The green water of the Gulf at Ras Tanura
Half Moon Bay! What can I say? Living in 1950s Aramco, it was paradise. Not as much for the Ras Tanurans who lived at the beach, but for those of us in Dhahran living on the rocky jabal or the citizens of Abqaiq, planted deep within a vast sand dune field thirty miles from the coast, Half Moon Bay spelled happiness.
Aramco began in 1934 as a company called CASOC, a commercial venture between Standard Oil of California and the Saudi government, so it was natural that the company’s point men were surveyors and geologists from California. When they first saw this estuary south of Dhahran, they named it Half Moon Bay after the famous beach south of San Francisco. From the beginning, its warm, unspoiled waters lured us all: toddlers, mud castle builders, swimmers, fishermen, sailors, water skiers, snorkelers and beachgoers of every age. The shore was completely undeveloped, and the beaches as far as you could see were absolutely as pristine as they always had been – not a speck of plastic litter anywhere. Just clean sand bleeding off into the waist-high water for a few yards until sharply descending 15 or 20 feet at the drop-off. In the summer, the water temperature can get into the high 80s, but go out to the drop-off and dive under about six feet, and you’ll hit the thermocline — a sharply defined layer of cooler water — and the temperature will drop to the 70s. Cool and refreshing.
The entire coastline of Half Moon Bay was pretty much the way it had always been for thousands of years, if not more. A road had been built across the head of the bay, maybe in the 1940s, leaving to the north a lake a couple of hundred yards long that was cut off from the bay. Saltwater kept seeping in, but it never left, and the lake kept getting saltier and saltier. The water was much greener than in the bay, so we called it Salt Tablet Lake in honor of the hallowed salt tablet and the hunter green salt tablet dispensers that were ubiquitous in Aramco. Every weekend hundreds of adults drove past the Salt Tablet on the way to the Yacht Club. Hardly any of them bothered to check it out, but we did.
The Salt Tablet was probably saltier than the Dead Sea or the Great Salt Lake in Utah. We’d wade out into four feet of water and sit down to float around as if we were seated in chaise longues. Go out a little deeper and try to dive to the bottom, and you couldn’t do it. No matter how hard you swam, by the time you got past your knees, you‘d come bobbing back up like a cork. Of course, the hyper-salty water would really smart if you had any open cuts, but anything that could sting that sharply must be curative. Ben Michaels claimed that one dunking in the Salt Tablet banished his athlete’s foot forever. Smith swore that its waters cured his leprosy in two minutes.
We’re all sixteen. Ben, Landis, and I are floating around in the Salt Tablet with Jenny and Marie. Splashing each other, trying to dive down, bobbing around talking about the party tonight at Barclay’s. It’s August around two in the afternoon. The temperature is about 125 degrees, and the UV Hazard Index is about 20 points over death ray, so we are obviously having a great time. The lake ends about thirty feet north of the road, and in the mud of the shore, water seeps up from the bay in bubbling geyser pots tinted with salts in shades of green and blue. The definition of quicksand is a phenomenon where water surfaces up from below, through the sand to make it a quagmire of suspended mud. So naturally, we wiggled into the quicksand and gradually sank ourselves into the yielding mud. It was cooling once you were in past your calves. Ben and Landis were bulky guys, so they had to vigorously work their way into the ooze. Jenny wasn't enthusiastic at all about this adventure but gamely settled well beyond her calves into the mud. However, Marie, skinny as a pencil — like Twiggy — thought this was the most fun and quickly sank above her waist into the cool mud bath.
Literally embedded in the shore of Salt Tablet lake, under a violent sun without hats, T-shirts or sunscreen, we are happily chattering away when Ben relates a story he had just read. A French orchid collector in the Amazon stumbles upon a bearded English geologist trapped in quicksand within a pond - immersed in water up to the chin of his upraised face. The man mutters something that the Frenchman can't quite hear, but never mind, this fellow needs immediate help. Looking around he finds a long, heavy moss-covered log and with incredible effort pulls it over and tips it up vertically at the edge of the pond. The English man’s eyes grow large, and speaking carefully, so the water won’t spill down his throat, says hoarsely, “Don’t make waves,” just as the Frenchmen topples the log into the water. It turned out poorly. It probably wasn't the right story to tell at that time. Suddenly Marie, who was now immersed to her belly button, began to reconsider. She starts struggling to free herself from the muck. Which of course made her sink deeper. We’re all only a couple of feet from each other, but, wiggle as we may, we really aren’t extracting ourselves too quickly, and she seems to keep sinking. Marie is getting almost hysterical now, “Guys! Get me out! Now! Please!”
Sunk beneath his knees, Landis, who has an eye out for Marie anyway, tries to bull his way free and rescue her — only to get even more mired. Ben is laughing at Landis, as he struggles to use his arms to pull himself out leg by leg with limited success. Marie is panicking, when Jenny, who has quietly finessed herself out of the mud, steps over to Marie, hugs her under the arms, and gradually lifts her free before Ben and Landis can clear their calves from the quicksand. So much for their macho self-esteem. Me? I am up to mid-thigh the farthest away from everybody, so I get to watch this unfold like a skit on Saturday Night Live.
Once we are all extricated from the mud, we dive back into the Salt Tablet to clean off, and, soaking wet, we head back to the Yacht Club. It’s about a half-mile away along the smooth, curving beach of Half Moon Bay. As we walk along, the water quickly evaporates, and we look like five salt-encrusted ghosts drifting along the shore, talking about Barclay’s party that night.