Oran had some business to take care of that required him to go to the Administration Building in Dhahran on Monday, July 2lst, so we caught the 7:30 bus that morning. After his business, we went to Al-Khobar to shop and have lunch at the Al-Gossabi Hotel. That was a first-class, modern, multi-story building on the Dammam Road that paralleled the Persian Gulf north of Al-Khobar, but we were disappointed by the food. It was time consuming as well, so it caused us to miss our bus connection, and made it necessary to take a taxi back to Abqaiq.
We started the next day as usual for his days off by sleeping late, then having a big breakfast. Oran hung pictures while I went to the Commissary before cooking all afternoon. Marge and Chris DeSantis and their sons came over that evening for a dinner of Tallerini, an Italian concoction their son, Macy, especially seemed to enjoy. They were leaving the next day for their long leave to the States.
When Oran flew back to 'Udhailiyah the next morning, Wednesday, July 23rd, 1975, he asked his boss and received permission for me to fly down there for his last weekend duty for the month of July. It would be my first trip there, so after his call to inform me, I excitedly and hurriedly straightened the apartment, packed, got myself ready and caught the bus to the airstrip. That was located about a mile from our main gate across the main road from Madinat, and was just a long, narrow, black strip of asphalt, just big enough to accommodate a small plane. There was a tall chain link fence in the area where the passengers waited, separating them from the field, but no building or shelter of any kind.
The plane left Dhahran at 4 o'clock and reached Abqaiq about 15 minutes later, stopping only if there was a passenger on the manifest to pick up or let off. The planes that flew between our camps were small, company owned Otters, a 14 passenger plane, not large enough to stand up in, and with a door that let down when opened, becoming the stairs. They also had old DC - 3's, a 48 passenger plane with variable seats to accommodate either passengers or cargo.
The number of passengers on the manifest determined which plane was used on the twice daily flights between Dhahran and Udhailiyah in those days. This particular day, the plane was a DC - 3, and it landed in Abqaiq only to pick me up. I was impressed. The pilot was Hans, the one we had met at the Norwegian party in Ras Tanura and who had called to take Vicky and I on one of his flights. He came back to the door and assisted me on the plane, but other than that was very cool. I guess he was upset with me for our not going on a ride with him, or because Vicky had already gone back to the States. The only other passengers on the plane going down were an Arab and a Pakistani as the full load would be bringing all the workers back to Abqaiq and Dhahran for the weekend.
At 5:15 we landed at 'Udhailiyah on another long, narrow, black strip of asphalt, but surrounded by low, barren and crusty-topped hills. There was no building or shelter at this strip either, but a bus was waiting for deplaning passengers and Oran in an Aramco company vehicle. We drove past a cluster of wooden shacks, then a small Arab village consisting of a gas station, a couple of small stores, and the Amir's stucco-walled enclosure lining the road. We turned right after that, off the main road, and drove up the incline of a low hill, through the camp’s main gate, then down into a small valley, surrounded entirely by large, barren rock outcroppings, called jebels.
There it was – ‘Udhailiyah – a mosque, a gas station, several office buildings with a few trees and some grass around the largest one, a theater, a small clinic building, and a cement-block cafeteria, which included a small Commissary in the back on one side. Across from that were several long, narrow, cement-block buildings; living quarters for the Arab, Pakistani, and Indian employees.
About a block away in the bottom center of the valley were rows of wooden, square, small portable buildings that housed the United Kingdom employees. A long, narrow building in this area was shared by a recreation facility and the Post Office. On the far slope of the valley, going up an incline, were three rows of walled, cement-block row houses, surrounded by grass and trees, which housed the American, senior staff employees, camp manager, and foremen. A couple of large, warehouse buildings stood off to the south. Other than the black-top roads which connected the various buildings, the valley floor was just an expanse of bare brown sand.
Oran had been right – it was small and isolated, being located about 90 miles south of Abqaiq and further inland than the three larger Aramco communities. Keep in mind, too, that it was strictly a bachelor camp at that time, and there were absolutely no women of any race living there. I would be the only woman in that camp that weekend, and I must say, the prospect was rather exciting.
Oran drove me up to his row house apartment to get us settled in, then took me on a tour of the entire complex, which didn't take long. When we entered the dining hall for dinner, every head turned to scrutinize what was probably the only white woman to have been in their camp for a long time. But, with one exception, every man of every nationality was respectful, kind, and made me feel completely welcome.
We still had some daylight left, and Oran wanted me to see his main area of responsibility, so we drove out the main gate, back down the incline road to the main road, turned south and drove for 25 kilometers (17 miles) to the Amine Plant. That plant had a dual purpose – to supply sweet gas for the South Ghawar Water Injection Project, and as a small pilot experimental frontrunner to the three large gas gathering plants they later built in Arabia. The sun was beginning to set when we reached the plant, so Oran just went in briefly to check on the night crew before driving back to 'Udhailiyah. We made an early night of it, as it had been a long, eventful day.
Thursday, of course, is the first day of the weekend in Saudi Arabia, but Oran went to the office that morning while I tried to sleep a while longer. He shared his apartment with two other American employees, but I felt perfectly safe with his bedroom door closed and locked, or so I thought. I started to hear some noise in the other part of the apartment, then, all of a sudden, the bedroom door opened and there stood an Indian houseboy. I was shocked, so pulled the covers up as far as I could around my neck, but he was more shocked to see a woman in bed in a bachelor camp, in the middle of the desert, I'm sure, so just stood there and stared. Finally, I told him I was Sahib Wilson's " memsahib", then asked and gestured for him to leave. He may not have understood everything I said, but he did close the door, and in a few minutes, I heard the outside door close. I jumped up and got dressed as fast as I could, and prayed Oran would get back very soon. But before he did, the houseboy returned and had several others with him. They cleaned and cleaned that apartment. Oran said it had never been so spotless before. I just stayed in his room and made darn sure the door was locked this time.
Oran finally finished his duties at the office and the Amine plant, so picked me up to go to lunch. He had a bit of free time then, so we drove out the main gate again, turned left immediately, following the road around the perimeter fence to the west flank road that parallels the water injection wells.
Half way down, at Compressor Station 961, we stopped to visit Roy Steindorf, then cut across the middle of the oilfield, past Gosp 13, then on to the Amine Plant. I went inside this time to meet the crew, mostly men from the U.K., and to walk through the plant. It looked very impressive, but of course I didn't understand a bit of it.
Up to that point and on the way back to camp, I had seen a lot of very interesting things, large rock formations, colorful wildflowers, herds of camels, some of whom crossed the road, or stood right in the middle of it in front of you, plus a lot of bare, brown, rock-strewn empty land. It was fascinating and enjoyable.
Our friend, Jack Hays, lived and worked out of a Bechtel Construction Camp at Hawiyah, an area even further south than the Amine Plant. He had invited us to drive down that evening to have dinner in their Dining Hall, which would be a treat as they could get American beef. It was a beautifully cool evening with a full moon, as well. The further we drove, the more I marveled at the completely desolate, isolated, and empty look of the land. At one point we stopped the pickup truck, turned off the motor and listened to total and complete silence. It was not difficult to imagine we were on another eerily beautiful planet.
When we drove on, the lights of the Bechtel Camp were a welcome sight. Jack was there waiting for us, and to make it an even more special occasion, he took us to his room in one of the portables and served us some "real" Johnny Walker Scotch before going to the Dining Hall. I think that was one of the things provided for those construction crews who had to live there in the desert camps without wives or families.
In the Dining Hall, we enjoyed a delicious buffet meal amid numerous "bachelors" who showed their appreciation with interest and kindness. Again I was the only woman present, so couldn't help but enjoy myself. It was understandable that I slept late the next morning, although Oran had to drive back to the Amine Plant. There were no houseboys cleaning that day, Friday, the Moslem Sabbath, so I was able to relax completely. I was going to ride back to Abqaiq with Roy Steindorf, so when Oran returned, we drove to the office in camp so I could leave with him. I said goodbye to all the office staff and told them how much I had enjoyed my first visit to 'Udhailiyah and that I would be back. I meant that, as it had been an unusual and unique experience.
The drive back was my first between 'Udhailiyah and Hofuf, and there was virtually nothing but bare, rock-strewn, brown earth and sand, large rock formations, and the small, crusty, bare hills until we reached the oasis area of Hofuf. North of that, we drove along the edge of a large rock formation, known as Scribner's Canyon, winding our way up to the Shedgum Plateau turnoff, then winding our way down the other side, where the terrain changed completely. We then saw large areas of flat land with more camel bushes and wild flower vegetation, and as we got closer to Abqaiq, the appearance of large sand dunes. What a weekend!
After that trip, I had a much better understanding of the feelings of all the men who spent the week working in that totally bachelor camp of 'Udhailiyah during those years. As Oran had described, it was not hard for me to imagine them standing on the barren, black strip of asphalt on Wednesday afternoon, sometimes after having to chase the camels and goats off the runway, desperately searching the sky for the first sight of the small dot on the horizon that meant the airplane was going to show up to take them back to civilization for, at least, the weekend. It was between sunset and dark, they were tired, mad, lonely, frustrated, wondering if they were going to make it out of that desolate place. Their greatest fear was being left behind. When the small dot was spotted, a great relief ran through the group, everyone started joking, laughing, and talking about their plans. On many occasions, only the small, 14 seat otter showed up, so there was a mad scramble to get aboard.
Aramco regulations prevented the planes from landing in outlying camp airstrips after a certain degree of darkness because there were no lights or ground to plane communications. A number of times after the roughly 90 mile, 30 minute flight from 'Udhailiyah, landing in Abqaiq was questionable. Most pilots did their level best to make it, even bending the rules sometimes so the men, who had worked all week in the desert, could have a shot at a decent and full weekend. Otherwise, they had to fly on to Dhahran and then wait for the bus back to Abqaiq, another hour and a half or more time stolen from their precious weekend.