Arabs believe that Hadh, Luck, is a gift granted only to a few. It is a trait like courage or intelligence, and is a requirement for successful leadership. Some westerners describe certain happenings as "a lucky break" or "dumb luck," while others are sure that divine intervention may be involved, particularly when life is spared under dangerous circumstances. I was involved in one such incident:
At dawn the row of white tents cast long shadows. A sharp north wind fluttered loose canvas as a new day began in the high desert. The silence of the night broke with the clatter of metal on metal as the dark Adenese cook at the door of the kitchen trailer beat a long-handled spoon against the bottom of a pan. The off-duty drillers and the mechanics straggled into the mess tent, all of them bundled up against the cold that would give way in the afternoon to torrid heat. I joined them at the long trestle table and ate pancakes and canned grapefruit.
In foreground, Dick Bramkamp and Yusuf (Cook);
back, Bill Furnish, Don Eicher, Bob Kopp.
As I finished, the Chief Paleontologist, Dick Bramkamp, long and spare in his khakis, metal-rimmed spectacles low on his nose, ambled in and sat down. I thought that he had come to say goodbye, for he had finished his review of operations the day before.
Instead he said, "Doing anything pressing today?"
I shook my head, "No". I had planned to bring my well strip-logs up to date and maybe read the Journal of Paleontology.
"I talked to the Amir of the soldiers. He says that the family of one of his men has seen a herd of gazelle about two hours out. Would you like to go hunting?"
Amusements were few in the desert, and gazelle was delicious if roasted immediately after the kill. So I thanked him, then had a thought I asked if I could bring Big'Un, the yellow short-haired retriever-like dog I had inherited indirectly: After the seismic crew that brought him up returned to the states, their Aramco mechanic, George Maybee, fell heir to the dog who later found my daily trips in the pickup more attractive than staying in camp with George. Soon he slept in front of my tent, and thus chose me as master.
A half-hour later we were ready to leave. We would be trailed by a Dodge Power Wagon crammed with our soldiers and hangers-on. Two cars are always advisable when traveling off-road in the desert. I sat next to Dick, in a way riding shotgun, for I held the twelve-gauge, butt floored. Big'Un jumped eagerly into the back seat of Bramkamp's red Ford sedan. He loved to ride. In an hour we reached the small Bedu encampment where the family of the young soldier lived. A brief confab with the inevitable coffee for once refused, and we took off guided by the directions given us by the family by way of the head soldier who understood the use of a compass. After another forty minutes of fairly good going the herd appeared, scuts flashing white as the bucks leaped while running from us.
Dick speeded up to thirty-five miles an hour and we passed some does and youngsters while we chased the main herd. I rested the barrel of the shotgun on the window ledge while waiting a good target. Here was one - a big buck with good horns. I fired and the shot struck home, but the beast did not go down, turning to the right along with the body of the herd.
I said, "Dick, why not stop and let the dog out? Maybe he will turn the buck back to us, for it won't keep up with the rest."
Photograph by George Blakslee
So we slowed and stopped. I reached back and opened the door. Big'Un jumped out and took off after the wounded beast, turning it back toward us as if he had been trained to do it. The soldiers came up and cut the throat of the exhausted animal, its head turned toward Mecca, the Amir saying the usual ritual prayer as he did so: "Bis'm Illah al Rahman al Rahim." In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
I was pleased with our success, for I hadn't relished the idea of leaving a wounded creature to die slowly, in pain. But I felt the need to relieve myself, so walked to a bush about twenty feet in front of the car, then stopped aghast. On the other side of the bush was a vast hole in the ground with vertical walls. We measured it later. It was seventy-eight feet across, roughly circular, and one hundred and eighty-five feet deep with the shape of a squat bottle, wider at the bottom. If we had driven even thirty feet farther we would have gone into it with no chance of survival after such a fall.
The hole had been formed by the solution of limestone. These phenomena are called sinkholes, and are also known as dolines. There are five of them in the area. Probably most of the dissolution occurred in the Glacial Periods when Arabia was a land of flowing streams and lakes that dried up and were replaced by desert only in the last eight thousand years. The danger to us came from the fact that there is nothing in the topography that warns of their existence. The gazelle herd swerving to the right should have told us that something was amiss, but at the moment neither of us thought it significant.
At the time our narrow escape seemed without significance, but later I pondered long about it. To believe that Someone up there was looking out for us would be comforting but chance alone could give the same result: our survival.
William Cullen Bryant would have had no doubts. See his poem written when he was sixteen. I wonder if his faith ever slackened.
To A Waterfowl
William Cullen Bryant (1794-1868)
Whither, "midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps o day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way!
Vainly the fowler's eye
Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong,
As, darkly painted on the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.
Seek'st thou the plashy brink
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
Or where the rocking billows rise and sink
On the chafed ocean side?
There is a Power whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,-
The desert and illimitable air,-
Lone wandering, but not lost.
All day thy wings have fanned,
At that far height, the cold thin atmosphere,
Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land,
Though the dark night is near.
And soon that toil shall end;
Soon shalt thou find a summer home,
and rest, And scream among thy fellows; reeds shall bend,
Soon, o'er thy sheltered nest.
Thou'rt gone, the abyss of heaven
Hath swallowed up thy form; yet, on my heart
Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given,
And shall not soon depart.
He who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
Will lead my steps aright.
At 88 years, still my question:
Fate, or God?
Paul Hamilton Hayne (1830-1886)
Beyond the record of all eldest things,
Beyond the rule and regions of past time,
From out Antiquity's hoary-headed rime,
Looms the dread phantom of a King of kings:
Round His vast brows the glittering circlet clings
Of a thrice royal crown; behind Him climb,
O'er Atlantean limbs and breast sublime
The sombre splendors of mysterious wings;
Deep calms of measureless power, in awful state,
Gird and uphold Him; a miraculous rod,
To heal or smite, arms His infallible hands:
Known in all ages, worshipped in all lands,
Doubt names this half-embodied mystery--Fate,
While Faith, with lowliest reverence, whispers--God!