This story from Christmas in Khobar has never been published before. In part, it’s about the miracle of receiving a shipment which for Aramcon families in the fifties was like Christmas in July.

Release of Excelsior!
Dhahran 1967 - Courtesy of Duane Robinson


Dhahran camp ends at 3rd Street – they’d start building the new school there next year. However, the perimeter fence extends way east toward Al-Khobar to enclose more than a square mile of desert that was exactly the same as it ever was. Flat gravelly ground with rocky outcrops drifted with sand, clumps of bushes abound – some dead, some dying. Hillocks formed in the lee of a few big, hearty shrubs and sprout tufts of tall, thin grass with a randomness that resembles a hair implant procedure gone terribly wrong.

Nine-year-olds, four-and-a-half feet tall, about 70 pounds each, Milt, Danny and I are prowling around our domain: chasing lizards, throwing rocks at each other, tracking big, black stink beetles, swatting at flies and hovering bees, looking for snakes. Danny has just arrived from New Jersey.

Though he is a newcomer, he’s a good guy with similar interests: slingshots, blowguns, firecrackers, and an aversion to adult supervision.

Short, cocky with a winning smile, his hair is sculpted with Brylcreem into a semi-pompadour that puts our primitive bowl cuts to shame. It is a cool winter afternoon, so Milt and I are wearing thick, cotton coats, but Danny is wearing his “pride and joy”: a black leather motorcycle jacket that was way too small for his brother but is just exactly two sizes too big for Danny.

He wore it always, even on the hot days. It had buckles and zippers everywhere. Out in the desert, he told us how he’d fallen backward off the top of the big slide up at recreation and was saved from breaking any bones by the miraculous leather jacket.

Naturally, acres of empty desert at the edge of the enormous construction project called Dhahran would attract scores of truckloads of rubble, debris and project leftovers – so there are hundreds of broken cinder blocks, strips of galvanized tin, lumber, pipes, and wire of all types scattered everywhere. Scavenging this debris was one of the main attractions of this place.

Milt finds a yard-long piece of electrical conduit piping shaped like a flat S. He shakes off the dirt and blows on it like a trumpet. A plug of dirt blasts out the other end, followed by a flat squeal. He works with it a bit before he’s able to play sort of a tune which none of us can recognize. He’s delighted and announces that it is a Seussaphone, a Dr. Seuss-a-phone. Danny says that it sounds like an octopus farting. 

Interspersed over the landscape are piles of empty wooden crates each about the size of a clothes drier, stenciled on the side with shipping details and the flowing logo of The Santini Brothers. Looking back, it should have read The Extremely Fortunate, “Get down on your knees and praise the Madonna,” Santini Brothers.Based, like Danny, in New Jersey, one of the brothers got a phone call from Aramco’s New York office in the late ’40s. A logistics manager introduced himself and asked, “Could you consolidate personal effects shipments for our employees in America, crate them up and ship them to Dammam, Saudi Arabia?”

Based, like Danny, in New Jersey, one of the brothers got a phone call from Aramco’s New York office in the late ’40s. A logistics manager introduced himself and asked, “Could you consolidate personal effects shipments for our employees in America, crate them up and ship them to Dammam, Saudi Arabia?”

Whatever Santini Brother it was who answered the phone, maybe it was Gino, immediately replied, “Of course we can. We are ready to start tomorrow.” And the Santini Brothers handled tens of thousands of personal effects shipments to Saudi Arabia for at least 25 years.

In the old days of the thirties and forties it could easily take half a month to travel back from Arabia to the US, so every employee was given a three-month transcontinental vacation for him and his family, every two years.

At the time, well into the 50s, the Aramco towns were islands in a barren desert, and, beyond the basics, there wasn’t much available locally. Khobar was a growing retail center but still not up to speed for American tastes, so Aramco also paid for one generous personal effects shipment every other year.

Thus began the sublime ritual of “The Shipment.”

Anyone who lived through those years will understand the significance of this process. The Sears catalog would arrive. It featured everything in America that was for sale, stuff that we never imagined even existed, and it was devoured by everyone in the house. My dad Tom would check out the power tools and fishing rods, my sisters would look at the dollhouses and daydream about wide-lapelled, polka-dot, party dresses with matching hats. I was lost in the 16-page toy section trying to determine if the potato gun was a better deal than the bow-and-arrow set. It was obvious that any kid could pull the suction cups off the arrows and replace them with crude arrowheads fashioned out of the lid of a sardine can.

But none of this really mattered because it was my mom Kathleen who placed the order, and she bought useful products to operate a household with six kids. Once she mailed the check to Sears, it would be forever before the goods would arrive, so all of us — even my parents — gradually forgot about the objects of our desires.

About five months later, out of thin air, like magic, six or seven crates from the Santini Brothers appear in our front yard. The shipment has arrived. Tom comes home early from work and pries open the first crate with a crowbar. As the nails on the lid extract from the wood they make a loud, prolonged, screeching sound. Finally, the nails are clear, and my dad removes the lid. The crate is packed right to the top with straw. Where are the packages?  Where’s my potato gun?

It’s not straw. It’s wood shaved into giant clusters like cotton candy. It was the standard packing material of the time. Very cheap, very efficient, and very inflammable, it was called Excelsior. My dad peeled the Excelsior back and started to uncover the treasures within. Anyone who has experienced the joy of a shipment will understand what fun this sudden potlatch was for everyone, and my little sisters got their polka-dot party dresses with matching hats.

So we’re in the desert amidst some wooden crates spilling Excelsior all over, our natural impulse is to gather some of the shavings into a clump and light it on fire. Danny looks in his zippered pockets, I pat my jeans, and then Milt slips a matchbook out of his back pocket. We make a small pile of the stuff, and Milt opens the matchbook. There’s only one match; when he strikes it, it bends in half. So he strikes the doubled-over match again with his thumb, and it flares up, stuck under his thumbnail. He screeches and shakes it off into the dirt. Oh well, we lose interest and wander farther into the desert.

Danny and Milt see a battered, rusted washing machine in the sand and head for it while I keep wandering toward the far fence. Oblivious, walking along, enjoying myself, I kneel to put my hand into a six-foot piece of ten-inch pipe half buried in the sand. I stretch my arm into the warm sand, raking my fingers to snag lizard eggs, when I hear, “You’re under arrest.”

I look up, and there is a kid with a gun pointed at me. He’s an 8th grader, maybe a 9th grader, but I’ve never seen him before. With my arm half in the pipe, I say, “Arrest? Arrested for what?

Call him Cliff, a lean, handsome kid with alert eyes, a low brush-top haircut and a wide mouth with perfect teeth. His BB pistol is dead level with my chest; grimly, he nods over his left shoulder to a stack of bricks on a rise ten yards behind him. “Our hideout. You’re trespassing on our fort. Get up.” Like Clint Eastwood many years later, Cliff does grim with a grin. He’s not really that serious. I throw up my hands, bite my thumbs, and say, “I surrender.”

He says, “Why are you biting your thumbs?”

“My dad told me that was how Bedouin surrender to each other. They bite their thumbs.”

“That’s cool,” says Cliff as he points the pistol at me and shouts, “Thumbs up!” which is actually pretty funny. We both laugh, he puts the pistol in his belt, motions me toward the fort, and tells me I don’t have to bite my thumbs anymore. It’s getting a little colder, so I zip up my coat. He pulls up the collar on his thin red windbreaker as a gust of wind passes.

Made of loosely stacked cinder blocks and roofed with strips of corrugated tin, the fort is about four feet high, four feet wide, and eight feet long with a crude gap in one wall for a door. As we approach the hideout, there’s a shout, and Danny and Milt with their hands in the air trudge toward us in front of two guys I’ll call Bugner and Eric.

Toting a Daisy BB rifle, Bugner is a slovenly middle-aged man trapped in a large 14-year-old’s body. His smudged, thick glasses always out of kilter, he’s clumsy and ungainly, but he is big—he weighs 30 pounds more than anyone else.  Eric is an unfortunate combination of disparate DNA. He’s a scrawny kid with white-blond, greased-back hair and pale eyebrows that are almost invisible. His hands and feet are too large for his age, and his languid, almost silver, eyes project a kind of malevolent stupidity. He’s carrying a BB pistol that looks like a German Luger.

“Look what we found. Probably trying to sneak up on us,” says Bugner as he pokes Milt in the back with his rifle.

“Sneaking up on you? Me and Danny were just trying to get the motor out of that washing machine. Sneaking up on what?” says Milt and then he sees the fort. “Hey, that’s cool.”

Eric replies, “See, Bugner! They were spying on us. There’s only one way to deal with a spy.” He points the ‘Luger’ at his face and pronounces in a stern voice, “There’s only one way: shoot him in the eye.”

This seems a bit extreme. In the ensuing silence, I gulp, Danny cringes, and Milt covers his eyes with his hands. Cliff is speechless, but Bugner breaks out laughing, “Shoot him in the eye? Are you crazy? I’ll shoot you in the butt.”

Eric protests, “But...”

“You’ve got it right, right in your butt. Jeez, Eric … Here’s what we’re going to do. They are going to march over there in front of the fort, and we’re going to execute them for treason.”

“Execute!” says Danny. “My brothers will beat you up.”

“You’ll be dead, so they’ll never know,” leers Eric.

The best retort I can come up with is that my mom will hound them to the ends of the earth as Bugner lines us up at the bottom of a gully in front of the fort. Cliff says, “We don’t have blindfolds for them. You need blindfolds for an execution. Turn them around so they won’t see our bullets.”

So we’re facing the desert, our backs to the firing squad about ten feet away. “Death to traitors,” yells Eric as he fires a BB at Milt’s back. The others open up, firing BBs into our backs. But we have on our heavy jackets, and Danny his leather one, so it doesn’t hurt at all except for the missed shot that stings me in the calf, and I start hopping around.

“Are you hurt?” says Bugner. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

An exuberant Danny shouts out, “You can’t hurt me! My leather jacket is bulletproof.”

“Don’t say that,” whispers Milt, right before all the guns are directed at Danny. Every hit makes a satisfying, sharp pinging sound as it ricochets off the leather. Finally, Bugner says, “I’m out of ammo.”

“So am I,” says Eric.

“Didn’t feel a thing. Not with this jacket,” says Danny.

Cliff holsters his pistol and says, “Hey guys, you should see our fort.”

“Yeah,” says Bugner, “It’s wicked. There were a bunch of cinder blocks, and we piled them up. Cliff found the tin strips over there. We put them over some 2-by-4s. We put some rocks on top so the wind won’t blow the roof away. Don’t you have an older sister in 9th grade?”

“Yeah, my sister Annie.”

“I think my brother knows her.’

Eric scampers up to the fort, motions like a maître d’, and says, “Gentlemen, please follow me,” and ducks into the door. We crawl in after him. We have to duck walk since it’s only four feet high, but once we sit in the dirt it’s roomy enough. The cinder blocks do cut the wind, so it’s warmer. Otherwise, it’s empty, except for a giant heap of Excelsior right in the middle of the room.

Milt and I look at each other, “What?” But Bugner is telling an elaborate story about how he and his dad almost crashed into a dead donkey on the road to Dammam. We forget about the haystack, as Danny tells us about the foot-long hooded viper that his dad accidentally backed over with his Buick. The viper was pointed lengthwise with the center of the tire, so it squashed him in a perfect line like a necktie.

Eric and Danny are sitting across from the pile of straw along the far side. Bugner is at the end and Cliff, Milt and I are along the wall closest to the door. Everyone is talking, and I’m wondering how did this happen. One minute, I’m being executed, now we’re living it up as equals with these cool older guys. Oh, well.

Eric says, “Cliff, you got a cigarette?”

“Sure,” and he throws him a cigarette.

I say, “Cliff, what’s with the Excelsior?”

“It’s for the winter. When it’s real cold we’ll pull off chunks and burn them in the corner. Bugner just thought of it. We haven’t tried it yet.”

“Cliff, do you have any matches?”

“Do you want me to smoke it for you, too?” replies Cliff. Milt and I have never heard this quip before, so we laugh out loud which brightens up Cliff, and he says, “Hey, Eric, want me to light it for you?”

Eric cracks a thin-lipped smile and replies, “You’d just light the filter and not know the difference. Watch how a pro does it. With one hand." He holds the matchbook up in his right hand and flicks open the cover to show us how it’s done.

There is a reason that every matchbook since the dawn of man is printed with the warning: Close Cover Before Striking. Apparently, Eric wasn’t big for reading.

He says, “Watch this.” And stretches his thumb to bend a match and run it along the sandpaper strip. The match head lights off fine. Too fine because it burns Eric’s thumb. He pulls it back, which allows the match to flex back to its brethren. The whole matchbook goes up in flame, sulfur, and smoke. He tosses the fireball into the air, and it lands on his shirt. In his panic Eric bats it away.

All of us are frozen in place as we watch, in a sort of slow motion, the sizzling matchbook as it traces an arc directly into the Excelsior, which instantly explodes into a fireball. Two seconds later we’re all racing out the door. Bugner stumbles and loses his glasses.

With his biker jacket hiked over his head, Danny barrels right over Bugner’s back as he gropes around in the dirt for his lenses. Then a very dazed Eric stumbles out with his pomaded DA steaming, almost smoldering, but not quite on fire. There is the pungent scent of burning hair in the air. He slaps his head and smoothes his hair back with his hand, pretending that he had it all under control. 

Dumbfounded into silence, we gather around the fort as it burns down in the desert just 300 yards east of 3rd Street. It’s getting a little colder, the wind is picking up. The diffused sun is low in the sky.

For some reason, as if we’d just finished a Little League game, we all shake hands with each other before we drift away. When I shake hands with Eric I notice that his once pale, almost invisible eyebrows are neatly singed in place as if they were drawn by an expert with a thick eyebrow pencil.

More Stories – Tim Barger
ISBN: 978-0988205017
246 pages, $14.95