In the midday heat of the Arabian desert, Mike Targon of Youngstown takes careful aim at a whitetail deer and eases slowly back on the trigger.
Phwing! goes the rubber band, bouncing off the cardboard silhouette with a soft plop and dropping to the plywood floor of his military tent's front porch. "All of us in this tent are hunters, and we missed the deer season," he said apologetically, stooping to retrieve his ammunition.
Here there is a constant background roar as cargo planes taxi to the airstrip, jets scream skyward, and generators chug purposefully along. At times, conversation must be shouted.
Aircraft surround the tiny tent city of the 1650th Tactical Airlift Wing, which includes more than 200 reservists from Niagara Falls.
Flight activity is around the clock: At 3 a.m., jet engines shake the walls of the tents and plywood "hootches" that the men and women call home.
Boredom is an enemy. On the job, complacency can mean danger. Off the job, and in the small, restricted compound, it can stretch hours into ages.
These are hard times in Tent City.
Christmas is coming 9,000 miles from families and loved ones. Just beyond it, reservists stationed here will mark the date they were supposed to fly home. Instead, they will be here another 90 days. Word came on Nov. 17, the day they were supposed to have an "over the hump" party marking the halfway point in their tour of duty.
And it hasn't helped that only four of the 34 Reserve C-130 transport units in the United States have been called up.
Or that none of the other 30 was sent to replace them.
Debra Targon sent her husband a hand-drawn "short timer" calendar to mark off the days.
Now, he has a second copy so that he can mark off the next 90.
A technician at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base in civilian life, he tries to accept the duty extention philosophically, in hopes that the scheduled April 1 return date will hold true. But it's tough.
"The worst part is not knowing for sure when we are going home -- because that is what the family back home is asking," he said.
"It was bad enough going through Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Tech. Sgt. Dave Olsen of the Town of Tonawanda. "Everybody was looking forward to delaying Christmas by a few days. Now it looks like Easter."
He and his wife, Karen, and their three children tried to cope with a simple approach: "You've got to take it day by day."
Life is easier for the families of the men and women whose civilian employers make up the difference between civilian and military pay. Others, especially those who were self-employed, have a harder time meeting the family budget.
For Tech. Sgt. Stephen P. Zurenda Jr. of Wilson, the support of his new bride, their friends at Christian Faith Chapel in Pendleton and the Niagara Falls unit's family support center have been vital.
He and his wife, Gail, married two months before the call-up, also have a three-way correspondence going with some of the hundreds of schoolchildren who have since sent mail to "Any Service Person" in the unit.
"I went to Panama for training for two weeks, and she thought that was bad," he sighed. "Now this."
Beyond a heavy workload that consumes much of the time, the Air Force has set up a number of sports and recreation programs to help morale, including memberships in a British sports club in a nearby city and beach excursions to a five-star resort hotel that has lost bookings because of the gulf crisis.
"If it weren't for sports, I'd go crazy," said Kelly Herman of Caledonia, a recently promoted technical sergeant and member of the "Sandbaggers" team in a women's softball league.
But the most creative weapon against boredom is evident in the tents and hootches where the unit's mix of reservists, National Guard members and regular Air Force personnel have "improved" basic military field housing.
Christmas lights twinkle from a stylistic smorgasbord of front porches. The unit's carpenters have constructed porch swings. Artists such as Tech. Sgt. Peter Maul have embellished sign boards, and contests have been used to determine everything from street names to the design of holes on miniature golf course now under construction.
There is pride, too, in the unit's maintenance and flying performances -- best among any of the similar units in the Middle East.
The medium-range cargo planes, all veterans of the Vietnam war, have been kept flying supply runs with few problems.
It is only the loneliness that hurts. In a packed recreation tent Saturday evening, half a world from home, the men and women based at Niagara Falls gathered to watch taped Christmas greetings from the folks they left behind.
Emotions ran high. There was laughter, and a start of tears. If the folks at home hoped to lift the spirits of those who serve over here, their prayers were answered.
Beyond the thin walls of the tent, there was the ever-present sound of aircraft engines. The noise blossomed and grew, but no one seemed to notice.
It was yet another night on the rim of the Persian Gulf, and there were supply runs to fly.
Propellers clawed at the cooling desert air, and airplanes climbed toward the sparkling stars.
News staff reporter Mike Vogel, who flew to the Persian Gulf with the Air Force, is on assignment with members of the 914th Tactical Airlift Group based at the Niagara Falls Air Force Reserve Base.