Photo by Ameen Mohammed
In 1964 on yet another misguided adventure, my great friend Ben Michaels, his older brother Roger and I decided it would be a great idea to walk to Ras Tanura. We ate a giant dinner at the Dining Hall and set off with one water bottle.
The first 10 miles are a breeze as we march through the desert into the dusk. There isn’t much traffic, and the way to truly appreciate the desert is on foot. We watch the colors grow more intense as the sun falls into the horizon, what the Hollywood directors call the golden hour. It is a beautiful sight but when the sun finally sets it is extremely dark. We hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight, so we press on using a kind of foot braille to stay on the pavement. Fortunately, a full moon emerges and we continue on in brilliant moonlight.
We might not have a flashlight but Roger does have a can of bright yellow spray paint. About 20 miles out of Dhahran we decide to graffiti the asphalt with cutting-edge social commentary. A sophomore at the University of Oregon, Roger is naturally talented so he paints a giant duck and writes “Go Ducks!” Ben is a demented fan of the electric Blues guitar so he sprays out over a 10-foot stretch of highway “Bo Diddly is the King!” This might be considered as subversive in a monarchy but we figure no one has ever heard of Bo Diddly. Working vertically from the bottom to the top of one lane, I write four giant letters, L-A-N-A, so you can read it when approaching. Then the can sputters empty, and we march on. In the morning hundreds of Qatifis will drive to Dhahran, see our clever handiwork and presume that Aramco has marked the pavement for some kind of road work.
Our water bottle vanished somewhere around mile 5, so 20 miles later we are getting a bit parched. We keep walking and eventually spot some kind of pump house in the distance. It is a small, well-lit installation about 100 feet off the road. We hurry up to the humming building certain that we can get a drink. No one is there. It’s on automatic operation. This is Aramco, so there has to be a tap-water faucet here. No such luck. We plod back to the highway and continue on our way.
We are walking along about 3 in the morning when we see what looks like a shooting star, but it keeps coming closer and closer before it turns into a bright, streaking trail of light that makes a loud crack when it hits somewhere in the desert not far from us, maybe a few miles away. It is spectacular. Talking about the event for the next hours, with the consensus being that it was an alien spacecraft crash-landing in the desert, we make it to somewhere past Safwa where the road curves to Ras Tanura.
Ben has a high-burn metabolism and he finally runs out of fuel, staggers in a circle off the road and keels over into the muddy roadside ditch of an alfalfa field. Covered in muck, he is sweaty, pale and breathing shallow. We drag him back to the side of the road. He smells bad too. We wait in the humid darkness looking at the stars.
Eventually, a beat-up Chevy Impala taxi with three passengers pulls up, squeezes us in and drives us to RT. We were supposed to stay with Pam, Roger’s girlfriend, but arrive so early in the morning that we drink hose water and pass out like dead men in her front yard.
On his way to work in the morning, Pam’s dad sees us, especially Mike, still covered with mud and slime. Pam’s dad is sure that we are random degenerates sleeping it off. He starts screaming at us. Of course, he has not the slightest clue that his daughter is running with Roger.
Later on, Pam’s dad’s judgment of our character might have been more accurate when Smith, Ben and I went to Ras Tanura for the Tri-District dance. It was a very fun Tri-D as they always were and we separated into the night for various adventures.
About a half-hour before dawn I come limping towards the Surf House. I wasn't feeling quite as snappy as I was earlier in the night. At some point, I had twisted my ankle while vaulting over a hedge for some already forgotten reason. Ben was sitting on the beach just back from the high-tide line staring blankly at the gorgeous turquoise water that's only found in Ras Tanura. Without saying a word I sit down next to him and stare straight ahead. Not more than three minutes later Smith comes slowly stumbling from under a porch somewhere. He looks like the real slow one in a zombie movie. Wordlessly, he sits on the other side of Ben, and we watch the blue-green chroma rise in the sea along with the dawn.
After a few minutes, backlit by the rising sun, a Russian wolfhound comes running down the surf line followed by a tall, beautiful young girl with blonde hair to her waist wearing a yellow bikini. She is gracefully skipping along like a gazelle on helium. We don’t move our heads. It takes too much effort. We just track her with our eyes from right to left until she leaves our field of vision. Once she is gone our eyeballs reset to straight on. No one speaks a word. After a while, the sleek hound reappears along with the comely sprite running in the other direction. She disappears and we blink. It was really like the last scene in a Fellini movie. We spent the entire bus ride back to Dhahran trying to figure out whether she was real or not.
CHRISTMAS in KHOBAR
More Stories – Tim Barger
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