For all the anticipation of this scheduled war, the news hit San Diego in its gut Wednesday afternoon.
From street corners to shopping malls, in the homes of military families and those of Kuwaiti refugees, San Diegans were transfixed by the reality of war.
And no wonder; nearly one in eight fighting men and women in the Persian Gulf region are based in San Diego.
So, when the news spread, some applauded. Others, in tears, talked of churning stomachs, of fear, of the anxiety one would expect in a community so close to the nation’s military machine.
At a discount retail warehouse in San Marcos, a woman walked in, saw the news on a bank of television sets, turned around mid-step and literally ran back out--pulling her young son airborne in her wake.
The husband of a Navy sailor in the war zone said he sped home across the Coronado Bridge at 80 m.p.h. after he heard the news. “I feel terror in my stomach,” said Jesse James Bell, himself a 1st class petty officer.
A Chula Vista woman whose Kuwaiti husband remains in his homeland was choked with tears.
At an Escondido car dealership void of customers, five salesmen huddled around a car radio.
On Interstate 5 in Carlsbad, a man dressed in his Marine Corps camouflage uniform sped southbound along the fast lane. In neighborhoods, lines of customers at gas stations began to snake into the streets.
Security was heightened at the area’s military installations and at Lindbergh Field.
And, while teen-agers in Coronado
waved American flags, an organizer for the San Diego-based Coalition for Peace in the Middle East said an anti-war rally is planned for 4 p.m. today in downtown San Diego.
Here are some snapshots of San Diego in the minutes after 3:35 p.m. Wednesday.
Chief Petty Officer Bill Wyatt, 39, heard that war had broken out as he was driving to his Lakeside home from the store. As he settled in front of the television set, he cuddled his 12-year-old son, who began to cry.
Wyatt’s wife, Deborah, shipped out to the Middle East in September.
“I am scared for my wife, but I am glad we are doing it. I was tired of sitting around waiting,” said Wyatt. “I just hope she has her head covered. I love her very much, I hope she comes home in one piece. I just wish I could hold her, talk to her, reassure her.”
Kaye Hunter, an ombudswoman for families of personnel on the destroyer tender Acadia that shipped out carrying her husband, said she was in shock. As she spoke, her 13-year-old son, John Jr., came into the living room and punched the wall.
“I guess we didn’t think it would really happen,” Hunter said. “My heart is really sore right now.”
Sharon Bell, 17, was home alone in National City watching television when she learned that shooting had begun in Baghdad. Bell’s mother, Linda Kay, shipped out to the Middle East, leaving her and her father, Jesse James Bell, a 1st class petty officer, at home.
“I am wondering where on earth my mother is,” said the teary teen-ager. “If she is going to get hit . . . if she is in any danger. I am worried.”
Her father, Jesse James Bell, was at work when he learned the news, and sped across the bridge from Coronado to National City.
“I feel kinda alone. I feel terror in my stomach,” Bell said.
Pat Laru’s 21-year-old son, Jeff, is a Marine deployed in Bahrain. Laru, a 54-year-old clerical supervisor with the San Diego County probation department, was shopping at the Ocean Beach Food-Coop when someone rushed in and said war had broken out. Laru felt completely numb and powerless. She finished her shopping and went home.
Last month, she spoke to her son, and they had discussed whether he should try to get out of the Marines as a conscientious objector. This past week, Laru has attended three peace demonstrations, but those left her feeling completely helpless.
“I am devastated. I think this is totally mad; it’s about the maddest thing we ever have gotten into,” said Laru, who had been an anti-war activist during the Vietnam war. “How could this happen?”
At North Island Naval Air Station, the headquarters for Naval Air Force Pacific, Senior Chief Bob Howard talked of the war that finally came.
“We had been discussing earlier in the day, what would be the ideal time. We have all said from the beginning that the ideal time to conduct this operation was 1, 2, 3 o’clock in the morning Baghdad time. You’ve got a moonless night, high tides, everything was ideal.
“I was on my run this afternoon, and I was thinking, this thing could be happening right now.”
It was. TV said so, and then the White House.
And someone in Howard’s office turned around and said, ‘We got ourselves a war.’ ”
Claudia Ledesma, 27, hasn’t seen her husband of eight years, a Kuwaiti national, since she fled to the safety of her parents’ home in San Diego in September with the couple’s four children.
He remains in Kuwait, where the couple had lived since 1984.
Wednesday afternoon, Claudia was eating a late lunch--chicken--when her phone rang. A friend was in tears and told her the news.
“I was paralyzed,” said Ledesma. “I have an awful headache. I thought that Saddam Hussein would pull out (of Kuwait), and that we wouldn’t have to face this day.
“Now I hear the bombing, on TV. And I feel happy that they are now hearing the same sounds of war that we heard when Iraq invaded Kuwait. It’s a crackling sound. And now, they can hear it for themselves.
“I fear for my husband. I fear for all Kuwaitis. But now, there is a sense of revenge.”
Waheed Al-Shehab, 28, escaped his Kuwait homeland in November and now lives in East County.
He was watching television when the bulletin flashed on the screen.
“I feel both anxiety and relief. Anxiety for my family, which still lives there. I am upset. My heart is beating fast.
“And there is relief. How nice it will be,” he said, “to destroy this man, Hussein.”
Previously, Waheed didn’t want his last name published. It doesn’t matter, anymore, he says. “Please,” he beckoned. “Print my last name. It is OK now.”
Jack Hogan flew to his daughter’s home in Lakeside last month, after having spent 1 1/2 years in Kuwait as a horticulturist. The last 3 1/2 months were spent in secluded hiding in an upper-floor apartment, while Iraqi soldiers lived downstairs.
Wednesday afternoon, he was taking a nap when his wife, Roberta, shook him awake. “We’re at war,” she shouted.
Jack Hogan had hoped for military intervention. Now that became reality.
“I felt sick,” he said. “I’m behind our President 110%. But what person in a sane mind wants war? Nobody wants war.
“But, I’m relieved that Kuwait will be freed.”
Hawks and Doves
Within moments after the first reports of the bombing of Baghdad began on television, Patricia Gardiner, an organizer with the San Diego-based Coalition for Peace in the Middle East, said she began receiving phone calls from activists opposed to the war.
“We’re trying to figure out how to deal with the spontaneous outrage that people are feeling,” she said.
“I’m on the point of tears, for crissake,” said Gardiner, 30, a student at San Diego State University.
Her group planned a rally for 4 p.m. today in front of the Federal Building, on Front Street in downtown San Diego.
Rick Nadeau, a spokesman for the organization, was hanging a red-and-black banner on a bridge over California 163 just as the world learned that Iraq was being bombed. The banner read “No Blood for Oil.”
The timing of the banner hanging, he said, “was just so weird. Crazy. I’m going to tell that story to people for years.”
A dozen fresh-faced students from Coronado High and Middle schools gathered near the Coronado Bay Bridge, waving American flags and brandishing cardboard signs asking supporters to honk their support for troops, when a passing motorist yelled out that war had started.
“We went and got a radio so we could listen to it, and we’ve been listening ever since,” said David Weed, 19, a student at City College and a teacher’s assistant at Coronado High.
Later, the group moved to the median of Orange Avenue, waving gleefully to the traffic that was pouring out of North Island Naval Air Station.
There was a lot of honking.
A telephone hot line for latchkey children home alone “lit up like crazy” moments after word of the air raid reached American television, said a spokeswoman for Children’s Hospital, which sponsors the service.
Cheri Fidler, the hospital’s community relations director, said calls “more than doubled” on the line, which is open from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“Many of the calls came from children confused about where the bombs were landing,” Fidler said. “The kids weren’t sure where the bombs were going off--in San Diego or some other city.”
“The kids were not really freaked out,” Fidler said. “My sense, in talking to the volunteers (who answer the phones) was that the kids mainly wanted reassurance. There was concern, confusion. . . .
“One child said his father was over there. There was misunderstanding of the facts, so, in one case, the child brought a globe from another part of the house. The volunteer explained to the child where Baghdad was, how far from San Diego.
“She tried to give the child a visual idea of the distance and to offer reassurance that the sounds she heard--bombs going off--weren’t going off here.”
Along the Border
Security measures were bolstered, but no additional Border Patrol agents were deployed in the wake of the news, officials said.
And the border would not be closed, they said.
“I’ve spent the last three days doing nothing but denying wild rumors,” said Rudy Murillo, spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in San Diego.
In fact, officials say that an unfounded rumor that Mexican accounts in U.S. banks would be frozen has already prompted many Mexican citizens to withdraw funds from banks in San Diego and other border cities.
“We want to reassure people that it’s business as usual at the border,” said Bobbie Cassidy, spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs Service in San Diego. “There is a heightened awareness, and some security measures have been taken, but there are no plans to close down the border.”
On the Street
The full range of emotions played out for thousands of San Diegans who first heard the news while at the store or mall, at play in a video arcade or between work and home.
As Peter Jennings appeared larger than life recounting the latest war news on a 45-inch Panasonic TV inside the entrance at the Price Club in San Marcos, a dozen shoppers paused, including Mary Meany of Escondido. “That is so scary,” she said, abandoning her shopping cart and turning back to leave.
Another woman made a U-turn at the door, dragging her whining 4-year-old behind her. “We have to get home, we have to get home,” she cried, grabbing the child so hard he practically became airborne.
Both employees and customers gathered around a dozen sets of television screens at the Sears store in Carlsbad’s Plaza Camino Real mall.
“It’s too much,” said Mike Stone, 26, of Oceanside as he watched a newscast on a wide-screen TV. “What can you say? I remember seeing Vietnam on the news, but that’s about it.
“I guess I’m kind of jaded by the whole thing,” said Stone, a Marine reservist with a nervous laugh.
Jim Reed, a 51-year-old Navy veteran who sells electronics at Cousins Warehouse near Old Town, was downcast as he watched his own bank of televisions.
“I was praying for peace,” Reed said. “I think of all the people who had nothing to do with this. I had a feeling this was going to happen, just like the feeling I had before my mother died.”
Reed added, “The world was just coming together and becoming really peaceful. We had all this good news for a while and it just ended.”
A second salesman muttered sarcastically to himself when the President’s spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, appeared briefly to announce the attack had begun for Operation Desert Storm, “Oh, is that what they’re calling it now?”
Later, as President Bush spoke to the nation at 6 p.m., everyone in the Sears Store at Parkway Plaza in El Cajon stopped what they were doing to stare at the screens. There was complete silence, with only the echo of Bush’s voice from different televisions reverberating through the cavernous store.
Carole Roop, a middle-aged Long Beach resident wearing brown stretch pants, watched with rapt attention, hunching over a table near one of the TVs, supporting her weight on her elbows. During the speech, she hushed other customers to be quiet. When Bush finished, she headed for the jewelry counter.
“I’m feeling scared,” Roop said. “Bush didn’t tell us a lot. We’ve got kids over there--and that’s all they are, are kids. I hope they can just get it over with, get it done, and get out . . . . Vietnam is still so strong in our minds. And that went on for years and tore a lot of people apart. I just want it to be over.”
As she spoke, a jewelry clerk, 40-year-old Paula Strong of San Diego, piped up and joined the debate.
“After Hussein has brutalized so many people, how can Bush turn around and do the same thing?” Strong asked. “There’s just no justification for it. It’s not logical. It’s not moral. It’s not smart.”
At UC San Diego, a crowd of about 50 people watched television at the student Price Center early in the evening. Frank Partida, 20, junior from Chula Vista, said he was “kind of surprised and a little bit saddened.”
The attack “just doesn’t make any sense,” Partida said. “We stayed in Germany for 40 years. Why can’t we stay in Saudi Arabia for two?”
Nearby sat Darron Dorsey, 27, a doctor at the Veterans Administration hospital in La Jolla. He is also a Marine Corps reservist from Virginia Beach, Va., whose service job is as a scout and a sniper.
“My first reaction was surprise, then fear, because I have no idea if I will be called,” he said.
His friend, Walter Harvey, 24, of Sunrise, Fla., a recent UCSD graduate, said he expected an air attack but was still surprised.
“The people around me seemed to just drop everything. It was emotionally draining. So I came here immediately to watch.”
“I’d like to see as many people came back as went,” he said.
Others felt the tinge of anxiety but tried to avoid being overwhelmed by the moment.
“If I do go, it’s just what I signed up for,” said a Marine jet engine mechanic as he stood in a Carlsbad video arcade. The 19-year-old Marine had just finished playing several games of Alienstorm after first hearing word of Operation Desert Storm.
“I guess I just needed to relax,” he said.
“In a way it was good that we came out and kicked his ass,” said Sule Zayerz, 15, as he and two other friends teased rabbits at a pet store nearby the arcade. But his friend, Zack Ulibarri, 15, of Oceanside, disagreed.
“I think it’s kinda dumb. They’re over there fighting for oil,” Ulibarri said. “We shouldn’t be over there. We don’t have anything to do with that.” At the Orient Bar in the downtown Gaslamp Quarter, a noisy group of four men and two women were busy playing pool when an 800 telephone number flashed on the television screen for information about casualties.
The entire group stopped for a moment, focusing on the number.
“Geez, we actually got guys getting killed over there right now,” one man said. But a moment later, the group returned to the pool table and ordered another round of beers.
The North County Lanes Bowling Alley in San Marcos was packed Wednesday night for league bowling.
While television broadcasts of Operation Desert Storm were projected above the lanes, bowlers fought a war for strikes and spares.
“Why stop bowling? How is that going to have an effect one way or the other,” said San Diego bowler Doug Hardison.
At Poway Community Park, the instructor at a Taikwando class (Korean martial arts) was busy shouting at them in Korean. As with the women’s aerobic class next door, no one listened to Bush.
However, while the United Poway Swim Team, a group of high school students, practiced laps, assistant coach Joe Benjamin and lifeguards listened on hand-held radios.
And 15 members of the Poway Teen Council were meeting in the park’s child care room because a crowded schedule of events had put them out of their regular meeting room.
While waiting for the meeting to begin on planning a St. Patrick’s Day dance, Mike Williams and Preston Betts used alphabet blocks to build a mosque-like structure topped with the letters IRAQ. Then they destroyed it.
Information for the story was compiled by the following staff writers: Alan Abrahamson, Russell Ben-Ali, Leonard Bernstein, Jonathan Gaw, Michael Granberry, Patrick McDonnell, Linda Roache Monroe, Anthony Perry, Carol Perruso, Mark Platte, Nancy Ray, H.G. Reza, Monica Rodriguez, Ray Tessler, Amy Wallace and Nora Zamichow.