© Mark Lowey 2023. All rights reserved.

Part 1 of this story describes the helicopter ride with Aramco employee Tom Swords and concludes with a shout out to Tom, his whereabouts and fate unknown.

Tales of the Bedouin Part XXX (Tom Swords, Part 1)

Tom Found!

Shortly after the publication of Part 1 in the Aramco Expats Highlights, Kelly Swords, Tom’s daughter, saw the article and wrote to Tom and her mother, Jo, in their family’s group text.

Kelly: “The article ends asking where Tom Swords is.”

Jo: “I saw. I am emailing Mark, the author, right now.”

Tom: “Mark was a great guy, and he always took care of Kelly when I was playing (basketball) and he wasn’t – super nice story. And did you see that good looking guy beside Jim (Sides) in the back seat of that helicopter?”

Jo’s email to me, dated July 12, 2023, read:

“Mark, I am Jo Swords, Tom's ex-wife, and I just read your article. Can you believe I have that photo of Thunder (the cat) you took while house sitting for us on my refrigerator right now? Wow!”

“Tom lives in WV and I'm in NC. Our daughter, Kelly, in California, saw your article first and let us know via the family text. As I remember, you also flew over our 7-Unit (residence in the Abqaiq community) that day so Kelly could wave at her dad in the helicopter. The girls and I left Abqaiq and returned to the USA in '84 and Tom joined us in '85.”

“I enjoyed your article and the photos.”

Jo’s email closed with a tongue-in-cheek warning: “Tom has not changed, he will talk your ear off.”

It wasn’t long before Tom and I connected by telephone. Jo’s prediction was spot on. Our first call lasted over ninety minutes and the second, one hour. I learned interesting details about the twelve months that we overlapped in Abqaiq, about his career, and his life after Aramco.


The following errors were made in Part 1:

  • Tom comes from West Virginia, not Georgia.
  • Tom is now 77 years old, not “around age 73.”
  • Tom was not a pipeline inspector at the Qurayyah Seawater Plant,[1] he was Maintenance Engineer.

The helicopter became available after a discharge pipeline pump station went down, emergency protocols were put in place and the helicopter mobilized. Fortunately, the pump station was quickly brought back online, and the helicopter was not needed.


Raised in rural West Virginia near the border with Ohio, Tom Swords had a difficult early childhood. He suffered from a serious case of measles that damaged his vision and stunted his physical development. Tom also overcame profound dyslexia that held him back in elementary and middle school. He relied on a near-photographic memory to excel academically and, in high school, came into his own athletically.

Tom entertained full-ride football scholarship offers from Notre Dame and other big universities and chose Virginia Tech in western Virginia. There he played offensive right guard on the football team and was also a heavy weight wrestler. Tom received a Bachelor of Science in Ceramic Engineering, with a Minor in Metallurgy.

Tom at Aramco

At age 32, Tom began his Aramco career as Maintenance Engineer at the Qurayyah Seawater Plant.[1] He arrived in Abqaiq in August 1978 with his wife, Jo and their daughter, Kelly, who was just 20 months old. Tom’s family grew with the birth of a second daughter, Katie, who was born in 1980.

Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
Tom and Kelly in March 1979.
Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
Tom and Katie in 1981.

Tom had an engaging personality and the unique ability to assess problems and find solutions. “I can’t read or write, but I can kick a** on everything else,” he said, describing himself. Adding, “I never met someone I didn’t want to be friends with.”

This straightforward, team-oriented, hands-on approach won over his colleagues and Aramco supervisors, alike. Tom enjoyed a rapid series of grade code promotions and salary increases. He was given more and more responsibilities in the roles of Senior Operations Foreman, Maintenance Superintendent, Operations Superintendent, and Oil Field Superintendent in charge of maintenance, operations, and construction at the Khurais Gas Lifting project and the Ain Dar Area GOSP program.

When the Khurais Gas Lifting Project fell behind schedule, Tom was brought in to put things back on track. In addition to the main construction and equipment installation activities, Tom managed the workers’ camp [2] and a small airport used for equipment and supplies delivery. Tom understood that happy workers were productive workers and thought he could increase morale among the workforce by installing tennis and basketball courts in the camp. He also ordered Aramco-logoed jackets and ball caps for everyone. Tom signed off on the courts, jackets, and caps without prior approval from management and was reprimanded, accordingly. Tom told me, “Aramco accounting wanted me fired. Management wanted to promote me.” Sure enough, morale improved, productivity ramped up, and the project was completed on time. Tom was promoted.

Special Assignments

Tom was selected to participate on a special reliability team, along with experts from G.E., Chevron, and Exxon, to perform detailed assessments of failures and determine optimum prevention measures. One such case involved chronic failures of safety relief valves whose open-and-shut actuators stopped functioning. Tom discovered that the actuators’ solenoids were melting in the hot sun, and he helped devise a simple attachment to provide shade for the actuators. Problem solved.

Another unique assignment had to do with high-speed vibrations that can cause problems with pumps and other rotary equipment. Tom, along with several experts from around the world, served on an Aramco panel that met for ten days every three months. Again, Tom’s problem-solving skills were tapped, and several important failure prevention measures were developed by this panel.

Tom, grateful for the many opportunities at Aramco, told me that, during his eight short years with the company, he received, “forty years’ worth of life teaching.”

Life in Abqaiq

As a former collegiate athlete, Tom was looking to stay in shape and participated in the adult softball and basketball programs. On basketball nights he would regularly bring along two-year-old daughter, Kelly. She would run around the gym and chase loose balls, minded by idle players waiting for the next game.

My group of friends in the contractor camp was always looking for a game. After work we would borrow a truck and go to the Aramco school gym. Sometimes Aramco security would stop us at the community gate, and we had to telephone an Aramco friend or acquaintance to allow us in. Additionally, some of the Aramco players were opposed to letting us play on informal, open-play, basketball evenings and made complaints to the Recreation Department.

Tom Swords always vouched for us and pointed out that our positive presence raised the level of competition. But it came as no surprise when we were not allowed to participate in the organized adult basketball league and, instead, were invited to referee the games.

Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
Pick-up basketball game in the Abqaiq school gym, 1979.

Tom’s Next Chapter

Upon returning to the USA in 1985, Tom took up a series of big jobs, including Senior Rotating Equipment Engineer at Fluor Daniel in Houston and Vice President of Operations for a company that specialized in the steam cleaning (soot blowers) of coal-fired boilers in Atlanta. Finally, a recruiter contacted Tom with a job offer to run an industrial rubber products plant on the Ohio River, just fifty miles from his beloved mother who resided in Martinsville, West Virginia. Offer accepted.

Mother Swords passed away eleven years ago, and Tom has since retired. Now he spends his time managing a portfolio of two dozen apartments and houses that he owns in Ohio.

1979 Journal

I found several entries in my journal related to the period during which Tom and I overlapped in Abqaiq.

Monday, January 22. Went to the gym to play. We can’t play in the Aramco league, but we might be able to referee for $10 per game.

Monday, February 12. Went to referee games. In the first game a guy dislocated his knee. Then my partner, Ken, kicked out Bob for a flagrant kicking foul. Then I ejected another guy for yelling a strong, “F You.” But otherwise, easily well-reffed. Good work out. (Tom remembers this night and told me that one of the players used a racial slur that sparked the scuffle. Tom stepped in and subdued the protagonist, using a wrestling hold, until things calmed down.)

Wednesday, February 14. Jim and I went to the gym to play volleyball, but there was a school dance instead!

Tuesday, March 20. Very windy evening. Went to Aramco to watch the King and His Court.[3] (Tom Swords was selected to play against legendary King and His Court, the four-man, barnstorming softball team led by pitcher-entertainer Eddie Feigner. Tom told me, “I was one of two or three players who got a hit off Feigner that night. His underhand pitches would start around six inches off the ground and then, suddenly, rise into the strike zone. I batted third and hit a two-out, line-shot single to right-center. I was stranded on first base when the next batter struck out.” The King and His Court won the game that night.)

Monday, May 14. Went to the gym to play b’ball, and the school play was rehearsing again! Waited it out for some good 4-on-4 full court. Tom was there. And the college kids are back . . .

Sunday, June 24. Lost again in softball over at Aramco camp. We stink. Kelly Anne Swords came up to me with a hesitant, “Hi Mawrk.” (Kelly, who I knew from basketball, had a charming southern accent. When I told Jo about this she said, “Kelly was a very cute, sociable and talkative 2½ year old.”)

Tuesday, June 26. Tom took Jim and me in the helicopter to Fazran and back! Wow. Saw all the Bedu tents. Flew over Aramco camp.

Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
Jo and Kelly wave to the helicopter from the open door of their end-unit residence in Abqaiq.
Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
A Bedouin encampment near Fazran GOSP.

Monday, August 20. Went to see Tom Swords to check out his house. (The Swords family left on holiday the next day and Tom asked me to house-sit and feed the cats.) We BS’d for a while and he told us he was a college football offensive guard and heavy-weight wrestler at Virginia Tech. Went with Tom to play b’ball, 4-on-4 full court. Had a drink at his place afterwards – he has amazing cats!

Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
Hanging out in Tom’s backyard, Mark, Robert, Jim, John.

Friday, August 24. Got a sedan ride to Dhahran for softball game. Won 10-3. I went 2-4 and got really dirty. A belligerent player (on the DHA team) ended up throwing dirt at the lady umpire from Abqaiq. Ted (my teammate) downed him with a flying dropkick to the chest! A brawl ensued in which I took no part. Weird scene. Library and ice cream after.

Saturday, August 25. Climbed a tree at Tom’s to get a nerf ball. Started seriously packing. (I was preparing to depart Saudi permanently on September 1st.)

Thursday, August 30. Went to Vince’s to ice down the drinks and took them over to Tom’s house. I stayed to set up house for party. About 25-30 people at its peak. The UK women Carl brought were far out. It all ended at once and everyone left. Even Mickey came! I crashed there. (Tom and Jo, apologies for throwing a not-so-wild farewell party at your house while you were gone!)

Friday, August 31. TOMORROW! Woke up and visited Jim and Dort McMillan in D-209 for bloody marys and then breakfast at the Ain Nakhl Golf Club. Good pork bacon! Returned to Tom’s to find the boys had already cleaned up the house!

Saturday, September 1. KSA DEPARTURE DAY! Up early, went over to Tom’s, did a laundry load, hung it up to dry in backyard. Returned at lunch to collect clothes and finished packing. Went to office to get USD cash and passport. On my way!

Keeping Up With The Past

The expat’s fate is to make friends quickly and easily, briefly mourn when you or your friends move on, make more friends, and repeat. Sometimes we lose touch and forget about people who might have meant a lot to us decades ago. It has been an unexpected pleasure to reconnect with Tom and his family after 44 years.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Tom if he has returned to Saudi or attended any of the reunions. Tom said, “I haven’t been back to Saudi or to an Aramco reunion. My daughters have talked about going back. Not keeping up with my past is one of many shortcomings and, with my great fortune in life experience, I very much regret it. I have admiration for people like you and Jo who are better at it. Keep it up!”

- - -

Side Bar

The Swords Daughters

Kelly Anne Swords

Born 1977. Lived in Abqaiq from 20 months to 7½ years old.
Learned to speak Arabic in preschool at age 3.
Kelly A. Swords, MD, MPH, FACS, FAAP.
Associate Professor of Urology, University of California San Diego.
Pediatric Urology, Rady Children's Hospital.

Katie Lynn Swords-Thurman

Born 1980. Lived in Abqaiq from 3 months to 4½ years old.
Associate Professor, Modern Dance, University of the Arts, Philadelphia.
Married with one daughter.

Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2

Tom’s and Mark’s Saudi drivers licenses in 1978.

Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
March 1979, Kelly and Minus, the Siamese cat.
Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
The Swords’ other cat, Thunder.
Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
1981, Kelly, Tom and Katie (Tom wears the famous Khurais ball cap).
Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
Swords family in Abqaiq, circa 1982, Kelly, Katie, Tom, Jo.
Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
Family trip to Khurais in December 1983.
Aramco Helicopter Ride 1979, Tom Swords, Part 2
Swords family in 2012, Jo, Katie, Tom, Kelly.


[1] Qurayyah Seawater Treatment Plant. Arabian Sun. January 27, 2021. https://www.aramcolife.com/en/publications/the-arabian-sun/articles/2021/week-05/qurayyah-seawater-mgs

[2] Workers Camp at Khurais Gas Lifting Project. 1980. Source: Tom Swords. 127 operations staff, 67 maintenance and admin staff, three dining halls (Arab/Indian, Asian, American/British) and one bakery.

[3] Eddie Feigner, Hard-Throwing, Barnstorming Showman of Softball, Dies at 81. New York Times. February 13, 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/13/sports/othersports/13feigner.html#:~:text=A%20former%20marine%20with%20a,%2C%20on%20March%2026%2C%201925.


Mark Lowey
Mark in Abqaiq, 1978.

About the Author: California-born and raised, Mark Lowey - known to many as Abu Jack - earned a degree in Construction Management and embarked on a career that started in Saudi Arabia and continued around the world. By luck or fate, his final project before retirement took him back to Saudi Arabia.

A self-taught amateur photographer, Mark documented his early days in Saudi while living in Abqaiq and working in the vast oil fields of the Kingdom’s Eastern Province.

Mark and his wife are now retired and have returned to California.

Email: moloworking1@gmail.com


Part 31 Part 33