A Christmas meal in Saudi Arabia with Gen. Schwarzkopf

I remember it like it was yesterday. Christmas Day in the Middle East, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1990.

Not your normal Christmas, as it didn’t seem like the holidays at all. Just another day, no family or festivities. Besides, it was just too hot outside.

All the Christmas we had was sent by mail from family back home, which was our lifeline. We tried to decorate in our housing accommodations, but it just did not seem right. You had this stress of war lingering on, and what is going to happen next. We had the threats of Scud missile attacks, and just the fear of being in a foreign country, with the customs being so different than ours.

It was my day off, so I had my civilian clothes on, as I had to save my uniform for when I was on duty, to make my laundry last through the week. I proceeded to the chow hall tent, which was in the middle of the compound where we were staying in the middle of what was known as “Eskan Village,” a housing compound on the outskirts of the capital city of Riyadh.

I had heard there was going to be a special meal prepared for us, so I went a little early in case the dining area filled up or the food ran out. I arrived and they had all of the tables decorated, a Christmas tree set up, and holiday food with all the trimmings. The cooks went all out to put on a grand meal, reminding me a little of what you would see at Thanksgiving, but with a Christmas flair.

I sat down with my tray of food, and some guy with a tan vest, dark glasses and a wire going in his ear sat right across from me. I remember thinking, “What in the world is going on?” Something “big” must be going on, because you don’t see those guys unless it is pretty special.

It turns out those guys were Secret Service, and as I looked over at the table beyond me, a very large, 6-foot-plus officer just took his seat right before my eyes! It was not just any general, but our Commander of Allied Forces, Four-Star General Norman Schwarzkopf!

Wow, if that didn’t take your breath away. That was about as close to a national figure as I would ever get. But after today, if I were to tell this to anyone who wasn’t there to see it, who would believe it? Well, it so happens that I had a camera in my pocket to capture the occasion. I don’t know how or why, I just had it, so I had a friend take a picture of me with the general.

Before I had the chance to pose with him, I was almost too afraid or timid to ask the Secret Service guy if I could talk to him. If I didn’t do anything except just sit there, I would always regret it, so I spoke up and respectfully asked one of the Secret Service guys if I could talk to the general. They said OK.

So I asked him if he was interested in going into politics later, and he said no, that when he retired he just wanted to go fishing, no politics. It was probably best that I wasn’t in uniform, as I would have been too intimidated. But he didn’t know what rank I was, and it did not matter, as it seems he was there to talk and spend time and Christmas dinner with us in the war zone.

I have a lot of respect for him for taking the time to do that for us. I had him autograph the printed “Christmas program agenda” that was on each of the place mats of the tables where we sat. The only better Christmas present we could ever get would be if we could be home with our families.

The general was true to his word about going into politics. He retired from the military in 1991 after a distinguished career that started in Vietnam, and went home to Florida where he fished, like he said he would.

I went back to the “villa” I called “home” with my roommates and told them about it. They wanted to shake my hand so they could “feel the power” from the general, since I had shaken his hand as I posed for the picture. I told my wife, Roxane, about it over the phone and she didn’t realize who I was talking about, until she developed the film.

The first time I told her I tried to explain that I had my picture taken with “The General.” Then, she said the next time I spoke to her on the phone, “Oh, that General, THE General, why didn’t you tell me it was the main General?”

I was sad to hear quite a bit later that he passed away on Dec. 27, 2012, at the age of 78.