First Trip to the K.S.A.: Chapter I - Trip Over and Arrival
This book contains the highlights of my first trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where I lived with my husband, Oran Wilson, and children, Olan Keith and Victoria for five and a half years in the early 1950’s. It was written for the express purpose of recording the events of my life and those of my family and friends, during that time, as I documented and remembered them. I loved living in Saudi Arabia and having the privilege of meeting and associating with all the people of all nationalities I encountered. For this unequivocal opportunity, I give praise to Allah.
Chapter I: Trip Over and Arrival
As the train lurched away from the platform of the small, East Texas town of Overton, Texas, my heart gave a corresponding lurch as I looked back to wave at my parents, Myrtle & Gale W. Renfro. The tears in their eyes denied their cheerful goodbye a few minutes earlier. I’m sure they never expected to see me again. A daughter leaving home for the first time to marry was one thing, but traveling almost half way around the world to live in a strange foreign country they had barely heard of, was quite another.
I’ll admit, at 22 years of age, I had a few misgivings myself, but also a growing excitement at the prospect of joining my new husband, Oran W. Wilson, again and really starting my married life. It seemed the past two and one-half years had been spent in suspended animation while Oran went to Saudi Arabia to work right out of college. Then, after our marriage on December 9, 1950, I waited another five months to join him there because of a shortage of houses. Now each click of the wheel brought me closer to the beginning of my new life.
My train trip to New York City, my first, however, was uneventful. I had made the mistake of getting a compartment, so stayed in virtual isolation, except for an occasional trip to the dining car. There I could see out both sides of the train at once and other people. It took two days and one night to get there, but I didn’t have to change trains. My sleeper car was just switched to another train in St. Louis, Missouri.
My arrival at Grand Central Station was met by a high school friend of mine and her husband, Janet & Jack Puryear. He was in the service then, stationed close by in New Jersey. They drove me to the Park Sheraton Hotel, where the Arabian American Oil Company had reserved a room for me and all the other Aramco employees and dependents who would fly on to Saudi Arabia together the next day.
After checking in, Janet & Jack took me to see some of the more familiar sights of New York City - The Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, and the Rockettes. When we returned to my hotel room, I received a call from Charlotte Phillips, another wife who was making the trip to Saudi Arabia for the first time to join her husband, Malcolm. It was really a pleasant surprise, and we decided to room together that night. Janet & Jack said goodbye and returned to New Jersey feeling that I was in good company and would be just fine from then on.
Charlotte & I settled in our room together and made plans for the evening. A good French restaurant was recommended by the hotel, so we ate, and then went to see the stage play, “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds”, with Carol Channing. Later that night, we talked into the wee hours about what we had in store for us as wives in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia - geographically located about 9,000 miles from the United States. Perhaps I would never see my parents again. A large, hot land with waves of sand dunes, huge rock outcroppings, camels, sheep, and Bedouin, we’d read. What would it be like to live there? That was a question in all our minds as we gathered in the hotel lobby the next morning with all the other Aramco people, and about 12:00 p.m., boarded a special bus to Idlewild Airport, anticipating much adventure.
There, we checked in and boarded the Aramco plane, a DC-4, appropriately named, “The Flying Camel”. I was making my first commercial flight, as well, and I can tell you, I was excited. I had expected to be scared or sick or both, but neither happened. I was just extremely excited and happy. After the plane took off, we visited with the other passengers as the plane droned on to Gander, Newfoundland, where we debarked to eat supper.
That was a bleak looking place, and it was beginning to get dark, but we were just there about an hour. When we started flying out over the Atlantic Ocean, it was raining, and for some reason, the pilot decided not to stop in Shannon, Ireland, as scheduled. Trying to sleep that night on the plane was difficult, but I did manage to get some rest. We finally arrived and landed in Paris, France, the next day about 12:30 p.m., June 3, 1951.
After going through customs and getting our passports stamped, we caught a bus which took us to the hotel, ‘Palais D’ Orsay”. It was an ancient looking affair with antiques all over the place, but located on the Seine River, which runs right through the middle of Paris. We ate lunch in the hotel cafe, and then went out sight seeing. We saw the Eiffel Tower, the Arch de Triumph, the Rue D Lapa’ and a lot of other places I don’t know the names of. After the taxi tour, we sat in one of the outdoor cafes and watched all the people go by.
The day we were there was a Sunday, and everybody was strolling around all over Paris. There were numerous young couples pushing baby carriages and couples walking arm in arm. Every now and then, you would see a man kissing his escort right there in the crowd. The little kids (from 5 under) all wore some rompers, which looked like bloomers and were very puffy around the bottom. They looked silly to us, but it was really fashionable there. We had seen beautiful, fashionable dresses in their store window displays, too, but their shoes were clunky and horrible looking, at least to us.
By then, it was suppertime, so Charlotte & I found an exclusive looking restaurant on another famous street in Paris, “The Avenue des Champs Elysees’, and treated ourselves to filets and Baked Alaska. It was about 10:00 p.m. when we finished, so we went back to the hotel to get a good nights sleep, so we would be a little fresh, anyway, when we reached Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, the next day.
A lot of others from the plane went on to tour the “Rue D Pigalle”, which is a street containing all the night clubs. Charlotte & I decided we had rather have escorts to get out on the streets of Paris at night. We had heard that particular street was supposed to be a pretty rough place. We found out later that several people from our plane didn’t even bother to come in at all that night.
The next morning we purchased our cards and wrote them. I had torn my hose, so I purchased another pair and also a bottle of Chanel No. 5. Oh yes, about the money. I changed a twenty dollar bill into 8000 Francs because you couldn’t spend American money there. To give you an idea my perfume was 1200 Francs, which just about equaled $3.50, at that time. My hotel bill was 2250 Francs, which was approximately $6.43. It was really something trying to figure it all out for the first time.
After twenty two complete hours in Paris, we boarded a bus again, returned to Orly Field, boarded the Aramco “Flying Camel”, and took off at 12:30 p.m., Monday, June 4, 1951. Our next destination was Rome, Italy, and we landed there at 4:30 p.m., after circling the city so we could view the Vatican and the Coliseum, two of the famous landmarks there. It was all very picturesque. At the Rome Airport, we ate a delicious supper of duck and spaghetti (what else?), and left there at 6:30 p.m. to fly directly, non-stop to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
That last night on the plane very few people were able to sleep at all because of excitement. We didn’t really get well acquainted until that night. Then we were up all over the plane talking to this one and that one, until the sun finally came up, and we settled to eat breakfast. I had tried several times to get some rest, but just couldn’t do it.
The rest of the flight over the desert, during the day light hours, had been very interesting to me, as I had never seen that type of terrain before. As far as the eye could see, even from the height we were flying, all that was visible was a vast sea of huge sand dunes in varying shades of brown, completely void of any vegetation. In fact, when we started our decent to land, that was still all I saw, as I was on the opposite side of the plane from the airport buildings. So, for a heart- stopping moment, I thought we might be crash landing in the desert.
But the airport turned out to be just an unpretentious landing strip, close to the Persian Gulf, between bare, brown sand, a few bare, crusty-topped hills, and several buildings. The plane taxied to a halt in front of the largest of the buildings, a low stone edifice, which turned out to be the customs building. All were located on just one side of the runway. So, instead of crashing, I had just traveled almost half way around the world, on a wonderful trip and arrived safely at my final destination, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was 10:00 a.m., Tuesday, June 5, 1951. To the 22 year old bride, it seemed like a fairy tale come true.
After the plane taxied to the customs building tarmac, portable steps were rolled out to it, followed by mostly American husbands, including Oran. That flight was known as the “brides’ special”, as it was delivering so many new wives to the men who had worked there for the oil company, Aramco, without their families, many for more than two years. So, when the door of the plane was opened, we were greeted not only by the smiling faces of our husbands below, but a blast of hot air so stifling we all gasped for breath.
It was a relief to see Oran, though, and I smiled down at him as I started down the steep steps. I had a bag in one hand and a coat and purse in the other, and the metal steps seemed to be right straight down. So, it wasn’t surprising that I slipped down about the last 4 steps and landed in a heap at Oran’s feet. What an arrival. Oran helped me up, kissed me and checked to see that I was all right, which I was, except for being embarrassed. Then I followed him through the glare and wind into the welcomed cool of the customs building.
This was an airline terminal? Quite different from what I’d seen in New York, Paris, and Rome, and even more unusual inside. The interior was the same light brown color as outside with virtually no decorations. The exception was a huge photograph of his Majesty, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa’ud. On the hard dirt floor stood two wooden counters with a narrow isle between. Milling behind the counters were a number of light brown skinned men wearing, what looked like, a white dress shirt that went all the way to the floor, a red checkered cloth thrown over their heads, and a black, thick, round cord on top of that. One had a long, black robe over his shoulders, and looked like the Arabs I had seen in movies at home.
One thing was apparent immediately. The Arabs had a good sense of humor, as there was a lot of good-natured laughter, chattering and banter as our passports were checked, and our bags brought in and lined up on the counters. After a look here and there, a check for stamps on cameras, they seemed satisfied. I’m sure this was still a relatively new experience for them, especially seeing women without veils, and what must have seemed, odd wearing apparel that filled our bags, and adorned our bodies. We soon emerged out the other side of the stone building.
Even with sunglasses, the glare was overpowering, and the heat so intense, you felt weak. At least the car was air conditioned. It was a company sedan, painted bright red so it could be seen easily from the air in case it got stranded in the desert. We drove off down a black-topped road through rows of army-type barracks, and other buildings comprising the American Air Base in a fenced area, then out through a guarded gate.
Now I would get to see what Saudi Arabia was really like, and it lived up to my expectations -- flat, barren, brown, rock-strewn earth, dotted occasionally with small green bushes, and several crusty-topped, bare hills in the distance. It could be considered desolate but contained a beauty all its own. I found it fascinating after the lush, green foliage and lakes where I was raised in East Texas, and knew, right then, that it was love at first sight.
As we continued driving on the road away from the Airport, Oran pointed out the silhouettes of a small cluster of buildings far off in the distance to the right. He said that was Al-Khobar, on the Persian Gulf, the best village in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia to shop. He also told me we would come back there at a later time, but not to get my hopes up. It was nothing like what we had in the United States, but interesting, nevertheless.
We soon intersected another black-topped road, turned to the left, and passed The American Consulate Compound on the left and a bit further on, another fenced area, at the base of the crusty-topped hills, containing modern looking houses and buildings. This was the main Aramco company camp of Dhahran.
On the opposite side of the road from that were rows of long, barrack-like buildings interspersed with small, square, mud buildings and tents, where the Arabs, who worked for the company, lived. More light brown-skinned men, in the long, shirt like garments ambled among them. Strange looking, black, long haired goats munched on sparse bushes. There was a noticeable absence of women. No one seemed rushed or in a hurry. It was a relaxing scene.
Before driving on to Ras Tanura, a camp about 50 miles north, the place that would be our home, we checked through the gate of Dhahran Camp, so Oran could show me around. It was a pretty camp with curved streets, nice looking houses, pretty green lawns with flowers, hedges, and date palm trees. I was very impressed and excited.
We stopped to go into the Snack Bar to get a bite to eat and a Pepsi, which Oran knocked over and spilled all over my suit skirt. By that time, I didn’t even care because he had already seen me before it got messed up. I had to wear it all the way from New York because we weren’t allowed to keep more than our small bag with us on the plane and in Paris. He felt terrible about it, but I assured him that it was all right. It was just so good to be there with him, at last, and I was anxious to continue our journey.
Going back out through the Dhahran Main Gate, we turned left, then soon curved right, to the north. The oil-covered (what else) road to Ras Tanura paralleled the Persian Gulf, although it wasn’t visible most of the way. In fact, there wasn’t much visible for awhile, except a drifting sand covered area, with a sparse growth of small clumps of salt bushes and bunch grass protruding from small mounds of sand. There were occasional mounds of crusty earth hills in the distant west, and sand blowing across the road in front of us.
As we drove on, the terrain changed, somewhat, as smaller sand hills or dunes appeared here and there, and then, to the right, we could see the edge of the huge date palm grove and oasis that surrounded the village of Qatif. Sand dunes were encroaching on its outer edge. We paralleled the oasis for awhile before passing two enormous sand dunes as the road curved to the right north of them.
Directly across the road were two huge, black Bedouin tents with sheep and camels grazing nearby. Oran said they were Nomads, and this was a favorite place for them to camp from their wanderings around the desert. They came to trade their wares in the nearby villages.
Some camels were quite close to the road, munching on the bunch grass, and I was able to get my first up-close look at the large, one-humped beasts. As we passed them, one raised its head, gazed at us with its large eyes, almost concealed by long lashes, and chewed in its unusual side to side fashion, the lower jaw moving back and forth, first to one side, then the other, while its huge teeth jutted out. It was a very funny sight, and gave me another reason to love Arabia at first sight.
Continuing on north, we passed the edge of another small, oasis village, called, Sufwa, and could see some date palm trees in the distance. About the only thing visible here, though, was a small, white-washed, brick-block building on the right, at the intersection of a road that went off to the northwest to Jubail, and eventually Kuwait. It was called the half-way station, or inspection station. Two uniformed Arab soldiers came out and waved as we passed.
But soon the date palms gave way to crusty, salt flats bordering a sea to the right of the road, which was Tarut Bay. Then the road curved in a long, U-shape bordering that, and we traveled east, then south. Oran said we had started down a peninsula that was about 7 miles long.
Now we were traveling between two bodies of water, Tarut Bay, on our right and the Persian Gulf, on our left. I noticed a change in the temperature right away, and was pleased to know that there was a cooling breeze from the Gulf that the other camps wouldn’t have because they were inland. Our road paralleled rows of pipelines down the peninsula. Then, about half way down, on the left, right on the Persian Gulf, there was Ras Tanura, the camp that would be my first home, where my children would live the first years of their lives, and I would make so many new and lasting friendships. Excitement was really mounting.
The road divided an Arab and Intermediate Camp on the right, called Rahima, from a huge, chain link fence-enclosed group of houses and a business area. As we paralleled that for several blocks, I was relieved to see that it was a pretty camp, like Dhahran, with nice houses, lawns, flowers, and date palm trees. However, it was half the size, and laid out in neat, square blocks along the Persian Gulf, with an open area of bare ground for about a quarter of a mile between the housing area, and the business area. We followed the fence and drove past all of this before arriving at the Ras Tanura Main Gate.
The Main Gate was located in the industrial area, just north of the oil Refinery. The guard house divided the street, and had in huge letters on top of it, “RAS TANURA” and “HOME OF SAFETY”. The green Arabian Flag with its unsheathed sword under Arabic writing, stating, “There is no God but God: Muhammid is the Messenger of God”, was flying from a flagpole in front of it. A huge, red Kenworth bus had stopped on the exit side to check out, and pick up mail before delivering it, and passengers, to Dhahran.
We turned left off the main road, on the right side of the guard house, and stopped to sign in with the security guard. The Refinery was to the south, and we paralleled it for a couple of blocks to the intersection of Palm Avenue, where we turned left and drove around the business section of camp, with it’s office buildings, commissary, post office, recreation building, canteen, beauty and barber shops, laundry, tennis courts, cash office, dining hall, hospital and clinic, cobbler, upholstery store, and bachelor dormitories. There were open, sandy areas between these buildings, and with few exceptions, they were just prefabs. None-the-less, the whole place was very interesting, and I knew I would love it.
That feeling was doubly confirmed when we drove up Palm Avenue, past the quarter mile of bare sand to the family housing area called, “American City”, or in Arabic, “Nejma”. It was an even prettier camp, and a much more pleasant surprise than I first thought. I hardly know how to describe things there, but I will do my best. Immediately apparent was the greenery, the grassy lawns, surrounded by jasmine hedges, with flowering periwinkle, hibiscus, bougainvillea, and oleander plants, and acacia and date palm trees. We found out that special dirt had been brought in and mixed with the sand to make it possible to grow these tropical plants.
As a rough estimate, the size of “Nejma” was about 8 blocks, by 3 long blocks of houses, apartments, and pre-fabs, laid out in neat rows, with a theater, school, playground, and athletic field on the north end. There were sidewalks and streets with pretty sounding names, like; Persian Boulevard, Jasmine Lane, Almond Lane, and Acacia Street. There were even street lamps, like in the States. The houses were several different styles, some made of brick, or cement-block, others stone, or wood. There were also 7-unit apartment buildings of brick, and we had been assigned one of those. The fences were either hedges, or made of dried palm fronds, or had cement-block walls.
All of this bordered the Persian Gulf, which was extremely beautiful. It was deep green, just the right temperature for comfort, and calm, also very salty. We had heard it was the second saltiest body of water in the world, next to the Dead Sea. The beach was smooth and sandy (what else?), just perfect for sun bathing. All in all, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the whole place, and felt just like I would be living at a Seaside Resort.
We drove on up Palm Avenue, turned right into an alley and parking area just past Almond Lane. Our 7-unit apartment building was just about in the center of “Nejma”, and we stopped in the back of 5-L-4. That was the center unit of the U-shaped apartment and faced out onto a common grassy and flowered front yard. That would be our first home, but it was just on a caretaker basis while the permanent assignees were in the United States on a 3-month home leave, or vacation. As there were not enough houses yet for all the families of qualifying employees, a plan had been devised to have new arrivals live, temporarily, in a house or apartment and move around to occupy vacation empties until a permanent one became available. As it meant the only way I could already be in Saudi Arabia, we were more than willing to be guinea-pigs.
Our apartment unit was very nice, air-conditioned, as all buildings were, and looked just like the floor plan Oran had sent me. The permanent assignees of our unit, 5-L-4, had stored most of their things in the back bedroom of the 2-bedroom, 1-bath apartment, as was customary. But Oran had either rented from the company, borrowed, or owned enough furniture and stuff to make it very comfortable and livable until my shipment arrived.
I felt right at home immediately, and excitedly started investigation every nook and cranny. I could tell that the things I had bought in the States and shipped over were going to be just right, and it would be wonderful when they arrived. Of course, I could see already that there were things I didn’t get that I should have, but knew we could get along just fine.
My sweeper would be wonderful because the sand would blow in badly, even though the houses were good and tight. The living room furniture was nice, and had a seat and back cushion on each chair and three on the sofa, as we had figured. I had spent many hours shopping for material to cover these and make matching drapes. Anyway, I was so happy at that moment, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if it had been a tent.
That evening we had supper with a young married couple, Nona & Lou Tyler, who were good friends of Oran’s and lived directly across the alley in another 7-unit apartment building. They had helped him get our apartment fixed up and stocked for my arrival. During the evening, Nona gave me advice, directions, recipes and even scarce food. I found them extremely friendly and helpful, as all the people there turned out to be. It had been a long, eventful, tiring, but wonderful first day in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Oran was off the second day after my arrival, too, so we went down to the business part of camp to look around. We wanted to see more of the things we had just driven past the day before. The commissary, or grocery store, and the canteen were the first buildings we came to on the right side of Palm Avenue, so we stopped to check these out. Anyway, I was anxious to see what I would have to cook with. As a new bride, I would be mostly experimenting and learning to do all of that on my own. I had helped my mother, of course, and taken my turn at cooking duty in college, but it had not been the #1 priority up to that point in my life.
Ras Tanura Commissary
The commissary was impressive enough, a large, one-story, cement-block building with a long, narrow, covered porch by the entrance, with benches to wait on for the bus. Inside brought a momentary uneasy revelation, however. A lot of the products came from foreign countries, and some I was used to at home were not available at all. All meats were frozen, the beef from Australia, and most cuts were unfamiliar to me, except fillets. But there were whole chickens, packages of just legs, thighs, or breasts, roasting hens, turkeys, and ducks. There were a lot more familiar brands of things available than I had expected, though, including milk and whipping cream in the bottle from the United States, so I was relieved and pleased. Although I would have my work cut out for me in the cooking department, I was looking forward to the challenge.
Ras Tanura Recreation Building
Next to the commissary were the canteen, a small square, wooden portable building where you could get little items such as; bobby pins, nail polish remover, gum, cigars, candy bars, magazines, and a few household goods. We drove from there past the old, wooden dining hail building, making our next stop at the recreation building across from it. That was a large, green, wooden, u-shaped structure with an open air patio in the back, enclosed partially on the back side with a tall, yellow, latticed, wooden wall.
It was very plain, non-descript looking on the outside, but inside housed a large center room, supported by several wooden beams, with a snack bar and a regular bar counter along the back wall side across from the double front doors. Several shuffle board game tables were at the end of this bar, and table and chairs were in the center of the floor. To the left end of this room was a gambling room with poker tables, pool tables and dice tables. Also, a small hallway led to a 6-lane bowling alley jutting out in back of the main building forming one side of the outside patio.
Ras Tanura Recreation Center Patio
On the other end of the center room were halls to restrooms, a library, a hobby room with a piano and organ, and a room used for the Women’s Club. This formed the other side of the outside patio. That contained a large open floor with outside, latticed chairs and tables set around, and a small covered stage on one side. Dances, parties, fashion shows and other women’s, and company functions were held here. I was impressed and already looking forward to getting into the swing of things.
The only other stop we made that day in the business part of camp was to the post office not far away. It was another square, wooden, elevated portable building, and on the back side of that same building, through a different entrance, was the liquor store, where you could find just about anything available as in the United States. We didn’t take advantage of anything that day, but I did mail a note I had written to my parents to tell them I had arrived safely. Oran assured me that a telegram would be on its way from the company to them to that effect, but I wanted to let them know myself.
Ras Tanura Post Office
Oran wanted to show me the rest of the Ras Tanura peninsula, then, while he was still off work and had the company vehicle. So, we returned to Palm Avenue, reversing our arrival route of yesterday, through the industrial area, back to the main gate. We signed out with the security guard, turned left, following the road around the west side of the refinery. There was an expanse of bare land for a way on that wider portion of the peninsula, extending beyond the refinery, which ended at the water’s edge of Tarut Bay to the west and south. Later that land would gradually become a swimming and boating playground for the Ras Tanura employees with privately owned boats. Then the company would turn it into the official Sandy Hook Yacht Club with boat ramps, docks, a snack bar, and covered picnic tables for all employees of Ras Tanura and friends.
However, our ride that day continued on the road around the south side of the refinery almost to the Persian Gulf, then turned due south, past a small camp on the left that housed Italian craftsmen, hired by Aramco to help build the refinery at the end of World War II. Their camp had a dining hall, as well, and was a popular, alternate “eating out” facility for the employees of Ras Tanura at that time. I had my first taste of pizza and lasagna there. It was also home for any dogs, mostly salukis, owned by Aramco employees. At that time we were not allowed to keep them inside our camp itself.
Then we were traveling down a very narrow finger of land, which seemed just barely wide enough for the road and the pipe lines from the refinery that paralleled it. We could see the water from the Persian Gulf and Tarut Bay lapping on both sides. The entire peninsula almost seemed like a closed fist with the 1st finger pointing down, separating the Gulf from the Bay. It was all very exciting for me, as the closest I had ever been to any ocean were the tourist beaches of Galveston, Texas.
At the tip end of the peninsula the land widened out some again, enough to contain some oil storage tanks, a pump station, office, snack bar, and, I think, some type of individual living quarters for the workers. From this piece of land a long, wide pier jutted out into the Persian Gulf. At the end of that was a large T-shaped wharf that could berth and load four different ocean going oil tankers at the same time. A second pier was built there while I lived in Ras Tanura, as well. The magnitude of it all boggled the mind, and I had been raised in the Oklahoma and East Texas Oil Fields.
We returned to the main camp of Ras Tanura and our cozy apartment. I had seen it all then, the whole place, the entire area that I would spend the next five and one-half years of my life and found it fascinating. In a lot of ways, it was much nicer there than in the place in the States I had come from, and the good qualities outshone any bad ones there could ever be. I loved it already.