FORT BRAGG, N.C., AUG. 7 -- The quiet gave it away. All the neighbors noticed it as they stood in the thick air on an old railroad embankment. Nothing seemed to be happening at Pope Air Force Base tonight, which to them meant something definitely was.
"If it's a normal night, there'd be a lot of planes taking off," said Ronnie Glover, 37, gazing past the security fence at the distant lights of the base tarmac. "They're always doing training drops at night. . . . Tonight, it's real quiet."
No officials from either Fort Bragg, the home of the 82nd Airborne Division, or Pope, the air base from which the paratrooopers embark on their missions, would comment tonight on whether 2,300 members of the 82nd were bound for Saudi Arabia to protect U.S. warplanes that are, in turn, being dispatched to protect the Saudis from Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Both the fort and air base were sealed to outsiders.
But everything about the base told a knot of curious neighbors that routines were being broken, patterns changed, signs that something was up.
Instead of a steady progression of training flights, 24 hours a day, there had been almost nothing for two days, said Tim Maklary, 27, a mobile home maintenance man who clutched a beer as he, too, watched the runways.
What air traffic there was, Maklary and other neighbors said, was inbound, and much of that was helicopters: U.S. Army Apaches and Blackhawks, apparently making the hop from nearby Simmons Army Airfield. The armchair generals on the railroad embankment knew why: The helicopters were being loaded on big transports for the long flight to the Middle East.
"Here come more helicopters," said Glover, turning to the northeast as two sets of blinking lights clattered into view and settled into the darkness somewhere on the base.
Cargo planes flew in intermittently, too. Shortly before 11 p.m., an immense C-5 transport screamed in over the trees to land.
The neighbors had seen this before. There was Panama in December. There was Grenada in 1983. This time, though, there was a sense that this could be bigger, this could be tougher, this could be worse. The possible opponent was no tiny nearby nation, but one with the largest armed force in the Middle East, one a long way from home.
"All I can say is Mr. Bush better be ready to go the distance, because this ain't no Panama and this ain't no Grenada," said Maklary. "That's a million-man army over there. God be with them. I just hope the country has the will behind it to carry through."
But Maklary was for it, he said. It was time to deal with Iraq.
Glover watched with the emotions of a veteran, an 82nd Airborne veteran, from 1970 to 1974. When the president says go, "you go," he said, but he was not pleased.
"I don't think it's a good idea myself," he said. "It might be another Vietnam. I had two brothers go to Vietnam and I didn't like that."
Another veteran stood nearby. Joe Newman, 48, was in the Army for 25 years. He went to Saudi Arabia. He was glad the United States was helping the Saudis, worried about the conditions in which American troops might wind up fighting.
"They're a deserving people," Newman said of the Saudis. "But if we fight a war there, there are things we're not perfectly equipped for. The sand, the heat. With the uniforms we wear over there, the guys would roast."