Tim Barger’s new collection of stories, Christmas in Khobar, will be released soon. There are more tales of childhood adventures in the Dhahran of the fifties and sixties, as well as stories told to him and accounts of hapless situations he encountered in Riyadh and Jeddah as a 20 something adult.
Here are some excerpts from the book. We trust that you will enjoy them.
There is nothing I can do to alter progress, but I can tell you about a kid growing up in a 1950s oil camp in the Arabian desert, about floating, suspended in darkness, in an ancient well 40 feet beneath the Qatif oasis, about a pellet gun duel at sunset on the rocky slopes of Jebel Shamaal. I can immerse you in the fantastic chaos of the Used Car Suq in the Boomtown of 1974 Riyadh, or I can take you to the pristine shore of Half Moon Bay to watch a Viking funeral on the dark, placid water beneath a starry sky.
Clark Randall’s Big Break
There was his rig. In his crates. Marked Taft, California. Clark was stunned. And then, in a stroke of divine inspiration, decided not to tell anyone what he knew. He and Hamood opened some of the crates with a crow bar. Clark grinned to himself as he recognized his own code numbers painted in yellow. After a while at the Stag Club, he drove back to Abqaiq.
Wajid Zain Means Very Good
Martha goes to the door and opens it to look at him standing there with an ancient, battered, wooden camel bowl in his hand. He says, “Mimsahib. Wajid zain.” And proffers the bowl toward her with a big toothless smile.
It’s so bright outside that it is hard to see much of anything. She opens the screen door and steps into her barren backyard as a momentary gust of wind obfuscates the old man in dust. She can’t see what he is offering and says, “What?”
The old man brightens, takes a step forward and shows her the bowl. It contains some round dark things that definitely aren’t pearls.
Nearly twenty years later, John had gained a few comfortable pounds but still sported his signature brush-top haircut, close cropped along the sidewalls like a Marine. His house was next to ours on 11th Street. As a young kid I’d sort of hover around peering through the fence made with jareed sticks of split-palm fronds tied together with a rust-colored jute string. He had converted his carport into a garage, and I would watch him use his torch to cut steel, braze things together, heat metal to a glow, and shape it with repeated blows of a big hammer against an anvil made from a piece of a cut-off railroad track.
Every once in a while he would glance at me and then quickly avert his eyes as if the point of the process was that I didn’t exist, which was fine with me. Big, blustery friends of his would show up smoking, joking, and laughing, speaking an earthy language that immediately updated my mental thesaurus of four-letter words and colorful adjectives. It was the beginning of my career as an amateur lexicographer. Occasionally he’d be bantering with his pals and crack a slight smile to the kid behind the fence.
Christmas in Khobar
Khobar in those days was the most cosmopolitan city in eastern Arabia. The Saudis seemed to be perfectly relaxed about Christmas, which they considered as an Eid holiday for Americans. They knew it was a celebration of the birth of Jesus; he was respected within the Koran, and it seemed like a reasonable thing for Christians to commemorate. The general public loved the strings of multi-colored lights festooned on the store fronts. The one thing that they couldn’t really comprehend was, “How did the bearded, fat guy in a red outfit figure into this whole program?” It was an endless source of fascination.
My first impulse is to run like hell, but Doug says, “It’s okay. Aramco doesn’t want this portable. They’re gonna take it to Reclamation and crush it. They want you to break the windows.”
“Me? What? How do you know?’ I ask.
“My dad told me. It’s true.”
I think that this is too good to be true, but I’m happy to believe it. I pick up a decent size rock.
Doug already has another stone and says, “Watch this!” and pegs it through the glass window on the door. The sound of breaking glass in the afternoon. What great fun — and legal, too.
With my rock ready to throw, I rush up to the door and am about to deliver my best knuckleball when I see Doug’s mother. She is standing behind the door, looking through the broken glass. I freeze and casually drop the rock behind my back, but she doesn’t really see me because she is staring the Anger Ray of Death straight at Doug.
Close Call at Jebel Shamaal
Surf music was the craze and a natural theme for the RT Tri-D. The main hall was cleared into a giant dance floor, decorated with murals of surfers and giant waves. A generous use of palm fronds added to the décor, and the sound system was seriously loud. One of the organizers had called Housing to order the delivery of a couple hundred seat cushions made for those big sturdy Aramco-issue maple sofas. Now, they were piled along the edge of the dance floor.
We step into the vast room. There are three adult couples at a table near the door cringing at the music, trying to remember why they volunteered to chaperone. Beyond them is Teenage Babylon. Hundreds of couples dancing to the Beach Boys, the Surfaris, or Dick Dale and the Deltones on a dark dance floor lit by strobing buoy lights borrowed from the Marine department. Along the wall the cushions have melted into sofas for lounging kids – chattering, laughing, smoking Salems, and drinking Pepsi.
Beneath the Oasis
The water is flowing over me like a gentle breeze. It’s lukewarm and clear as gin when I turn on my flashlight. The wall of the well is engraved with the chisel marks and gouges made by some tireless men working about the time of Hammurabi. Foot after foot as I submerge, the scratches and counter-chiseled hatch marks begin to speak to me, much as I imagine the brush strokes of an original Van Gogh might do to a perceptive viewer. Of course, at this time I have no such sensitivity and think Don Martin of MAD magazine is a way better artist than Picasso.
I’m headfirst, about ten feet down when it occurs to me that I might have some difficulty getting out of this tube backwards. I stop and see if I can swim in reverse. It’s not real efficient, but using my hands I can push myself backwards. When I surface Ben can pull me out of the hole by my ankles. Okay. Problem solved. Let’s see what is down here.
Night of the Hamoor
I’m fairly certain that there is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity. I can only plead not guilty by reason of stupidity — and it seemed like the thing to do at the time. On second thought, it is much better to think of this story as entirely a work of fiction and any resemblance to anything that happened in Dhahran during the summer of 1964 is entirely coincidental.
In those early days, these high-level consultants and managers, their families — and their dogs — would fly into Riyadh, only to be removed or replaced for a variety of reasons within a year or so.
Sometimes it was just easier to turn Fido over to the gardener and give him 100 riyals. The Swiss broker in a failed bauxite mega-deal just ejected his tiresome Dalmatian into the alley and flew to Zurich. But of course too, there was seven-year-old Lucy. Just two hours before she and her family left for the airport, Spunky, her dear dachshund companion, “escaped from the yard.” She waited and waited for him to come back, until the family had to drive off from their villa to the airport. Lucy crying for Spunky and pounding against the rear window the whole way.
Ski Half Moon!
Ski-jumping is a bit flawed as a spectator sport because you have to wait for the boat to make a long loop back to the jump, if it comes at all. As the skiers thin out, we begin to lose interest and start heading back to the club when we hear a screaming whine headed our way. It’s a sleek Italian-looking runabout driven by a vainly handsome, bare-chested young man wearing a wide grin and mirrored aviator shades. Behind the boat is a long towline, so for a second we can’t see what’s happening.
It’s a long, thin line with someone at the end. The boat comes closer, and we realize that there is a small woman at the end of the ski rope. At the last moment the speedboat swerves and launches her onto the ramp. We finally realize who she is and watch our petite, glamorous art teacher Miss Parker fly at least a dozen feet into the air and pin a perfect landing before she disappears across the water.
Center of Gravity
By 1956 Dhahran had grown from a small oil camp to a slightly larger small town of maybe 3,500-plus Americans, nearly half families, the rest singles. Beyond the camp there was nothing but blank desert until Al-Khobar ten miles away on the coast. Remote and isolated, these Americans created a unique community.
I had never lived anywhere else, so I couldn’t really compare Dhahran to any other small town in the States. But I was pretty sure that it was different for a bunch of reasons. What small town gave all of its residents a three-month, paid, transcontinental vacation every two years?
The whole place was like one big neighborhood, and it seemed to me that a lot of the men like my dad and his friends had an almost tribal spirit about passing on their skills and techniques. They taught us kids how to make things, how to dream about ideas to make real, and how to consider problems as solutions that you hadn’t yet discovered.
Information on where to purchase Christmas in Khobar will be provided as soon as it is made available. Readers may also enjoy Tim Barger's Arabian Son, a collection of stories about his perilous adventures growing up in Dhahran through the 1950s and 60s..
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
Paperback: 142 pages ~ $12.95
Available at Amazon