Think ahead. Be prepared. Always have a plan B. These are the kind of concepts that my dad tried to pound in my head, and probably your parents too. How hard could it be to remember them? The first two consist of only two words. Pithy, sound advice, except that when you are 17 who needs advice? You are way smarter than that because, though you don’t know it, your frontal lobe isn’t yet fully connected to the rest of your brain. The frontal lobe comes up with marvelous ideas like wouldn’t it be fun to ride a skateboard down a steep hill that crosses a busy intersection? Or my favorite that actually happened – wouldn’t it be a kick to grab one of those deadly poisonous sea snakes at Half Moon Bay and handle it until it bit you? If this lobe was connected to the cerebral cortex the answer would be obvious, but then the whole spontaneity thing would be lost.
My friend, who I’ll call Smith, and I were 17 and working in Sufaniya as apprentice divers for Al Gosaibi Diving Services. This was their first contract and we worked from an old beat-up motorized dhow called The London. Fanatic skin divers and spearfishers since the age of twelve, we were in heaven. The company was started by the legendary Dee McVay, a long time IBBI diver in Arabia and we were under the supervision of two contract divers from the states. Ed was a good-natured, middle-aged, short, grizzly bear of a guy, who had worked as a hard hat diver back East. “Yeah Tim, I used to make eight hundred bucks a day inspecting the sewer outlets of Baltimore that spill into the bay. Black as night, literally walking through crap, couldn’t see your hand in front of you. Payday I’d collect maybe three Gs or more – in cash. Monday morning I’d be back, broke as an old clock.” The other diver was named Vern, lean and weathered, a bit mean, all he talked about was money and of course he would never have any because the second topic of conversation was how he was going to hit it big in Vegas.
I do digress, but the point is that Smith and I were in Sufaniya on a Wednesday, The London was being repaired so we were off until Saturday. There was a big party in Dhahran that night and another one in Abqaiq on Thursday and we were paid, so we had almost three hundred riyals burning like fire in our cut-off jeans. In those days cab fare to Dhahran was something like 100 riyals, so the obvious plan was to hitch-hike to Dhahran, clean up and party like it was 1964.
So around noon in the middle of August – it couldn’t have been more than 115 degrees, wearing cut-offs, Saudi Camp tire-tread sandals and white T-shirts with only cash in our pockets, we walk out the gate at Sufaniya and raise our thumbs. Ten minutes later a big stake body truck with three guys in the cab, four kids and a half dozen goat-type kids in the back, pulls over. With a great exchange of Salaams we are invited to hop on and we were on our way.
Cruising down the blacktop at about 90 clicks, we have it made and are already making our plans for the night. We drive about 20 minutes when the truck slows to a stop. What? The driver explains that he is now turning off to head straight to his tent somewhere deep in the desert. We watch him rumble off into the horizon and figure how hard could it be to get another ride.
The novelty of hitch-hiking Americans was too much for any Saudi to resist, so we wait and sure enough here comes a Toyota pick-up truck. A piece of cake. The driver slows up and the guys in the cab wave as he keeps going – there are half a dozen Yemeni in the back with numerous bundles, not even room for a chicken. No problem, so we wait some more. Funny it seems that there isn’t much traffic at 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, actually there is none.
After about half an hour we see a speck coming down the highway. It keeps coming until we can see that it’s a bright blue Impala sedan. It slows down, we look alert and the driver gives us a big smile. He certainly would have picked us up except for the four guys in the front and at least a half dozen in the back. They all wave as it motors by. We listen to the drone of the engine grow fainter and notice that it’s really hot, silent too. There’s not even the hint of a breeze.
Smith: Jeez, I wish I had a hat.
Me: Yeah, that would be good.
Smith: I’m going to put my t-shirt on my head.
Me: Great idea.
So we put our t-shirts around our heads and wait and wait. Now it’s well past two o’clock and still nothing.
Me: I’m tired of standing, I’m going to sit down.
Smith: Good idea.
Together: “Gadammit! (Change to Damn!) It’s hotter than hell,” as we leap up.
Smith: Now I know why the Arabs always hunker down, their sandals keep them from burning their butts.
We hunker. Minutes pass. Then more and more minutes.
Me: I saw a dead dhubb a ways back on the road.
Smith: Probably Kentucky Fried about now.
Me: Yeah, I’m hungry. We should have had lunch.
Smith: I’d kill for a glass of water.
Me: Water? Yeah, that would be good. Hear that?
Way down the road we see a black splotch getting larger and larger. It’s a giant Mercedes water truck. This is the ticket. It comes barreling along, getting closer until we can see the huge Somali driver and count them – four other guys in the cab. They all wave as they breeze past us.
Smith: Do you think Gayle will be at the party?
Me: Unless she’s packing a chit from the ice house, do you think I care?
Smith: Ice? Now there’s an idea.
Silence. We can hear the sun beating down on us. The heat is as thick as the humidity in Dammam. Time is slowing down. The idea of shade begins to grab our imagination. We look around. We are the highest object for miles in any direction. The blacktop begins to bubble.
Smith: You know some suntan lotion wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Me: I’d kill you for a cold Pepsi.
Smith: I’d kill you and gut your uncle for a chilled Miranda.
Me: I don’t like my uncle that much anyway.
Smith: I’d settle for tap water.
Me: Warm hose water would do me just fine.
Smith: At this point I’d drink the water at Imhoff Gardens.
Here we go. In the distance a battered white Land Rover comes rattling down the road. As it gets closer we can see that there is only a driver. Finally. We stand up and look bright. He drives closer and closer until he’s about a hundred yards away and then hangs a right to go bouncing off into the desert.
Me: Damn it all.
Smith: Maybe we should follow him. Somewhere they’ve got some water.
Me: Damn it all.
Silence. It’s getting onto four o’clock. Our tongues are rattling around in our dry mouths like twigs in a shoebox. We look up at the sun, it’s still there. The blacktop bubbles some more.
Smith: I think my tongue is swelling up. Take a look is it turning black?
Me: Let me look. Yeah, it’s not looking too good. You know if it really starts swelling up I’ll have to lance it.
Smith: Lance it! With what?
Me: There’s a piece of broken glass.
Smith: Damn! You stay away from me! If it comes to that I’ll do it myself. Jeez.
Me: Okay! Okay! Just trying to be helpful.
Smith: What if it turns black?
Me: Well, no one’s going to make out with you, that’s for sure.
Smith goes silent as he contemplates the considerable implications of black tongue disease. A slight gust of wind comes out of somewhere and then disappears. One of those big, black dung beetles crawls by. There’s not a cloud in the sky. Time passes.
Smith: Do you hear something?
Through the heat waves rising off the asphalt, we can see a shimmering apparition tooling down the road. As it comes closer, we can see that it’s big, it’s red, it’s a Dodge Fargo truck, it’s Aramco. The driver pulls right up to us, rolls down the passenger window and says with a grin, “You boys, waiting for the bus?” We try to reply, but our mouths are so dry it comes out as “Aauugha…” “There’s an Igloo at the back, have a drink.” “Thhhhaannx,” and we rush to the big, fat corrugated Igloo, strapped to the rear fender. It looks like a god. We start guzzling water and for sure this guy has an ice chit. We drink about a half- gallon each and start feeling alive again. Smith has even forgotten about his black tongue.
We fall all over ourselves thanking him. The truck’s idling and he’s grinning. Inwardly he must be cracking up at the sight of our wild bug-eyes, sun-burned faces, shoulders redder than his truck, wearing t-shirts on our heads, but instead of laughing himself silly, he says, “Sure, you’re welcome” and then puts the truck in gear… and pauses, “I don’t think the bus will be along for a while.” Thinking to himself, like maybe never. “You guys like a ride?” Before we can answer, he says, “I’m Jim Ripley. Hop in,” and boy do we hop.
Thinking to ourselves, How high, Sahib? We take off down the road. He says, “I don’t usually put it on high, but you’ll like this,” leans over and turns the AC to mega-chill. Soon our core temperature returns to under a hundred.
We know his oldest son David, an avid basketball player. Mr. Ripley goes into great detail about how Abqaiq is going to destroy Dhahran in the upcoming Returning Students tournament in Abqaiq next weekend. We heartily agree. He could have told us that Donny Osmond was the greatest rock and roll singer of all time and we would have agreed.
We have a fine time. He drops us at the Main Gate and drives off. We didn’t even know it but Mr. Ripley was our Plan B.
That night the party is terrific. Gayle was there all right – with some college-age returning student wearing a Madras shirt and actual leather shoes. Smith meets up with a girl visiting from Nariyah. After staring at the same three guys for months on end, Smith looks like Robert Redford to her and they have a great time.
The next night we’re off to the Friendly City for yet another wild episode in the town where it is never dark at night. We take a cab both ways.
Friday we’re off to Khobar to look at switchblades and Zippos. In a rare instance of good sense, we buy baseball hats and sunglasses instead. That night, another smaller but slightly crazy party that goes on past midnight. A few hours later we hire a taxi to return to Sufaniya. We come dragging into the dining hall and there’s Ed chowing down on breakfast while Vern chain-smokes Kools. Ed puts his fork down and says, “Hi guys. How much money do you have left?” “Twelve riyals.” “Good work. We’ll make professional divers out of you yet.”