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Steve Morrell Stories: Saudi Arabia new

by Melissa Blanton and Bob Morrell
After Steve's El Capitan jump, the Air Force decided to cool his behind somewhere, as in somewhere away from the officers who had had to deal with the park rangers. In the old days when his dad was a pilot, the standard place was some radar station in Alaska. Steve's father had several friends who drew this punishment. In the 80's though, there was a better place than mountainous (ie lots of cliffs) and now thoroughly modernized Alaska: there was Saudi Arabia. Hot, strict and far away. It doesn't get any better than that as punishment.

How hot is it in Saudi? Well, the Air Force made Steve sign a formal, explicit contract before he left that acknowledged in writing that he understood how hot it was and that he would not ask to come home because of the heat. (Steve said later even that did not prepare him for how hot it was.)

Now there is an important thing to understand about Steve in the 80's. Steve had gone to college with many people from the middle east. The nephew of the king of jordon was one of his classmates (his father had been assasinated) and an number of his classmates were children of Iranian bigwigs in the Shah's government. Most were stranded in the US when the Iranian revolution took place (a number of their parents were executed or missing by graduation) Furthermore, by this time Steve had already travelled all over the world, and had a very loudly proclaimed multi-culturalism. "It's not them, it is just their culture" was his often (read: ad nauseum) repeated phrase. Those of us parochials back in the states (including those, who had knocked about much of the same territory 30 years before) who thought this or that group of foreigners were a bit off were just narrow minded and un-cultured. So it cannot be said that what happened to Steve in Saudi did not cheer some people up a bit....

What happened started on the first day he got there. His family Bible was confiscated by the "mutaween" or religious police. It is worth noting that this Bible was tucked as far down in his luggage as a 20's something military pilot who hasn't read it since the last big flight school exam could stuff it. Actually, there are several who believe Steve could not have found it if they had told him to. When he asked later if he would get it back, he was told no, it was already destroyed. These people don't mess around, Steve thought.

This was confirmed a few months later when Steve was invited by a friend to attend an execution. Two men were beheaded (Steve thought it was for drug dealing) He got a great "I attended a double header tee shirt" but admitted privately that it shook him up to see the sword fall and the heads roll. Even more disconcerting was an accompanying execution by stoning of a woman for adultery. The stoning methods were much more modern than the old pick up and hurl a stone of biblical times. The woman was placed in a pit, and a dumptruck full of rocks was backed up and emptied on her. "It's not them, it's just their culture" Steve repeated to himself, with considerably less conviction.

Steve's job in Saudi was flying bigwig passengers in a turbo prop. This was at the time of the first Gulf crisis, when Iran was our enemy and Iraq our friend, al beit a "friend" that accidentally fired a missle at one of our cruisers killing 34 sailors. Steve flew cabinet secretaries and ambassadors up and down the gulf, getting radar locks from missle batteries on the Iranian coast, which qualified him for hazardous duty pay. One day he co-piloted for a Colonel who wanted to fly the Egyptian ambassador to cairo. Now, flying colonels' are a joke even his father's days in the Air Force. They fly only enough to keep their rating, and so are known for screwups. The colonel wanted to spend time with the ambassador, and assigned Steve to help if he got in trouble flying. He did. He flew into one of the worst sandstorms in Egyptian aviation history. Very quickly the colonel realized he was going to lose the plane without help, so he turned it over to Steve, who had been sweating bullets watching things go from bad to worse. Steve brought the plane down in a howling wind with no visibility on some remote runway, earning a citation, and a friend in high places he would need later.

Security on the base was very tight, so much so that Steve was instructed to check his car or jeep over for bombs before starting it. This was very weird to Steve because his vehicles were on a gated base gaurded by the local military. When Steve pointed this out to his commander, the commander nodded as if to say EXACTLY. Steve got the message.

Steve was by this time less than enamoured with Saudi customs. One night, he met an Irish nurse at a party and offered to drive her home. They got on the road, but had misjudged the time, for the sun was setting and they were still on the road. Why the worry? because the mutaween, who had confiscated his bible were out at that time to start checking cars. No woman, saudi or non saudi are allowed to be in a car with anyone but their husband or brother. It appears that this rule applies all day but that the mutaween only enforced it at night. Steve looked ahead and saw a mutawen roadblock. Steve grabbed a blanket from the back of the car and pushed the nurse down on the floorboard, and covered her with a blanket. Steve got through the roadblock. Some later suggested that the police ignored the obvious lump on the floorboard to avoid a national incident. Steve did not believe it, for by this time Steve's opinion of the Saudi people was very very low, particularly for an avowed multiculturalist.

The problems ultimately centered around a single phrase: Inshallah. This phrase, steve was told meant "If Allah permits" or "God willing". The Saudis used this phrase for everything, and used it to procrastinate worse than a cable TV repairman. Want your airline tickets? "we will have them Inshallah" Need the water main repaired? We will fix it inshallah". Steve came to hate that term, several times almost snapping and grabbing the speaker by the collar and yelling: "I don't want it inshallah, i want it thursday!"

But he held back, after all, "It's not them, its their culture" He also reminded himself that this was a country where literally 99% of the people had been living in tents in the desert just one generation before. Allowances must be made.

What finally broke the back of Steve's multiculturalism was when his car's emergency brake broke. He could pull the brake lever up, but it would not lock. Steve took it to a repair shop that was reputed to be able to handle Steve's brand of car and explained the problem to the Saudi mechanic. The mechanic said that he would fix it, Inshallah. Steve ground his teeth, but said nothing and left. Just before lunch the mechanic called and said that allah was merciful, he had it fixed. Steve brightened and got a ride to the shop. He paid the mechanic, and hopped in the car. he had actually gone a block before he looked down at the emergency brake. Where the handle had been was nothing. Where the handle went into the floorboard was a neat patch of duct tape. Steve angrily turned around and drove back to the mechanic. When Steve demanded a explanation, the mechanic eagerly replied: Steve had had trouble because the brake's locking mechanism would not work. By removing the brake, he no longer had this problem, no? What finally did if for Steve was the realization that the mechanic was very pleased with himself for the cleverness of this solution, and still was expecting steve to praise him for his imaginative thinking. Steve said later that right then and there he realized: "Its not their culture, these people are #$!@ messed up!"

You would think that, having been charged with a felony in the States, barely escaping expulsion for the Air Force, being sent to Saudi as a punishment-and all for BASE jumping from a cliff-Steve would have been a little chastened. Alas, no. What did he do as soon as possible after arriving in Saudi? He went looking for a cliff, the purpose of which it does not take a genius to guess. (I must interject here: He sent me a photograph of himself at the bottom of said cliff, looking happy as could be, with this caption on the back: " Me, shortly after making the first cliff jump in Saudi Arabia, a bitching 500 foot cliff I found in the desert!" Actually, it's one of my favorite photos of him. It captures perfectly his personality, his smile, and that devilish gleam in his eyes. Also, the caption in pencil was so very Steve. Did the man ever write with a pen?)

If I'm not mistaken, this must have been the very cliff that almost cost Steve his life but also saved his life in a bizarre turn of events. Near the end of 1988, Steve did a jump from a cliff in the middle of the desert, far from the nearest road. Friends video- taped the entire affair. Immediately before the jump, Steve, ever the macho man, grabbed his crotch, yelled, "Party 'til impact!" and jumped. Very shortly after that, there was a thud, clearly audible on the tape, followed by some pretty loud screaming allllll the way to the bottom. Then silence. The friends at the top of the cliff started yelling, "Steve, are you all right?" repeatedly, probably for several minutes. Finally Steve's tiny voice could be heard from below, "Nooooooooo!" He had rammed into the cliff, shattering both feet and ankles. Later, he showed the video (to me anyway) over and over, finding it highly amusing. Weird.

It took his friends several hours to carry Steve back to their vehicle. At one point, Steve claims that vultures were circling overhead like something out of a grade B movie. By the time he made it to the hospital his feet and legs had turned totally black. The Air Force would surely look upon this latest incident unfavorably, considering why he was there in the first place, so the official story became that he was rock climbing without a rope.

Not only did some in the family always suspected Steve had jumped rather than climb the cliff, so had some in the Air Force. Steve was in a wheelchair, doped up to the gills and getting reamed out by one of his superior officers and threatened with being kicked out of the Air Force.

At that moment, (as much as can be said to be a moment when you are on mega pain killers) in strode the flying colonel, who said “not only are we not kicking him out of the AF, but we are giving a commendation to the guy who carried him piggyback across the desert for 7 hours to get him out”

Due to his little "rock climbing" mishap, while he was in the hospital, Steve missed his flight home for Christmas. That flight turned out to be Pan Am Flight 103, which blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland. If it hadn't been for his illegal BASE jumping, he would have died in 1988, and we would not have had him with us for eight more years. (As soon as I heard about Pan Am Flight 103, as usual my Steve ESP clicked in and I called his mother and learned, and as usual, that Steve had literally dodged another bullet.) Steve told me later that he thought he could have survived the disaster because he always had his parachute as carry-on luggage, and if he had had enough time, he could have bailed out. However, having just spent eighteen months in Saudi and being the only survivor MIGHT have cast some suspicion him. He was such an optimist, I always thought a fitting epitaph for his tombstone would be, "This is only a temporary setback."

Steve's mother has a great picture of Steve on his military flight home, both feet in casts after surgery to put his feet and ankles back together with as many screws, bolts, plates, etc., as required to create the bionic man, a big smile on his face that clearly says, "I am stoned on pain killers." In fact, he frequently said that he never let anyone forget when he had a dose scheduled-nurses, doctors, custodians, whoever. Macho man could only take so much pain after all.

{Major Stephen A. Morrell (USAF) was a pioneer in many area's of skydiving, including CRW and BASE jumping. 1956-1996}

Stephen A. Morrell Memorial Site & Foundation

Submitted by Melissa Blanton and Bob Morrell on 2009-09-25

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5 out of 5 stars friggin hilarious...everything about arabs in here is true. Iraq for two years will do the same to you. Wish I got a chance to meet this guy.

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