Not quite 4,000 days before the Cairo crash, I could be found in Glenshaw, a suburb outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was the day after Christmas, 1955. My father had joined giant Aramco (the Arabian American Oil Company) thirteen months before, and we would soon be with him in KSA, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With Dad’s employment (badge number 17208), I had become an Aramco Brat, a phrase with a parallel etymology to Army Brat. This identifier I initially found unfair but came to love. Now I was headed off to live the role. Before departure we’d been very busy—obtaining passports, selling our car, preparing our house for renters—added to what I imagine were Mom’s many personal tasks. It had been a tough year for her, highlighted by three fender-benders, including one that had left me bloodied against a very unforgiving dashboard. Lucky for her, the policeman who witnessed the accident ordered her to leave the scene immediately and take me to the hospital … we went home. Also painful for me, were the shots and inoculations for all sorts of scary diseases, including smallpox, typhus, tetanus, and typhoid—about fifteen in all, spread out over four trips to the clinic.
A neighbor drove Mom, my almost-six-month-old sister Elizabeth (Beth), and a nine-year-old version of myself to the downtown Pittsburgh train station. It was my first time on a big intercity train, and we traveled stylishly in an old Pullman car through the drizzly day. After dark, Mom’s older brother, Sam, a music professor at Juilliard, picked us up at Penn Station in New York City. He drove us to White Plains, where he and my aunt Alice had an apartment. My memory blurs concerning the next 30 or so hours but clears again for the late afternoon of December 28, with Sam driving us to Idlewild, which was later renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Within a few years of my arrival in Saudi Arabia, the only American on a drilling rig would be the foreman. Saudis had mastered much of this difficult and dangerous work.
We checked in for our flight on the Oryx, one of Aramco’s three DC-6s. I was mildly disappointed not to be flying on the Camel or the Gazelle; I’d at least heard of those animals. What was an oryx? (Later I learned that, when viewed in profile and from just the right vantage point, this species of antelope appears to be a unicorn.) Boarding itself was fun: my responsibility the entire trip was to carry Mom’s Irish harp (used in her professional folk-song concerts) while she carried Beth and associated baby paraphernalia. We also had a change of clothes in an Aramco carry-on bag and two big suitcases that were loaded into the baggage compartment. In those days there were no enclosed ramps leading to a plane’s door, instead we struggled up slippery steps wheeled up to the plane. As a six-year-old, I had flown by myself from New York to Portland, Maine, but this was nothing like that commercial flight. The three of us were in the back of the plane in a small, semi-enclosed “first-class” section with one youngish couple. The husband left us when Mom nursed Beth to head up front and join a group of eight or so of the roughest looking men I had ever seen. That group, a drilling rig crew, wasted no time in consuming alcohol in apparently unlimited quantities, all while being unfailingly friendly to me and courteous to Mom. [*2] More jarring still was the jumble of equipment that filled the aisle and most of the seats. Long pipes, chunky machinery, all kinds of priority items the oil company needed ASAP. It was enthralling.
The flight left on schedule. The flight attendant, a woman who must have had supreme self-confidence to deal with the fraternity up front, closed off our area and—presto—created four beds. Despite being incredibly excited, I soon fell asleep, the raucous voices mixing with the roar of the engines. We were headed east-northeast toward Gander, Newfoundland. When I awoke, it was pitch black outside the window and the plane had quieted except for engine noise. Hours passed, and eventually a smattering of lights appeared below—we were landing. It was my first night landing, and the first time I’d been in a foreign country.
Gander seemed much bigger than Idlewild, a huge airbase critical in World War II. [*3] A little more than a decade earlier, thousands of bombers had landed there to refuel before heading to England and the fighting in Europe. Leaving the harp on the plane, the three of us walked to the terminal. The air was cool, damp, and windy, but not raining. Right away I noticed that none of the vegetation was more than eighteen inches high, and every green thing seemed to be permanently leaning with the wind. As Mom and Beth headed to the ladies’ room for a diaper change and some nursing, one of the locals engaged me in some friendly conversation. “Where are you headed?” he asked. “Arabia,” I responded. Out came an undecipherable Canadianism followed by, “What an adventure!” He sure had that right.
After the plane refueled, and we’d collected a much more subdued group of fellow passengers, we took off while it was still dark. I slept through the coming sunrise and much of the next fifteen or so hours. Did we land and refuel in Shannon, Ireland? Maybe. For sure we landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport in the afternoon. For the first time, we went through a foreign country’s security, where there was some confusion when my sister didn’t have her own passport (she was included in Mom’s—whose dumb idea was that?). We were then driven to the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, where we spent the night. Believe me it was grand, as it would continue to be on our future one-night stops in Amsterdam (Aramco had a large office in the Netherlands and an ongoing relationship with the Krasnapolsky). Both drives to and from the hotel were seemingly in rush hour, and I saw masses of commuters on bicycles as well as the occasional bombed building, courtesy of the invasion by Germany during World War II. This was not Pittsburgh.
Mom, Beth, and I land at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Aramco Brats of my vintage all seem to have a similar first trip to Arabia photo, although it might be snapped at Shannon, Ireland, or less likely Athens, Greece.
The next morning the Oryx took off again, continuing east. But somehow things were completely different. Now I was rested and an old hand, nothing was strange. Stepping over machinery, finding my seat, handling the harp, bantering with the roughnecks all came easily to me. Beth spent most of that day in my arms while Mom dozed as we flew on and on, stopping for fuel first in Rome and then in Beirut. I got off during both stops, determined to be able to say I had been “on the ground” in both Italy and Lebanon. None of my friends back home could say they’d been anywhere but Canada. I heard Arabic for the first time in Lebanon, and finally we headed for Dhahran, flying through the night.
* * * *
Dawn, January 2, 1956, the sky a crystal-clear blue as the pilot announced ten-mile visibility. At first the ground we were flying over didn’t look much like desert—at least it didn’t look like the desert of French Foreign Legion films. Very little sand, mostly a gravelly plain. Mom jabbered constantly about getting off the plane, as excited as though she were about to play a concert. I tuned her out, thinking ahead to a hug from Dad as I handled the harp and my new responsibility, our carry-on bag. Mom would take infant Beth, who had endured the whole trip remarkably well, with very little crying—and when she did cry, it was always quietly.
Soon we were landing on a beautiful strip of black asphalt: Dhahran Airfield, Saudi Arabia. The weather was perfect, dry and cool. The terminal building was a half tube of rounded arching corrugated steel, a very large Quonset hut open at each end. Confusion seemed to be the operative word, with the Saudi officials trying to organize customs and general security, while the Americans kind-of followed directions. Dad, a tall man, was easy to spot, but the group milling about kept us from getting close. Then Mom shouted, “Lew!” in her booming operatic singing voice. He gave her a nod, which she obviously found inadequate, and eventually they made their way to each other and hugged. This is really embarrassing, I thought. Keeping the harp in a death grip as our flight’s suitcases were dumped together on the ground, I watched as passengers sorted them out and moved on to customs, which involved opening the bags and, if nothing looked unusual, getting a chalk mark. I wouldn’t let anyone touch, let alone chalk, the harp—and I kept thinking the whole time that if ever there were a way to bring in a tommy gun, this would be it.
It was late morning before we finally left the airfield in a taxi. The driver was from Somaliland, which I later learned was an African country where they spoke Arabic. Automobiles had only been recently introduced here, and in the mid 1950s, almost all taxi drivers in Eastern Arabia were from Somaliland or Yemen/Aden. (I was surprised to learn that the first lesson of a truck-driver training course Dad had begun for Aramco workers was: how to open the door. The second lesson? Don’t get out until the vehicle has stopped moving.)
We headed toward Al Khobar. My view from the front seat was of sand in every direction. And this was sand that looked like it was supposed to—drifts ten feet and higher, with rippled patterns carved by the wind. The sand dunes rose slowly on the windward side and then dropped off sharply on the lee side. Almost always they were in the form of shallow crescents. The occasional metal sign, usually a Pepsi ad, was always pitted, the worse for wear. “Aren’t there any Coke signs?” I asked my Dad over the seat. “No, Coke has not respected the boycott.” I wasn’t exactly sure what a boycott was—but was certain I could respect it. “But we can drink Coke?” was my second question. “Nope, Coke is not allowed. But mostly you’re not going to get that or other things because no one here wants them or can afford them.” I’d spent the first six years of my life in three different miserable trailer parks and thought of myself as poor. So this place was really, really poor.
That impression strengthened as we entered Al Khobar, seemingly via the town’s only paved street. The cross streets were all dirt. Our taxi was the only visible automobile among numerous rickety wooden carts pulled by donkeys. Some of the donkeys had red manes, which, Dad explained, meant their owners had made the pilgrimage to Mecca known as the hajj.
All the buildings were constructed of concrete, most only one story high, and everything was covered in dust and grime. We soon stopped in front of the three-story Al Suroor building and unloaded the taxi. Across the street an open lot smelled distinctly of urine, an impression confirmed the following morning.
Dad led us up one flight of stairs, then down a short hall to apartment ithnayn, number two. Inside were two bedrooms and a common room, with a kitchen nook holding a gas range/stove and a refrigerator. Since we would only have electricity for two to three hours each morning and two hours each evening, opening the refrigerator at other times was strictly forbidden. There would never be milk. Beth had a crib and I had a bed in the smaller of the two bedrooms. The common room had a card table, four metal folding chairs, and a plastic radio that Dad had bought. A strange wooden couch with cushions, a matching armchair, a small bookcase, and the beds were Aramco issue. Those were the furnishings … that’s it. No telephone, no TV, but there was a balcony. That balcony figured in the very specific instructions I received that first night. Whenever I awoke and found my parents’ door closed, I was to go out and notice everything unusual in the street scene. Over the next five months, that view and my activities on the ground below proved far more entertaining than television or movies. The trip was over; what I later thought of as my greatest trip—both an adventure itself and a start to ten years of further adventures. My nomadic youth as an Aramco Brat was launched.
About the Author
Rich Howard lives comfortably in Guilford, Connecticut, with his wife, Yvette, and two cats. Close by are his sons, Robert and Paul, their wives, and his five grandchildren His working past included managing both billion-dollar mutual funds and the similar-sized investment portfolios of institutional clients. He is now trying to become semiretired. However, the supposed occasional hour spent analyzing energy securities continues to engage him and typically leads to far more work Boiling Point Energy, the small family investment partnership he helps manage, is named for the Ras Tanura home he left so many years ago.
Rich has served on the Board of Trustees of both Millikin University and Quinnipiac University where he is happy to now have emeritus status, having largely reduced responsibilities. Other enjoyed activities include woodworking, gardening, and reading Thanks to the inactivity caused by COVID-19, he is “probably” retired from playing basketball. Aramco Brat, his first book, has taught him that writing is hard work. In the unlikely event he authors a second, it will be an espionage novel that plagiarizes Brat and fills in the blanks of what might and may well have happened during his time in Arabia.
From Pittsburgh trailer park to Harvard Business School, a youth's journey set in the turbulent Middle East spiked with tragedy, wrong turns, unforced errors, luck, espionage, and family love. Whether life grinds you down or polishes you...depends on what you're made of.