War reality sinks in
Portlanders worry about those caught in conflict A subdued and somber city watches as bombs fall on Baghdad
From her Beaverton living room, Judy Johnson watches the antiaircraft guns on television, lighting up the skies above Baghdad.
Her voice chokes with emotion.
'My son could be one of those planes,' she says of her son, Rick Thompson, a 35-year-old F-18 pilot based on the USS Constellation in the Persian Gulf. 'And there's antiaircraft guns firing.' Her voice halts. 'Imagine what it would feel like. É '
• • •
War exploded here the same moment it exploded all over the world.
It exploded in a Beaverton living room, as a mother listened to the popping of machine guns shooting, maybe, at her 35-year-old son Ñ the boy who wanted to be an astronaut from the time he was in third grade.
It exploded in Southwest Portland, as an Iraqi Kurd raced home from his classes at Portland State University to be with his family Ñ a family that's lost brothers and sons and uncles and nieces and nephews to Saddam Hussein, a family that's known almost nothing but war Ñ until escaping to Portland from Iraq six years ago.
And it exploded in the Rose Garden, where 20,580 fans awaiting the start of a Trail Blazers-Rockets game grew silent as the giant scoreboard above center court broadcast President Bush's address announcing the United States had opened its war against Iraq.
In the first hours following the bombs in Baghdad, residents all over the Portland area struggled to come to grips with a war half a world away that suddenly seemed all too close.
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7 p.m. Wednesday
Johnson is frightened by everything she sees on her television Ñ yet can't turn away.
'I hate to see it being covered and broadcast on TV because we're also broadcasting that to all of Saddam Hussein's people,' she says. 'But on the other hand, it's also nice to be able to watch what's going on, especially if you have kids over there.'
She watches with a mixture of pride and fear.
'It's like, how can you be selfish and say, 'Not my son.' On the other hand, you're worried about him.' Her voice halts again.
She will watch television much of the night. But she will get up and go to work tomorrow. She's a computer systems analyst for ODS Health Plans.
'I have to continue on,' she says. 'I have to do my job and everything. I can't be crippled by this.'
The Trail Blazers locker room is normally a place for small talk and jock talk, and if the television is turned on, it's so the players can watch an NBA game.
But tonight's game against the Houston Rockets is not normal, beginning with tightened security measures before the game in anticipation of the war's start.
When the bombs start flying, officials delay the game and players adjourn to their locker rooms to watch TV coverage of President Bush's address to the nation.
'I pray for those guys and understand this has to happen,' the Blazers' Derek Anderson says. 'I will just keep doing my job until it's over.'
During the players' absence, Bush's address is broadcast onto the garden's big screen above center court. The fans listen in silence. When the president finishes, the applause rings loudly.
Then the Blazers and Rockets return to the court, with Portland eventually winning 94-83.
Tom Hatfield sits at the bar at Jake's Grill in downtown Portland with a glass of red wine, his eyes glued to CNN.
After Bush's address, Hatfield says: 'I'm behind the president 100 percent. I'm quite curious where this intelligence on Saddam Hussein's whereabouts came from, though.'
Three young men at the bar fiddle with their cell phones while a black Cadillac Escalade and its driver idles out front. Chris Clancey, who watched the speech intently, says, 'I find myself feeling very antiwar, generally. But I'll admit that once you see this É and you hear the president and you see it starting to happen on TV, it's goose bumpy. It's powerful.'
Friend Andrew Maines chimes in, saying: 'I hope it ends fast. I hope they get this over with quickly.'
A stunned-looking, aging hippie shakes his head and says to no one in particular, 'I just can't believe we're at war again.' A retired naval officer seated at a nearby table chews on his cigar and replies, 'Wars happen for a lot of reasons.'
The phone rings at Tracy Acuna's Southeast Portland home shortly after Bush finished talking.
It is her husband, Anthony, the medic for Charlie Company of the Oregon National Guard's 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry. He is calling from Fort Carson, Colo., where hundreds of Oregon guard troops have been training for the last five weeks.
The news is not what she wanted to hear. Although the troops had been told they would be deployed March 27, Anthony tells her they might leave any day.
'He said he couldn't tell me when, but it could be soon,' she says.
Tracy says the troops are more than eager to leave. Conditions at Fort Carson have been difficult. It's been snowing for weeks, and the troops are staying in an unheated, abandoned hospital with little hot water.
At the same time, Tracy fears what lies ahead. She thinks the National Guard troops will not see combat unless the early stages of the war go badly, in which case the Pentagon will send every available soldier to Iraq.
'He said it just snowed 18 inches. I'm hoping they'll be snowed in,' she says.
Muzafar Rasheed sits on a mat in his living room with his wife, his mother and his children around him. Their eyes all are focused on a television set across the room, hooked to a satellite and turned to a European broadcast of the beginning of an attack on Baghdad.
The Rasheeds, Kurds from northern Iraq, escaped from Iraq to Portland six years ago. But not until Saddam Hussein and his soldiers had killed one of Rasheed's brothers, a brother-in-law, an uncle, and four children of one of his sisters.
'I've been in fighting and killing for all of my life,' Rasheed says. The television report immediately takes him back to a concrete-and-stone school building in a town in northern Iraq, back to April 24, 1974, when he was still in middle school. That was the day the Iraqi regime Ñ Saddam Hussein was vice president then Ñ used its jets to bomb his hometown and kill more than 300 Kurds.
'In 10 minutes, they killed 300 innocent people,' he says.
'I'm very happy if they remove Saddam Hussein,' Rasheed says. 'We suffer a lot from Saddam Hussein. But I feel sad that the war is starting. I'm sure that innocent people will get killed. (And) there are many, many innocent people. Ninety-five percent of Iraqi people are innocent people.'
Three people with signs are interfering with traffic on Southeast Division Street.
'Papa John's Pizza,' the signs say.
War? What war?
Maybe it's not about the oil.
Following President Bush's speech, there's no run on gas at Belmont Auto Service. Most customers are filling up simply because they're on their way home and the station, one of Southeast Portland's busiest, is convenient.
A metallic-blue Jeep pulls up. The driver asks for a fill-up, then begins combing his hair, just in case someone with a notepad and pen happens to approach him for a few comments about the war.
It's city Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who missed the City Council's vote on a controversial antiwar resolution.
'I just got back from a City Council meeting,' he says when asked how he feels about the night's events. 'I think we need to remain calm, and our job on the council is to see the city through this.'
Saltzman seems relieved when the brief interview concludes. 'Actually, it's better than I thought: I thought you were some sort of surveyor,' he says before driving off.
War or peace, a fire station is a fire station.
The three firefighters who staff Gresham Fire Department's Station No. 73 are lounging in forest-green recliners. Someone's fiancee is visiting, along with several off-duty members of the hazmat team. On television, 'American Idol' has taken precedence over the attack on Iraq. There is no tension, no sign of the war. Just firefighter humor, and terrific pride in their team.
Gresham's hazmat team, one of three in the Portland area, is unique among the state's 14 such teams because it includes deputy sheriffs and Gresham police officers as well as firefighter-paramedics. It's been training, since long before 9-11, to deal with weapons of mass destruction.
The multidisciplinary team knows it could be called on for help if things turn ugly on American soil: The Portland area has 18 hospitals and an international airport.
'We may see people triaged from Chicago on west,' Lt. Jeff Dana observes as he lounges against a breakfast bar.
However, team members believe they are relatively safe. 'It's not like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein know where Gresham is,' Capt. Steve Best says.
Then again, he adds, 'we may not be the intended target. The intended target wasn't a small field in Pennsylvania, either. But a plane ended up there.'
Clarence Gaines is 71 and black. Joe Barth is 81 and white. They make up two-thirds of the most awe-inspiring team in the Wednesday night Knights of Columbus bowling league at North Portland's Interstate Lanes.
During the third game of their series on the night war broke out, Gaines nailed a double in the last frame for a superb 191.
And Barth, bowling against a three-member team whose combined age probably is less than his own, outrolled his friend with an incredible 201.
'Naw, we weren't that happy tonight,' says Gaines, noting that they both bowled 151 in their second game. 'Not a great night.'
Yet, they agree, a bowling alley is not a bad place for a couple of veterans to be on a night of infamy. Gaines served in the Korean War; Barth, spry as a 50-year-old, is a World War II veteran.
The pair speak little about the conflict, perhaps because of their differing views.
'We should support our wars,' Gaines says. 'People get mad at Bush, but that's OK. He's still in charge. If someone tells a solider to fight, they fight.'
Counters Barth: 'I don't know. I think Bush seems a little obsessed with Saddam.'
After the two men say their goodbyes, a friend catches up with Barth. Walking toward their cars, they don't talk about the war or Saddam Hussein or international affairs.
They talk bowling.
7 a.m. Thursday
The burly man in a brown sweater stands alone in the middle of Chapman Square early Wednesday morning. He faces the Justice Center and cups his hands to his mouth.
His voice booms out. 'George Bush is a liar! The war is built on lies!'
Joe 'Doc' Huston arrived downtown early to speak his mind.
'I've come to the mouth of the beast Ñ the Justice Center Ñ to tell the truth,' he says. 'I'm exercising my First Amendment rights and my freedom of assembly.'
With his shoulder-length brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, the 40-year-old Huston looks like many of the peace protesters who have marched through downtown streets in recent weeks. But Huston is no pacifist. He is a certified fitness trainer who owns Courage Boxing, a boxing and fitness-training studio that operates out of the Grand Avenue Gym on Northeast Russell Street.
Huston opposes a war against Iraq because he thinks that President Bush has a hidden agenda. An avid Internet fan, Huston has spent hours reading articles that contradict the administration's arguments for war in such newspapers as Britain's Guardian and Australia's Sydney Morning Herald.
'Colin Powell lied to the U.N. when he said Iraq was trying to buy nuclear material. It's been proven,' he says.
As a Portland police car drives by, Huston wags his finger disapprovingly.
'I'm not breaking the law, and I'm not telling anyone to,' he says. 'I'm a family man with a job. But everyone has a right to tell the truth.'
With that, Huston heads off to catch a bus across town to his gym.
Seventy-one-year-old Jerry Jelinek occupies his lucky keno stool at Joe's Cellar in Northwest Portland. He won a bundle just a day earlier and is catching grief about it from the other Joe's regulars.
Jelinek is strongly antiwar, and he fears immediate homeland repercussions. 'Terrorists will definitely hit again in the U.S. after this,' he says.
The mood at Joe's, he reports, hasn't changed much since the fighting commenced.
'No one's really talking about this,' he says. 'Then again, what little discussion I've heard here is that this is a mistake.'
Mayor Vera Katz can't quite get focused on the stack of reports, e-mails and budgets waiting for her in her third-floor office at City Hall.
She sips coffee and tries to engage. But there's a war on, and she keeps drifting to CNN coverage on the TV nearby.
She was supposed to be in Phoenix to talk baseball. But that got canceled. A few minutes earlier, four plainclothes police officers Ñ more than usual Ñ had inspected her office. Checking the layout, one of them explains.
TV crews are already gathering in the office lobby. They want statements, reassurance that everything's OK.
Registered nurse Lorie Baker, a staff member of Northwest Medical Teams, is assembling 70-pound packs of medical supplies that she and other relief workers will take to Northern Iraq as soon as the agency is allowed to enter the country.
'I've never had to ask myself what am I willing to die for,' says Baker, who has worked in other dangerous areas for the Portland-based international relief agency. 'This time, I'm asking. And I think I'm willing to die for this. If people are in need and we can save lives, it's worth it to me.'
As Baker packs bags, agency officials Ñ including President Bas Vanderzalm Ñ strategize on how to help Iraqi refugees.
Teacher Katharine Johnson gathers her fourth-grade class on the rug in Room 225 of Boise-Eliot Elementary School in North Portland for what she calls a 'special community circle.'
The hands of two-thirds of the class of 9- and 10-year-olds shoot up when she asks who watched the news Wednesday night. While one child tells the class that it was about the war between Iraq and the United States, a boy chips in that he heard there was going to be a war in Chicago.
Johnson, 31, politely disabuses him of the notion. In the ensuing blizzard of misinformation, she also manages to clear up that baseball practice is not going to 'be suspended because of the war getting too close to Portland,' as someone had heard from another fourth-grader. It was Saddam Hussein, not Adam Hussein. And in response to 'Does our side have lasers?' the answer is, 'Yes, but not like in the movies.'
Later, Johnson confides: 'I don't believe you can be totally neutral in teaching. But I see it as my job today to control the conversation, so it's not just kid talk and kid fear.'
Portland International Airport bustles with families bound for spring vacations, none of them noticeably disturbed by the war news. But Alaska Airlines flight attendant Lucinda Nelson, arriving at PDX after a flight from Oakland, Calif., says, 'Passengers are trying to get where they're going with their families, so they can stay put.'
In the terminal, Nelson stops to talk to John Cornelius, president of the Alaska flight attendants union, there to offer support to co-workers as part of the airline's employee assistance program.
Cornelius tells Nelson and attendant Darnell Danielsen that just before his flight from Ontario, Calif., landed in Portland on Wednesday night, he announced to passengers that the 'disarmament of Iraq has begun.'
The statement, he says, was met with utter, total silence.
'People shut down,' Nelson says. 'They don't want to talk to you. People are drawing into themselves.'
After Sept. 11, 2001, when four airplanes were hijacked, Cornelius says, flight attendants worldwide became achingly aware that their jobs put them on the front lines. 'The anxiety level is still there,' he says.
'Now if I do see anybody who's disgruntled' before the flight starts, Danielsen says, 'I talk to them before we leave, just because I don't want it up in the air.'
Barbara Steinfeld was sitting in the atrium of Neveh Shalom synagogue, planning her son's bar mitzvah, when she heard, 'We attacked Iraq.'
A former Israeli tour guide with a sixth sense about strange cars and packages, she wondered: 'How safe am I in this synagogue? Are there any terrorist groups who would attack my children here?'
Such an attack could 'absolutely happen here,' she says, pointing out that Omaha, Neb., 'just had a synagogue defaced.'
Steinfeld's thoughts are on her family's safety in Israel. Director of cultural tourism at the Portland Oregon Visitors Association, she exchanges e-mails with her niece Yifat in Tel Aviv and her father-in-law, Ze'ev, who lives in the farming community of Beit Lechem Haglilit in northern Israel.
'My concern is, if we attack Iraq, they'll attack Israel like they did in the Persian Gulf War,' she says, gripping her fingers atop her desk. 'We act as if it's OK for Israel to get attacked, to be the victim. That's the part that has me upset.'
She says there's a need to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but 'do we have to declare war and take out people to do that?'
Somali refugee Aisha Mohamed, 19, is walking down Southwest Huber Street to catch a bus to Portland Community College's Sylvan campus, but her thoughts are on the war in Iraq and her own experiences with war.
Not long before leaving for school Thursday, Aisha got into an argument with her sister about the television. Her sister wanted to soak up every bit of news. Aisha just wanted it shut off.
'I can't take it,' she says. 'It's just so sad. I mean, I remember the war. I remember people dying. I remember people going hungry. People who have never seen war cannot imagine what it is like.'
Aisha is a striking figure, walking along a road without sidewalks, dressed in a black and yellow sweater and a traditional hijab, or headscarf. She worships at the nearby Islamic Center of Portland, a mosque that has seen great scrutiny from the government. She says she is worried about a bias against people of her faith.
'I feel so sad for the Iraqi people, the Muslims there,' she says. 'The people who will die there are the people who have nothing.'
Nejat Khoshnaw leaves his wife and young son in the car and goes into Halal Meat and Mediterranean Foods in Southwest Portland.
He has many things to buy, but he also is in a hurry to get back to his television and the war. Khoshnaw is a Kurdish freedom fighter. He grew up in northern Iraq and fought in the uprising after the last Gulf War. That battle did not go well. 'Saddam destroyed our uprising,' he recalls. 'He killed thousands.'
Khoshnaw, 38, came to Portland by way of Iran, Turkey and Guam. He works at a downtown Texaco station and lives with his wife and son in Southwest Portland. His extended family remains in the mountains of northern Iraq, preparing for the inevitable clash with Iraqi troops.
Khoshnaw's English is limited, but he leaves little room for doubt when discussing his hopes for Iraq: 'I want to see America take control. I hope for freedom and independence for the Kurds.'
It's not enough that Jennifer Dawson's husband is sitting in a camp in Kuwait, maybe ready to move at any time with fellow Marines into Iraq.
It's not enough that she's suddenly a single mother, trying to care for 4-year-old and 19-month-old daughters.
It's not enough that, as war was breaking out Wednesday night, Dawson needed to study for an important Thursday anatomy test at Clark College in Vancouver, Wash., where she's studying to be a nurse.
But on Thursday, they shut off the gas at the family's Mount Scott home. Dawson forgot to contact the gas company when she moved the family into a new home three weeks ago Ñ a move planned before her husband, Capt. Vince Dawson, left.
'Nothing has been really easy,' says Jennifer Dawson, who last heard from her husband through e-mail Tuesday. 'You start using humor to get through things.'
Worrying about her husband's safety Ñ along with everything else Ñ is overwhelming, Dawson says.
'I knew this was going to happen,' she says of the start of the war. 'But now that it's happened, it's a little nerve-racking.'