Author, Tim Barger (standing), at age 7, David Snyder, and Mary Barger, age 3
For some unknown reason, throughout my life, various circumstances have led me into unusual situations. Perhaps the drummer I was marching to played Stockhausen on the snares, but it began early in life.
I was born in Dhahran in 1947 where I lived at 1134 Hamilton House, the palatial, by Dhahran standards, company guest house was on the next block to the north. It was the only place with a lawn covered hill in town. Rolling down the slope was great fun and you’d always come home with grass-stained jeans, itching like mad from the bugs in the grass. To the south was a large median with two bachelorette portables. The bachelorette portables were terrific. If you were a kid, you could go and knock on the door and almost always some lovely single woman would answer, invite you in and spoil you with cookies and maybe a Pepsi. A block further on was the recreation complex: the pool, the bowling alley, the Fiesta room – a snack bar and coffee shop, the tennis courts, the ball field, the movie theater, and unfortunately the school. I didn’t really have anything against school, my brother and sister went there, but it did seem somewhat constricting as you had to go every day at the same time.
So when I turned six it was off to the Gulag. However my family was on a short leave, so I started Kindergarten a week or so late. At that time Kindergarten was held in a portable adjacent to the pool – it later achieved infamy as the Teen Canteen. I showed up and was amazed to find all these kids that I didn’t know running around before class. Dhahran was small, but my circle of acquaintances was even smaller.
I wasn’t there long that day before I noticed the cutest girl with jet black hair cut in a page boy. The other boys noticed her too, called out her name “Stephanie,” and chased her and her friends around the play area. Of course, when she and her friends stopped, the boys froze and didn’t know what to do next. The girls would laugh and scurry off to be chased some more. In the middle of all this confusion, we heard someone yelling, “Help! Help!” from the pool area. A dozen or more of us poured through the picket fence gate to see someone that I knew, hollering helplessly, upside down in a tree. It was Jimmy R. He had been climbing a young Ficus about ten feet tall, had slipped and was suspended four feet from the ground by his ankle that had caught in the crook of a branch. He was red-faced, screaming in terror and like a band of munchkins we swarmed around him with not the slightest idea of how to save him. After a minute or two, Sebastian, the big Goanese lifeguard, strode in like King Kong, grabbed Jimmy’s ankle and plucked him out of the tree like it was the simplest thing in the world. We were amazed and all crowded around Jimmy to congratulate him for his escape from an untimely death.
After the melee subsided a bit, I was talking to Jimmy when Stephanie appeared to ask if he was okay. He talked to her for a minute and then in a moment of humanity and compassion that I’ll always cherish him for, he introduced her to me. She smiled at me with dancing eyes and said, “So nice to meet you, sir.” Laughed and bounded off. I didn’t know if she was joking or being sincere or what, I didn’t care. I was in heaven. Now she knew my name.
The bell rang and we all marched into class. Everyone but me seemed to know what they were supposed to do, but I bumbled along and the teacher told me that I was to bring a rug the next day for Nap Time. Looking back I can imagine that the teacher couldn’t wait every day until she could call for Nap Time. So on my second day of Kindergarten, I trooped off to school but for some reason I was late. When I got to the portable the door was closed and class had already started. I sort of panicked, if I went in now everyone would laugh at me. Not so bad, but what would Stephanie think about me? After about thirty seconds of careful deliberation and deep soul searching, I dumped my rug and fled. Thus began my descent into a life of criminality known as playing hooky.
I didn’t know where to go, so I first went to the bit of jebal that remained behind the fenced patio of the Kindergarten portable, next to the hobby shop. There was some unspoiled ground there with a gnarled acacia tree on the slope. I sat under the tree and watched lizards doing push-ups in the heat. Satisfied that bloodhounds had not been unleashed on my trail, I circled around behind the bowling alley and made my way to the library. At that time the library was situated above the Fiesta Room. It wasn’t a really big space but it was crammed with bookshelves, presided over by three very good-natured Indian librarians. They recognized me from past visits and it never occurred to them that I should be in school. I couldn’t read, but on the bottom shelf for oversized books there were dozens of volumes of cartoon books. I especially remember the cartoon annuals from The New Yorker. Aramco must have had every edition from 1940 on. So I sat on the floor and ate it up.
You didn’t have to read to enjoy the cartoons and that is probably where I began a life-long addiction to desert island and “take me to your leader” cartoons. If I got stuck, one of those Indian librarians would be happy to read me the captions.
After a few hours of cartoons, I’d get restless and roam around the camp. Along the perimeter fence, it was still pretty much desert. Walking along the chain link fence I was always attracted to the fly traps placed intermittently along the length. They were painted bright red with warning signs stenciled on the side, but you could smell them way before you could read the warning, if you could read. They smelled god awful but how could you resist getting as close to them as possible without throwing up and wondering what horrible brew they contained. How could something that smelled that terrible attract anything, even flies? Of course, the fence wasn’t exactly perfect, walking along you could find places where jackals and feral dogs had burrowed underneath it. So I’d wiggle under the chain link and be in the official desert.
In those days Dhahran was completely surrounded by desert. You could walk from camp all the way to the Persian Gulf without seeing a fence, a wall, a road, a house or anything but sand and rock. (Nowadays, Dhahran is part of a sprawling megalopolis that extends to Khobar and the Gulf, there isn’t a square yard that isn’t developed.) I’d putter around for a while, living it up in the knowledge that I was free in the wild, slightly puzzled because the desert on this side didn’t look any different than the desert behind the fence.
By some sixth sense, I always knew when Kindergarten was over. I’d show up in time to meet the other kids coming home from school and ask them what they did that day. When I got home, my mother would ask me what I did in school that day. I’d mumble something about playing with blocks or reciting the colors of the rainbow or whatever. I quickly learned that if I burst in the door and said “We sang Old MacDonald today,” that was plenty enough information and I could escape into the backyard to hunt for caterpillars in the hedge or play with my Dinky toy trucks in the dirt. This went on for days, and then weeks until I had convinced myself that “Yes, I was going to school every day” – just in a different classroom.
No one else in Kindergarten was doing advanced arithmetic such as fractions, but I was doing them every day. The refund on a Pepsi bottle was a quarter riyal and a Pepsi was a riyal. It was easy to scrounge through a few alleys to find four empty bottles, the hard part was getting the refund at the commissary. The place was swarming with moms and if my mother’s friends, or worse my mother, saw me I was sunk. Once I was sure that the coast was clear, I’d sneak into the commissary, get my refund, buy my Pepsi and hotfoot it out of there, slinking behind the Mail Center to the Barber Shop - another portable raised about six feet high, it had a wooden staircase up from the sidewalk where I could crawl under the stairs and sip my Pepsi in shade and perfect safety. It’s funny that looking out all that I could see were people from the knee down which fittingly reminded me of the Tom and Jerry cartoons where adults were always seen only as legs walking in and out of the frame. When I was finished, I’d stash the bottle and know that I only needed three-quarters of a riyal to get my next fix. I was a whiz with fractions.
A lot of times I’d hang with the gardeners. They were an odd group of people because they just appeared out of nowhere. Completely unofficial, I don’t know how they even got past the main gate into camp and I don't know where they lived or even who paid them, they were just there. I’d find a guy working in someone’s back yard and just hang around. In retrospect, I imagine most of the gardeners were semi-indentured agriculture workers from Qatif or Hofuf, but to me, at the time they were just cheerful men in once-white undershirts, with white head-dresses and wrap around waist sarongs. They mostly wore sandals but some of them wore a sort of virtual sandals, cheap shoes with the backs crushed down so you could slip into them. Every gardener seemed to have only two tools: a hoe and a hand scythe. A crescent-shaped blade about a foot long with a wooden handle, the wicked-looking hand scythe was of particular interest. The gardeners used it to trim hedges, cut back branches and even mow lawns. They’d let me use it and show me how to handle the thing, but I was too little to wield it effectively and even then came to appreciate how strong you had to be to use it.
Occasionally they would take a break and invite me to share from their lunch pail. In those days most of the Saudi workers had a cylinder-shaped aluminum lunch pail that was segmented into three sections that nestled into each other with a handle that locked the parts together. The top section held their Arab bread called khubz, the second section was for gravy or sauce and the much larger bottom section packed the rice. I usually just had a few nibbles of the khubz as we sat together in the shade chatting back and forth. I say chatting but I have no idea of how we communicated save through sign language, and various expressions and gestures. At the time I only knew a few Arabic words, Na’am meant “yes,” La meant “no,” Wajid zain meant “very good," and Kaaf halaak meant “how are you?” Shortly thereafter I learned that indispensable and always useful phrase, Inta simak wajeh which means “You are a fish face.” Nonetheless, we got along famously.
One day a gardener and I were in an alley behind some houses that were situated much higher than the alley level, so the company had built a high retaining wall and backfilled the void to make the back yard level. The gardener pointed to a clay drainage pipe set in the wall. He motioned for me to put my hand in the pipe. I stuck my hand into the pipe, which was drifted with fine sand, and wiggled my fingers around until I felt some small objects that were smooth and round. I pulled out my hand and in my palm were three lizard eggs that glistened like pearls. Perfectly spherical, white as fine alabaster, they seemed to glow in my hand as I rolled them around, mesmerized by their simple beauty. After a minute he gestured for me to put them back in the pipe. For many years after that, heedless of the possibility of vipers, scorpions or spiders, I thrust my hand into countless pipes lying abandoned around the outskirts of camp in search of those precious lizard eggs.
Dhahran was still being built in those days and I discovered the Saudi work crews finishing houses on what I’m guessing was about seventh street. All about, there was a flurry of activity, plumbers and painters, roofers laying down shingles and plasterers slathering stucco over the lathe. This was some real action. Initially, they ignored me, but after a while, they warmed up and offered me dates and pantomimed each other. I’m sure that I was more of a novelty to them than they were to me. They noticed that when an American supervisor would appear I would make myself scarce until he left. Eventually, they warned me when the big boss was approaching.
The second day on the job site a plasterer took me aside and, using some plaster on a shingle, deftly shaped a fish and then shaped it into a bird as if he were some primitive Saudi Picasso. Again I’m not sure how we communicated but he told me that if I came the next day, he would show me how to make a bird trap out of a piece of garden hose. There couldn’t be anything much better than that, so I went home high on the next day’s prospects. I opened the door to my house to be greeted by my mom’s voice from the living room, “Timothy, is that you?” She only used my full name when I was in trouble, so I knew I was doomed. My teacher had spotted my sister Annie at school and said, “Oh, are you back from vacation?”
It turned out that, without even meaning to, I had set the world’s record for truancy in the Dhahran school system grades K through 9. I had played hooky for a month. My mother Kathleen was so angry that she could barely speak, but she managed, and basically, I was grounded for my entire life, just after she introduced me to Mr. Hairbrush. When he came home from work, my dad wasn’t too amused either and I got another tongue lashing and a few raps on the head with his knuckles. I was sent to bed without dinner too. All in all, it wasn’t the most successful day, but what really bothered me was that I was never going to learn how to make that bird trap out of a garden hose.
The next day my mother escorted me to class. The same kids were milling around, but to my great dismay, Stephanie (not her real name) wasn’t there. Her dad had been transferred to Abqaiq where she reigned for many years as one of the prettiest girls in a town overflowing with pretty girls. She still is beautiful. I see her once in a while at reunions and can’t help but to remember that day when she called me “Sir.”
This whole remembrance was triggered one day when I was at my daughter’s house and my bright-eyed granddaughter Beatrice arrived home from Kindergarten. Looking at her, I was struck by just how very short six-year-old kids are. My daughter would have an apoplectic seizure if Bea was unsupervised for a few hours, let alone a month. My mother wasn’t mad at me, she was out of her mind with worry about what terrible things might have happened to me while wandering around on my own. She really shouldn’t have been worried, I wasn’t. Because somehow I knew that Dhahran in the fifties was probably the safest place on earth.
CHRISTMAS in KHOBAR
More Stories – Tim Barger
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