It always amused me to see people's reactions in the States when I told them where I lived. "Saudi Arabia?" they would say. "You mean in the desert?" And I would say, yes, in the desert, and they would say, "Well, gee, that must have been interesting!" Then they would hurry away to tell their friends about this oddball who grew up in an oil camp on the Arabian Gulf.
At the time I thought they really did consider it interesting. I didn't realize that to many people in the United States growing up anywhere but in America seemed more peculiar than interesting. "How," they sometimes asked, "can a boy grow up without, oh, football games on Saturday, snowstorms, ice skating, cutting the lawn in summer or burning leaves in the fall or going walking in the woods in the spring, or, well you know..."
As it happened, I did not know, not really. I went to Saudi Arabia when I was only 11 years old. Oh, I do have vague memories of a few things in Illinois—frost on the windows, maybe, the smell of fresh cut grass, the Memorial Day parades, or the sight of tall trees against the sky. But for the vivid memories, the bright warm memories of boyhood, I have to go back to Saudi Arabia, to the night the plane from Cairo dropped out of the darkness onto the Dhahran airstrip, the night our new life in an old land began ...
It was 1946. The war was over—World War II, that is—and my mother, determined to join my father after a year's separation, had packed us off to New York and onto a freighter bound for Alexandria (it was called The Black Warrior, I remember). Then we took a train for Cairo and, after a week of false starts, a plane for Dhahran. When we landed we straggled across the airfield like a small untidy parade. My mother was first with my baby sister Sally cradled in one arm on a bulky WAC's purse. I was second, clutching her hand, and my brother Jimmy was last, trotting along at the end of a sort of leash with which, I felt, I had dragged him half way around the world.
It was terribly hot and very dark, I recall, and the loud speaker from the Dhahran Airfield was just broadcasting the beginning of "Inner Sanctum," one of my favorite programs at home. I remember the sound of the creaking door. And then I saw my father. He was standing on the apron waiting for us, a tall thin man, almost a stranger after our year's separation. He was dressed in white, I remember, and he had sunglasses strapped to his belt. We ran to meet him ...
Later, my father introduced us to the Snyders with whom we were to spend the night before going on to Ras Tanura, a new community where Aramco had built a refinery. One of the Snyders was a boy named Myles who was two years my senior and who, in the 15 minutes it took to drive to the Snyder house, became my closest friend.
"See those flames?" he asked in a low voice. I looked out through the darkness and saw the dancing lights of the gas flares from a gas-oil separator plant. "They're volcanoes," he said. "Live volcanoes, really!"
A few minutes later he pointed to the silhouette of twin minarets on a mosque near the road. "Cactus!" he hissed. "Saguaro cactus!"
And both times I believed him.
In the months to come, Myles was to teach me all sorts of new things: how to find green scorpions under driftwood on the beach, how to catch lizards behind the neck so that you weren't stuck with a writhing lizardless tail between your fingers. He was to introduce me to spiny-tailed "dabbs," meat-eating "warals" and suction-toed geckos; to desert hedgehogs and foxes, and even once—on a wilderness trip with a geologist—to a hunchbacked striped hyena. It would be Myles too who would, one year in Dhahran, lead me under the camp fence on daring hikes to distant fiat-topped hills, and to the charred crater blasted by a misplaced Italian bomb. But that would come later. That first night he contented himself with making the new kid think that the flares were volcanoes. As I dozed off in the Snyders' living room, I heard his voice echoing in my head, "Live volcanoes, really!"
The next morning we headed for Ras Tanura in a four by four army surplus truck. We drove past Aramco's Dammara Seven, the company's first producing oil well, past pyramid-shaped Jabal Shamal on the left, and past the fishing villages of al-Khobar and Dammam. Later, we saw crystal white salt fiats and scattered palm groves over which loomed towering dunes. As the truck drove along, occasionally shifting into four-wheel drive to push through patches of drifted sand, we saw flocks of long-haired black goats, clusters of low Bedouin tents, and the huge stiff-legged white donkeys of the Eastern Province, with spots of orange dye on their backs. We saw our first camel standing against the horizon and noted a sign by the road cautioning us that "camels have the right-of-way."
All this, which would become so familiar to us, was new that morning. Some of it, unstirred by centuries, had begun to disappear even then; all of it would change a little in the next few years. All except the searing heat and the scorching beige glare of the desert which reached halfway into the sky. Beside the road were the catalysts of the change; the high-tension power line, the flares of the gas-oil separator plants ("Live volcanoes," huh?) and the rows of pipelines with mounds of clay for the camel caravans to cross. Then the towers of the new refinery appeared beyond the long finger of Tarut Bay and we drove onto the narrow Ras Tanura headland to the house where we were to live.
We had one of the first group of 30 stucco family houses built in "American City," now Nejma. The houses, painted in brilliant colors as if to challenge the monotony of sand and sky, were arranged four deep along the shore. They had spacious yards of white beach sand, and patios of flat "faroush" stone taken from the bottom of the bay. From our dining room we could watch the changing moods and colors of the Gulf: misty silver and mirror-still at dawn, clear aquamarine and violet at mid-day, chalky green during a storm and washed lime-blue when the storm was over. It was unforgettably beautiful.
In Ras Tanura, in those days, most of the early facilities were located in temporary wooden barracks. There were a clinic, a laundry, a barbershop, a mail center, and a recreation hall in which were located a library, a snack bar, a billiard room and a bowling alley.
For the hard-hatted sheet metal construction workers, the recreation hall was the center of their off duty life. Here they balanced the day's sweat with a night of pre-prohibition beer drinking and high-stakes poker. Across the street was the Mess Hall which served all the bachelors, including married men whose families had not yet arrived, and "bachelorettes," the first few nurses and secretaries who had been persuaded to come out to Saudi Arabia, Nearby were flood-lit tennis courts (used by us kids surreptitiously for roller skating). There was also an outdoor theater, with straw mat sides to keep out the strong north wind. We went to the movies winter and summer, although in winter it meant wrapping up in blankets. But often on mild nights in the spring and fall the sky and its stars offered a better show than the one on the screen.
The refinery, I remember, had just gone "on stream," as everyone soon learned to say, and little Ras Tanura began to celebrate its ever-increasing post-war production with splendid holidays on the beach every time we racked up a 100,000 or a 150,000-barrel day. These were most often Employe Association picnics with donkey races (the big white ones were safe bets), buried coin hunts for silver riyals and Indian rupees, and, on very special occasions such as the 4th of July, feasts of watermelon from al-Kharj, southeast of Riyadh.
Other big occasions in those days were the monthly (or sometimes semimonthly) arrivals of the refrigerator ships, for the ships brought fresh vegetables. I remember the sight of the women hurrying to the commissary carrying heavy canvas bags of clinking silver coins since paper money had not yet been introduced.
There was always construction underway and that meant lots of bricks and planks that enterprising boys could manage to "borrow" despite the efforts of the Safety Department to keep us at bay. Rightly or wrongly we considered Safety Department personnel and "Security" our mortal enemies. They discovered our board-covered tunnels beneath the sagebrush hillocks at the edge of town and bulldozed them under. They discouraged our long bicycle rides on the hard-packed beach at low tide by building a fence. They cut us off from the deserted coast where huge shells dried in the sun, where oar-tailed sea snakes warmed themselves on the sand and sand crabs tunneled below, leaving little castles by their front doors. We were never completely foiled, however, and swam outside the fence to walk as far as the magnificent sand dunes where we could somersault down to the bottom without harm, or play "king of the mountain."
Meanwhile, as we explored Ras Tanura and its environs, my mother was making a determined bid to tame the desert. In our first house the only garden we had was an accidental growth of tiny palm shoots that sprang up when dew dripped from the sloping roofs onto date pits left by construction workers who had made a habit of eating lunch in the shade of the house. But when we moved to a new house and when soil had been trucked in, Mother planted the beginnings of a garden and between the sandstorms which periodically swept across the beach wall, nursed it to life. First she planted a crop of alfalfa. Then she put in creepers of Bermuda grass which had to be poked into the earth one by one and painstakingly sprinkled with the hose each evening. Then she put in oleander bushes and tamarisk and acacia trees, buried dried seaweed and fish near the roots to fertilize them and, because of the wind and the shallow soil, tied them upright to sturdy poles. Some flowering plants could be obtained from the company's nursery: frangipani, climbing red, orange and purple bougain-villea, hardy periwinkle, dwarf poinsettia, but there were also four o'clocks grown from seeds sent out from my grandpa's farm in Ohio. I remember how strange Ras Tanura looked the first year green trees began to poke above the roofs all over town, throwing circles of shade onto the ground and softening the skyline.
Before then we had spent a year in Dhahran. It was the year my sister Sue was born. We lived in a house on a hill from which you could see the smoke from the flares on the island of Bahrain. On the other side of the house in Dhahran, I recall, lived a boy named Jim McCarthy who introduced me to an intriguing little book about the facts of life. Another neighbor, Louella Beckly, lent me scores of Carolyn Keene's Nancy Drew mystery stories. They were both "big kids" like Phil Braun, who could swim faster on bis back than most of us could crawl. But big or little, there were plenty of them since the families in Saudi Arabia were young and large. There was always a new wing under construction at the school and new faces on the bus or at the mail center. Since someone was always leaving for long vacation or going "outside" to school, there were also familiar faces disappearing too. Myles Snyder, for one.
After the year in Dhahran we moved back to Ras Tanura and I made new friends. One was Joe Studholm and the other a boy named Jim Mandaville. Jim was a genius of many talents, we all knew, because he threw shoes at his brother Jack (who could pinch you with his toes when wrestling), identified desert plants and fragments of pottery, rode horses, and built radios and model airplanes. He was a "girl hater" at the time and a party hater. To his chagrin, his mother helped organize the Teen Club.
Since we lived on the shore, I guess it was inevitable that we would come to know the sea and its inhabitants. Some of us, at least, like D.T. Gray, my cousin, and Miles Jones, with whom I ranged up and down the coast in quest of all that it had to teach us.
Miles lived in a house in the Marine Terminal area on the tip of the Ras Tanura peninsula. Because the house was the oldest in town it was infested with earwigs and centipedes and for some reason that I can't remember we were convinced that there was a mongoose in the attic which had escaped from one of the tankers from India.
When D.T. and I spent the weekend with Miles we would hike across the narrow sand spit to the abandoned arrow-shaped palm frond fish traps there, and wade cautiously in the slimy sand, watching for sand dollars and sea urchins and feeling mud sharks and skates slither across our nervous toes. We caught baskets of fish for fertilizer and great blue crabs, and quantities of huge pink shrimp which we cleaned and ate doused in tomato catsup. We also decimated the population of a certain snail which had the bad luck of shutting itself in with a dime-sized trapdoor of some beauty which we called cat's-eye. We held our noses as we boiled kettles of them, pried their protective seal from the sticky body, dried them in the sun, and bathed them in glistening olive oil. We ran our fingers through piles of them like misers. They were too chalky to be valuable, of course, but to us they were priceless.
But great as it was, there was more to life than just leisure and mischief. There was also school. School then was held in a portable building on a steel frame that was hauled in on a truck and perched on four large concrete blocks. Sam Whipple was the principal but he was also our teacher, and our friend. He was short and balding and could run faster than any of the boys in junior high.
One day, when the seasonal wind had whipped around and under the school for several weeks, we felt a sudden window-rattling jolt and the building lurched. The sand had blown away from the base of one of the concrete supports. The Safety Department moved in at once and took precautions and put out bulletins, but we thought it had been great fun when all the volleyballs and baseball bats behind Mr. Whipple's desk began to roll lazily down to the far corner of the room.
In cool weather in our school we frequently went out on excursions, sometimes driving all day on sand tracks to the Hofuf oasis with its maze of caves and eroded sandstone pillars, its hot springs, donkey drawn wells, covered suqs, and old walls. We took the three step journey by dhow, rowboat, and donkey cart to Tarut Island where thousands of tiny turtles lived in the irrigation ditches beneath jungles of palms. We climbed like lizards over the crumbling Portuguese forts in Dammam and Qatif, and visited the last of the great winter encampments of the Bedouins.
Like all American boys, of course, we had a Boy Scout troop, but although we learned our first aid and Morse and semaphore in the prescribed fashion, our company trips were quite different. We always had an extra truck loaded with firewood and water. No amount of woodsman's lore would have provided either in that territory. In Tarut Bay we camped on uninhabited Za'al Island which was separated from the peninsula only by a broad mud flat and narrow reef channel, but gave us a splendid feeling of freedom and remoteness when the water rose and the tidal current was running. There we skinny-dipped and hunted tern's eggs, and at night herded schools of needlefish onto the beach by sweeping a powerful three-battery flashlight beam along the dark surface of the bay.
Ras Tanura was so small that having a party meant inviting every kid in camp. The girl hater clique was not big on "scissors," "walking the plank," "sardines," "inchy pinchy," or "country club." They once fled from a party with Nancy Bradfield's birthday cake in tow. But I think even the girl haters were secretly impressed by Mary Beth Harrity when she floated on her back in the Gulf. Of course she was a "big kid" and only came to Ras Tanura during vacations from the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon. She brought back unbelievable stories about boarding school which we all believed and could hardly wait to experience for ourselves. In the meantime, enjoying our last year at home, we made dribble castles on the beach, threw sun-dried stinging jellyfish at each other, ran barefooted across melting asphalt roads, and chased locust swarms from the gardens, knocking them down with tennis rackets.
We thought ourselves to be a special breed of kids in those days. And maybe in some ways we were. We spoke Arabic, we had met the famous King Ibn Sa'ud. We knew real Bedouins and all of us had been around the world at least once. Our thick green passports were gay accumulations of visas and permits from as many nations as there were pages, and our arms and inoculation certificates were both full of shots. We had, furthermore, lived through the incomparable excitement of watching a town come to life in what, to us at least, was a new and exciting land.
But now, suddenly it was time to leave again—off to high school in Beirut. It wasn't really very far and we were coming back every holiday, but still, when the special red and silver Kenworth bus headed out to the airport that day, there was more than one red-eyed mother and silent father aboard.
We drove, I remember, past the same dunes, and the same palm groves, and even, I thought, the same herds of goats that I had seen that first day when we left the Snyders' house. My father had become noticeably quiet as we passed the halfway coast guard house and as Jabal Shamal appeared on the horizon, he began to fidget uneasily.
"Er, ah, Billy,..." We bounced past the gas flares ("Live volcanoes, really!"). "Well, Bill ..." We jolted past the main gate of Dhahran and down past the twin minarets ("saguaro cactus") towards the airfield. It was 1950. Had it only been four years? "Son," my father gulped and looked around and leaned towards my ear. A gargled whisper: "Is there, er, anything you'd like to know about, er ...girls?"
Which is as good a place as any to end my memories, my bright warm memories of those, yes, innocent years growing up in Saudi Arabia.
William Tracy is now Assistant Editor of Aramco World Magazine. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Frank W. Tracy, left Saudi Arabia last February after more than 20 years with Aramco.