BONN, NOV. 21 -- Problem: Our troops in the Persian Gulf are so bored, they're counting grains of sand.
Pertinent fact: American military families stationed in Germany subscribe to thousands of American magazines, which they read and throw away.
Obvious solution: Magazine airlift.
Not so fast, soldier.
You can't just load a cargo jet full of Peoples and U.S. Newses and Sports Illustrateds and ship it to Saudi Arabia. These magazines are chockablock with ads featuring full-color photos of legs, chests, navels and assorted other body parts that are no go in Islamic countries.
Enter ever-present American ingenuity and the ever-ready energy of high school students with felt-tip markers in their fingers and time on their hands. The teenagers at Sembach Air Base in Germany, charged with making U.S. magazines safe for Islam, have been spending their after-school hours scrutinizing 3,200 pounds of magazines, and purifying them. Models in lingerie ads suddenly find themselves in conservative dresses. Hemlines plummet like the mercury in the desert night. Fashions flee to the safety of the '50s. Cleavage is out. Whole chunks of National Geographic end up on the base's cutting room floor. The coverup extends to scantily clad models, topless tribesmen, babies' bottoms and anything else that might offend the Saudis' sensibilities.
"We cover women in bras and low-cut dresses," says Claude Howard, 15, one of the volunteers. "If too much leg is showing or there's a man's chest, we cover it."
"There's women in skirts and bras in People," says 2nd Lt. Bryan Stokstad, 24, the father of the magazine airlift project. "Things that are normal in our country, well, I suppose People magazine would be to the Saudis like Playboy is to us. So we don't take any chances."
Only after every bit of skin considered indecent by Islamic standards is covered with new clothing of the students' rendering can the magazines be sent to U.S. troops in the gulf.
Stokstad dreamed up the project a few weeks ago.
"I read an article about how their morale was low and they didn't have much to do," he says. "As a military guy, I didn't like to hear that."
Stokstad, a can-do kind of guy, did something. He collected thousands of copies of everything from People to National Geographic to U.S. News & World Report, all to be shipped south to the American forces in the gulf. Families from all over the base chipped in.
Then things got complicated. Word arrived at Sembach "from the very top of the government," Stokstad said, that magazines sent to the gulf could not contain any material offensive to the Saudis. He heard that the Saudi government was inspecting each piece of mail that arrived in the country and confiscating anything that violated Islamic modesty standards. He knew that Saudi morality had already led to a ban on stand-up comedy. Surely, Calvin Klein ads wouldn't pass muster. Enter the Bra Brigade.
The volunteer censors started by ripping out offending pages. But since any reference to non-Islamic religions, to alcohol, tobacco or drugs also had to be excised, "you wouldn't have much of a magazine left," says Sembach spokesman Sgt. Stefan Alford.
That's when Amy Voightmann, 16, developed the next strategy: the coverup. Some magazines would have to be tossed out -- entirely religious publications, magazines specializing in nude pictures. But she realized that most could be sent south after just a few minutes of coloring.
Howard, who puts in about 10 hours a week filling in what editors and ad agencies aimed to leave out, says the work is both fun and educational.
"We learned about the Arab culture in geography," the 10th-grader says. "The people down there have been around there all their lives, and the way they used to do things just kind of stuck that way.
"I guess things are automatically going to be different around the world because people are so far from each other."
This week the Sembach censors learned that their services may not be needed much longer. They were informed by superiors that U.S. publishers will soon begin delivering magazines directly to Saudi Arabia. It won't be as easy as dropping the mags in the mail, Stokstad warns.
"They'll have to do their own touch-up," he says. "I wonder how they're going to do that."