In Part One, eight-year-old Tim has set out on Christmas Eve morning to buy Christmas presents for his family at Aramco's canteen which is situated in a green portable next to the mail center. Initially, he has great success but is unable to find a present for his parents. With six riyals of purchasing power in his jeans, he slips onto the bus to Khobar and wanders around until Mr. Selim at the Green Flag store helps him buy a present for his mother. With two riyals left and time running out before the bus leaves Tim returns to Prince Khalid Street in search of his dad's present.
Al-Khobar in the mid-fifties is a booming, fantastic place; an exotic contrast to the efficient conformity of camp, which has central water and air-conditioning but never the opportunity to see a Yemeni walking down the street with a baboon or brightly turbaned Persians selling pastel-colored canaries from woven cane cages. The streets are alive with an astounding cast of characters. Predominantly Saudis from every station of life but intermingled with a broad sample of Arabs, Asians and Africans drawn to opportunity. Egyptians, Indians, Sudanese, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Omanis, Somalis and Bahrainis, punctuated with a sprinkling of Europeans and of course the only true foreigners, the inhabitants of the Western hemisphere – the Americans.
The city doesn't extend more than half a mile from the beach, and the coast is much nearer because there is no landfilled Corniche as there is today. At the south end of town, the famous Khobar pier extends into the gulf. It is an intriguing place of sailing dhows and foul-smelling, diesel-powered motor launches populated by sailors, fishermen and stevedores from all over the Gulf.
Just north, past a block or two of open parking ground for trucks, buses, and cars, begins the main street named after the then-Prince Khalid, later King Khalid. It's a lively strip, fronted with stores of every kind. If you are four feet tall, it is quite a spectacle, but I am in a hurry. I have to find a present for my dad, and I can't miss the bus.
Walking down the street, I notice a shop with a Grundig Multi-band Shortwave radio prominently displayed in the window surrounded by black telephones filigreed with gold paint like a Singer sewing machine. I go up to the glass. Boy, would my dad like that. Yeah, sure. For about a million riyals. And I push on down the road.
I have a special weakness for a store near the middle of the street that has a window display of machetes, pocket knives and switchblades. I stop to marvel at the weapons, especially the designs on the stilettos. You have to admit that the classic, black switchblade with a silver grinning skull on the handle is a definite crowd pleaser; however, I have my eye on a certain blade.
It has a bone-colored handle elaborately painted in red lacquer with some sort of devil squid with its tentacles grasping up to the sharp steel. And to the side in the back of the display is the pièce de résistance, an actual pair of brass knuckles. I don't know if they are sold as a set or individually, but I am certain that my dad would love to have some brass knuckles, in case he got into a dust-up. Unfortunately, I had priced them months before, and the prices are stratospheric. They want fifty riyals for the squid blade. Time to move on.
At the time Khobar - and its environs from Hofuf to Qatif - is not fully mechanized. A donkey cart with balloon tires is still very cost competitive, especially compared to the price of a Ford truck. So the donkeys trot along with the Buicks, and once in a while, some camels pass down the avenue. But those days are fading along with another phenomenon that hardly anyone remembers anymore. Up and down the street, at strategic locations on the sidewalk, old men sell cigarettes out of a sort of trunk on tiny wheels. They are very interesting.
Hanging around on the street waiting for my mom and sisters to finally leave the charm bracelet counter at Zain Jewelers, I would watch them at work. A customer would approach and pick up a pack of Camels. The absolutely indifferent codger would rummage around and produce an opened, but intact carton of Camels. He'd root around within the carton and produce a stamp, hand it to the customer who would pay his riyal and then hand the stamp back to the old man who'd replace the stamp in the intact carton.
My dad explained it to me at the time which I didn't fully understand, but basically, they sold smuggled cigarettes. They had one legal carton of each brand with the prerequisite amount of loose tax stamps and then sold tons of untaxed smokes. Looking back now, what appeared to be haphazard locations along the boulevard were actually prime, jealously guarded sites. The vendors also weren't especially friendly to kids – as if I was going to buy a carton of Lucky Strikes.
However they also sold boxes of Binzagr wooden matches, Chiclets made about the time of the Civil War and lighters. That's it. I'll buy my dad a lighter. At the end of the street, near where the bus to Dhahran parks, I approach the cigarette man. He's selling a pack of Winstons to a Lebanese mechanic who doesn't have change for a hundred. While they're bickering, I scan the lighters. Cheap Zippo knock-offs in white enamel, silk-screened with a variety of designs: a rose, a Saudi Arabian flag, a race car, an F-86 Saber jet, some Bollywood temptress, the head of a German shepherd, and three portraits of King Saud. The pose in the middle speaks to me, and I just know that my dad will be thrilled to have this beautiful likeness of the king.
The cigarette man finishes with the Lebanese and spins to cast a rheumy eye my way. I point at the lighter. He grunts and holds up four fingers. I don't know how to say a riyal and a half, so I hold up two fingers. He's already pretty disgusted with me but finally holds up three fingers. Well, I'm out of haggling tricks, so I lamely hold up two fingers again. He shakes his head and dismisses me with a sharp hiss. Defeated, I scamper off towards the bus and come to a dead halt. There is a complication.
Molly and her friend are approaching the bus. I can't let her see me solo. I'm stressing out when I notice some hapless, Saudi teenager staggering behind them carrying a big, elaborate, throne-like, wicker chair. The women confer for a moment and then summon a taxi. The driver manages to cram the chair into the trunk, and they drive off. I make a beeline for the bus.
Riding back to Dhahran I'm running a critical path analysis in my head. I do have my mom's present, but once we get to camp I'll have to hit the company store again before it closes and find something for my dad. What could that be? I streak over to the canteen and desperately search for anything that costs two riyals. I can get him a pack of safety razors, a can of chewing tobacco, a bandanna in red or blue, a big dispenser of dental floss or… I find it! The clerk confirms that it costs two riyals. I seal the deal and rush home.
The house is bustling with activity, everyone getting ready for Christmas Eve, and no one notices as I slip into the kitchen, snag the tin foil and snake back into the bedroom that I share with my brother Michael who isn't there. Adroitly, or so I think, I rip off long jagged pieces of tin foil and wrap the candy bars and my dad's present. I can't find a pencil, so with a crayon, I scrawl out the name tags on some index cards that I've torn into irregular pieces because I can't find any scissors either.
I tape the tags to the presents, wrap each one with some more masking tape for good measure and I'm done. They look pretty sharp to me, but they actually resemble small, squished, baked potatoes wrapped in some kind of wrinkled hazmat suit, strangled in randomly-applied strips of brown paper tape. I'm good to go.
The house is decked in candy canes and mistletoe. The artificial tree that I had accidentally toppled to the ground ten days ago, when I tripped over the light cord, is back in place with maybe a fewer glass ball ornaments than planned, smothered in tinsel and angel hair. Our family tradition was to have Christmas Eve dinner with a few close friends such as my godparents, Steve and Claudine Furman, and maybe a grizzled, old-time bachelor or two at loose ends. Then open the presents.
Of course, this dinner is absolute torture for all of us kids. Even my 14-year old sister Annie is twitching around. Her heart is set on getting a fancy, new bridle for her horse Alia. My brother has his hopes pinned on a large-scale plastic model of a Corvette he spotted in Jameel's a month ago, and I'm torn between getting a periscope or a boomerang. Preferably both. Mary is probably dreaming about some Betsy Wetsy kind of doll or even her own cookie sheet. Norah is eating Gerber's banana pudding in the high chair, occasionally banging her spoon at inappropriate moments.
Except for Norah, we are all dying of anxiety as the adults drone on. Steve Furman has another helping of hamoor. The brilliant, gaunt geologist Dick Bramkamp pauses mid-meal to smoke a Pall Mall, which nobody even notices. My mom has some more waxed beans. The same completely inedible wax beans that I have cut into tiny pieces and artfully scattered around my plate, with the excess buried under the rice.
Finally, dinner is over. Time for dessert. We are all on the same page as we devour our genius cook Nickie's splendid strawberry meringues. The strawberries topped with whipped cream are Bird's Eye frozen and defrosted, but the meringues are a Nickie specialty. They would equal the finest confection in Vienna. Everyone is amiable. There is peace on earth and all that, when my mother says, "Coffee, anyone?"
All of us kids, including Annie, groan; we know what this means. The adults sit around drinking coffee endlessly, smoking, laughing and talking about people and subjects that we can't possibly comprehend. Then we hear more bad news, "More coffee, anyone?"
We can't take it anymore and slip away from the table to gather in the living room and fantasize about what each present might contain. I especially admire the wrapping job on my dad's present. The tin foil kept ripping unevenly, so I clumped hunks of the foil around the cylinder and cleverly wrapped it all in uneven, irregular strands of masking tape. It looks like a lumpy, pipe bomb made by a first grader with unresolved motor-skill issues.
Eventually, we start opening presents, one by one, starting at the youngest. Norah scores the first gift which happens to be mine. Mary, with a great deal of effort — she even bites into the layers of masking tape — manages to unwrap the Black Jack gum and hands it, unopened, to Norah, who snatches up the entire pack, puts it in her mouth like some kind of weird pacifier and happily chomps away. And the present exchange is off and running. After each present everyone exclaims at what a great present it is, claps or whistles.
Eventually, my mother Kathleen holds up my gift, comments on how nicely it's wrapped, and says, "Oh Tim, what could this be?" She peels off the gold foil paper and says. "Timothy! How did you ever know that 4711 is my favorite cologne? What a beautiful Christmas present. Thank you."
I'm shocked. I lurch forward to give her a hug, but I'm desperate to get a closer look at the bottle. Wasn't it supposed to be 1174? You know, the perfume they make in Bulgaria. Sure enough, it's 4711, the real thing. I send up a heartfelt, silent thanks to the wily Mr. Selim.
It's a regrettable fact that we grow up, become adults and gradually lose an appreciation for the intense acuity that we had as children. For instance, when your dad is about to open your misshapen present, you shift into a sort of slow-motion scrutiny. What happens in five seconds seems to happen in a minute. First, he examines the dyslexic wrapping job, then he splits it open to view the prize. At this moment you have to watch for the tell, his expression when he first sees what it is. Unfortunately, though it only lasts for a millisecond, I can see that my dad is totally baffled. He recovers and says, "Tim, thanks. I can really use this." And then raises it up for everyone to see. There is total silence. He is holding up a tall, thin, glass bottle that contains 20 tablets of Alka-Seltzer.
Even my mom is speechless. Annie starts to giggle, but my godfather, Steve Furman, lets out a big laugh and says, "Tom, you'll need to get another bottle to survive my New Year's Day chili party." Everyone laughs. My dad gives me a great hug and the festivities continue.
More than 30 years later, my father has passed away, and I gather with my siblings at his house in coastal San Diego to perform that sad duty that most all of us will someday face: sorting through the family home, pulling down dozens of boxes and suitcases from the attic, getting side-tracked reading old letters, dividing up the personal items and framed pictures – each one a tangible echo of a specific memory that we had growing up. But it isn't all long faces. Every discovery elicits some kind of exclamation. "I got this Raggedy Ann doll for my birthday." "These are mom's spoons from her grandmother." "Here's dad's passport from 1937."
At the end of the second day, we drift into the master bedroom, and I spread about 400 snapshots, spanning more than 60 years, on the bed. Clustered around the huge mattress, we spend hours looking at them. Photo by photo, everyone chipping in with their comments. Bantering, identifying places and family friends, laughing, sometimes crying. Walking each other down a sweet, sometimes bittersweet, lane of vivid memories.
I am in charge of processing my dad's office which has a sliding glass door with a great view of the distant ocean. I curate his many books, separate the ten-year old utility bills from his personal papers, and pitch the various gadgets that he had, to no avail, acquired to improve his golf game. On the morning of the third day I'm tackling a tall four-drawer filing cabinet. I've finished the first drawer when I realize that there is some more room behind the files. I reach in and pull out a cigar box. My dad loved cigar boxes because they were sturdy, had a standard shape and were functionally air-tight – a vital consideration in Saudi Arabia's pervasive sand and humidity, especially in the 1940s before universal air-conditioning.
I place the box atop the cabinet and lift the lid. Covering the contents is an operating manual for some long-gone drill press. Beneath is a scratched and well-used, retractable, compact magnifying glass and a Brunton compass, the tools he used as a field geologist. Toward the back of the box is an empty, weathered envelope with a passport photo from about 1938 almost welded to the outside by a rusty paper clip. I pick up the envelope and uncover a still-sealed, thin, glass bottle containing 20 Alka-Seltzer tablets.
Stunned, I stare at it as if am looking into a crystal ball. After a few minutes, I put the cigar box aside on my dad's desk and display the Alka-Seltzer on one of the bookshelves. I go back to digging through the other three file drawers.
The place is a madhouse. We are all running around hauling out Hefty bags of old junk, shifting furniture, assembling cardboard boxes, bubble wrapping anything that moves, on the phone to shipping companies, and the pile for the Disabled War Vets grows ever taller. Later in the day, I return to the office to find that the Alka-Seltzer bottle is gone.
I look around, check the floor and then notice that the two overflowing wastebaskets in the office are now empty. My sisters are energetic and conscientious beyond belief. I guess that one of them came into to collect the trash, spotted the Alka Seltzer bottle, checked the expiration date – 1955, decided that it was probably a toxic poison by now and pitched it.
I think about digging through the trash, but there are more than a dozen bags of debris in the garage waiting for the curbside pickup in the morning. I can't really make an issue of the loss, or even mention it, as everyone is working so hard to pack up the house. Standing in my dad's study as the sun finally sets over the Pacific, I realize that the Alka-Seltzer doesn't really matter. It was only a message in a bottle. And I got the message.
Part One of Christmas in Khobar is available here.
CHRISTMAS in KHOBAR
More Stories – Tim Barger
246 pages, $14.95
Earlier stories by Tim Barger are included in his collection Arabian Son.
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
Paperback: 142 pages ~ $12.95
Available at Amazon