(photos by Willard Drumm, 1958)
Doug Strader was a lanky sixth grader who lived on the next block. Our families were close friends, so even though I was a fourth grader— if there weren’t any of his peers around— he’d mentor me on the finer points of sophisticated behavior.
This blazing, bright-hot afternoon, Doug and I are in the narrow lot along the concrete walkway between the library and the swimming pool, a space currently occupied by one of those big Swedish pre-fab buildings which was used as a temporary classroom. I believe that this was the portable that hosted the infamous event wherein Ralph W. got clobbered by a falling light fixture. It’s hard to say because this particular building had fallen into some sort of corporate Ground Hog’s Day, and Aramco was forever moving it out and then, months later, bringing it back in.
On this particular day the portable was empty, up on wooden shorings, and ready to be moved out. We are hanging around in the shade of the library, staring at the pre-fab. Doug is telling me how to get free into the movies by sneaking through the exit door, when he snatches up a rock and throws it through a window with a great crash and the tinkle of falling glass.
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.
A small, feisty woman with a powerful voice, Mitzi Strader is screaming at Doug and then actually grabs his ear and drags him away, giving me a nasty look as she passes. To this day, I can never figure out how she happened to show up behind that window five seconds after Doug broke it. She must have seen us loitering around the building down at the other end of the walkway and went through the back door to check up on us. A mom’s instinct for trouble proven once again to be entirely accurate.
Walking home, I’m considering my legal rights as explained by my law professor Perry Mason. I didn’t actually break a window — though I sure was ready to— so I was in the clear. Fortunately, I’m blissfully unaware of the various statutes related to conspiracy and accomplices. I was about to learn that "not guilty" doesn’t always mean innocent. A couple of hours later, guiltless as a lamb, I’m in my room gluing the wings of a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero together. I was into those Aurora plastic models. I’m finished and pick up the two fuselage parts I’m going to glue next, when I hear my mother say, “Timothy!”
Of course, Mrs. Strader has called my mom, Kathleen. And now I’m literally on the carpet in the living room protesting my innocence. “I didn’t break any windows. I was just watching. Doug said it was okay.”
With a stern look, she says, “You shouldn’t have even been there. But that’s not what Mitzi told me.”
“What? What did she say?”
“She said that Doug told her that you dared him to break the window.”
“I don’t care what either of you say. You were hanging around like a couple of hoodlums looking for trouble.”
“But… But…” I say, trying to come up with a quote from Perry, but she cuts me short.
“Timothy, you have to pay attention in life. You don’t break windows. You don’t damage other people’s property. You don’t even think about it. I’m really sorry because it’s so much fun, but you can’t go to the fair tomorrow. You’re staying home.”
A chill splits my spine, my vertebrae tingle with fear. “But mom!”
“Sorry. That’s final.”
This was a stiletto right through my heart.
Coming down the stretch.
Once a year Dhahran threw a fair for the town at the King’s Road ball field. Dozens of booths stretched from first base toward the theater. From home base to third was reserved for the donkey rides and the main attraction: the donkey races.
People from the other districts, Dammam and Khobar too, came to watch the big parade snake down King’s Road. Behind high-stepping majorettes and a loud marching band, trailed legions of scouts from Brownies and Cubs to Eagles, cowgirls and cowboys on fine Arabian horses, floats of all kinds — one with square dancers, another with languid mermaids — dozens of classic cars. Pick-ups towing speed boats, and a couple of fire trucks with all the lights flashing.
The parade ended at the fairgrounds, already teeming with action. Dozens of booths and makeshift pavilions hosted displays, games and performances. The Art Club had an exhibit of paintings, and a cartoonist drew funny caricatures in mere minutes. The garden club featured a subtle range of African violets and orchids, the crisply uniformed Girl Scout mothers explained the various merit badges in more detail than most people wanted to hear. The Motorcycle Club guys had a bike with its rear wheel mounted on rollers and throttled it to great delight.
There was a booth where a short, burly driller with a badly chewed, unlit cigar in his mouth would estimate your weight to plus or minus a pound. It cost 4 quirsh. If he missed, he’d give you 20 quirsh or a riyal. He pinned me at 52 pounds and when I stepped on the scale he was dead on. I hung around trying to figure out how he did it. He was amazing. I don’t think he was wrong one in 20 times.
The airlines and car agencies in Khobar gave out key chains and quoted prices. There was a sewing circle showing how to make a Raggedy Ann doll that entranced my little sisters. The Women’s Group table had free cookies. Here and there, one group or another was selling, for charity, Pepsi out of barrels of ice or those small Dixie cups of ice cream that come with a small wooden spoon, stocked in mini-freezers about waist high.
Built with a parachute for a ceiling Dramaramco’s spacious booth was stocked with actors in costume: Cleopatra, Napoleon, Robin Hood, Mata Hari, Charlie Chaplin, Sherlock Holmes and the like. They laughed a lot while putting on impromptu skits. The geologists had half a dozen sawed-in-half geodes and, in glass cases, a display of all the minerals found in Arabia. I focused on the sole gold nugget, committing it to memory for when I next found one. The Yacht Club had a speedboat and a bunch of gleaming water skis leaning against it. The Bowling Club folks wearing their bowling shirts gave out brochures and rule books— when they weren’t talking to each other.
One of the liveliest pavilions was the Turtle Races. A big tub of water and rocks hosted dozens of small turtles from Hofuf. Each one had a number carefully painted on its shell. The race track was an eight-foot-long sheet of plywood with six furring strips nailed lengthwise for lanes painted red and yellow with blue trim. It was operated by a bunch of old guys, at least 40, who were having a great time, bantering back and forth and handing out turtles to the kids to place in the starting gate.
The announcer was a tall, thin fellow with a crew cut and a golden larynx. He kept up a rapid patter to excite the crowd and when the gate was lifted, he called it like a pro from Churchill Downs, “Number 7 is in the lead, 14 is coming up fast on the left, in the pack 22 and 3 are neck and neck. Oh, oh, number 7 is turning back in the wrong direction…” and so on, until finally one of the reptiles crossed the finish line, and the next race began. It was great fun for all us kids — and the old guys, too.
There was a lot to enjoy amid this milling crowd. To the Saudis there, I guess that they must have figured that this is the American version of a suq, but you can’t buy much of anything. Why is that man in a clown costume sitting above a tank of water? Why are people throwing balls at him? Oh, I see! That’s funny! Everybody else is laughing, too.
BANG! A huge cloud spewed confetti into the air. A merry trio of young mechanics out of the shops had built a four-foot-long air cannon powered by a big compressed-air tank. They had a small coffee can of confetti that, before our eyes, they sprinkled with folded, marked pieces of paper worth a riyal or even five riyals. They shook up the can and loaded the cannon, shouted out a countdown and blasted thousands of tiny pieces of paper over the crowd. We immediately raced about looking for magic confetti and the three guys toasted each other with their special cups of Pepsi.
All of this — and so much more — I wasn’t going to see any of it.
I watched my entire family head off to be in the parade, or watch it, and then go to the fair. Oh well, I went back to my Mitsubishi Zero, read some comics, had a sandwich, and by late afternoon, in the dense oleander hedge along the side of the front lawn, I’m a teenage Hungarian Freedom Fighter about to take out a Soviet tank with a Molotov cocktail…when my mom and sisters come through the gate. My mother is in good spirits when she sees me and says, “Sorry you missed it. If you want, you can go up and look around, but be home in an hour.”
“Thanks,” and I drop the virtual Molotov cocktail and scamper off to the baseball field a block away. When I arrive, the crowd has evaporated, the donkeys are being loaded on trucks for the ride back to Qatif and the booths are fairly cleared out, though a few folks are still packing up. I walk to the far end at the theater parking lot, along the row of deserted stalls, checking the confetti for winners and then wander back across the field towards home, thinking about all the cool things I missed.
Ahead, a few adults linger in lawn chairs, happily chatting away, enjoying the early evening breezes and the sky turning to gold. I pass them, when I spot one of those freezers full of Dixie cup ice cream, standing alone 20 feet away. I rush over, wishing against all hope that there will be one Dixie cup left, preferably strawberry.
You usually don’t have to be careful of what you wish for, because you aren’t going to get it anyway. I open the abandoned freezer, and it is absolutely empty. No Dixie cups, no shelves either. Just a four-foot high box with a door. So I close it and open it a few times and then examine the freezer latch more closely. It seems that you can close the door almost completely, and then you can easily open it again. Fascinated, I fool with it some more as the sun sets lower over the King’s Road baseball field.
The problem with this kind of idle experimentation is that you can easily convince yourself that you know what you are doing. I can fit into the freezer, so the obvious thing is to get in and close the door almost all the way. Wait a bit and spring out. It will be hilarious.
I climb in the white, molded plastic interior of the box and get comfortable. I’ve got some room, and this is perfectly doable. I pull in the door by its inner lip until it touches my fingers, gripped around the edge of the freezer. I swing the door back and forth. Seems good to me. I retract my fingers and slowly close the door. At first, there is an inch of daylight, but it contracts to a bright sliver. I pull the door just a hair until it is black inside. This is perfect. I’ll count to 30 and spring out.
I’m in the dark at 13, when the door opens to let in a crack of light, I pull it back a bit and hear, “Click!”
Click! The sound immediately bypasses all my cognitive faculties and races to the lowest, most primal part of the brain, the almond-sized amygdala —the lizard brain in charge of human survival. The lizard brain says, “Holy Moley! You’re smoked. Make the most of it.”
I start screaming and banging the sides of the freezer in total blackness. Instantly, I’m in a cold sweat, kicking and yelling, on the edge of total panic — when something makes me stop. I take a short breath, blink in the darkness, and think for a moment about what to do. And then start rocking back forth within the icebox — shrieking and punching the door all the time. The freezer starts to sway, more and more, until it slams me on my back as it falls over.
I’m sort of dazed. This isn’t much better than when the freezer was upright, but now it’s more comfortable. I’m a little slow and sleepy anyway. I think about that boy Pharaoh in his sarcophagus that I saw in National Geographic. Yikes! The lizard brain kicks in, and I scream and yell and curse, again and again. Too panicked to be scared.
Suddenly, the door opens to clean, clear air and a deep amber dusk. An astonished man with glasses leans over me and says, “Are you all right? I saw it fall over. Are you okay?”
Blitzed by fresh air and daylight, I can’t believe that I’m alive. I truly love this man, whoever he is. I blurt out, “No! Yes! Thank you so much! Thank you. Yes! Bye! Thank you!” and then bolt out of the freezer like a rabid badger freed from a snare.
I streak for home and stumble through the back door into the kitchen. My mom is making dinner. She’s startled when she sees me and says, “Tim, you look as white as a ghost. Are you sick? What have you been doing?”
“Nothing,” I reply.
And then it hits me. I realize all that I might have lost, beginning with my mother. And I can’t hold back the tears.
Earlier stories by Tim Barger are included in his collection Arabian Son.
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
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