Photograph Contributed by Betty Felice
The secretary “pool” was in a building in Dhahran. One day a tall, handsome man came in and said that I was to be moved to his office in Abqaiq, forty miles into the desert where a community of many families and homes was built around a water separation center. I later discovered that this man was Jack Symons, Superintendent of the Exploration Engineers Department.
ARAMCO built a railway to Mecca, but there had been a train wreck on it, so we went by cab to Abqaiq. I was assigned to a women’s brassily for living quarters. It was a portable dwelling and I shared the bath with four others. As soon as space came up at the Girl’s Dormitory, I was moved there. It had a nice kitchen, living room area, and the rooms with bath were sufficient.
My job was to type the reports made by thirty-nine oil exploration engineers. It took a while to learn the language and to learn how to read their handwriting, but the job was interesting. While I was there the exploration engineers were preparing to explore the lower central part of Saudi Arabia named Uthmaniyah. It was a desolate part of the desert in the middle of nowhere. For the exploration, a whole camp had to be located in that area. Entire offices were put on wheels. The commissary, dining hall, sleeping quarters, school, and clinic were all mounted for transportation to Uthmaniyah. As well, all the equipment necessary to do the drilling was transported. While the location was being set up, personnel could have their wives fly in on weekends to visit until permanent camp was completed. Such was the life of an exploration engineer.
for Betty Clase Felice (Drilling Engineering)
Photograph Contributed by Betty Felice
While in Abqaiq, I had an office boy named Ali bin Ahrned, who I estimated was about seventeen years old. Apparently Saudis do not keep birth records. His family lived in a desert village south of Abqaiq. Ali was to do errands and help wherever needed at the office. He was very smart and could do math faster than I could on the adding machine. The ARAMCO Company had a policy of sending five young Saudi boys to school in Teheran. I asked if I could submit Ali's name to be chosen to go to school. I had to get permission from his parents as he said they didn't want him to go so far away. I had one of those little Brownie box cameras and I gave it to Ali to give to his parents as a nice gesture and instructed him to explain that this was an opportunity of a lifetime. He would be only five hours away by air. He would get a good education, be safe, and well taken care of. It took too long to finally get permission from his family and as a result Ali ended up as an alternate. If one of the five boys selected could not make it, then Ali would be able to attend.
One day, while working away in the office, it grew dark suddenly. I ran to the back door and looked out to see that the sky was swirling with grasshoppers. The engineers who had gardens went hurrying home to cover their plants as grasshoppers do a lot of damage to gardens. The Arabs were collecting the grasshoppers in bags. Apparently it is a real treat for the desert people to eat grasshoppers especially when toasted. Ali explained that this was a great event and wanted me to taste a grasshopper. I declined the offer. Ali explained to no avail that Americans eat cows for protein, why not eat grasshoppers which are protein.
On another occasion, Ali had an opportunity to witness what he considered an odd tradition. When the Holidays came I wanted to get into the spirit of Christmas so I took a wooden coat hanger stand, attached some oleander branches, and we decorated it. Ali thought we were a little weird. I tried to explain the Holiday and he asked me if I had the same God as he had. I told him, "Yes", and that brought a nice smile to his face as if he was glad to find that out.
During the Holidays, it was difficult to be so far from home. Out of respect for local observances, Friday was the Sabbath and Christians were not allowed to have a church service in the camp. A notice was posted on the camp Bulletin Board that there would be a speaker at the Club House at a certain time. Those of us who wanted to observe Christmas Mass gathered. I noticed that there were at least ten nationalities present to hear the Speaker tell the Story of the Star in the East. This small gathering was comforting and helped take away the feeling of being so far away from your family at this special time of the year. You had a new family to share the joy.
The company had a main Dining Hall and a standard menu. At first the food was great, but as time went on I felt the urge to prepare different meals. I used the dormitory kitchen now and then. Our meat was flown in from Europe and we often had access to good frozen steaks. Fresh vegetables and fruits came from Nairobi, Africa. It became a standard joke for someone to say, “shipment of lettuce is in the Commissary”. Immediately everyone dropped their pencils, stopped typing, and went to the door hoping to get to the Commissary before the lettuce was all gone. Now IF you were lucky enough to make it there in time and get a head of lettuce, it would probably be the size of your fist, hence it was listed as a luxury item.
Many of the families living in our community would have parties and invite the single women and men. Sometimes it was a cookout, or a sit down dinner. The Dorm was a nice place to reciprocate. I invited my friend who was from Holland to come to dinner which I was preparing. I had planned to have corn-on-the-cob for a change which I loved, having been born and raised on a farm in Ohio where we grew our own sweet corn. My friend said to me, “What is this?”, holding up a corn cob. I said, “It is corn-on-the-cob”. He said, “Betty, we feed this to our pigs”. I instructed him on how to eat it and he chalked it up as a new experience.
The Clubhouse is where the weekend activities took place. We observed the Arabian calendar and our weekend started with Thursday. Friday was the Holy Day. I felt it would be neat if there was a place to dance at the Dormitory, so I requested a patio to be placed behind the Girl's Dorm. The request was approved. The dance floor base was prepared and someone put in the necessary electrical lights around the edge so there would be light around the floor. Another person wanted to build a grill and stand so we could cook out by the dance floor. It all went together just fine. One day, I was at work typing my engineers’ reports and my phone rang advising me that the Batch Plant had the cement ready to pour. Out I flew to be there for the excitement of the event. To top it off, the cement was pink. What a nice surprise! The floor was leveled. It turned out to be very smooth making it a neat place to dance. I believe it is still there and I hope it is being used and enjoyed.
The Clubhouse Pool was the most welcome relief. On lunch break I could dash to the pool, order my lunch on the way in, change, and do my laps. You could be served your lunch by the pool, so I could eat, take a 15 minute snooze, and be back in the office on time. I really enjoyed the exercise in the middle of the day and a couple of girlfriends joined me. Soon it became a group. One girl and I decided to make our own bathing suits by using two men’s work handkerchiefs. Well, it wasn’t long until a memo came around that we had to wear "proper" bathing suits to swim. It was fun while it lasted!
Flaring a Well
Engineer, Bill Bartlett. 1952
Photograph Contributed by Betty Felice
Once in a while the Engineers would “flare” a well, or as they said, “bring it in”. On one occasion they asked me if I would like to see the event. Of course I was very interested and was delighted that they asked me. Bill Bartlett was the engineer that drove me out to the well site in a red truck. All trucks were painted red so they could be seen in the desert in the event they got lost in a sand storm. We parked quite a distance from the well, high up on a sand dune. It was quite a sight to see the flames explode into the sky and I later thought how fortunate I was to have witnessed such an event. In time, I was told, the well would be capped, but for now it burned and could be seen for miles.
Exploring the Area
The Company had a bus with an armed guard available to those who wished to see the nearby villages and play tourist. I enjoyed exploring and on one excursion was allowed to visit a "Bath House". As I was going inside I passed a tall lady carrying a child. I gave the normal greeting and asked if I could see the child in her arms. She pulled back her shawl and this adorable little plump face with beautiful big brown eyes and bronze skin like velvet stared back at me, surprised to see a strange face. The baby smiled. The mother was very attractive. Her hair was to her waist, braided with gold and adorned with jewels. I gave her a riyal since I had asked to see her baby. Inside the Bath, there were large tanks in the floor full of water making it an ample bathing facility.
On another bus trip, I went to Hofuf, known as the oldest city in that part of the world. As we stopped outside the gate to the walled city, a band of "desert police" on horseback rode up to the bus. It was one of the only times I became very nervous and afraid. The look on the faces of these men was anything but friendly and they were very dirty. For a moment I didn't know if we were going to be allowed to continue our trip. A lot of high pitched conversation ensued and finally the police decided to back off and leave. Our driver closed the door and we turned around headed back to Abqaiq. I was very glad to end that exploration tour. Normally the natives were very polite and cordial to the American women. They seldom had any complaint from a white woman who shopped in their suks (shops) and villages. The suks in Daharan had most any item you would need for your home.
A popular activity was to sign up for a pearl diving adventure in the Persian Gulf. We rented an Arab boat and crew, packed a lunch and beverages, and off to the Gulf we went. A crew member would dive down and bring up a little basket of clams which we could open and look for pearls. I found one small pearl which made the trip worthwhile. This boat, I might add, was not a cruiser. The Captain guided it with his foot, and of course there was no bathroom on board. Instead, there was a make shift relief spot at the end of the boat, with a sheet draped over the beam for privacy. Sometimes it was a welcome spot.
Photograph Contributed by Betty Felice
On another occasion, my boss, Jack Symons, and his friend, John Caligaros, and John's wife, were going spear fishing and invited me to go so they could show me the art of spear fishing. We drove to Half Moon Bay for the day. John built a fire pit and said he was going to have baked potato with the fish they were planning to catch and prepare. When the coals were right, the potatoes were put into the pit and covered up. Then we went fishing.
I was floating on the water, the sun was out, and the scene below was like a stage. Jack had speared a fish and the fish went down under what looked like a ledge. Jack proceeded to retrieve his spear and fish. He disappeared under the ledge briefly and came up bleeding. The fish had bit him and he had scraped his chest on the coral. I also noticed a really colorful thing swimming along several feet away from me. When we got out to attend to Jack's wounds I told him about what I had seen. He said the beautiful orange, white, and black thing was a coral snake and had it bitten me they would not have been able to get me to a hospital in time to save me. Coral snakes are considered deadly. I found this disappointing. How could anything so pretty be so dangerous? It put a damper on my desire to go spear fishing anytime soon.
When John tried to recover the baked potatoes for dinner, he could not find them. He had brought a few hamburgers along in case the fishing was unsuccessful, so that is what we ate for dinner. We had a good laugh about this fishing trip. I learned how important it was to be very careful and observe where I was swimming.
To the Beach
Half Moon Bay in the Persian Gulf is about 40 miles away from Abqaiq. The thought of fishing, swimming and playing in the Gulf was a joy. It was possible to request a red truck for a weekend to go play on the beach, which a group of us decided to do on several occasions. We packed up the gear for a cookout which included fire wood, shovel, pots and pans, and, of course, the food. It was easy to dig a hole and start a fire. When the embers were just right we would grill the steaks. I perfected the skill of making French fries without getting any sand on them. It was a challenge.
Swimming at night was a real treat as each stroke in the water left a glow. There was a big coral reef further out in the water which prevented larger fish from coming into the swimming area, so I was told. It was fun to be fearless and just swim like a fish in the moonlight. After a swim, we would sit around the fire, make SomeMores, and tell stories. Sometimes we would sing.
I recall one night, as we were hanging out around the fire, a camel train came up over the sand dune. The Bedouins were all smiles with bad teeth which made them look strange in the fire light. The men in my group greeted them in Arabic with what words they were able to remember. I doubt if any of the Bedouins had ever seen a white girl in a bathing suit before and at first I was a bit fearful of the reaction they would have. We were hoping they were friendly Bedouins and would leave soon. After looking us over they continued on their way, still smiling. We gave them a farewell greeting… “salaam” (which means Go with God).