Dhahran Swimming Pool 1954.
Photo by James C. West.
As a child growing up in Dhahran in the early 1950s, I had an unrequited obsession with sugar – the more the better. At the time, the Dhahran commissary didn’t have much beyond Droste chocolate and O’Henry bars, Khobar had even less to offer. Hard candies and hopelessly expired candies from England such as Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles that were hard as pebbles by the time they arrived on the shelf hardly counted. But being about six and ever vigilant somehow I discovered that if you ate Jello concentrate you could ingest a whole bunch of sugar with the added thrill of some ungodly ingredients that made the whole concoction fizz in your mouth, sort of like the Pop Rocks that today’s kids crave (or like the short movie I once saw that depicted a woman raving with rabid hydrophobia). So, I started eating raw Jello.
It didn’t take long at all before my mother caught on and the packs of Jello were placed far out of reach. The cupboards in our kitchen were designed with about four or five levels and at the highest point there were a few narrow cupboards of no real use except to keep them out of easy access to everyone but Wilt the Stilt – that’s where the Jello was stashed.
One day when everyone was gone, I surveyed this dismal situation and then realized that by opening the cupboard doors and climbing the shelves as I went I could scale up to the top cupboard and snag the Jello. So I pulled up the step-stool, hopped on the countertop and opening each door after another I made my way to the top shelf like the Human Fly and snagged a bright, shiny package of grape-flavored Jello, probably the most toxic and desirable flavor of all. I carefully climbed down, closing each cupboard door behind me. When I hit the floor I covered my tracks by moving the step-stool back into the pantry and escaped into the back yard where there were a couple of overgrown oleander trees. Within this thicket was a refuge I had discovered long ago and with great delight, I proceeded to eat the whole package of grape Jello.
By the time Jello arrived in Arabia, it was no longer a powder but rather a solid chunk of sugar and chemical additives. I sat there in perfect bliss breaking off piece after piece and enjoying every bite. When I was finished of course I wanted more so I licked the paper in perfect contentment with a blood sugar count of about point 30.
Finally, I sobered up enough to stand up and go back into the house. I was greeted by my mom who said “Timothy!” which was always a bad sign. “You’ve been eating Jello. Haven’t you?” I was shocked. I had taken every precaution. How could she possibly know? I was oblivious to the fact that my eyes were wild with sugar, my mouth was ringed with vermillion, and my tongue was dyed a deep purple. Oh well, one more night exiled to my room without dinner to contemplate what had gone wrong with a masterfully conceived plan.
So with my fondness for sugar unabated, it was inevitable that as time went on I would become a Popsicle merchant at the swimming pool. The swimming pool was the center of Dhahran’s recreational life. As close as I can figure the company built the original swimming pool somewhere around 1935. In a place where the temperature averaged 100 plus degrees in the summer, a swimming pool was a no-brainer, a crowd-pleaser for kids and adults alike, and the original planners didn’t skimp. It was a not-quite Olympic sized pool and the centerpiece of the early recreation complex. The north half was covered by a giant roof that covered the shallow end and hosted daily water volleyball games, and the deep end was in the sunshine, capped with a diving board. In the late 40s, there was even a high board elevated over the regular diving board.
Countless people enjoyed the pool. Around lunchtime, employees came and did their laps, before and after children swarmed the water like sea otters. The small kids played in the shallow end, the smallest kids cavorted in the baby pool under the watchful gaze of their mothers. In the deep end, the older kids lived or died on the diving board. Anyone with grace and skill executed backflips, half gainers and swan dives off the board while the rest of us barbarians either dropped cannonballs or ambitiously attempted the Watermelon which consisted of a cannonball with one leg extended, the better to make a huge splash directed at the girls sitting on the edge of the pool. The right-hand side of the diving board was pretty much devoted to an unending game of Blindman’s Bluff or Marco Polo.
In the mid-50s the company had not yet opened the snack bar off the west side of the Teen Canteen portable, so there was a natural opportunity for the homegrown popsicle vendor. Most every day there would be a couple of kids selling these tasty flavor pops at a half of a riyal each. So naturally, I plunged into this gold mine.
It was a fairly simple business. You would go to the commissary and buy some Kool-aid, some six-ounce waxed cups, and a package of those small wooden Dixie cup spoons, mix up the Kool-Aid, being careful to add about three times as much sugar as specified, put the cups in the freezer, wait a bit to shove in the spoons and once frozen solid you were good to go. There weren’t any small coolers in those days, so you would store the popsicles in those larger wide-mouthed, two-gallon thermos jugs and you were in business.
A couple of kids arrived every day to sell their wares, but I wasn’t as driven so I maybe made it once a week. Three or four of us would hang in the shade selling flavored ice – a perfect popsicle suq in the Saudi style, however, there was one person that we loathed.
Dhahran Swimming Pool in the early 1960s
One day Patsy showed up. Not only was she a girl in the male-dominated popsicle trade but her thermos was decorated with ribbons and a hand-painted sign, “Patsy’s Delicious Popsicles.” And she smiled a lot. To make it worse, Patsy had made her popsicles in levels of different Kool-Aid flavors, so she had a sort of rainbow popsicle – Cherry, Lime and Purple. We were getting killed with her marketing moxie and our only hope was that she would sell out and go swimming. This went on for a while until her dad was re-assigned to Ras Tanura and sub-par customer service returned to Popsicle Row.
As time went on, I lost the entrepreneurial spirit as it cut into my time playing Marco Polo, so I wasn’t in business at the time of the biggest day at the swimming pool, the Tri-D Swim Meet. This was a huge event, parents and kids from every district gathered around the pool. There was every kind of conceivable competition. Third graders doing the backstroke, inner tube races and the spoon race where you had to keep an egg in the spoon as you paddled the width of the pool, all of it announced in a dramatic play by play account over the PA system. Of course, the big events were the seventh to ninth-grader contests in diving and swimming the length of the pool. I was about ten and I could swim twice the width of the pool underwater but was hopeless on the surface, so I wasn’t in any races but just mingling in the crowd.
The swim meets brought out everyone in Dhahran, so I was lingering in the crowd around the shaded west side of the pool when Mickey came running up. A chubby kid with a gap between his front teeth, Mickey’s specialty was knowing everything that was going on and then broadcasting it to the world. The kid we called Scoop. He came up and said, “Wow! It looks like Eddie Ronson has it locked.” Eddie was one of those guys who started shaving in eighth grade. A super athlete and a great swimmer among other things. Now he was a ninth-grader and sure to win.
For some reason, maybe because Mickey was such a know-it-all or maybe because I’ve always had a little devil on my left shoulder, without thinking about it I said, “Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. I heard that there is a kid from Abqaiq who swims like a porpoise. His name is Merwin Tish.” God knows where I came up with the name Merwin Tish so quickly, but it sounded about right. Mickey said, “Merwin Tish?” “So I’ve heard,” I replied, and Mickey was off into the crowd.
As he rumbled off, I thought this is interesting, I wonder how far the word will spread. I got my answer. Meandering through the crowd not five minutes later a kid came up to me and asked if I had heard about this Merwin Tish. “Who?”
By the time I made it to the other side of the pool where the lounge chairs were splayed out in the sun, I saw Eddie’s mother Mrs. Ronson lounging in a deck chair like Rita Hayworth. Somewhat younger than Mr. Ronson, I knew her from before. She was the only Cub Scout den mother who wore high heels to the meetings. She said, “Oh, Hi, Tim. How have you been?” “Fine Mrs. Ronson. How are you doing?” “I’m fine, but I hear Eddie is going to have some real competition in the freestyle. Someone from Abqaiq.” Marveling at Mickey’s efficiency, I said, “You don’t say? I’m sure that Eddie will do just fine.” She replied, “Well I should hope so,” as she flicked the ash from her Winston.
I wandered off and of course, Eddie smoked the freestyle race. After the swim meet I was hanging around in the throng of people leaving the pool when a beleaguered Mr. Ronson, tall and gangly, sunburned and sweaty, came by burdened with towels, lounge chairs, a thermos jug and a gym bag. “Hi, Mr. Ronson. How did Eddie do?” He stopped, wiped his brow and said, “Well Tim, he won all right but it was close. It was a good thing that Tish kid didn’t show up.”
CHRISTMAS in KHOBAR
More Stories – Tim Barger
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