First Trip to the K.S.A.: Chapter XV - Refinery Hydroformer Training Program

By the first of the new year, 1955, the company had decided on the schedule for the Refinery Hydroformer Training Program in the United States. So, for the next two weeks, we were finalizing plans for that. Both kids had to have a passport, so pictures were made (Keith had been put on mine on his earlier trip to the States). We all had some shots and a physical.

There were a couple of dinner parties and get-togethers with friends not going on this trip. Our friends, Pat & Guy Smyth were going to have our houseboy, Britto, while we were gone, so one day they came over to make all the arrangements for that. He already knew their children and had been around Pat & Guy a number of times, so everybody was happy.

Our friends, Jack & Vivian Hayes came to say good-bye, as well. We decided to go across the street to the new Recreation Building one more time with them. It had turned very cold and was windy, so we bundled everyone up. Vivian and I wore big coats and head scarves. I had a pretty, aqua blue bonnet and matching coat for Vicky, and Keith wore his brown corduroy outfit with matching cap. The Hayes oldest boy, Jackie, pulled the kids, including their little girl, in the wagon and off we went.

We went in the snack bar, had something to eat and a Pepsi. The Arab waiters were so eager to please and did a pretty good job. One was a little confused, gesturing with the wrong finger to determine how many we wanted. We were amused about that but knew we used the wrong gestures unknowingly with them at times, too, so weren’t upset. It was a nice outing for all of us.

Finally, on January 16, we left Saudi Arabia on the company plane with some of the others, spent one night in Amsterdam, Holland, and flew on to New York City the next day, arriving at 9 a.m. on January 18. Keith was 2 years, 8 months old, and Vicky was 1 year, 3 months old. She was making her first trip to the United States.

We all checked into the Park Sheraton Hotel. That would be Oran’s home for the next two months along with the other “bachelor” status employees on this program. Nearby apartments had been arranged for the men with wives and families staying with them. Ken and Lynn Cobb joined the others there from their honeymoon home leave. We had decided that the kids and I would go to Texas to be with my parents until the next phase.

The employees would go every day to the Aramco Headquarters Building at 505 Park Avenue in New York City for classes on the Hydroformer Plant. There was no actual Hydroformer in existence at that time (the only one had been in Whiting, Indiana, but had exploded. It was the greatest industrial explosion in the world up to that time.) A similar plant was in New Jersey, so when the classes were completed, the employees traveled there, back and forth, on subway trains for hands-on training. After a couple of months, the hands-on training would continue at an Exxon Plant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

That night, though, in New York, Kay and Gene Johnson, wanted us to go out with them. So, we had a hotel baby sitter stay with Keith and Vicky, and went to see Sammy’s Bowery Follies, a comical play featuring songs of the Gay 90’s, in the one and only Cabaret on the Bowery. They had everyone wear a fancy hat and the men fake mustaches. A delicious dinner topped off a very different, but interesting, evening.

It would be hard to leave, but on January 19, the next day, Oran put Keith, Vicky and I on a plane to Dallas at 12:05 p.m. My parents met us at the old Love Field Terminal on the east side runway on Lemon Avenue. Then we drove the 2 and 1/2 hours to their home in East Texas, a different place than the house in the woods I had left to go to Saudi Arabia. It was a frame house in east Turnertown on highway 64 to Henderson, Texas. It had been a converted barbershop, with house attached, next to Franklin’s Grocery Store, but an upgrade from before. Dad had been able to establish a successful electrical contracting business and things seemed to be going well.

Of course, traveling with 2 small children and staying in different places, even your parents home, was trying on all of us at times, but it was great to be with our family again. And before we knew it, 2 months had gone by and the Hydroformer training group moved from New York to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Keith, Vicky and I would join them. So my parents drove us to my sister & brother-in-law, Jolene and Bill Zoller’s home in Jena, Louisiana, and Oran drove up from Baton Rouge to pick us up. We had a mini-family reunion then, as my brother, Ben and new wife, Frances joined us there. It was a nice ending for a special trip home with my family.

In Baton Rouge, we moved into the Alamo Plaza Courts, a motel like setting, unusual in that day, with suites for families, including kitchens and a playground for children. We joined Chris & Marge DeSantis with Danny, and Ken & Lynn Cobb. The others in the program lived in various places in the city. The employees all went every day to the Exxon Plant there for more hands-on-training on the Hydroformer project. We wives just carried on life as normally as possible, and it was an enjoyable experience.

Various activities kept us busy that month of April 1955, including Easter. As usual, the Easter bunny brought baskets of eggs and goodies to the kids. Then we hid and hunted eggs a lot that day and shared a meal with Marge, Chris, and Danny, and Ken & Lynn. The next week Jack & Vivian Hayes visited us. They were in the States on long leave, so drove up from their home in Belle Chase, Louisiana, south of New Orleans. It was good to see them and find out what had been going on in Arabia since we left. When they started to leave, Vicky & Keith both got in their car, so Jack lifted them both out, but they kept trying to get back in. Keith was crying, and wanted to go with them. Since riding in a car so much in the States, they really liked it, and wanted to go all the time. Jack finally tipped his hat and got in the car with Vivian, closed the door and drove off. The kids finally settled down.

The last weekend we were in Baton Rouge, all employees and families had a cook out and picnic at a lovely green park, with moss-covered trees, by the Mississippi River. The weather was pleasantly warm, just about perfect for that sort of thing. There were nine men, five women, and three children, so a nice size group, but small enough to be comfortable with everybody. The men built a fire in the brick fireplace provided to cook the hot dogs. The women had either prepared or bought all the fixings and accompaniments.

The favorite drink, of course, was Schlitz beer, a treat that could not be purchased in Saudi Arabia. Oran was taking movies, so filmed several people opening a can, holding it up for view, then slowly taking a big swallow before giving the camera a great big smile. You would have thought we were making commercials, except there were no televisions in those days. But we wanted to take the movie back to Arabia to show people how enjoyable it was to drink beer, and how deprived we felt without it.

If you liked beer, that is, which I didn’t, but most of the group did, including Danny. He was old enough to stand and move around holding on to something, so he made the round of the picnic table-seating bench. It wasn’t his fault some people had put their beers on it, between swallows, or that young children are curious and thirsty. About half way around he was getting a little tipsy, but seemed to be having a good time. Marge wasn’t too pleased and soon put a stop to it, but we all thought it was pretty clever and cute. So Oran just had all the guys line up to show the beer. Then we all dug in and enjoyed the food and rest of the nice afternoon, which was a nice last outing for the Hydroformer training group in the States.

After that, the guys wound up the rest of their days at the Exxon Plant in Baton Rouge, then we all went back to New York City. From there, on April 23, 1955, we flew to Amsterdam, Holland on the Aramco company plane, the Flying Gazelle. It wasn’t a bad flight at all in those early years. Those unique planes, with their private compartments in the back, and the special, individual service we received from the company flight crews, made our flying to and from Arabia wonderful flying experiences.

Oran Wilson Disembarking Aramco Plane
Oran Wilson disembarks the Aramco plane.

Besides being smaller and roomier, the plane’s compartments were assigned to VIP’s first, then families with small children. As our children, Keith and Victoria were born in Arabia and quite young when we made our trips, we were fortunate enough to be assigned a compartment several times. On that particular flight, we shared a compartment with Chris & Marge DeSantis & Danny. That meant a bed for all of us the first night out (crossing the Atlantic), and a bed for the children the last and short night from Rome, Italy to Dhahran.

At the Amsterdam Airport, the ground stewardesses came out to the planes to carry our youngest children into the terminal. That freed us to help the older children, and carrying our, on board, luggage. It was the only airport we ever experienced that. A photographer also took our picture, which we received the next day before re-boarding our plane. From Amsterdam to Rome, however, Keith whimpered and complained of hurting and just wanted to sit quietly or lie down. At the Rome airport, he threw up all over his blanket, so we had to leave it there, which was upsetting to him. After we left Rome, I took his temperature, which was 103 degrees. We consulted a Doctor on board who told us just to let him rest, so we did. When he woke up about 30 minutes before we landed in Dhahran, on April 25th, his fever was gone, and he was all smiles and very active.

Colleen and Keith Wilson Disembarking
Colleen and Keith Wilson join the other Aramcons arriving in Amsterdam.

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