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“Dear Folks”: The Webster Letters From Arabia, 1944-1959

31 March 2007 | comments (0) | In Search Of Oil | by

CHAPTER 4:  HISTORIC ROYAL VISIT; LOST LETTERS; ARAMCO GROWS IN LEAPS AND BOUNDS; KEN WEBSTER GETS A BIG PROMOTION AND MOVES PERMANENTLY TO DHAHRAN; DREAMING OF HOME LEAVE

Mildred Webster, the official family “correspondent,” starts off the New Year of 1947 with a full report on Christmas activities in the camps, hopes for the family’s first home leave later in the year, and observations about her husband’s “playing” the Roupee market in Bahrain.  Then, inexplicably, letters from the next two months are missing – lost in transit to the United States and, presumably, never received by family members.  (This is later attributed to boat mail losses compounded by the still less-than-normal transportation situation in war-torn Europe and bad weather in New York City during the winter).  During the two-month gap in the letters, King Ibn Saud visits the Aramco camps with an enormous entourage, resulting in international media coverage, including a spread in Life magazine.  Mildred celebrates her first anniversary in Arabia, Aramco’s huge investment in the area really begins to take off, Ken Webster receives a big promotion to help oversee (and spend tens of millions of dollars on) all company construction, engineering and communications in Arabia, the unique partnership between Aramco and the Saudi Royal Family begins to reap major rewards in terms of oil production and profits, and the camps continue to flourish.

This chapter covers January to March 1947.

Dear Folks One of hundreds of airmail envelopes containing lengthy letters to Stateside family members during the Webster Family’s many years in Saudi Arabia.  This one is addressed to Mildred Webster’s father and stepmother in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Photo by Ken Slavin

Ras Tanura
January 4, 1947

Dear Folks:

I hurried a letter out the other day with a friend going home…didn’t have a chance to say much.

You do know by now, though, that we received the (Christmas) boxes – late, but they did get here.  In a way it was even more fun that way, for we had two Christmases . . . thanks for all the lovely gifts.  Ken was delighted with his and so was I.  The girls were, too, and got such a kick out of them all.  We really had a picnic opening all the things.   I must confess, though, that I held a few things back for the girls – to be used for birthday presents and also held out some of the funny books – they got so many and that way it scatters them out.  Our house is the most popular in camp – the kids just swarm in here and sprawl themselves on the children’s beds and floor and then there is complete silence for hours . . .

All in all, it was a most busy time and packed full.  The Sunday School, which is conducted in one of the homes by three of the mothers, had a lovely Vesper Service and later a truly fine tree and a gorgeous Santa – I had some things in reserve and had brought all my decorations, so we managed fine.  We were able to get a bike for Judy – a boy’s bike, but she doesn’t care – it is just the right size, too.  It was one of a bunch sent out here three years ago, so we felt very fortunate about that.  Then there were a few pairs of roller skates – we got them each a pair.  I bought two pairs of native dolls – they are made to order at the mission on Bahrain – they are authentic, but quite crude – something for them to keep.  Also picked up a few things at the bazaar (Editor’s note:  This is a reference to the event put on by the Dhahran Women’s Club in the fall of 1946) – some toys from Asmara – Eritrea – in Africa.  Our tree was juniper sent by plane from Asmara – and quite pretty.    Then a group of us got together several afternoons and mornings and made decorations for trees – and it is amazing what can be done when you have to.  Actually, I don’t believe a child suffered from the fact they were a long way from home – (despite the fact that) so many do not have their household effects yet.

There were parties and parties for grownups – from open houses to a kids’ party, which was worlds of fun.  No one got any sleep and felt that the Season was really celebrated.  Ken and I had open house for about 100 before the formal dance New Year’s Eve.  It turned out to be a huge success and I am so glad we went ahead and did it.  Everyone looked so pretty all dressed up and all seemed to enjoy themselves.  The house did look pretty, too.

That whole week was one of marvelous weather – we had heat on in the AC – it is reversible, you know – cold water in the summer and hot in the winter.  We had been wearing winter suits and coats.  But that week it was delightfully warm again and we spent lots of time on the beach.  New Year’s Day a whole bunch were on the beach and several went swimming…today is still nice, but not so sunny and a little overcast.  I am on the porch, though, in just a blouse and skirt writing this.

School started again this morning, thank goodness.  This business of three months in school and one off is fine.  One month at a time is enough vacation for children out here, where they spend most of the time outside anyway!

We are beginning to think about the way to take home – and have hopes of a tour through the Continent.  It can be done now – I don’t know how nice the accommodations are – several have gone that way but we haven’t heard yet how it was.  (Editor’s note:  Europe was still recovering from the ruin and shortages of World War II, which ended only months earlier.)  We want to do the Holy Land, then go across from Cairo by plane to Rome (you can’t go to Athens right now – but might by the time we go), up into Switzerland, on through Paris again and to London, and home by boat from there.  The Company allowance won’t cover it, but we think it would be a shame not to see something while we have the chance.  They allow us 28 days before our home leave starts and this trip can be done in that – of course, you can take as much of your home time as you want, but we wouldn’t want to use it all up on this side.  We both want to do the South Pacific trip sometime – but it takes a very long time – Ken figures we had better trip on the way out for so often after you get home and it nears your time to return, they start hurrying you and we would probably fly back.

All things being equal, we plan to come back for at least one more contract (30 months).  We really would be foolish not to – Ken could never have hoped to get this salary in the States for years – if ever.  He got another $80.00 raise for Christmas – and aside from the sad fact we are so far from our families, we all like it very much.  We can stay for that next contract and Judy still will only be 13.

It is a swell setup and Ken is in the groove.  These fellows were lucky to get in on the beginning…and apparently Ken is on his way.  At one of the Christmas parties, he was introduced to some men from Bahrain with, “This is the Texas Company prodigy, you know, but we like him just the same.”  I don’t know what the score is now that the new deal with Socony has gone through – we may not go back to Dhahran.  But even if we stay in this job here, it is fine.  Ken is assistant to Bob King and Bob is the top man in Ras Tanura.  Oh, well, it will all be okay.  I’d just as soon live here as there – we are all settled in our house and it really is very nice.  I love the beach, but like it down there, too (Dhahran) – so whichever is okay with me.

Susan looks so much better since we came back here. She is out all the time – is brown again and has gained 2 ½ pounds.  She gains by ounces and I guess always will be skinny like I was.  She has really grown up so much lately.  Judy just gains along normally and is a nice size – filled out, but not fat.  The teacher wants to put her in the fourth grade and she is doing a lot of fourth grade work.  I told them it was up to them if they thought she could do the work.  That is the beauty of this sort of school – they can sort of advance at their own speed.  We have two teachers now – a man and a woman – and 26 children altogether in the two rooms.  I feel sure that over a period of years the children will come out ahead.  They are missing some things – I would like them to have some dancing, just for poise and posture if not for anything else – but on the other hand they are getting a lot they couldn’t get at home, too.  If we can work in all the trips we have planned, that alone will be an education.

Ken has been playing the Roupee market in Bahrain – the exchange is up now and we have been doing very well on it.  They want American money to buy American goods and the market has been fluctuating lately.  The rate of exchange over here is three something – and there it has been up to $4.10 and they predict it will be up to $5.  Ken has converted three good-sized checks from there and we have made our expenses – not bad!  He plans to send over a $1,500 check this week and will make $750.00, if all goes well.  It won’t last for long, though, as everyone is taking advantage of it.

The ship that brought in the Christmas boxes also brought in reefer stuff, so we have been gorging on celery, apples, grapefruit, oranges, cabbage and some bananas. . . D’Souza did make a beautiful banana cream pie the other night.  He still is our treasure and we hope to continue to keep him.

I am reading Delta Wedding . . . it is interesting and different.  I think the authoress hoped it would be another Gone with the Wind and it falls decidedly short of that – but good reading.

I plan a buffet supper party on Ken’s birthday (January 31) but that is the only thing in the future I have on my mind.

One more week and it will be ten months since we got here – doesn’t seem possible – in some ways, seems I have always been here; in others, seems like a few weeks.

I’d better go along now – thanks ever so much for all the nice things – it was swell of you to go to all the trouble of getting them ready and so early – but believe me, it was grand to receive them.  Hope you got the cable and that your holiday was all you hoped for.

Best love to all,  Mimi

P.S.  Did you know U.S.A. also means Union of South Africa?  Several boys leaving this week to spend local leaves in South Africa.

Dear Folks Ras Tanura dormitories and mosque – January 1947.
Life magazine photo by David Douglas Duncan – courtesy Judy Webster Bauer

Editor’s Note:  Following are excerpts from “Dhahran 1947: Royal Visit,” an article written by the late William E. Mulligan for The Arabian Sun in April 1984.  Because of the absence of Webster letters from January and February 1947, I thought the excerpts would help “fill in the blanks” about this historic occasion that touched the lives of all Aramcons living in the camps at that time – and which made international headlines.  This section is illustrated with photos from a Life magazine article about the King’s visit – courtesy of my aunt, Judy Webster Bauer.

King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa’ud, founder of Saudi Arabia, during his visit to the Aramco camps in January 1947.
Life photo by David Douglas Duncan – courtesy Judy Webster Bauer

“In January 1947, Aramco played host to King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa’ud for five tumultuous days.  The aged King arrived in a fleet of six airplanes and was accompanied by four of his brothers, eight of his sons and most of the royal court.

“On hand to greet the King, in addition to the entire Aramco community, was American Minister J. Rives Childs, resplendent in top hat, morning coat and striped trousers.  The American press was represented not only by regular correspondents, but also by Life magazine and newsreel photographers.  And on the third day of the visit, the Ruler of Bahrain and a large entourage came to call.

“The journalists’ coverage of the King’s visit naturally drew attention to the tremendous oil wealth resulting from Aramco’s production of 200,000 barrels of oil a day.  There were glowing references to the modern industrial town of Dhahran, complete with air conditioning. . .

“Dhahran was quite a boom town in 1947 . . . There were no families living as yet in Abqaiq.  There were 45 children in Dhahran and 43 in Ras Tanura.  The Sun and Flare, predecessor of The Arabian Sun, was a mimeographed publication . . .

The King The King enjoys Aramco children gathered on colorful rugs on the Dhahran tennis court for a special audience. Seated in background, from left, are Judy Webster and Alice Fullmer in nearly matching broad-brimmed hats – Judy’s is marked with a small “x.” According to the original Life magazine caption, the King was served a plate of Fig Newtons, visible here on the table beside His Majesty.
Life photo by David Douglas Duncan – provided courtesy Judy Webster Bauer

“The King toured Aramco installations in Dhahran . . and in Ras Tanura . . . His visit to Ras Tanura was somewhat curtailed by the arrival that afternoon of the Shaykh of Bahrain.  Among the gifts which the Ruler…brought the King were 14 mares, two stallions and 32 camels – prize winners all . . .

“For lunch and dinner on the day the King entertained the Ruler of Bahrain, there were cooked 925 chickens, 320 sheep, and a number of camels.  The meals were served under six large tents erected end-to-end.  Bolts of white broadcloth were unrolled to provide one long tablecloth, 10 feet wide and 225 feet long.

“One of the most agreeable events on the program was the audience the King granted the women and children of the Aramco community.  The King was seated on a dais on the upper tennis courts . . . and he met and talked through an interpreter with each of the women, several of whom brought along babes in arms.  It was a photographer’s dream situation, and David Douglas Duncan of Life obtained a marvelous picture over the King’s shoulder.  In it the King was manifestly chuckling over the antics of the children assembled below him, where they were served, as was the King, cookies and grape juice.  In conformity with local customs, the ladies were excluded from all other functions during the visit, so they relished their one opportunity to be with the King. . .

King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud During his visit to Dhahran, the King received “unveiled” women and their children – a gesture described as “unprecedented” by Life magazine. This woman and her child were not identified in the caption.
Life photo by David Douglas Duncan – courtesy Judy Webster Bauer

“J. MacPherson, Aramco chief officer in residence at the time . . . said the whole company community, women and children and men of all nationalities shared the duties and pleasure of true hospitality.

“His Majesty in a telegram to MacPherson from Hofuf, dated Feb. 1, 1947, eloquently expressed his feelings as guest of honor:

“The excellent care and fine hospitality shown by you and the men and officials of the company during our visit in Dhahran, as well as the efforts you made to please us and make us feel at home, have left the most excellent of impressions with us and call for an expression of thanks.  In sending our profuse thanks to you on this occasion, we hope that you will bring our appreciation to the attention of everyone.”

Ras Tanura
March 16, 1947

Dear Folks:

I seem to have gotten very much behind with my letter writing – but we haven’t heard from any of you for so long . . . Ken just brought a letter from Alice written February 16 — (Editor’s note:  This refers to Alice Jenner, Ken’s sister in Connecticut.)  I can’t imagine where the mail is being held up – I got one a while back written January 16 – it was mailed by air and arrived boat mail – someone said all the planes were grounded in New York during January, due to weather conditions – maybe that is what held it up.

King Ibn Sa'ud King Ibn Sa’ud, in front seat, tours the refinery at Ras Tanura, accompanied by Prince Faisal, finance minister.
Life photo by David Douglas Duncan – courtesy Judy Webster Bauer

The Life magazine with the King’s pictures hasn’t gotten out here yet – so I don’t know about the pictures.  You surely must have my letter by now telling you all about (his) visit and things – you won’t find Susan in any of them (the photos) for she was in the hospital then –
I have a grand set of the pictures taken during his visit and will bring them home. 

About the trip home – we still don’t know and Ken is positive it can’t be until about June, so we will just have to wait and see.

Amir Sa'ud ibn Jiluwi Amir Sa’ud ibn Jiluwi, then-governor of the Al Hasa Province in which Dhahran is located, hosted banquets for the King and by the Ruler of Bahrain during the five-day royal visit. According to William E. Mulligan, he “bought practically all available silverware and china in the Eastern Province and Bahrain for the feasts.”
Life photo by David Douglas Duncan – courtesy Judy Webster Bauer

It is surprising how many men went on home leave from here, never more to return – and about 50% of them are back – mostly because things were still at sixes and sevens at home.  (Editor’s note:  This was less than a year after the end of World War II, when the post-war American economy wasn’t yet stabilized and there was a housing shortage for men returning home to their families from overseas.)

I went to Bahrain with Zoups (Fullmer) and three others from Dhahran last week – had a perfect trip.  The last one was very rough, but this one was fine over and back.  I got a few things.  But even when we go on the fast launch and leave Khobar at 7:30 in the morning (meaning leaving Ras Tanura at least by 6) you still only have about three hours to shop, for we go with the radio man in order to be able to use the fast launch and have to come back at 12:30 with him.  The suks close at 12:30 anyway, and reopen at 4:30 – that is too late to stay.  By the time we get up to Aramco House, freshen up a bit and leave our wraps, etc., it takes time – especially with a group.  We usually split up and even so you are dashing hither and yon and seldom get much done.

Copper Tray This is believed to be the old copper tray that Mildred Webster described buying during one of her shopping trips to Bahrain. It features a “pie crust edge” and would have been large enough for making a table, which was her original plan. The tray now belongs to Judy Bauer, the Websters’ older daughter, and hangs on a wall in her Seattle home.
Photo by Dale Bauer

I did buy an old copper tray – filthy and a little bent, but just exactly what I have been looking for ever since I got here – to make a table out of.  It is the kind they pile up with rice and a hunk of sheep.  It has a pie crust edge and I am sure is going to be lovely when fixed.  (Also) got a little silk material from China and two old brass khol jars – they are about three inches tall and have a stopper…like a perfume bottle, and were used to keep their khol – or mascara – in.  Also, another one of the same sort that is a brass fish – that someone would like at home for a novelty.  Bought some oatmeal – we have been out for ages – some California canned lemon juice and some cans of parmesan cheese.  Also three packages of Madras curry for D’Souza and Chutney from Bombay – some paper napkins for a big tea Pauline King, two others and I are giving this next week.   There are some 60 women here now and we will ask all the nurses and stenos, too – get them all in and over with at once.

The weekend was positively hectic.  We were invited to a cocktail buffet from two till four – before the dance that started at four.  We didn’t get there on time and just as well – it was a lulu – dropped in … for a few dances then drove to Dhahran for our big anniversary party.  (Editor’s note:  this was to celebrate the first anniversary of all March 1946 arrivals in the camps.)  (H)ad a cocktail party there then we all went to the special dinner prepared at the mess hall (after it was closed to the public) – had a grand fried chicken dinner and a huge cake with Nursery Special on the icing – then on to the dance there for a while – on back to Fullmers’ for singing and just visiting – and drinks, of course.  Ken had to come back that night, so I came with him at 1 o’clock, leaving both children there for the night.

I drove back down there the next morning with friends and went to the Scout and Brownie Investiture, which was that afternoon – it was a lovely program and the first for the Arabian Scouts, so quite an event.  They had a big tea afterwards then I came back home with all the other Ras Tanura people on the bus – a long and tiresome trip.  I was completely pooped when we got home.  Last night, three of the girls went together and had a big picnic on the beach – way up from here for a couple visiting from Bahrain – we had a huge bonfire – scads to eat – baked ham, baked beans, hot rolls, all sorts of cookies and relishes – and beer!  Later we came back in to one of the houses where there is a piano and danced – but we came home early.  Ken had spent the day in Dhahran and was tired, and I had had enough, too . . .

I am having 15 in for tea this afternoon. . . D’Souza has the house all slicked up and all the brass polished – he is such a good guy, now that we got our little troubles settled.  I came so near firing him about two weeks ago it wasn’t funny – even though I knew I would be sunk without him.  I couldn’t put up with his actions at that time, but apparently it was all a misunderstanding.  He says he will work for us as long as we are in Arabia – but you can’t be too sure of that.  They really are quite temperamental, but I can overlook a lot in him for he is so good in all other ways.

I have been trying to get some sewing done before it gets hot, but find it hard to get around to it…if we come by boat as we hope (on Home Leave) we will need quite a few changes of every day clothes.  The girls are out of shoes – but one of the women is in Asmara now and I have ordered sandals for them from there – also for myself.  They are Italian and quite pretty, but you have to have them made.  That is where they make the most beautiful leather bags of reptile – and you can have shoes made to match.  But I am afraid of having regular shoes made – at $20.00 per without being there to try them on.  I have a lovely bag and this same woman is going to bring the skins to match so I can have some shoes made at home.  The bag is small-grained red lizard.  Ken got it for me – it is lined with grey suede . . . if any of you think you would like one, we can order from there whenever the plane is going over.  They aren’t cheap, but are much cheaper than reptile bags in the States and they are so beautifully made.  They run around $30.00 up – and as I remember when I was leaving, a real reptile leather bag was about $125.00 . . . Asmara also has beautiful antique silver that turns up once in a while – and china.  I’d love to go over there, but as with every other place from here, it is expensive to go – the plane fare per is $265.00.  By the time you transport four and stay in a hotel for a couple of weeks and buy some things it would be a rather high holiday. . . A lot of the men go there on local leave – and no doubt we will get there eventually – You have to fly, but go through Jedda on the Red Sea, which I would like to see.

We have decided to not try and make the Holy Land and Continent trip this time – conditions aren’t too good and you can’t even go to some of the places in the Holy Land.  Guess we will have to make the next contract – as it looks now the best bet is to go to Cairo and take a President Line out of Alexandria or Port Said and go right across the Atlantic.  They make a couple of stops – Naples, for one.  The luxury lines and itineraries just aren’t what you would really want yet – especially traveling with children.  You can take chances for yourself, but not for them.

You have probably read by now that we have a new president of Arabian American Oil Co. – Bill Moore – a Texas Company man.  He was out here last summer and I met him at parties a couple of times.  He is quite young, around 45 – not bad.  They have some stupendous things in the planning for here – sounds like Arabian Nights!

I am still struggling with my Arabic – and I mean struggling!  The trouble is that I don’t get the time and take the time to study properly – and you really have to.  But seems something is always coming up just at the time I want to study.  About half of the class went on this picnic Saturday night instead of going to class.  Not so hot, but was the only time they could work in the picnic, too.  So there you are.  I guess I really shouldn’t have started it – but do want to get at least a little of it.  So far, as with any other language I have had, I get the gist of it and can read and understand some, but have a hard time saying it.  I haven’t anyone to practice on.  D’Souza knows just a smattering of it and doesn’t STOOP to speaking it.  They (the servants from India) hate the Arabs and everything about them – it is mutual.

Did I tell you the girls did very well with their report cards?  Susan got all S’s – so did Judy, except for an S plus in Reading, Arithmetic and Spelling.  They have moved her up into the fourth grade and so far she seems to be doing OK.  The work is harder and that is better for her.

I must close now – the end of my four pages – we have postage rates now to send one, two, three and four pages, so that helps somewhat.

Keep writing, even if they are late in getting here – it sure is swell to get letters.

Ras Tanura
March 27, 1946

Dear Folks:

I actually was amazed when someone delivered an invitation a while ago to discover that Easter is right upon us.  I had no idea it was so soon!  St. Patrick’s Day came and went and I didn’t even know that, either.  Just goes to show you, this business of Thursday and Friday being Saturday and Sunday is sort of confusing, but no more than a lot of other things out here!

We are moving again!  I shouldn’t be so surprised, but when they sent us up here only temporarily for a few months I just crossed it off as a lot of bunk – for it so seldom works out that way – but just the same we are to go back to Dhahran – permanently.  Ken has a new job – and a new title.  He is Assistant Manager of the new Dept. of Construction – to have charge of all construction, engineering and communications for all of Aramco in Arabia – with Bill Cooper as Manager.  It is a honey of a job, but a very big one.  Ken will be busy all the time and so, of course, not at home as much, but that is the way it goes.  He is delighted and this is the big change he was told about some time ago.  I mean that there would be a big change and that his new job would be that – then things got sort of snarled up and it was put off till now.

The Coopers are leaving Saturday morning for America by plane – on a homy, homy home leave – and Ken will move to Dhahran Saturday to take over in his absence.  I won’t go till school is out the 8th of April for their (the kids’) vacation period.  We will have the house assigned to us before but there was a family in it for several months and they will redecorate it for us – that will take a little time, too.  Ken thinks I should stay here till school starts in May, but I don’t see having him eat in the mess hall there all the time.  The children enjoy the pool down there as much as the beach up here – and can do more swimming there.  So I think I shall go after school is out.

We are hoping that when Bill gets back we will be able to go on our home leave.  But there is still the problem of relieving Bob King up there while he goes on his – and if they send Bill up here to relieve Bob, Ken will have to stay.  I guess it is something to be included in the top five who have to be spread out to “take over” but will (interfere) with our home leave.  It can’t be helped, though.  Ken is in a position now where he will have to take the inconvenience of the rest, too.  It may work out and we’ll surely let you know the minute we know.  I do think Ken needs a change and a rest from this, but as far as I am concerned, I can make out.  If our leave is thrown so late – into October, say – we won’t come until next spring, for I won’t bring the children into cold weather from here and run any chances, as much fun as it would be to get home and see everyone.

There will be a lot of changes around here.  So many are packing to go home how and several will not return.  Their children are too old or in the case of two of the doctors, whey want to go home and set up their own practice.  I sure hate to lose the Floods and Phelps.  They are both excellent doctors and Phelps is a wonderful surgeon.  You can’t blame them, though – they have their own life to plan out.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot to tell you – Yemkin arrived and it is a little girl named Jane Elizabeth Crampton– the first white child to be born in Ras Tanura.  It really was a funny time.  Pauline King, Ros Crampton, Ruth Cundall and I were giving this big tea last Saturday and we had been teasing Ros, telling her a sure way to get things started was to give a party and Yemkin would be sure to make his appearance the next day.  But she went to the hospital that morning and Jane was born before noon – so we had a big topic of conversation at the tea and everyone was so happy for them.  One of the artists here made us a big announcement and we put it up on the mirror over the fireplace in the Kings’ house.

The morning the baby was born, little Rickie Flood got into some Nembutal tablets and ate six – so they had him down pumping out his tummy while his Daddy (Dr. Flood) was delivering the baby – some fun!  They couldn’t figure out what was the matter with him at first – he got dopier and dopier and couldn’t walk.  Then his mother discovered the tablets gone.

The tea was a huge success, even if we did have over 73 women.  We invited them in groups and had it from 3 to 6.  With these good houseboys it was a snap.  We didn’t even have to go near the kitchen, actually.  They kept things going beautifully and the tea table did look pretty.  We were fortunate in getting some flowers from Dhahran and I fixed a nice center arrangement.  All the food was good and it went like clock work.  I am so glad helped give it and it is over.  Otherwise, I would have to give some sort of a thing before I left.

Kings are giving a party for us Sat. night as well as (for) another of the men who is going to Dhahran to live.  There are a lot of farewell parties going on with all these people going home.  So I can see it is going to be quite a time.

I sure hate to think of moving again – and surely hope Ken can find out whether we can go home in June before we do move so I will know that to keep packed up, etc., because it will all have to be packed up again, when we leave.

I have made two dresses this week – the white islet and a seersucker suit – hopeful that I will use them on a boat.

Susan just came in from a picnic.  One of the women took a group of the smaller children down to the terminal for the morning and lunch.  Judy went on a wiener roast at the beach yesterday with the Brownie group.

Ken should be in any minute and will want to get in a little time at the beach, so I had better get myself busy around here.

It is a beautiful day – and the water is heavenly looking. Sure will miss seeing it all the time.  The air is so fresh and clean up here.

Best love to all, Mimi

Masthead Ras Tanura dormitories and mosque – January 1947.
The masthead of one of the early Arabian Sun and Flare newspapers, now known as The Arabian Sun.  In Aramco’s infancy, it was a mimeographed publication.  This masthead is labeled, “Volume 1, No. 34” and dated December 18, 1946.
Photo by Ken Slavin from his personal collection of Webster papers

Cutting Cores and Mixing Mud

25 March 2007 | comments (0) | In Search Of Oil | by

Geological Field Trip Geological Field Trip – Wadi Birk (Taken 7/69)

In excerpts from his letters to family beginning in 1958, Charles Richard Maise (“Dick”) describes his role as a geologist in the Exploration Department for Aramco while working at various structure drill sites.

“I’ll have to admit that trying to explain just what it is that a geologist does is somewhat of a problem. If the persons can be put off with some sort of hokum about finding oil wells and gold mines, fine, but if they are really interested, it gets a little tougher to try to give an idea of the sort of things a geologist actually does, what he has to work with, the sort of person he has to be, and so on.

The difficulty is that compared with mathematicians, physicists, chemists, truck drivers, surveyors, and engineers of one sort or another, the geologist often finds himself doing his own surveying, cartography, truck driving, and so on. Besides knowing his rocks, he often has to have a pretty good feel for, or understanding of, the machinery and equipment that drills the holes, produces the electrical records, and the various possible methods of doing something so as to pick the best (option) under the prevailing conditions. And of course, be able to digest the raw data from the hole or group of holes or rock samples, draw conclusions, and spit it all out in a report that is short and to the point, and reasonably intelligible to those who are interested in reading it and have generally paid a pretty high price for it in terms of money, equipment, and time and materials consumed in gathering the data that went into the report.”

Drilling Camp Desert Drilling Camp (Taken 1960)

February 11, 1959
“Last week I was at SD-1A (SD stands for Structure Drill), a site like I have here at SD-2A–just two trailers with a real small office with my bunk up over the desk, sort of Pullman style. Being in a new area and a new camp and being in charge of the thing sure was a whole lot all at once, but somehow or other I made it through the week. We were cutting cores in that hole all week, and I had to be out on the rig whenever one was coming out of the hole, so this meant that most every night I was up sometime in the wee small hours of the morning catching the core as it came out of the hole. And then I had to do the paper work on it and describe the rock, which all takes time, and had to keep up the routine sort of things that are always present, besides learning who and what the Arabs we had there were and could do or couldn’t do, so all in all I was pretty busy.

Core Sample Oil Saturated Core – Top of Arab-D Reservoir (Taken 1969)

One night I had to spend down at another camp about 24 kilometers away to work on samples while they got ready to set casing in the hole. This was a fairly ticklish proposition since they had almost lost the hole three times before at about this same depth before they could get their casing set, and each time involved several days of very expensive operations after they got stuck. At the same time the rig at SD-1A was going, and about to cut another core, so I was up all night on the casing job, then dashed back to SD-1A in time to get them started on the coring job there. All in all, a busy couple days in one!

Then the next evening, just as I was sitting down to eat supper, the driller on the rig called in on the radio and said that one of the rig hands had hurt his hand badly and was coming over to get fixed up. Sure enough, he had cut his right hand and it was bleeding badly, so I had to play boy-first-aider and get him fixed up. He didn’t speak any English but one of the others that came over with him did speak a little, and with my vague Arabic, we figured out that one of the bits stored in a bin on the rig had toppled over onto him and cut him up. I got the bleeding stopped and bandaged up and sent him to his tent to lie down, then went over later in the evening to see how he was. He was weak but otherwise pretty much okay, but we sent him in on the plane to Dhahran the next day to get him stitched up.”

Well Head Well Head – Christmas Tree – Production Test (Taken 1962)

“We’re drilling and cutting core here at this hole, too, now. I’ll have to get up sometime tonight to catch a short core, just a couple feet this time, and then figure out what to do next. The drillers do the work, but the geologist has to figure out what to do and tell them. Sounds simple enough, but you’ve got to pretty much guess right the first time, or it gets pretty expensive both in time and materials. I like it fine, though. I think I’ve learned a lot in the last couple weeks. It’s been a challenge, anyway.”

“Yesterday was a good day, too! First thing in the morning one of the drillers fell and hurt his leg out on the rig, so we had to round up a plane to take him into Dhahran to get looked at. I don’t think he was hurt badly, just a sprain or strain perhaps, but he decided he should go to town to get looked at and I wasn’t going to tell him he couldn’t go. You never know, it might just turn out to be something serious and as far as I’m concerned, I’d rather not take the chance, in spite of the fact that the guy is known to be something of a confirmed hypochondriac. Had to write up a safety record on it, too.

Wadi Birk Water Well Wadi Birk Water Well (Taken 7/69)

Exploration has been pushing a safety program actively in recent months, because our safety record is the worst in the outfit. This is only natural, I think, because as an overall department, our work is the most hazardous–lots of heavy equipment, big iron, chemicals, heavy drums, flammable materials, ropes, cables, and semi-skilled or largely unskilled, at least partially illiterate laborers to manhandle the stuff. It’s really a wonder that more accidents don’t happen than do, considering all this stuff and the fact that it’s constantly moving from place to place over some of the most difficult terrain that it’s possible to move over at all.”

March 20, 1960 N 21-23-42 E 54-49-42 SD-2
“The two rigs are busy rigging up and we should get to drilling in another day or two. It’s always a long drawn-out job to set up a new rig, and on top of that everything is still scattered around on various trailers and the drillers have to go hunting for most everything they need.”

Water Sample Dick Diving in the Rub’ al Khali to Collect Water Sample from Lake Formed by Leaking Water Well (Taken 4/76)

“I’ve been doing a bunch of mud tests to figure out what will be the best combination to use here and have come up with a recipe that looks like it will work: take 1 barrel fresh water, add 200 pounds of bentonite, mixing vigorously; add 7 barrels salt water and mix until smooth, then fold in carefully 1 pound of caustic, 1 pound of quebracho, and one-half pound of carboxymethylcelulose (CMC) per barrel of mixture. Sprinkle 6 pounds of lime per barrel into the mixture and mix violently. Makes about 400 individual gallons. For larger quantities, multiply quantities as needed. How about trying that out on your Mixmaster!”

August 14, 1962
 “When I was up at the Qatif well this week I had a young Saudi summer student along with me. . . .I think he’s gotten the idea that petroleum engineers (promotional step for geologist) do nothing but drive all night, live on hamburgers and French fries eaten at weird hours, climb around the rig in the hot sun and generally get in everyone’s way.”

Bedu and Camel Find an Oasis Among the First Drill Rigs

20 March 2007 | comments (0) | In Search Of Oil | by

Bedu Bedouin (Taken 1959)

The first wells drilled by oilmen in the harsh, arid land of the Saudi desert were not for oil, but for water. 

In fact, thousands of gallons of water were needed each day for drilling an oil well, especially for mixing drilling mud or drilling fluid.  Before drilling for oil could commence, locating a suitable water source was of paramount importance.  Once a water well was established, the well site became a man-made oasis supplying water not only for the drilling operation but for the nomadic inhabitants of the Saudi desert, the Bedouin, and their herds of camel.  In a land where water sources were scarce, this bi-product of drilling for oil was among the first resulting impacts on native life in Saudi Arabia.

In excerpts from his letters to family beginning in 1958, Charles Richard Maise (“Dick”), shares his frequent encounters with the Bedu of Saudi Arabia and their camel while drilling for oil in the desert.

“Water supply is our biggest problem out there in camp, not so much for camp water, but for drilling water. Under some conditions, the drill will use up about a thousand gallons per hour of drilling, so a 6,000 gallon tanker full doesn’t last long, and when the water haul takes anywhere from 8 to 20 hours per round trip, the drills may be shut down for hours at a time. The drill at SD-2A, where I was before Christmas, just finished a shallow water well the first of last week, about 1,200 feet deep. It tested out to have plenty of water of good quality, soft and clear, but we have had pump troubles with it so haven’t gotten much water out yet. It’s capable of about 20-25 gallons per minute; water level is about 670 feet below the surface. That well will supply water for drilling three or four more structure drill wells in the same general area, as well as drinking water, and will eliminate a lot of the water hauling by tank truck, which is expensive as well as being an operation problem.”

Water Well Camels at Watering Hole (Taken 1959)

“Before Aramco started coming in here and drilling water wells, very few of the Bedu, if any, ever came this far in because it was too far from water, even though the grazing was good”…”Since Aramco came and started drilling wells for oil which always means a water well, too, the Bedouin flock to the wells instead of relying on the natural watering places. Within minutes after water is struck in a well, hundreds of camels are surrounding the place where a few minutes before none could be seen”…..”The camp which is about 20 miles from here had about 200 camels descend on them out of the desert several days ago. They are still there, drinking the water as fast as the pump can get it out of the well, and completely tying up the operation. You really can’t do much work with herds of camels swarming all over the camp and getting in the way. There’s not much that can be done about it.”

“We had quite a time out in the field before Christmas. Both water wells were broken down for three days and the big drilling rig was giving all sorts of trouble. When we finally got the turbine pump running, we had thousands of wild, bellowing camels wallowing in the sump hole. Just all sorts of fun. When the water wells finally got going, all the Bedu and camels that had been stampeding through camp the last few days took off at a dead run in the direction of the water well.”

Water Trough Camels at Watering Hole (Taken 1959)

“Jim and I drove down to the water well a couple mornings after it was going good and it was just like a field day or county fair for the Bedu. They were running back and forth with buckets, filling the troughs for the camels, taking baths, filling their water bags and inner tubes, and having a great time. The women were right in there with the men, hauling water to the camels or cooking over little fires. There were a lot of little baby camels around, too; some were just a few hours old.”

“These groups (Bedu) that have been going through here the past few weeks are all headed south, going toward the settlements at Wadi Dawassir, I guess. They ask about water wells in the Rub’ al-Khali and about the one at er Raida, which is shut down now. So, as it is right now, this one here is the last reliable water (source) for several hundred kilometers so they tank up the camels and fill up everything they have before moving on south. Old inner tubes, the bigger the better, are a favorite for carrying water. They cut a hole in one side and fill the tube up with water, then tie the hole off and hang the whole thing on the camel. You see some camels with three or four of these big tubes hanging on them, trotting off across the desert. Looks sort of odd–a camel carrying several ‘spare tires’! After all, who ever heard of a camel getting a flat! They also have a lot of these water skins, which are sheep or goat skins sewn up to hold water. They apparently work pretty well, but I’m not sure what the water would taste like after a week or two in one of them!”

Bedu Camp Bedouin Camp – Aramco Photo (Pre-1965)

“I went over to the rig yesterday while they were tearing it down to move. There were about 20 or so camels around, slurping up the water in the invasion tanks. Before I left, a herd of sheep and a little shepardess came along and joined in the fun. As I drove away there were about 150 camels coming up from the south headed right towards the rig in full cry, or gallop, or whatever it is that camels do. Anyway, it looks real awkward and funny. This group, like all of the groups, had its own camel skin watering trough which one of the camels carried tied on his humph.  They would hardly drink out of the invasion tanks or buckets; the Arab had to pour the water into the trough before they were very much interested. The first bunch of twenty looked a little lean and didn’t have much of a humph. The rig hands said that the camels hadn’t had any water for about seven days. After they had gotten through, we figured out how much they had taken out of the tanks and it came to about forty gallons per camel. The Bedu with them had the usual inner tube water skins and also had a couple of large water bags which were made out of inner tube material, but they were all stitched together up the sides and across the top, making a sort of large, purse-like affair, with a separate piece sewn in the top as a neck, or spout. They were rather ingenious, I thought, and would hold about 25 gallons each.”

Camels Camels (Taken 1959)

“During the course of the morning, I had two fellows, about 20 years old I would guess, come up and tell me that they could write very well and wanted to work for me as clerks. They were obviously proud of being able to write, so probably not too many of the Bedu can. I also had several offers of camel milk from some of them; they were very happy about getting all the water they wanted. I didn’t take any of the milk, though. One of the men was even wanting to offer me his wife, he was so grateful for the water. The wife didn’t think so much of the idea, though; she put her hand on the big curved knife she was carrying stuck into her waistband! (I declined the offer.) She laughed and said something that I didn’t understand and the rest all laughed too.”

In conclusion, an excerpt from a letter written by Dick’s wife, Ruth Maise, shares an interesting insight on how changes brought about in one form or another by the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia may have impacted the Saudi Bedu:

“We heard an extremely interesting program Sunday night given by one of Aramco’s dentists whose hobby is observing and taking pictures of Arabia, particularly the Bedu. In 1967 he and 2 other guys, one of them a city Arab, took off on camels, dressed in Bedu dress, with a real Bedu guide, to visit various tribes in the Eastern province. He showed pictures of that and pictures he had taken on various trips to the Rub’ al-Khali. His pictures were tremendous and the stories he told were just fascinating. I could have listened to him all night. He says that life is changing rapidly for the Bedu. Almost every tent now has a transistor radio so the old way of entertaining themselves by conversation and stories around the evening fire will slowly disappear. Many of them now own trucks so the camel will become obsolete. The government’s efforts to settle them in the Haradh agricultural project hasn’t been too successful. They don’t want to be farmers! But this dentist thinks their way of life will disappear, anyway, simply through small things like transistor radios and trucks.”

The Search Began In 1933

9 March 2007 | comments (0) | In Search Of Oil | by

Saudi Aramco World – February 1963

Thirty years ago the rugged Arabian desert was a place of hardship and adventure for pioneering American oilmen.

A small monoplane flying thousands of feet above the sand massifs of the eastern Rub’ al-Khali is witness to a dramatic instance of man’s ability to package his environment and take it along. Far below the plane on a sun-baked flat, where survival can be a marginal proposition, a group of white cubes glisten in the fierce light.

Down in the midst of this remote desert bivouac a generator hums. It pumps electrical life into the mobile camp and powers its electronic voice. There trained men work efficiently in air-conditioned comfort carrying on the costly search for oil.

However, even before the exploration field parties of the Arabian American Oil Company had large office, laboratory, dining hall and dormitory trailers to support them, the deserts of Saudi Arabia were being forced to yield their geologic secrets.

Radio Station Geologists in Saudi Arabia found a portable radio station essential in exploring a desert oil concession larger than Texas.

Let’s go back 30 years and follow two bearded geologists in Bedouin dress into the desert in December 1933. They head across the sandy steppes in a Ford touring car, knowing that at any moment the washboard terrain may break a spring. They are accompanied by a pickup truck, but that is the limit of their automotive equipment.

The field party with the two geologists includes an interpreter, a cook, a cook’s helper, a houseboy, a mechanic, a mechanic’s helper, a driver, 30 escorts (a warrant of the King’s good will) and four camel drivers.

The transport includes 25 riding camels and a dozen baggage camels each capable of hauling about 400 pounds. The camels carry three large goat hair tents and a silk tent, grass floor matting, collapsible tables, chairs, cots, food, cooking utensils, gasoline stoves and lamps, and gasoline in five-gallon tins.

In the small mountain of baggage are a chronometer, a surveyor’s transit, a sketchboard, three Brunton compasses, drafting equipment, some one-gallon water cans, half a dozen large waterskins, tools, spare motor parts, spare tires and extra front springs.

The geologists carry no radio. Once over the horizon they will be out of contact with headquarters until they return.

Such was the equipment and mode of travel of an overburdened geological field party in the eastern Saudi Arabian desert late in 1933. It was Aramco’s first field season in the unmapped (or mis-mapped) reaches of its newly acquired 300,000-square-mile oil concession.

The first field season started almost the instant the first two American geologists came ashore at Jubail, Saudi Arabia on September 23, 1933. It ended June 7, 1934 when the summer heat made further field work impractical.

That pioneer season in the desert required an unusual group of men. Their responsibility was great, for their company was investing large sums of money against heavy odds. They had to work fast in an unknown terrain; the depression had crippled the major world economies and the United States had gone off the gold standard. Furthermore, they were halfway around the world from home base.

And yet, despite tough obstacles, the doughty exploration team that started with two men and grew to ten did a remark able job. Guided by Bedouin trackers well-schooled in the desert traverses, the seven geologists on the team charted dunes, jebels (hills) and sand marches, and by the end of the pioneer season had determined, and marked for drilling, an area where in less than four years the discovery of oil in commercial quantities would confirm their judgment.

Who were these men? And what led them to the shores of the Persian Gulf to search for oil? All but three of the pioneers were petroleum geologists, and they went to the Middle East because a geologist goes wherever the search for oil may take him. Another was an engineer who had already surveyed one nearby Persian Gulf oil field. One was a mechanic and one was a co-pilot-mechanic, both wanting to try what sounded like an interesting venture.

The roster for the first field season began with geologists Robert P. (Bert) Miller and Schuyler B. (Krug) Henry, who had both searched for oil in the jungles of Venezuela. Miller had arrived in the Middle East in April 1932. He had been sent by the Standard Oil Company of California (Socal) to observe the drilling of the company’s first well on Bahrain Island in the Persian Gulf just off the coast of Saudi Arabia. He was also assigned to determine the best site for the second well.

The Bahrain Petroleum Company, a Socal subsidiary, discovered oil on Bahrain in June 1932. Socal then extended its oil exploration in the Persian Gulf area. In May 1933, the company obtained a concession to search for oil, and develop production, in Saudi Arabia. In order to carry this work forward efficiently, Socal assigned the concession to a new subsidiary, the California Arabian Standard Oil Company, which in January 1944 was re-named the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco).

Miller had been working in Bahrain for about a year and a half when he drew the assignment to start the geological work on the new Saudi Arabian concession. He knew Arabic and had become skilled in the technical and diplomatic problems of geological exploration in foreign lands.

Tom Koch Geologist Tom Koch takes time out from his work in the desert to relax for some coffee and conversation with a Saudi Arab guide.

His partner on the new project, Henry, had been in Bahrain for about a year. Henry, like Miller, had picked up everyday Arabic. Both of them had grown beards and had decided to set foot on the Arabian mainland in desert dress: long shirt, lightweight robe and cloth headdress. The clothing was both functional and politic.

The day they landed, Miller and Henry went to work. Thus, the first field season opened without ceremony.

Four weeks later, J. W. Hoover, another Socal geologist, became the third member of the pioneer party. He came over from Bahrain and landed at al-’Uqair about 100 miles down the coast from Jubail where Miller and Henry had landed. Al-’Uqair was the port for the al-Hasa oasis and had a customs house. At that time about ten people lived there, but in 1922 al-’Uqair had been the scene of a historic meeting at which Great Britain recognized the right of King ‘Abd al-’Aziz to rule the eastern section of Saudi Arabia, an area he had already ruled efficiently for ten years.

Almost as soon as “Soak” Hoover stepped ashore at the customs house Miller took him to a group of limestone hills that Miller and Henry had named the Dammam Dome.

Less than three weeks later the fourth and fifth geologists—Art Brown and Tom Koch—landed at al-’Uqair. Thus, the pioneer group had grown to half its ultimate size by November 10th. In another 11 days Hugh Burchfiel arrived to round out the geological team for 1933.

The seventh man ashore was an engineer, Allen White, another Socal foreign veteran. He too had worked in Venezuela and had surveyed the entire Bahrain concession for Socal. White arrived early in December and took charge of the branch office that Miller had set up in Hofuf, the principal village of the al-Hasa oasis. During the early days of oil exploration, White was the Arabic scholar among the Americans. Before he had been on the scene many weeks the roster of pioneers went up to eight: Felix Dreyfus, a mechanic, came over from Bahrain where he had been nursing a burned hand after arriving from the States with Burchfiel.

Oil Explorers Oil explorers Tom Koch (left) and Hugh Burchfiel, with Saudi Arab guide, used a car with over-sized tires for driving in sand.

The handful of geologists bumping around on hardpan, skirting dunes and digging out of the sand had learned one thing by the year’s end: they couldn’t possibly investigate much of the concession, which covered an area larger than the entire state of Texas, without the help of an airplane.

Early in March 1934, the plane arrived. Aboard were geologist-pilot-aerial photographer Richard Kerr and copilot-mechanic Charley Rocheville. The ten-man team was finally complete with less than three months left to go in the first field season. The plane would soon speed up the desert exploration considerably, but some impressive work had already been done.

During their months of service in Bahrain, Miller and Henry had often seen a group of limestone hills across the water on the Arabian mainland. They, were anxious to get a close-up look at them. Within a week of their landing in Saudi Arabia, they had already worked their way inland to al-Hinnah and returned to their temporary headquarters at Jubail. They then reconnoitered about 120 miles of coastal desert southward past Tarut Island and the Qatif oasis and on into the tantalizing limestone outcroppings. On September 28th, five days after landing, they were chipping samples from Jebel Dhahran, the most prominent of the hills they had seen from Bahrain.

Two days later Miller and Henry were in Hofuf examining a house that the Gosabis, the merchant family who acted as agents for the oil company, had suggested be used for exploration headquarters. Miller decided to maintain headquarters at Jubail and use the house in Hofuf as a branch office. The geologists moved on quickly and a few days later were back once again at al-Hinnah. They thus closed their first set of traverses.

When “Soak” Hoover arrived at al-’Uqair on October 22nd, he was accompanied by three Ford touring cars. Miller met him and took him immediately to a new camp at Dam-mam Dome. There Hoover and Henry set to work detailing this important structure. Miller left them two of the Fords.

The automotive inventory grew a week later when Art Brown and Tom Koch arrived at al-’Uqair. Two three-quarter-ton trucks came with them, but they soon proved impractical in the desert.

When Burchfiel came ashore on November 22nd, his first assignment was north of Jubail. He set to work to map the country west of the American headquarters. Before the month was out he was joined by Henry and Hoover, who stopped their detail work down at the Dammam Dome and left their survey stakes in place.

Tom Koch Cars, trucks and buses have long since replaced camels that were common in Saudi Arabia when J.W. Hoover (left) and Bill Lenahan arrivced in 1933.

By the end of January 1934, they had mapped as far west as al-Lihaba. Work proceeded simultaneously to the south where Koch and Brown were mapping the desert west and north of Hofuf. White had arrived early in December to take charge at Hofuf, and he was busy transferring data from the field parties to the base maps of the reconnaissance.

After Christmas the services of a good mechanic were available with the arrival of Dreyfus. During January and February the field parties made long desert traverses. They suffered their difficulties with few complaints, but they knew for all their effort they were making little headway in their tremendous task. Brown and Koch had set up a camp northwest of Hofuf at ‘Uray’irah, and to the north Henry, Hoover and Burchfiel continued to move west from Jubail deeper into the desert.

When Kerr and Rocheville arrived with the plane in early March, several weeks passed before the Saudi Arab government permitted them to use it for aerial reconnaissance. On March 30th they made their first aerial traverse. Throughout April and May they were able to get in three or four good flying days a week with two geologists aboard to observe and sketch terrain features. In late April they were permitted to start flights into the interior and to use their radio.

At the end of April the plane set Henry and Hoover down in a new base camp 150 miles west of Jubail, the deepest ground penetration yet into the desert. But early in May, Henry and Hoover were called in from the desert and sent back down to the Dammam Dome to finish their detail work. On returning to their old camp they found that the survey stakes had been destroyed, probably by passing Bedouin.

By the end of May it was getting hotter by the day, and the time had come to pull in all the geologists from the desert camps. Time was needed to study results and replenish the pioneer team, some of whom were ill. Charley Rocheville needed hospital care—he was the first “casualty” among the explorer vanguard.

On June 6th Dick Kerr came down from Jubail to the camp at the Dammam Dome to take pictures. The same day, Henry and Hoover completed their detail work on the structure. The next day the branch office at Hofuf closed, and Allen White went up to Jubail. The wings of the plane were folded back, and it was wheeled away for the summer.

When “Krug” Henry and “Soak” Hoover finished their last day’s work at the Dammam Dome, they built a cairn of rocks where they thought it would be best to drill the first oil well in Saudi Arabia.

The visitor who today flies over the air-conditioned trailers of an Aramco field party might well be amazed if he were swept back in time and saw the black tents and touring cars and the tired, bearded men in desert dress who raised the historic rock cairn among the limestone outcroppings.

Ten men had changed the map of Saudi Arabia during the first field season in the desert. None of them could know how great the changes really were.

First Trip to the Rub’ al-Khali

6 March 2007 | comments (2) | In Search Of Oil | by

In August of 1958, geologist Charles Richard Maise, known to friends as Dick, departed for Arabia on an Aramco DC-6B, the Flying Gazelle.

His first assignment was in Abqaiq and the ‘Ain Dar area of the Ghawar Oil Field, the largest in the world, about 45-50 miles southwest of Abqaiq.  Two months later he was moved to Dhahran and began work on a structure drill party in the Rub’ al-Khali. In many letters home to family, Dick detailed some of his impressions of camp life and working in the desert.  The experiences he shares here in excerpts from his letters are familiar to many Aramco pioneers.

Rub a Khali Rub a Khali

October 8, 1958 N 19-06-20 E 45-57-57 (SD-2) (SD stands for structure Drill.)

Dick’s first trip to the Rub’ al-Khali

“I got moved to Dhahran on Sunday, October 5, and on Monday morning I headed south. This involved a ride from the barasti to the tool house in Dhahran in a Land Rover provided by one of the friendly tenants of the barasti, and from the tool house I caught a bus to the airfield along with about ten other SOB’s and several Saudis who were all destined for various parts of the Vast Unknown. (SOB’s are Americans; they are called that by the lower-level employees. It is really a corruption of the Indian ‘sahib’ which was used in India to mean ‘boss’. It is pronounced ‘sob’ as in crying.)

Sand Davies, pictured in the March 1975 Alumni News, died February 3 of that year, at the age of 80.

The DC-3 was waiting for us at the airport. We turned our baggage over to some Saudis who stowed it on the plane along with the other cargo and then, after a short wait for something or other, we climbed aboard. Since this was a mixed flight, they had seats in the plane so we didn’t have to sit on the cargo this time. We took off and soon were well out of sight of anything that even remotely resembled civilization. There weren’t any clouds in the sky at all, and nothing downstairs but sand and an occasional patch of rock sticking up here and there. From where we were you could see small dark specks here and there, which later turned out to be small bushes, but were very far apart and didn’t seem to be very green at all. The sand was piled up into dunes all over the place–some, the crescent shaped ones called barchanes, and some, the long, ridge type that would stretch in an almost straight line for miles and miles, with shallow valleys in between them–these were perhaps a couple hundred feet high and maybe a mile or two between the ridges, sometimes more. But I couldn’t see anything move at all, no Arabs, trucks, camels, nothing. We made two stops along the way, both on strips made in the sand. One was at a small camp and supply point called ‘Ubaila. At each place there was a small confusion of Arabs and trucks loading and unloading stuff from the plane for the nearby camps.

I got off at the third stop, also a sand strip of nothing outlined by a few empty oil drums for markers, along with a profusion of miscellaneous cargo and equipment, and several other men who were going to camps nearby. The camp I’m at now, SD-2, is about forty miles from the strip, so I got a lift over here in a small plane (a Beaver) that lands right here at camp. These little planes are very handy and are used out here as a sort of taxi service, lugging around people and equipment on short hauls, and also to look for lost trucks and so on.

The camp is made up of several large trailers, one drill rig, numerous trucks of assorted sizes with monstrous tires, mostly Kenworths and Dodge power wagons. There are about 15 Americans (SOBs), including mechanics, drillers, tool pusher, and three geologists and a pilot that flies the small plane, and around fifty to seventy-five Saudi Arabs to do the work. They are the drivers, rig hands, laborers, etc. There are about 7 cooks, mostly Adenese, I think. There are sleeper trailers, an office trailer, a dining trailer, a kitchen trailer, a utility trailer which houses the generator, shop, storage, and shower room, and a machine shop trailer. These are the main units, and then there are the tents that the Saudis live in, and we also have a small detachment of Saudi soldiers assigned to us who live in a few tents about half a kilometer away from the main camp.”

“…After supper Monday evening, I found out that the Amir, who is in charge of the soldiers, had invited the geologists to come up to his tent for a social call that evening, so the other geologist, the tool pusher, and I climbed into a sedan and roared over to one of the tents where there were several Arabs sitting around. We piled out of the car and were greeted elaborately by the head man at the tent. After much handshaking and exchange of greetings in Arabic, we were all settled on blankets around a fire. Since I have picked up just the very vaguest idea of Arabic words, I wasn’t much of a conversationalist, but the tool pusher and the other geologist, Charlie Rock (good name for a geologist!), were able to get along real well, having spent several years out here. I did manage to get the greetings right, I think. So, we sat and had a rather animated conversation with five or six Arabs, sitting or squatting around the fire, while a couple of them went about fixing coffee and tea. These were brewed in brass pots which were set right in the fire. The coffee was served in small china cups without handles. The tea was served in small glass mugs, like beer mugs, but were only about two inches high. The coffee is very strong and heavily flavored with cardamom seed. The tea is very sweet, the sugar being poured into the pot along with the tea leaves, about a handful of each. They make a business of pouring it out, complete with flourishes and all. First, three rounds of coffee, then three rounds of tea, and then three more rounds of coffee. This all took about an hour and was the excuse, you might say, for sitting around and talking.

The coffee was ground right there by one of the Arabs, using a brass mortar and pestle, which he operated with numerous flourishes and much rhythmic clanging, but the tea was Lipton’s and came out of a box.

After about an hour of this, it appeared that we had not gotten the Amir’s tent at all, but one of the others, so we took our leave and amid rather elaborate good wishes, also in Arabic, we went off looking again for the Amir. He was duly located in a large tent at the top of one of the rolling dunes nearby and we went through the whole series all over again.

It was different, to say the least, than the way I had spent previous evenings, and was very interesting. The night was clear and beautiful, and sitting around the fire with the smell of coffee and the strange language was really a lot of fun. I saw a falling star come down and burn out, and it looked as if all the stars anywhere were visible. It was really very impressive and a fine introduction to the desert.”

October 11, 1958 (Sat) N 19-06-20 E 45-57-57 (SD-2)

“At camp during the evenings movies are shown. The screen is set up outdoors and the Arabs come in and sit around and watch, too. It’s sort of like a drive-in without cars. The Saudis get a kick out of the shows, especially the westerns with Indians, which they think are American Bedouins, and are convinced that the country is full of them.

“The last few days have been very interesting for me. Two of us and an Arab, named Ali, went on a survey trip to locate a couple of new sites for the drills. We took off on Thursday morning in two Dodge power wagons and spent the day driving up and down sand dunes with the survey instruments. After the first couple of dunes, I let the Arab drive my vehicle and I just bounced along, since he seemed to have a certain knack for this sort of thing that I haven’t acquired yet. I still shudder at the places that he took that thing, but we got along okay without turning it over or getting really stuck. Once we came over a small dune and off a slip face at the bottom that buried the front of the truck in the sand but it came out of it and went on as before.

We made our first location just before sunset, and then camped out overnight on the sand. Ali built the fire and brewed coffee and tea in his pots, and we tossed in a couple cans of chicken and beans and such, and we sat around and talked and ate in the darkness around the fire. Ali didn’t talk any English to speak of, but Charlie speaks some Arabic, enough to get along, and so I learned a few words as we went along and had a great time. We just rolled up in sleeping bags for the night, and it was so quiet it hurt your ears, just straining to hear something when there was nothing to hear. No wind, crickets, insects, or anything. Just a beautiful clear night with all the stars in the universe overhead, and a few shooting stars tossed in for excitement.”

October 18, 1958 Somewhere in the Rub’ al-Khali

Big Wheels Big Wheels (Taken 10/62)

“We’ve been moving for the past two days, all hitched up behind some of those big Kenworth tractor trucks. The trailers are strung out, three behind a truck, and look like a small train that got lost from its tracks. Those trucks are really big; the gas tank is about half the size of a car and holds 600 gallons of gas. They are about 300 horsepower, with power steering, huge sand tires, and stand about 12 feet from the ground to the top of the cab. They’re made in Seattle, Washington, especially for Aramco.

T-20 Drilling Rig New T-20 Drilling Rig, S.W. Rub’ al-Khali (Taken 12/59)

We pulled away from the old location yesterday about nine in the morning, and by three in the afternoon had had 3 or 4 flat tires on various pieces of equipment, and broken a spring on the kitchen trailer. This involved some fixing up to get the trailer back into shape to move, so we camped right there for the night, not wanting to get too far from the kitchen, understandably. This morning we got moving again about nine and the other geologist and I drove over to one of the nearby camps (about 15 km) in our power wagon to pick up a spare tire and a new spring, if we could. By radio we found a spring in one of the other camps, so the light plane went down and picked it up, and we picked it up at the camp we went to. By the time we got back to where our camp had been overnight, they had gone on, so we followed the tracks, got the wrong ones, and ended up catching some of the heavy equipment but not the trailer string. We had to backtrack and hunt for where the trailers had turned off. By the time we found them, it was nearly four o’clock. Lots of driving around the brush and sand, over a few small dunes, etc., so it was all sorts of fun.

I’ve learned how to operate the mobile radio sets in the vehicles, so can be in touch with any of the other camps, the light planes, the DC-3, etc., if need be.

In the evenings the Saudis traveling with us gather up wood, build their little fires, unroll their bedrolls in the sand, and they’re home. So our trucks and trailers are ringed around with bunches of Arabs, sitting in small circles in the sand around their fires and talking and eating. Real picturesque.”

October 21, 1958 N 19-30-00 E 46-00-00 (Rub’ al-Khali)

Drilling Rig Drilling Rig and Camp (Taken 3/59)

“We’re mostly moved into our new campsite. There’s only a couple more loads of stuff to be gathered up at the old campsite and one big Kenworth with a 10,000 gallon water tanker to rescue from the sand. It has a broken axle and is sitting somewhere between here and the old campsite.

We, the trailers, that is, got in here last Sunday about noon, picked out a more or less level place for the camp, and set down. The mechanics unhooked the trucks, serviced them and sent them back for more loads, and we took stock of the situation.

The most urgent item was locating an airstrip for the small plane, the Beaver, and one for the DC-3 if possible. The ground right around camp is sort of uneven and cluttered up with bushes, so we’ll have to bulldoze to make a Beaver strip, but we were able to find a gravel patch about 12 kilometers away that is big enough for the DC-3. This is great, otherwise we would have to drive about 100 km to the next nearest strip where the DC-3 lands for one of the other camps. And the DC-3 is our lifeline, so to speak. It brings down all the much needed parts, cargo, mail, and food from Dhahran, so is a very important feature of life down here.

A couple more big Kenworths just pulled in, roaring out of the night over the sand dunes and I think they were hauling flat racks full of equipment, so this may be the last of the stuff from the old site. Usually we don’t drive at night, but the route in here is pretty easy and has had so much traffic over it the past couple days that there are lots and lots of tracks to follow so the drivers are apparently coming right on in. Our operations are still spread out, though. One rig is on location 30 km away and the rig that is to drill the hole here at camp is still on location about 130 km away, finishing up the hole it was on when we moved camp. The drillers from that hole are staying temporarily at another camp until they finish up, which may be several days yet.

We have to haul all our water, both for camp and for drilling, from a well about 100 km away, and since it takes a lot of water to drill a well, we have a couple big water tankers (pulled by the Kenworths, of course) that do nothing but shuttle back and forth to the rigs with water. These have to keep going all the time, because if the rig runs out of water, it has to shut down, and it costs about $2,500 a day when one of them is standing idle. It’s things like that, the things that are only remotely connected with geology, that makes life out here so interesting. For instance, in addition to doing the geology here, the geologist has to play doctor to the Arabs that get banged up, cut, scratched, or what have you. So most any time we might have to swab out a cut, pass out aspirin, band aids, toothache drops, eye wash, and so forth. Most of them that come in really have something wrong, but we have our hypochondriacs, too. So far, only two of our patients have died, and these were the little rabbits we were trying to raise on milk.”

December 20, 1958 N 19-13-30 E 48-01-30 (Rub’ al-Khali)

Camp Move Camp Move, S.W. Rub’ al-Khali (Taken 12/58)

(Dick is settled at the small camp which is a satellite to SD-2. He is in charge of that camp.) “The place we’re sitting right now is out in the middle of one of these gravel plains.  This camp has only two trailers–one big converted ten-man sleeper and one combination kitchen, shower, and utility trailer. The sleeper has the two front rooms run together by knocking out the wall between them, and this is the dining room, lounge, reading room, and radio room. The next room is mine; I’ve got a double bunk and sleep in the top with my desk underneath, some shelves, a sink, and a locker for my clothes. It’s about 7 x 10, and is a little crowded. The back two rooms are the usual, with two drillers sleeping in each.

Our drill rig is all set up and ready to go, and has been for about three days, but we don’t have enough water to start drilling. We’re going to drill a water well first here, then move over a couple hundred feet and drill the structure hole, but, meanwhile, we have to haul our water in a 6,000 gallon tanker from a well about 100 km away by the way the tanker has to go. We have a full tanker in camp, but no truck to pull it after more water, so we’re keeping it just for camp use and won’t start to drill until we’re sure of a continuing supply. It takes thousands of gallons of water to make up the drilling fluid.

The camp has been pretty quiet the past three days, but the first few were pretty hectic. We had trucks and loads of supplies strung out for a couple hundred kilometers, some moving, some broken down, some lost, and so forth. And when they came in here, they had to be unloaded, serviced, and turned around to go back for more loads. Right now, they are moving SD-2 camp over this way, and it will be the same thing all over again when they pull in here. But right now, we have the lull.

Surveying Fall 1958 Surveying (Aramco Photo)

I laid out an airstrip yesterday and today, just a couple hundred yards from camp, big enough for the DC-3 to land on. I laid it out with the transit, just for the practice in turning angles and using the instrument, and we marked it with empty oil drums at each corner. I got a couple coolies and several sacks of dry cement, and as I drove slowly down the center of the strip, the coolies tossed the cement out the back of the power wagon by the hands full. The cement is very dark gray, almost black, and makes a good marker for the center of the strip. It stands out well from the air in contrast to the yellowish sand gravel. Just like marking the line down the center of the highway! When they first started working down in the Rub’ al-Khali, they marked the lines of travel through the Rub’ al-Khali by driving 10,000 gallon oil tankers full of crude oil and leaving a valve open on the back. This left a line of oil on the sand, and it is still visible in many places. The aircraft follow these lines as much as possible, and the main routes in and out still follow them, too.”

January 21, 1959 N 19-05 E 47-46

Seismic Camp Pre-1965 Seismic Camp at Shaybah (Aramco Photo)

Rolling Sand

“Last night was beautiful, sort of half clouded over, with the moon playing hide and seek in the clouds, and the effect of the varying patterns of moonlight on the rolling sand was really beautiful. I pulled off my shoes and padded along barefoot. I sat on a dune and looked out over the dim landscape. Except for the distant throbbing of the generators and the drilling engines, it was quiet, and they had a regular drone to them that soon became lost in the vastness of the environment and seemed part of it, or at least seemed to fit with the dim and shifting patterns on the sand. Times like that the perspective vanishes, and everything seems to become uni-dimensional, all telescoped together, and you can’t really tell how far it is down to the sand you’re walking on. Everything blends in together, and you have the feeling of being suspended; walking becomes simply motion in itself with no apparent effect or change between you and the surroundings. There is no distinct horizon, the sky just blending into the sand. It reminds me somewhat of the sensation of skiing down a steep slope covered with powder snow on a dull day; you have the impression of motion but can’t tell how fast or how far, not being able to see your skis, and all the light around is the same color as the snow. That’s about the closest thing to weightlessness or existence in space as I think I’ll ever get, and is really a wonderful experience. This whole day has been something like that, all overcast with a neutral gray cloudiness, and distances become undeterminable, everything having a softness to it. It would have been a good day to run survey lines but I had to do other things instead.”

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