IN CENTRAL IRAQ—First Sgt. Mike Barnhill was digging in his gear, getting ready for the day, when a visitor tumbled out of his bag, a palm-sized scorpion.
In a business that involves a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, Marines are ever vigilant for ways to break the boredom and Barnhill knew he was on to something.
He summoned another sergeant, who was so impressed by the venomous specimen that he picked it up by the tail, as he'd seen done on nature shows, and dropped it in a blue bucket.
Now, this is a Marine camp in the desert: tan, two-man Eureka tents atop sands that are burning during the day and freezing at night, where a plywood box draws snorts from old timers as a "luxury toilet," a shower comes in the form of a baby wipe and on a lucky day, the BBC comes in scratchily on the radio. Television, Internet and the cinema are diversions of another world.
"Look at the big scorpion," rapidly became the cry of the camp.
But even the allure of a big bug doesn't last forever. Soon the Marines of Delta Company, 7th Engineering Support Battalion—a group of reservists, many of whom are full-time college students in civilian life—decided that in a perfect world, the scorpion would do something. What came to mind was a fight with something else.
Marines fanned out across the camp in search of worthy opponent, rustling their own gear bags, kicking at the sand. The mission yielded only a beetle, albeit a big one, about an inch in diameter.
"Hoo-yah," went the cry and 30 Marines rushed across camp. The beetle was inserted into the bucket. Wagers of the five-dollar variety were made. Shouts went up of "The beetle is going down" and "Scorpions rule!" Marines huddled ringside for a view.
But the beetle and the scorpion weren't as engaged in the notion of warfare as the audience. The creatures skittered around the bucket, occasionally bumping into each other and then, very pointedly, embarked on a course of ignoring each other.
Some Marines stayed with the dull spectacle for 20 minutes before returning to their chores.
Breaking the boredom on a two-day convoy through southern Iraq was an opportunity to broaden the mind.
Riding in the back of a sand-bagged, five-ton dump truck, 11 Marines decided to test their language skills.
They'd been taught a few basic phrases of Arabic, enough to question potential prisoners and tell them to lay down weapons. But there were no potential prisoners. For the most part, there were no people.
So the Marines took to interrogating local canines.
"Kiff, kiff," Lance Corp. Erik Pronold of Spring Green, Wis., barked at a dog, using the phrase he'd been taught for "stop." When the animal failed to heed, Lance Cpl. Matt Jungling, of Glide Ore., shouted, "He's not stopping! He's attacking!"
At that, Lance Cpl. Frankie Gonzalez of Camby, Ore., shouted, "Bang, bang, bang!"
Then Gonzalez decided an escalation in weaponry was in order. The next dog that failed to yield to orders became the target of an empty water bottle, which missed wildly. An instant later, the Marines were joined by their glaring boss, Staff Sgt. Scott Stiles.
"Who threw that water bottle at a dog?" he shouted. "Be honest. Who?"
Gonzalez raised his hand. "Sorry, staff sergeant."
"Just remind me never to let you throw any hand grenades," Stiles replied. "You've got a horrible arm."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.