistled they stirred and came out of their den to stand droopy-headed for us to pet them. One or two would go to their mother to nurse. None of them acted playful. Other days we would find the puppies up and about, picking their way through fresh scraps. After a few days we decided that puppies should not eat such food. My copilot suggested we look for some dog food at a supermarket. Just like that we had a plan.

*      *      *

            That afternoon we headed to a supermarket: “Safestway,” almost like Safeway back home. Before shopping, however, we needed to convert some travelers’ checks. We found a bank, went in, and felt underdressed amidst men in long white robes and expensive shoes that clicked across marble floors. The black-veiled women who headed upstairs to conduct their business also looked immaculate. We composed ourselves and approached a teller window. The teller balked when the copilot produced a U.S. military ID card instead of a passport. After some minutes we convinced him to exchange the currency. “Next time I will not help you,” he said, his face impassive.

            I leaned in to the Plexiglas window and put my face up to the hole through which the man conducted business. “Next time, maybe we will not help you.”

            With Saudi Riyals in our pockets, we headed back to Safestway and found Puppy Chow. The familiar store proved that despite its trappings, Jeddah offered everything the West offered. It even had those things proscribed by Islam if one looked hard enough and was willing to risk the consequences. Puppy Chow was inconsequential.

            Even though they had never heard the sound of commercial dog food, the puppies came out of their den when they heard us pour Puppy Chow into a plastic dish. They sniffed at it, hesitated, then ate. Their mother took a mouthful and chewed. In the cool morning air the dogs enjoyed nutritious food together for the first time in their lives. My crewmates and I enjoyed the sight.

            From that day on our crews fed the dogs every day. The puppies would run out yapping and excited whenever they heard someone shake the bag of food. The litter grew energetic, the mother filled out. Slowly D.D.’s ribs faded. Slowly she grew strong.

            Our bond with the dogs also grew strong. We enjoyed them and they appreciated us. We felt accepted by the puppies whereas we felt only tolerated by locals. The bond between man and dog is civil and natural and depends upon trust. The bond between man and his fellows derives from trust, but trust between men is pre-empted by suspicion. One must beat a dog to make him suspicious; one must only meet a man.

*      *      *

            We flew and rested, ate and exercised, shopped and toured Jeddah. The food was good. Even the fare cooked by street vendors was safe. Non-alcoholic beer satisfied our thirst. No one got sick, in trouble with local authorities, or hurt, and everyone got plenty of sun. For weeks we enjoyed our routine, then we counted down flights until it was time to leave.

            During our stay at the compound we made several friends. Most were Westerners: Brits, Germans, Dutch, Swedes, and Americans, all employed to accelerate a country into the future. Others, like our Indian and Afghan servers and the Filipino groundskeepers, had been drawn there by high wages offered for menial jobs. They worked to save money for starting businesses back home. We spoke to all of these outlanders about the puppies. None were interesting in adoption.

            In preparation for our departure we straightened up our houses for the incoming crew, stocked the cupboards with bottled water, and filled the cars’ tanks. We put up a sign in the compound: “FREE PUPPIES!” Its message stressed that the puppies were adorable, healthy, and the right age for adoption. It did not mention that without homes they might not survive. Eventually our operation would stop, no squadron would relieve us, and there would be no one to take Puppy Chow to the airfield. There are limits to bounty.

            With our house in order, we left the compound and drove to the airfield.

*      *      *

            The smoke trail of a P-3 appeared in the clear desert sky. Landing lights twinkled, wings materialized, the fuselage appeared between them, and the entire form took on detail as if our eyes had distinguished oasis from mirage. The plane came straight in and touched down at the far end of the runway. Our relief had landed.

            While the plane taxied in we used our last moments to play with the puppies. All of them were excited. They frolicked and nipped at each other. None bothered the mother for milk. We picked them up, tossed things, and took pictures. No one talked; we just played. When the incoming crew walked up, it was time to leave. We boarded our plane, started up, and took off like we had on so many mornings. This time, however, we intercepted a course toward home.

            On the climb to cruise altitude we looked back at Jeddah. The city sparkled, stark white and silver in yellow sand like a faceted jewel set in dull gold. Green medians traced out roads, monuments stood in traffic circles. Some of the crew took pictures from the windows. They wanted to remember where we had been.

            When the city fell out of sight, the crew left the windows and settled in. We were a long way from home but headed in the right direction. The long flight gave us time to reflect. All agreed that Jeddah had been interesting. It had surprised us and struck us in many ways. Some in our group thought Jeddah was beautiful. Impressive, yes, but nothing more.

            Now the puppies we left behind are a different story. The puppies were beautiful.

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