Arabian Return Chapter I : Trip Over and Arrival - 1975
As the huge plane lifted off the runway on March 20, 1975, I sat back in my seat and tried to relax. However, I did not want to dispel the excitement I felt at the prospect of going on this trip that would take me halfway around the world to start a new life. I was just beginning to accept, for the first time, that my husband, Oran, had been rehired by the Arabian American Oil Company, and we were returning to The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to live again after an absence of 19 years. He had first gone there to work right out of college in 1948. Two years later we married, and I joined him there in June, 1951. We stayed for five and a half years before deciding to live in the United States again. Then, in the mid-1970's, news spread like wildfire among ex-Aramcons that a big expansion of oil facilities was going on in Arabia, and they wanted and needed as many experienced "old-timers" as they could get. So, even in our mid-forties, there we were on our way again. It was a completely unexpected turn of events, but we both relished the opportunity to do something really different, to get out of the so-called hum-drum rut most people find themselves in at that age. The previous month, ever since the call came, had been a flurry of packing, shipping or disposing of an accumulation of 19 years of household goods, then saying goodbye to friends and family with the promise that we would not forget them. Then the big day came, and we were on our way. I was beginning to relax a bit since our take off from The Houston International Airport on a KLM 747, and started looking around in order to be fully aware of everything that would happen on the trip. I was shocked to find the plane so huge, but the take off and cruising were so much smoother than those of the smaller jets I had been on before. My nervousness about flying subsided more with each mile. There were a lot of noticeably empty seats, so before long people were up walking around, visiting and getting acquainted. Following suit, we soon met Jeanine & Jerry King, their children, Jan & Jim, and Keith Kaul, a Canadian. They were all going to Arabia as well, and would be living in the same camp, Abqaiq. A landing in Montreal, Canada filled the plane to capacity, so we settled down for the six hour, night time ocean crossing. A meal and movie proceeded a few hours of restless sleep. About an hour before we arrived in Amsterdam, the sun started to rise, and it was about the most spectacular sight you could ever want to see – shafts of various shades of bright gold and orange broke over, through, and around snowy, white clouds. Much to our surprise, the stewardesses started serving breakfast. We didn't think they could possibly have two meals on board for all those people and we were still full from the last one (but we ate anyway). I think I gained five lbs. just on that 6 hour hop alone. Everyone clapped when we landed at Schiphil Airport in Amsterdam, Holland, where we would spend 24 hours. The taxi ride into the city from the airport was an experience in itself. The locals drove fast and what seemed to be recklessly, weaving in and out with lots of sudden stops and horn honking. Most cars were small and there were as many motor scooters and bicycles. They were all mixed up together on the streets and boulevards, even in the center of the city. We arrived at the American Hotel located on Leidsekade Street. It was one of the older hotels, but had been modernized, and our room was exceptionally nice, with a private balcony overlooking a busy square, with one side bordering a canal, very picturesque. After a much needed nap we left the hotel and walked across the bridge and down the opposite side of the canal where the tour boats were located. Then for the next couple of hours we sat on the comfortable boat, enclosed entirely on the top and sides with glass, and motored up and down various canals, past the strange, narrow, attached buildings so typical there. Then we went out into the Zuider Zee where large ocean going vessels were docked and windmills were evident in the distance. Later we shopped along Leidsekade Street before going to the Doelen Hotel to have dinner with Jeanine & Jerry King, the couple we had met on the plane. The next morning, back at the airport, we went through all the customary pre-flight steps, plus a very thorough security check. We were even taken into a small curtained area individually and frisked, then had to identify our luggage on the tarmac before they would put it on the plane. It didn't displease us to see them being so careful, however. Our plane, a Super DC-8, departed at 11:55 a.m., and by the time we landed in Athens, Greece, three hours later, we had passed through another time zone. Athens was very interesting from the air, nestled between small mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, the Parthenon clearly visible atop the tallest hill in the city area. The harbor was quite large, in a U shape, and had a number of ships at anchor. As we were just refueling there, I vowed to return to that city one day. After receiving more fuel and supplies, we flew on to Beirut, Lebanon. A lot of people deplaned there, but the ones left were all going to Saudi Arabia. We were not allowed to leave the plane, and there was a long wait on the ground so I began to get very tired, plus a bit nervous. So many things had happened at that airport. An armed soldier came out to guard our plane all the time we were on the ground, but there was always the thought that he could, turn on us at any time. That was to be the last time we ever landed at the Beirut Airport while we were living in the Middle East, due to the internal conflicts that devastated that beautiful city and country at that time, and to the present day. That was a big disappointment, as we had looked forward, to visiting there again, as we had done in the early 1950's. One of the most wonderful "Garden of Eden" resorts in that entire part of the world was being destroyed.
Aerial view of Abqaiq.
We took off at last, much to our relief. It was completely dark, so we could see nothing most of the way, but I could feel a growing excitement within me as we came closer and closer to our final destination. Then we began to see the flames of the huge gas flares that burned continuously, at that time, all over the Eastern Province oil fields and I knew we were almost there. We made final preparations, and after what seemed like an extremely long approach, landed in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on March 22, 1975, at 10:20 p.m. It was still hard for me to believe I was really there again. To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. I felt an intense sensation of well-being, happiness and the assurance that this was right for us. We stepped off the plane into a calm, delightfully cool, star-studded night. A magnificent, new, modern arched edifice greeted our arrival, but upon entering, it was immediately apparent that we had stepped back into a world that had changed very little since we were last there 19 years earlier. There seemed to be mass confusion, even more so than before, as there were more planes that held so many more people, and a Middle East Airlines flight had landed just ahead of us. The Saudi Arabs looked much the same however, with their long, white, shirt-like garments, called thobes, and the red and white checked or white head scarfs, called ghutras. One of them was asleep on the floor just inside the entrance. We had to wait in line, and slowly got our shot records and passports checked and stamped. Then we went down some stairs into a small room to retrieve our luggage, and chaotic confusion reigned. We had never seen such a mess of people pushing and shoving their way to the counter to get their luggage and get it checked. There seemed to be absolutely no order to any of it. When we finally located ours and opened each piece on the counter for inspection, the Saudi customs agents barely looked inside before each bag received its customary white chalk checkmark that allowed us to be released up into the main lounge of the airport. The only thing of ours that had been suspect at all was a bottle of listerine mouth wash. I hadn't thought about it while packing, but it does resemble whiskey, a now forbidden item. Some carefully selected Arab porters carried our luggage to a waiting taxi outside. It was a welcome relief to have Oran's boss greet us there with some Riyals; the Saudi Arabian currency, to pay the taxi driver and porters. Some friends from the early years in Arabia, Pat & Guy Smyth, had also driven down from Ras Tanura to welcome us so we went into the airport restaurant to have a Pepsi and visit with them a short while. The Hospitality House, Steineke Hall in Dhahran, and all the hotels in Al-Khobar were full, so we were going to have to drive all the way to Abgaig that night, a camp about 50 miles to the south. Our friends told us we were just beginning the most dangerous part of our journey. The two-lane, blacktop roads were the same as before, but the traffic was much, much heavier, with large oil field vehicles, and Arabs who had become able to afford automobiles. Also, camels roamed unrestricted, day and night. The new four-lane divided highway would not be completed for another three years. But there was nothing else we could do, so we started out.
Gas flare fires.
Even though it was dark, we recognized some of the things from before as we passed the American Consulate Compound and the main oil company camp of Dhahran. From there on to Abqaiq, we could see nothing but the traffic, heavy, even at that time of the night, and before long the huge gas flare fires. They grew larger and more intense the closer we came to Abqaiq, so it gave us the eerie impression that we were headed right into hell. But then, the welcome lights of the camp itself appeared, and we knew our long journey was almost over. We soon curved left off the main road, past the small Arab town of Madinat on the right, over some railroad tracks, past the jail compound and the small construction camp of Mansour. To the left we pass a mosque, the Saudi Arabian church, and two long rows of cement-block suqs. Then before us was the main gate of Abqaiq, the small, fence-surrounded, green oasis camp in the desert that would be our home for the next 3 ½ years. We checked in with the guards at the gate, called another friend from the early years in Arabia, Chris DeSantis, as instructed, who drove us the six blocks to 15-511-5, an apartment in a 7-unit apartment building, like we had lived in before in Ras Tanura. Since it was around 2:30 a.m., we didn't take time to inspect anything too closely then, but went right to bed, worn out, but happy. What a trip!