Life off-duty

The gym is open again.

A sure sign of easing war tensions? Possibly. The gym was shut down when the war began: troops were ordered to stay in uniform at all times -- even during off-hours -- so they would be best prepared for a possible chemical attack. The gym opened again earlier this week. The civilian clothing was lifted today. Sports and exercise are back, to everyone's relief.

But people still have little spare time to work out.

"What spare time?" said Staff Sergeant Steve Biddle with the 190th Fighter Squadron. "I work, go home, take a shower, go to bed, and then I do it again."

Sergeant Biddle says he works 12-14 hours a day - a common work schedule since the war began. So people take their entertainment where and when they can get it.

Every now and then you'll notice someone shaking Lay's potato chip snack bags in the chow hall, trying to divine which bags have little cards that are part of the "Kido game." The game, as far as can be interpreted from the sparse English instructions, works a lot like dominos. There are 150 different Disney picture cards. Some personnel trade and collect them for youngsters back home.

"I have two little nieces that I just adore. We always played board games and I thought this would be just great to play," said Senior Airman Britney Hogan of the 190th Fighter Squadron. She trades with her buddy Tech Sergeant Phil Elway, who has collected some 75 cards for his granddaughter.

Hogan admits it's a silly hobby. "I have no life. If we get five cards in one chip bag, we think we won the lottery." She even admits that she watches other people's trays to make sure no one is going to throw cards away.

She laughs. "It keeps me going here."

Some find even stranger ways to let off steam. British troops played a daytime game of beach volleyball - wearing only their gas masks. There were numerous requests for an encore performance, as well as an order not to. And some guys look for scorpions and camel spiders at night and place them together in water bottles in a desert version of cockfighting.

Home improvement projects are a more wholesome diversion. The 190th Fighter Squadron is dreaming up a plan to build a Jacuzzi out of a rubber sack and some wood. The Seabees - Navy forces that build in combat zones - take first prize for upgrading their tent accommodations: front porches with camouflage netting for a roof.

Seabee Kenneth Arnold got together a half dozen guys a couple weeks ago to build a porch. "It was a morale thing. We banged it all together," said Arnold. "Everybody pitched in a little bit." The porch has become a place for the guys to gather to watch movies or play rummy. Other favorite card games here are poker and spades.

The enlisted troops used to play cards at the Hubbly Bubbly, a "night club" that was run by a civilian until the war began. The Hubbly remains closed, as does the base swimming pool. But the recreation center offers three pool tables, ping pong, foosball, and air hockey.

People don't seem to have had their fill of war imagery yet. The most popular media on base have military themes. The popular video games are graphic first-person shooter or role-playing war games, including War Craft 3, Age of Empires, and Diablo.

Military history and war novels get snatched up first at the learning center. And among the top movie rentals at the recreation center are Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, and We Were Soldiers.

Explains Sergeant Biddle, "Nobody wants to see a love story. It would remind people too much of home I guess."

Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).

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