The Streets of Al-Khobar

On Saturday, July 21, 1951, Charlotte & I decided to take our first trip out of camp to Al-Khobar, the port town near the airport, where many things from other countries can be purchased. So, we caught the big, red, Kenworth bus, rode back out the main gate and the 50 miles back to Dhahran, changed to a smaller red bus, and rode on to the Persian Gulf town.

It was just several blocks of crudely built, open faced suqs, or stores on just dirt streets, lined up for several blocks, leading to a large, dirt market square, where vendors were scattered around everywhere with their wares spread out on the ground. There was litter, dust & dirt everywhere. It was quite a shock, so different from what we were used to.

Prince Sa'ud Street

We walked down the main street, Prince Sa’ud, went into most stores, and were surprised to find so many things that I thought impossible to buy there in that part of the world. Some of the stores were very nice inside, but small with large, folding wooden doors to cover the entire front of the store at night, or prayer time. There were no banks, but Arabs sitting on the ground, up against a store with a slotted drawer in front of them full of money to make change for you. There were cars and red Aramco trucks parked along the street, and an occasionally donkey cart rolling by.

Aramco Annuitant Colleen Wilson shops in Al-Khobar
Colleen Wilson at the Suq

I priced and looked over some cameras, bought a bread knife and some sandals for Oran, looked for myself some, but didn’t find any I liked or that fit. On the way back to Ras Tanura on the bus, we had a sand storm, so were pretty dirty and worn out when we finally arrived, but it was a very interesting & enlightening trip.

We celebrated our first birthdays together in Arabia on July 26th. We have the same one. Oran was 24 and I was 23. We had managed to wait until then to open my parent’s gift to us that I had brought from the States and were very pleased with a record of our favorite songs. We didn’t do much, but I did bake a cake-my first, which was ‘fair to middlin”. Since it was so hard to purchase anything there, we decided to wait, but keep looking, and get a camera for our gift. We had already bought a light meter from someone going home. We also bought a set of canasta cards since the only way we had been able to invite friends over for a game was by having them bring their cards. We knew we’d put them to good use.

The day after our birthdays, Oran had two days off, so we went to Abqaiq, the third American camp built there. It was a smaller camp, south, about 95 miles from Ras Tanura. We went on the big, red, Kenworth bus again to Dhahran, the main camp, then changed to another big bus for the rest of the way. The terrain then was more desert like with big sand dunes, and small bushes scattered on the flat areas. There was a lone, mud-walled building, called the halfway house with a few small, dusty palm trees in the yard, about half way there, but no Arab towns or villages, not even a Bedouin tent. I had never seen anything that remote before, though, so found it fascinating.

The camp, Abqaiq, further inland, was small, as well, fence enclosed, entered through a main gate and laid out in streets with houses, recreational and business buildings, just like Ras Tanura. It was neat and pretty, and I liked it, but never dreamed then that I would live there, as well, someday. We visited and stayed with an older couple and their little girl, the Butlers, who used to live in Ras Tanura. Oran knew them real well, in fact, had stayed in their house once when they went on home leave. They were from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we expected to see them again sometime in the States.

The next week, back in Ras Tanura, we continued our camp activities. I was getting used to the heat then, although it got in the 120 degrees quite often. The humidity was what made everything bad, though. You felt sticky all over and your clothes got ringing wet in no time and stuck to you. The best part was being able to walk into an air-conditioned house or building and perk up again immediately. That was really wonderful. I had trouble with my hair, which stayed straight as a board in that humidity. It was too short to braid then, so my favorite way to fix it was to pull it back in a high bun, not on the neck, and wear artificial flowers around it. I had quite a number of compliments on it that way, and it was cool and no worry.

The person, whose apartment we were care taking would be back August 5th, so we would have to be moved. There was nothing in the way of housing so far, so we would have to care take again. We had already found another place about three blocks from where we were, and in a very convenient part of camp. It was right across the street from the movie theater, next to the school, where church was held, right on the bus route, and one of the couples we got together with, Pat & Bob Cundiff lived in the same apartment building. It was also just one block from the Persian Gulf.

So, on August 3, 1951, we moved into an identical apartment, NIE- 1, in another 7-unit apartment building. You should have seen us the first few days,though. We collected more things of our own than we realized, so it took us about 5 hours to transfer them from one apartment to another. The next two days, Oran had off, so we spent them cleaning up the place and the one we moved out of. Oran said he never wanted to spend another 2 days off like those again.

The woman who lived there was a terrible housekeeper, and everything was so dirty we could hardly believe anyone could be that way. It took me about a week to clean the whole house the way I wanted to. The kitchen, especially, was dirty, so we just decided to go ahead and use our dishes and pans instead of hers. Outside of that, we liked the place, especially the location and the people we lived near.

Oran had started giving the kids in camp swimming lessons in the Persian Gulf 4 times a week and wanted to continue, so that was convenient, too. August was the month they were out of school, and there were about 25 boys and girls. I went to the beach with him several days, as well, and played with them. We built sand castles, had sea weed and sand fight, and hunted sea shells. It was fun.

Church being held in the school next door was really handy, as well, Oran & I went every Friday night (their Sunday) unless he was on 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, and I went to Sunday school in the morning. In the congregation there were men from India, Palestine, and other countries, who worked for the company and were Christians. More people attended these substitute services than I had expected.

About a week after our move, the friend who also lived in the apartment building, Pat Cundiff, had a baby boy, their first, so I would spend some time with her when she came home from the hospital. I also entertained my canasta group in my new apartment on Tuesday, August 14, and everything turned out fine. I made some brownies to serve and had a choice of coffee, hot or iced tea, which was the customary thing. I also had mixed salted nuts.

The next night we visited an older couple from Port Arthur Texas, who showed us their slide pictures. They had a projector, screen and everything. (Later we bought those things from them when they left Arabia for good). They had pictures of the highways down below Lufidn, Texas, with the tall pines growing beside them. It really did make us homesick to see them. They also showed us a lot of shots of Switzerland and Arabia, which we enjoyed very much. We were very anxious to get our camera so we could get started on things like that.

Each day I felt a little bit more like an old-timer, although, like Oran said, after the new wears off, you settle down into an every day routine, which doesn’t vary much. I learned a little bit more about cooking as I went along, and I still had failures, but I was not as slow at it, and it didn’t occupy all of my time.

My next door neighbor in the new apartment building, Alene McAlbrook, was a woman I came over on the plane with, but neither of us remembered the other. But we got acquainted and made plans to play canasta together with our husbands some evening. She gave us some cake and a bowl of blueberries one day. People there were always doing something like that, and I was beginning to wonder if Oran & I looked underfed. Oran wrote to my folks that he had begun to put on a little weight from my cooking, but I was the one really putting it on.

By September, things were beginning to be more active, although the weather wasn’t too much cooler. They had started the Inter-District Softball playoffs, so we went back to Abqaiq Camp with the team for the first game on September 5, 1951. It was a 3 hour ride and the same back on the big, red, Kenworth bus, which was rather tiresome, but we saw a good game.

About half way back to Ras Tanura, Oran told the bus driver he thought we had a flat tire. So the driver stopped the bus, started walking around it, checking the tires. Oran got off, as well, but went around in the other direction. When the driver reached Oran, he saw that he was relieving himself because he had too much beer to drink, which we could still get at that time. The driver understood then that there was no flat tire, so he said, “Ooooh, flat tire”, laughed about it, got back on the bus and drove on.

Back in Ras Tanura, I was still playing canasta every week and had three bridge lessons so far, but wasn’t an expert by a long shot. I joined the Women’s Club and had been asked to be a hostess at the opening Fall Tea, November 8, and also to help model some Arabian clothes at the same affair. Oran & I joined a Tennis Club, which practiced a couple of nights a week. He did very well, as he had played during his first contract there, but I was just learning.

As if that wasn’t enough, I had a Sunday School Class to teach, permanently, a group of Primary Boys. I worked so much with the kids over there that I almost knew more of them than I did adults, and they all spoke to me when I got on a bus or saw them downtown (in the business part of camp). They all just adored Oran and there wasn’t one who didn’t know him. We really did enjoy working with them.

During the next couple of weeks sailors from the U.S.S. Greenwich Bay, which patrolled the Persian Gulf waters alternately with 2 other ships, had been in Ras Tanura every night on shore leave. One night they played a ball game against the Ras Tanura team, and another night they put on a boxing exhibition, which was very interesting.

We hadn’t heard a thing about our household goods. Evidently they hadn’t even arrived yet, and it took a month or two for them to go through customs after they arrived. So I was getting a little concerned and planned to go to Housing to check on them soon. I baked my first apple pie about that time and it was very good. I got the recipe out of a borrowed cook book, but I still asked for my mother’s recipe. I told my parents that I was going to stick to my own method of testing the stove temperature, though. Mother’s stove temperature did not work, so she just stuck her hand inside until she felt like it was just right, I kid you not. And her pies were always just perfect, the best we’d ever had.

Miss Ras Tanura Contest Poster
A Poster for the Miss Ras Tanura Contest

The company decided to have a “Miss Ras Tanura Contest”. Each department elected a representative, so there were 15 candidates. I was running as “Miss Refinery”, Oran’s department. For about a week campaigning went on with signs & posters all over camp. It was pretty neat to see my name as “Miss Refinery” on a sign hanging on the gate entry to the Refinery as I rode past it on the camp bus route.

Sign for Miss Refinery Colleen Wilson

Everyone in camp had one vote the afternoon before the formal dance on the outdoor Recreation Patio on Thursday, September 20, 1951, when they announced the winner and crowned her. None of the candidates knew who won until then. They called each one individually up on the stage leaving the runner-up and queen until last. You can imagine my surprise when all the other women had been called, so I knew I was either it or next to it.

Whichever would be an honor, so it wasn’t too disappointing when I was named runner-up. A single girl secretary, Darcie Williamson, was named the winner and received a silver loving cup and a bouquet of flowers. I received a silver pin. A few pictures were taken and I felt really good in a red, strapless evening dress made by a friend of my mother’s, who made a lot of clothes for the girls in our family. It seemed to be a big hit with everyone, especially Oran.

Evening Gown Portion of Miss RT
In evening gowns from left: Pedie Kennedy, Olive McDonald, unknown,
Margie House, Nona Patton, Colleen Wilson, Darcie Williamson

The last week in September, we had a single couple over for dinner one night, Chris DeSantis, who worked with Oran in the Refinery and his girlfriend, a single female employee for Aramco, Marge DeSantis. They would later marry and become a big part of our lives in Saudi Arabia. A couple of nights later, they returned the favor by inviting us to eat with them in the Girls Dormitory, which was just one block from our apartment toward the Persian Gulf. Oran was on days then, so we were working in as much social activity as possible. On October 2, he would have to start a 12 hour shift as they were short handed. He would do nothing but work and sleep. I would hate that, but a lot of women had to go through that routine, so I would too.

We would have to move again during the month of October, probably the latter part, but still weren’t assigned anything permanent. They had moved in one of the Swedish Prefab Duplexes to Nejma, but it had to be connected, painted and repaired before anyone could move in. I doubted that it would be ready by then, and sure enough, it wasn’t. They had also asked for the keys to our household effects, which meant they were in customs, but would be there a month or more, probably. It was a relief to know just where they were though.

Things did pretty much shut down for a couple of weeks, so I went to Al-Khobar again and bought a camera, a Retina 2A, more complicated than any we had used before. We started taking pictures like mad, experimenting with lens openings, distance, etc. When they were developed, we were pretty happy with the way they turned out, although we expected to improve as we went along.

One of our neighbors went fishing in the Persian Gulf a day or two ago and brought back several nice fish, two of which we were given. I had not cooked fresh fish before, but I gave it a whirl and they tasted pretty good. We cut them in fillets and there were very little, if any, bones. They were large fish called Schnad and Spadey, which we had never heard of. Oran & I planned to go fishing ourselves, if we could find time.

He finally went back to his regular 8 hr. work shift and was on 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., which worked out really well as we did move again on October 24, 1951. The company put us down in camp, near the business section, where they had a few rows of family apartments. Everything in “American City”, or “Nejma”, was full, and the new apartments weren’t ready yet. Although this would be our 3rd move since my arrival, it still wasn’t going to be permanent. It seems the housing situation was even more critical at that time. The care taking plan didn’t work so well, the company had decided. We had just been genie pigs, but it did get me to Saudi Arabia sooner.

The apartment was rather large with 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, a large living-dining room in the middle, with a kitchen behind that, separating one bedroom and bath from the others. It wasn’t a fancy place, though, just a wooden structure in a row of 4 apartments near the bachelor portables, close to the Persian Gulf, the business buildings, and the Refinery Tank Farm. The yards were just sand but did have connecting cement walks to everything. By the time we got a sure enough place of our own, we would have about a year left on our contract.

The week proved to be even more exciting as our shipment of household goods arrived a few days after our move. So we were really busy for awhile, first with the move, then tearing into our household goods. After checking everything against our inventory, we found almost $300.00 worth of stuff missing, including the mix master, 11 pairs of my shoes, 3 pairs of house shoes, 2 pair of Oran’s shoes, all my cosmetics, all the table linens, 2 Revere Ware Pans, and a few smaller items.

We turned a list of these items in right away so they could be traced, and all of them, except my mix master, were found in a day or two in some people’s household effects in Dhahran. We didn’t have much hope for it, but were relieved to find so much that was missing. It was rather unusual when you did. It was really wonderful having everything I needed to work with then.

The apartment had been furnished by the company with just the bare necessities, so we were glad we had accumulated as much as we had, and could fix it up pretty nice with some things from our shipment. It wasn’t long before it was beginning to look more like a home. Almost every day I added a little extra touch here and there, such as a vase of flowers, a table scarf, a throw rug, lamp and white organdy curtains at the windows, Of course, the color scheme was all mixed up, but this was just temporary, so I fixed the place up with what I had. It was 100% nicer working in the kitchen, knowing that I had every size and shape of pan or bowl or dish when I needed it. I liked my new Betty Crocker Cook Book, too, and studied it like a school book.

The Aramco Women's Club Fall Tea & Fashion Show
The Women's Club Fall Tea & Fashion Show
Colleen Wilson stands on the far left.
Aramco Annuitant Charlotte Phillips
Charlotte Phillips models in front of
Arabic coffee pots.

On November 8, 1951, The Women’s Club had a huge Fall Tea & Fashion Show, and the program was the displaying of some fancy Arab women’s clothes. Charlotte Phillips and I were two of the models and felt real snazzy in all that regalia. The clothes had been collected by an English woman doctor, who had worked among the Arab women in the Royal Family for 25 years. These clothes were a present from the King for her work there. I thought the one I wore was the prettiest. It was a very sheer aqua tulle over a long flowered under garment. Our heads were covered, too, with black scarves in gold trim or part of the material from the very fully cut garment we wore. One woman had a black cloth mask, as well. Pantaloons were worn under all outfits, which were all different colors and made from different materials, but were the same style.

It took place outside on our Recreation Hall patio. The weather had just turned cold several days before, but felt really good after the very hot summer they had that year. The tables with umbrellas circled the raised stage, and decorations of Arab coffee pots, brass trays and small palm trees had been placed strategically around. We models were introduced one at a time while our outfits were described in detail, then we walked off the stage, among the tables so everyone could get a closer look and feel the materials. We all felt very elegant and beautiful, and very much a part of the mystic of the Middle East.

The Patio at Aramco's Ras Tanura Recreation Hall
An Overhead View of the Recreation Hall Patio.

In stark contrast to our lovely Tea, the very next day, Friday, November 9, 1951, I went on a bus tour to Qatif, one of the Arab villages and oasis between Ras Tanura and Dhahran. Oran had to work, so I went with a single woman employee of Aramco, who had come over on the same plane, as well, Olive McDonald. We became good friends, and did a lot together after that.

I had been anxious to see Qatif, to learn more about the Arabian people and how they lived. It was surprisingly different. The women were all veiled and wore black cloaks, not like the beautiful, colorful clothes we had worn the day before. The streets were narrow, and the shops, tiny holes in the walls. The camels, goats and donkeys were driven right through the dirt streets, and at certain places, the smell was almost unbearable. Everyone and everything was so dirty, especially the little, ragged-looking boys, who crowded around you begging for money.

Oasis at the Sufwa Gardens
An Arab gives his donkey a bath at
the Sufwa Gardens.

Surrounding the town were the Sufwa Gardens, which are irrigated date palm groves. In them were two ponds of fresh artesian water with very deep holes at one end. These natural wells supplied the water for irrigation purposes, and other water needs of the people. These ponds were very blue, and so clear you could easily see the bottom. It wasn’t unusual to see Arabs bathing in them, even washing their donkeys. We ate our sack lunch there, and, as usual, the little Arab boys gathered around. Some of them stripped and jumped into the pond to dive for money thrown in by the Americans. It was all very picturesque and peaceful looking.

Aramco Annuitant Colleen Wilson in front of Turkish Fort
Colleen Wilson poses in the mouth of the
"scary faced" Turkish Fort.

Before returning to Ras Tanura, we were driven to see the ruins of a large, high-walled, mud and stone Turkish Fort near Tarut Bay on the Persian Gulf. On one wall there was a large, rectangular open door with two high, rectangular windows on either side, and just above it, with a protrusion between them. It looked like a scary face with a big nose. We walked around the area for awhile, climbed the steps to the tower to look into an open dirt yard inside, took pictures, then drove back home. It was a very enlightening and interesting day.

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