Milt and I are hunkered in the oleander bushes along the side yard of my house in Dhahran talking about how to blow up Soviet tanks in Budapest.
In the fall of 1956, the Hungarian freedom fighters had heroically resisted the Russian invaders for two weeks in a totally unequal contest – Molotov cocktails and hunting rifles versus T-54 tanks and heavy artillery. They were brutally crushed just a month ago.
This bloody revolt was our introduction to violent evil and the heroes who fought against it. And this wasn’t happening in the past — in Korea, in Okinawa, or on the sandy beaches of Normandy — it was happening now. And we tried to comprehend how this could be.
We eavesdropped on adults discussing the street battles, scrutinized Time magazine and the Herald Tribune. We listened to BBC on the shortwave radio with our parents, but what pushed us over the edge was a newsreel that played at the theater before some pirate movie that we couldn’t wait to see. The Fall of Budapest in five minutes of combat footage with a staccato narrator reeling off the bad news. We couldn’t wait to fight Russians.
Then we heard the story of a Hungarian teenager whose father is killed by a tank. While its heavy gun traverses the battleground for new targets, the boy picks up a satchel charge, darts through machine gun fire, and dives under the tank to blow it up. He was 13. He wasn’t a suicide bomber; he was a Freedom Fighter. We are nine, and we want to be Freedom Fighters, too.
Sitting in the shade, Milt mentions that he found one of those small, glass airline bottles of gin ― obviously misplaced, to his dad’s deep regret ― in the back of a drawer in the garage. We simultaneously know what to do. We’ll pour out the gin. Add gasoline and a rag fuse to make our first Molotov cocktail to test in the desert. Sort of a mini-Molotov.
Just then, Doug Strader bangs through the front gate and heads straight to us. “Where’ve you been? This is cool! My dad left a bunch of wood at home for us to make boats. Said he’d take us all to Half Moon Bay to float them.”
What a terrific idea, but…
“My mom called your moms. It’s okay!” With that, we run off down the street to his house. Two years older than us, Doug is a big-boned, blonde-haired kid with an answer for almost any question and a casual regard for the truth. Sad to say, Doug was the first one to tell me about the facts of life, and it has been a confused subject ever since.
When he is with the older kids, Milt and I are basically earwigs, not worth noticing. But when the cool guys leave, he reverts to the Doug whom I have known my whole life. Crawling together through the elephant grass at Imhoff Gardens, the 20-acre sewage treatment oasis hallway to Al Khobar. Firing off bottle rockets in the desert, throwing jellyfish at each other at the beach, or quietly eating Mars bars under the shade of the eight wooden steps that lead up to the barbershop, watching feet go up and down. We shared 11th Street Dhahran DNA.
There is a long table in his backyard — a piece of plywood on a couple of sawhorses — with scraps of one-inch pine in widths to six inches, saws, hammers, nails, and Will Meadows hard at it building an aircraft carrier. A lanky redhead with a sharp brush cut and a gap between his teeth, Will is one of my best friends and naturally multi-talented — from picking the combination locks on the lockers at school to drawing, freehand, absolutely perfect circles in a row to flipping one-handed cartwheels endlessly across the lawn. He shows us his carrier: a flat piece of light plywood nailed to two 2-by-2-inch runners. He flips it over to show how the superstructure is being built with stacks of 1-by-4s along the flight deck.
Will pulls a plastic bag out of his jeans pocket and says, “Look at this! I got these in Khobar for two riyals a few weeks ago. They’ll be perfect.” And they are. About a dozen poorly molded replicas of World War One aircraft: biplanes, tri-planes, and four-engine bombers, evidently some kind of set. Each plane is about four inches long, cast in either dark green or dull blue plastic.
Milt and I immediately set to work. After shaping a six-inch-wide board by cutting a picket fence shape for the bow and sawing it off about a foot and a half back for the stern, we are ready to construct the topsides.
I should mention that though there is no sandpaper to be seen, we wouldn’t have known what to do with it anyway. Milt catches a quarter-inch splinter under his left thumbnail. After he stops yelling and thrashing around on the ground, Will grabs his hand, looks closely at the thumbnail, and suddenly bites Milt’s thumb. What? Then, to our delight, he spits out the sliver and announces with a bright grin, “I would have grabbed it with my fingers, but I bite my nails.”
The arms race resumes. Checking a sketch that he has made on a paper bag, Doug is methodically building a somewhat realistic version of the battleship USS Missouri, Will’s aircraft carrier is shaping up, and we are desperately hammering away to build the most improbable battle ships ever designed. They are much taller than they are wide, each layer of pine festooned with small blocks of wood with two-inch nails driven-in half way – these are the cannons. Between us, we sport some 37 cannons. We are ready for action.
And so is Gil Strader. Every day in Dhahran the work whistle blows at 5 o’clock exactly. About 20 minutes later, Doug’s dad ambles out of his back door into the yard, wearing an open khaki work shirt, fishing shorts, and beat-up sneakers.
A barrel-chested man with a slight paunch, he has a large head and the profile of a Roman senator like you’d see in a marble bust at a museum that you were forced to go to with your family. Aside from a kind of benign grin, Gil’s facial expression doesn’t change that much, but under his slightly hooded eyelids, his pale blue eyes see everything.
We’ve all known Gil forever and can’t wait to show off our fleet. Will has just glued the plastic planes to the deck with Duco cement, so he carefully holds his aircraft carrier level.
“Is that a Fokker Tri-Plane?” says Gil.
“Oh yeah, like the Red Baron flew, and here is a British Sopwith Camel, the plane that shot him down.”
“A deadly air force, for sure. Doug, that looks just like the Missouri. You have the superstructure just right — good job. What you got there, Milt?”
Milt proudly says, “It’s a super battleship. It has 19 guns, Mr. Strader.”
“Wow! That’s a lot.”
“Yeah, one more than Tim’s.”
“Tim, is that a super battleship, too?”
“Sure is, but it has anti-aircraft guns everywhere,” I say, pointing to the dozens of tiny finishing nails I hammered into the deck. It looks like a pin cushion.
“How did it get this mud on it?”
“Camouflage. It’ll be harder for the enemy to see.”
Gil looks at me for a still second. “Good idea, Tim.”
As we go to the car, Gil ducks into his garage and puts a few short pieces of ¾-inch galvanized water pipe and a coil of wire into his tackle box. He stows it in the trunk with his webbed patio chair, the water jug, the ice chest, the bag of wood scraps, and a tarp.
It’s around six when we set off for Half Moon Bay in Gil’s company car – a red 1955 Ford sedan with official numbers stenciled on the sides. We’re all in the back seat chattering away with our ships in hand.
Next to Gil in the front is a basket of sandwiches made by his wife Mitzi and the classic one-quart Thermos bottle - it has a pale green, faux hammered finish topped with a chrome plated cup and stopper. It must be popular with all Aramco men because on every fishing trip, camping expedition or just driving around in the desert it seems that the green, lightly-dented Thermos is always near at hand. It never occurred to me what it might contain besides coffee.
At the Main Gate Gil hangs a left and heads west into the setting sun. After we clear the rocky jebals of Dhahran, there is literally nothing on either side of the road. A few stony ridges in the distance on the left and an almost flat desert as far as I can see from my position next to the right window. It is a completely untouched landscape, and though there is nothing there, it has a magnetic hold on me. The other guys are talking about U-boat warfare, and I’m holding my super battleship staring out the window.
The sedan slows down to let a flat-bed truck turn left on the road to the Yacht Club at Half Moon Bay. We don’t turn left. We aren’t going to the Yacht Club. Good! We are probably going further around the bay. “Mr. Strader, are we going to Abqaiq Beach?”
“Yes, Tim, we are going near there. I found a good place for us.”
“Yeah, it’s cool.”
Watching him drive is very interesting. Eyes forward behind his mirrored aviator shades, his thinning hair fluttering a bit in the wind, his Roman nose, thick lips, heavy jaw, and wide neck – he must have been a tough guy playing football in school. His big hands are like paws lightly touching the wheel. I notice that his complexion is not so smooth; he must have had bad zits when he was a kid. A cool evening breeze is blowing through the car, we are motoring on, and Gil is content.
I didn’t know until years later that Gil was a Naval logistics officer for the fleet during D-Day, in charge of the tankers delivering thousands of barrels of gasoline to shore every day. After the war he married Mitzi, worked for Standard of New Jersey, and transferred to Arabia in 1948 to begin a long career as a senior engineer with Aramco.
Mitzi was a very compact force of nature, a trim, vivacious brunette with big, light hazel eyes and a crooked smile. Barely five feet tall, she had the energy of an uncoiled cheetah. Mitzi was entirely confident that the world would be a better place if every kid would just do exactly what she told him to do. Doug, Milt, and I were a continual disappointment. Mitzi was the Den Mother for our Cub Scout pack, and I imagine that she prodded Gil to think of a good project to keep us off the streets. I’m so glad that she did.
By 1956 Dhahran had grown from a small oil camp to a slightly larger small town of maybe 3,500-plus Americans, nearly half families, the rest singles. Beyond the camp there was nothing but blank desert until Al Khobar ten miles away on the coast. Remote and isolated, these Americans created a unique community.
I never lived anywhere else, so I couldn’t really compare Dhahran to any other small town in the States. But I was pretty sure that it was different for a bunch of reasons. What small town gave all of its residents a three-month, paid trans-continental vacation every two years?
The whole place was like one big neighborhood, and it seemed to me that a lot of the men like my dad and his friends had an almost tribal spirit about passing on their skills and techniques. They taught us kids how to make things, how to dream about ideas to make, and how to consider problems as solutions that you haven’t yet discovered.
Steve Furman and Tom Handzus often took me fishing and attempted to introduce me to sardines as edible. Will’s dad Gus showed Will and me how to make a rocket sled from the CO2 cartridge of a seltzer bottler and cheerfully welded together our Kangaroo Bikes. Milt’s father was a stand-off dad, but he did snag us a precious carton of small cans of pharmaceutical ether to fuel our model airplane engines.
My neighbor John Ames, a true old-timer in Arabia since 1938, hot-forged a steel trident spearhead before my eyes and then, in the desert ridges just west of Dhahran, taught a 10-year-old boy how to fire an M-1 rifle.
It wasn’t until decades later that I realized that he had taken me to the same ridge that in 1941, after Rommel’s victories in North Africa, a hundred American oil men had planned to defend against Nazi paratroopers trying to seize the Dammam field. Their plan was to hold out long enough for the drillers to blow the wells and then all flee south to Qatar. American civilians willing to risk their lives against German soldiers to deny them an oil field in Saudi Arabia. It was truly a world war.
Mr. Ames couldn’t have known at the time, but if I had never been on the crest of that ridge watching him squeeze round after round into targets below, I would have never realized today the price these men were willing to pay.
Gil turns off at the road to Abqaiq beach. We are twitching with anticipation, all talking at once about our naval firepower. A few hundred yards from the bay we bounce in unison as he veers over a sandy berm and fish tails the Ford onto a bumpy trail. He circles a dune to the left and drives up to an isolated, untouched hundred-foot beach bookended by dunes. As we approach the shore, Gil pulls a U-turn and backs the bulbous sedan to the high tide line.
We burst out of the car and run to the beach. Will slips his aircraft carrier into the water, and it glides forward, slightly lopsided. Doug launches the Missouri with a rebel yell, and it capsizes. What?
Milt comes splashing in and shoots his battleship onto the water. It turns over and slides to a stop. I see what is happening and carefully place my super battleship in the water to watch it fall over on its side.
We’re standing in the water dumbstruck. “Hey guys, come here with your ships. You too, Will,” yells Gil from the webbed patio chair he’s opened next to the car. We gather around and he says, “The aircraft carrier didn’t turn over, but your battleships did. Why do you think that happened?”
We mumble to ourselves when Milt says, “Will’s ship is wider than ours.”
“Good one, Milt. You nailed it,” which brightens up Milt.
“Will’s carrier has what engineers call a low center of gravity. Every building, boat, car, or… statue, every single thing, manmade or not, has a center of gravity. It’s the place where the mass, sort of like the weight of an object, is centrally located in relation to the horizontal force of gravity - like a road, an ocean or the ground. It determines the stability of an object.
“A pick-up truck is fairly stable; the center of gravity is somewhere behind the lower middle of the front seat. But if you pile twenty mattresses in the back, the center of gravity will rise a lot, probably above the cab. It will be top heavy. When you turn a corner or a wind picks up, the truck will want to fall over because the CG, as we call it, wants to be as close to gravity’s pull as possible.”
By now we are fully confused, but sort of get the idea. “Doug’s Missouri is about a foot tall and six inches wide. The CG is probably about half way up the ship. In the water it wants to locate itself as close to the water as it can, so it flips over.” He turns the ship on its side, points with his finger and says, “The center of gravity is still in the same place, but now it’s as close to the water as it can get, so it’s stable but useless.”
“Dad, we could put on some pontoons like a catamaran, so it’s wider.”
Will says, “We could, but it wouldn’t look like a battleship.”
“What do you think, Milt?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe if Doug took off some of the top decks, the center would lower, and it’d be more stable.” Doug hates this idea and starts to poke Milt, but his dad waves him off.
“That might work. Tim, what do you think?”
Groping for an idea, I remember seeing an article in Popular Mechanics about a new kind of racing yacht with a special hydrodynamic keel. “Maybe if it had a deep keel, it would lower the CG.”
Gil crinkles the laugh lines around his eyes. “Well, let’s do that.” He picks up his tackle box and removes some wire and a six-inch length of galvanized water pipe. He flips the Missouri upside down, puts in a screw about a third forward of its bare hull, then another one towards the stern. He wraps off the wire at the bow, threads it through the pipe, ties it off at the back screw and turns the ship upright.
Touching the pipe he says, “We’ve added a lot more weight below the deck, so the center of gravity is located much lower to the deck. The Missouri is ready.” He then gives our super battleships the same treatment and says, “Go, check them out.”
We run to the water. Doug’s battleship rides the water tall and true. Milt and I put in our ships at the same time, and they float perfectly with all 37 guns ready for the enemy, and, of course, Will’s carrier cuts through the water. We immediately began spinning a lively narrative of our fleet standing off Nazi rockets, Kamikazes, and North Korean PT boats. Our grasp of history is a bit fuzzy, but our spirit to resist tyranny makes up for it.
Gil sits in the webbed chair in his undershirt. He unwraps a cigar. Lights it up. Takes a couple drags before he opens the Thermos. He pours himself a drink and leans back to watch over us. The Ford is parked just above the shore line between two pristine dunes facing the absolutely still waters of Half Moon Bay. As the sun sets, the surface begins to glow like hot cast glass, the dunes glimmer like enormous piles of gold dust, and we cavort up to our knees in the salty water reliving a variety of improbable naval battles simultaneously. The Missouri pounds Tokyo Bay, and our super-battleships fight German Dreadnoughts and Soviet cruisers. I proclaim that my ship is manned by Hungarian Freedom Fighters, even as my anti-aircraft guns shoot down dive-bombing Stukas and Mitsubishi Zeros. Will’s aircraft carrier launches diverse aircraft from Navy Hellcats to F-86 Saber jets against Russian MIGs and German U-boats.
We have these model aircraft at home, we’ve seen the newsreels and the war movies, and we were all born a dozen years or less after World War II. The Korean War had only ended a few years before. The Suez Crisis — the French, British, Israeli invasion of Egypt, which was only 1,500 miles away from us in Dhahran — had just ended with disaster for everyone involved. We aren’t quite little militarists, but all these wars are maybe too familiar to us.
Once the sun set, it was quickly dark. Gil had dug a shallow pit a few feet in front of his chair, filled it with wood scraps, added kerosene from a beat-up gallon tin, and set it off. After it burned for a while he says, “Hey guys, time for dinner!”
We have run out of enemies for the moment, so we pick up our undefeated ships and scramble to the pungent, crackling fire, seating ourselves around it in a half circle like Kung bushmen.
“Here’s dinner. Mitzi made us tuna fish salad sandwiches.” I didn’t like tuna fish but perk up when Gil says, “And a cold Pepsi.”
Milt likes tuna fish, so I slip him my sandwich, sip my soda and watch Gil sitting across the fire munching his tuna fish salad. He’s just finished chewing the last of his sandwich, when he pauses to take a deep puff of his cigar, exhales, and says, “Do you guys know about Vikings?”
As far as we knew, they were pirates with dragonheads on their boats who attacked out of nowhere. Kirk Douglas’ movie The Vikings hadn’t been released in Dhahran yet, so we weren’t well informed.
“Didn’t they discover Greenland?” says Will.
“Yeah,” says Doug, “and they attacked beach towns, robbed everyone, and took away slaves.”
“Yeah, they had red beards and swords and fought like demons,” adds Milt.
I say, “I never understood why they would burn up a perfectly good ship when the king died.”
“The Viking funeral was a great tribute to a warlord. Laid to rest in his ship with his weapons, his gold, and his horses, his warriors would torch the boat and push it to sea. It was their way to send him to Valhalla – that was their word for heaven.” Gil stops for a moment watching us across the fire. His face lit from below with flickering flames, he looks like a medicine man that I had seen in a cowboy movie.
“In a way it was like a big good-bye from the men who fought at his side for years. A final salute in his honor and memory. Before… before they started fighting each other to see who’d be the next king.”
Gil leans forward in his chair and slowly scans our faces, “Maybe we should have a Viking Funeral.”
We are silent. Burn our ships? Doug uncomfortably shifts his grip on his pride and joy, the USS Missouri. Milt and I are torn between our pine battleships, crudely crafted with great pride, and the flaming spectacle of arson at sea, when Will settles it, “Wicked! The plastic planes will look so cool when they catch fire.” We agree that this is the best idea that we’ve ever heard.
Gil drains the silver cup and screws it back onto the Thermos. “Okay gentlemen, we have a funeral to attend to.”
When we turn to the beach, we are fire blind and can’t see anything but darkness. Gradually our pupils expand. The sun has set long ago, and the moon hasn’t begun to rise. It would have been pitch black, but this is Saudi Arabia, and the sky is brilliant with stars. So many and so bright that the starlight casts a shadow. The air is dead calm with not the slightest breeze. Without a ripple or a swell, the surface of the bay looks as if it were poured from a giant bucket of fresh ebony paint.
Gripping our ships we hit the beach at the same time, splashing into water up to our knees when a dazzling green light ensnares us as if we are being electrocuted in some sci-fi movie. It’s phosphorescence caused by trillions of tiny marine organisms that glow brightly when disturbed. This just adds to the fun as we push our ships around and run our arms through the water to make it flash like neon.
Gil wades in up to his knees with the kerosene can and a long stick. “Okay, we’ll start with oldest first. Doug, you’re up.” “Oh, cool,” says Doug as he splashes over to put his ship in the water. With one hand Gil pours kerosene over the USS Missouri, pours a little on the end of the stick and hands the can to Doug.
“Okay, here goes.” He flips his Zippo and touches it to the stick. Once it is burning bright, he taps the flaming stick on Doug’s ship, and it goes up in a whoosh. We are jumping up and down with excitement. Then Gil gives the legendary battleship a push with the stick and it sails straight and true for about five yards trailing a wake of sparkling phosphorescence shaped like a widening V that slowly fades away.
Doug is yelling out instructions to the crew, “Fire Gun 4, Zero coming off the bow, Anti-aircraft get it. Boom, Boom, Boom, Got ’em. Watch out for the submarine….”
Milt shouts out, “Abandon ship,” and Doug punches him in the arm, but even Gil laughs. Milt’s super battleship is next, and once it’s fully aflame Gil gives it a swift shove that cruises the ship past the Missouri as Milt starts a live sound effects track complete with dive bombers, anti-aircraft and heavy cannon punctuated with torpedo strikes and bomb explosions.
Will’s flattop with its burning flight deck glides far out into the water. The little plastic airplanes do light up nicely, each one sending up black tendrils of burning plastic mixed with the smoke. The superstructure is burning wildly. And we are transfixed.
Earlier I had dribbled some beach mud over the deck of my ship, so when I put it in the water Gil says. “What’s this?” And after a second, “Oh, I know. Camouflage.”
I’m still a bit reluctant about scorching my masterpiece, but I give him the thumbs up. He splashes his kerosene, waits a few beats, torches my boat and pushes it into the bay. A thin, shimmering, green trail of phosphorescence follows in the wake of the warship as it coasts out to the flaming fleet.
Doug and Milt’s battleships burn furiously but the carrier is like a campfire. The whole deck is ablaze, the plastic airplanes long ago cinders. My ship is burning all right but more like a candle flame than a bonfire.
All five of us stand silently in the starlight, knee-deep in the bay. Like a mirror made of black glass, the water reflects the four burning ships exactly. It looks as if there are eight ships on fire.
A slight breeze ripples the water and stokes the flames. The aircraft carrier sends up a fiery plume as the thin plywood deck burns through and snaps in half. The two sides capsize into each other and sizzle out in the water.
Milt’s super battleship is nose heavy with blockhouses and cannons, so when the stern cabin burns up, it corkscrews into the drink. The Missouri is still flaming near the waterline before a small wave washes over the deck to end the light.
My ship is still on fire, so I’m watching closely. The other guys are too, but their attention is wandering because they are out of the hunt. They drift back to the beach where Doug picks up a mud ball and tosses it at Milt, but hits Will. So they run down the beach laughing and throwing mud at each other.
I’m still watching… and so is Gil, who hasn’t taken his gaze off the boats since he torched the Missouri. After a minute he says, “It must be the camouflage Tim.”
“The camouflage. Look! It’s burning like a Coleman lantern. The mud is acting like a wick, so the kerosene isn’t burning the wood as much. But it will.”
“I wonder how long it will take?”
Still looking at the flaming boat, he says, “We’ll see.”
The battleship drifts farther into the bay, Gil stands forward on his toes like a bear. His shoulders are up as if he smells something in the air, only his eyes are moving. Scanning the horizon and then coming back to the burning hulk. Staring at it. He falls into a sort of trance, and I turn back to watch the final act.
Knowing now what I discovered some 40 years later, I have to wonder if Gil was staring into the past only a dozen years earlier, as seen from a battleship off Omaha Beach. Maybe it was his way of saying good-bye.
The flames finally devour the soft pine, and my battleship rolls over. The sea is black again. The night is quiet as we stand up to our knees in the water looking into the darkness.
Without a glance at me, Gil says, “Did you give your ship a name?”
“Yeah, the Budapest.”
He doesn’t respond for a moment and then nods, “Budapest?”
“It’s in Hungary. It was the battleship of the Hungarian freedom fighters. I wanted them to win.”
“I did, too. They fought like hell, but it just wasn’t in the cards.” He is kind enough to not point out that there was no Hungarian navy.
All of Half Moon Bay is before us. The glow of a rising gibbous moon in the east arrives to soften the night. Gil says, “Look up there,” and points to the Milky Way.
In those days, fewer than ten thousand people live within ten miles of the bay. There is zero water pollution, zero air pollution, and zero light pollution, so the galaxy is as bright and clear as you could ever hope to see it.
We’re looking up at the stars when Gil says, “The universe is so… so beautiful. We may not know everything about how it works. But we do know that it is beautiful.” He paws me in the head and says, “Maybe that’s enough. Let’s go.”
At the beach Gil turns as if he has just remembered something, “Tim. If you were a ship, where would your center of gravity be?”
I grab my stomach and say, “Here.”
He bends over so that his already big face is much closer to mine and says, “But you are not a ship. You are a man. Your center of gravity is here,” and he lightly taps his heart. He straightens up, looks directly into my eyes, pats his chest again, and softly says, “Here.”
Earlier stories by Tim Barger are included in his collection Arabian Son.
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
E- book: $4.95
Paperback: 142 pages ~ $12.95
Available at Amazon