Tim Barger
Tim at 16 with his own, actually-weighed, 32-pound hamoor

I’m fairly certain that there is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity. I can only plead not guilty on the grounds that it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Actually it is much better to think of this story as entirely a work of fiction, and any resemblance to anything that happened in Dhahran during the summer of 1964 is entirely coincidental.

His parents were out for a party, so Landis, Ben and I gathered at Smith’s house. His dad’s den, built into the formerly screened-in patio, was a comfortable room with one of those skinny-legged, maple wood Hi-Fi cabinets. Smith was playing his lone Bo Diddley album with the bass cranked to ten. We were 16 years old, sophomore returning students. All of us went to male-only boarding schools, so whatever we once knew about social graces was eradicated, and we had not the slightest idea of how to talk to girls. Except for Landis. Somehow, he was bilingual.

Our passion was spearfishing. At least four days a week, we were at the Dammam Pier, at Half Moon Bay, at the wonderful gap south of Khobar where the Gulf ebbed and flowed into a vast inland bay. Quite illegally, we dove off the North Pier in Ras Tanura where today you’d be shot on discovery. Snorkeling around, peering under countless underwater rock ledges searching for that tasty rock grouper, the Hamoor. Every once in a while you’d be greeted by a sea snake the size of a bicycle’s inner tube boiling out of a hole straight at your face. Once Tommy H. happened to be using a trident spearhead instead of the usual single point, so he took a shot at a giant sea snake. He barely clipped it, but it attacked him so aggressively that he was desperately back slashing at it with his fins, trying to fend it off. Before it could sink its fangs into his ankle and inject him with its deadly poisonous venom, he managed to reload and get off a fatal shot. I saw the snake in his backyard in Dhahran. It was six and a half feet long, taller than Tommy, and as thick as a baseball bat.

For the four of us, snorkeling and spear hunting was the highest form of art and friendship. Something that we all could do together, yet individually at the same time. And, of course, it gave us a common mythology as we shared our different adventures and travails in intricate detail. Braving the polluted waters off the Khobar Pier, dancing with porpoises in Half Moon Bay, almost spearing a skipjack ten feet away in open water. Grabbing one of those two-foot-long rock sharks that idled in three feet of water near the shore at the Dammam pier. Holding it in your hands, the creature’s strength and vitality is so electric that you can barely hold on to it. Falling into awe when a hundred-pound green sea turtle paddles by at ten feet down. But most of the time, just cruising along, mesmerized by the underwater world and hearing Jacques Costeau in our heads.

So now we’re in Smith’s den listening to Bo explain to us that, “You can’t know a book by looking at its cover, and you can’t judge a woman by looking at her mother.” The beat goes on, when Smith says, “I shot a 35-pound hamoor yesterday.” We are instantly suspicious. Thirty-five pounds is a serious sized grouper, and any of us would have called everyone once we got back to camp. Landis says, “My ass, you got a 35-pound hamoor. You probably speared your hamoorhoid,” which was pretty funny. I say, “Where is it?” Ben says, “Yeah, show us the fillets. Are they in your freezer?” Smith’s eyes squint behind his coke-bottle glasses, and he cackles, “No. It’s buried in the side yard.” “What?” With an ear-to-ear smile across his broad face, he tells us the story.

He was diving on a favorite haunt, a raft made of four oil barrels, a bunch of 2 by 4s and a wooden deck that had sunk years ago in 20 feet of water about 30 yards from the Yacht Club pier. Apparently it was a primo habitat for hamoor because you could snag a good-sized hamoor one day, and the next day it would be replaced by another alpha hamoor. Smith had made several dives on the raft when he spotted the big fish hidden in the shadows at the back of the raft. He surfaced, took a deep breath and then swam down to claim his prize. He stealthily peeked under the raft’s barnacled lip. The grouper was still there. He slipped his arbalette — a spear gun powered by rubber cords — under the raft and fired. There was no silt in the water. No struggle. The fish didn’t even twitch. He was quite pleased because he had obviously delivered a clean kill – the rarely realized ideal of the true spear fisher ethic. He pulled at the spear to retrieve his fish but it wouldn’t come free. He pulled some more but ran out of breath. Reluctantly he abandoned his spear gun which was still attached to the spear and surfaced. After a few minutes he dove down again. He grabbed the spear and started tugging and twisting at it. A minute later as he swam for air, he realized that the spear had embedded itself into a water-logged 2 by 4. He either had to free the spear from the raft or admit defeat and cut the line to his spear gun.

At 16, saving face is everything, so he spent more than an hour, diving down 20 feet every few minutes to struggle with the spear, trying to bend it back and forth for 90 seconds at a time before surfacing. Finally, after constantly worrying and working the shaft, he freed it. He had to drop it to get another lungful of air and immediately submerged to claim victory. He retracted the mangled spear, bent in at least three places, and then the mighty hamoor. Triumphant, he rose from the depths and swam to shore with his trophy in tow. At the beach he pulled off his mask and snorkel and examined the large grouper. It was actually about 26 pounds, but in his tiny reptilian brain he rounded it off to 35. He looked at its eyes and thought, That’s strange, it has cataracts. Inspecting its gills, he noticed a light moss at the edges. He hefted it, and it wasn’t pliable like a normal fish. It was fairly stiff. All of a sudden, a flashbulb went off in the deep recesses of the tiny ganglia that operated his brain — he realized that the instant before he pulled the trigger the hamoor had seemed to be swimming upside down. He had speared a dead hamoor.

By the time Smith finished his story, we were all weeping from laughter. And in a strange way Smith probably enjoyed making us dissolve into hysterics as much as he would have gloried over spearing a five-foot barracuda in open water. Life is very good. Bo is telling us that he wears a cobra skin for a neck tie, when Landis says, “So it wasn’t 35 pounds?” Smith recoils in innocence, “At least. I wouldn’t kid you. I can prove it.” So for some totally inexplicable reason all four of us have left the air conditioned den with Bo Diddley and ice-cold Tuborg ginger ale to cluster on a very humid August night in the side yard as Smith excavates the 35-pound hamoor that he buried yesterday.

He gleefully uncovers the corpse, and we are knocked over by the atomic bomb of smell warfare. Smith has a head cold, but we’re dying. He clears the dirt off and says, “Thirty-five pounds, easy.” Defying his gag reflex, Landis says, “No way. Maybe 25.” At this point Smith is a little bit touched in the head, he replies, “No honest. I’ll prove it to you.” And he reaches down, grabs the hamoor by its eye sockets and lifts it out of its grave. “See. Look how long it is. At least 32 pounds,” he says with a grin as he holds it up to chest level. Ten seconds later the green, decayed tail fin slips off the fish back to the ground, and it is considerably shorter. This is absolutely hilarious.

By the standards of any civilized society from the most remote village in New Guinea to downtown Copenhagen, any vaguely normal person would re-bury the fish and move on in life. But not us. Simultaneously, we decide that the best possible thing to do is to aimlessly carry this rotting hamoor through the streets of Dhahran.

We go into the alley and head to 8th Street. It’s a still night and a broad street, but we’re on one side, and Smith with the fish is on the other, and we can barely stand the odor. At one point, the fish slips and touches one of his tennis shoes. This shoe will have to be subsequently burned and thrown away. Cracking each other up with wise-ass commentary, we naturally — and unintentionally — drift toward recreation until we come to the infamous intersection of Hoover, the street straight down from recreation and 8th Street. On the southwestern corner is the empty house of the recently retired Dr. Brown who delivered half of us and was a legendary figure in Aramco medicine. On the opposite side is a venerable, brick six-unit apartment shaped in a U that has been there forever. It wasn’t really our fault. We never had any plan or intentions. We were just walking around with a dead fish. However, when we rounded the corner and saw the seven-unit, we simultaneously had the same inspiration and didn’t need to say a word.

Five minutes later at ten o’clock on a weeknight, Smith, the fish and I are in the always-unlocked AC room at the rear of the apartments. I lift out the AC unit’s heavy, steel air filter, Smith drops in the hamoor, I replace the filter, and we are gone like the wind. The four of us sprint across Hoover into the alley behind Dr. Brown’s, enter through the back gate and make our way to the front yard to watch the apartments through the hedge. “Nothing is happening.” “Not a thing.” “Jeez Smith. That shoe smells horrible.” “Wait. A light went on in that window.” “Someone is walking through the kitchen.” “There’s a light in that apartment.” Suddenly, all the lights of the building went on like an overloaded switchboard. Crouched behind the hedge, we are dying — not from laughter but from trying to stifle it, so we don’t reveal our hiding place. Then a porch light directly across from us blinks on. A lean, grey-haired guy wearing a bathrobe opens the door and leans his head out. Like a pointer, he takes a couple of deep sniffs, and we completely lose it. Rolling in convulsions on Dr. Brown’s lawn. We take another peek, and now all the back doors are opening. This is hilariously funny, like watching a Buster Keaton movie in real-time, but our survival demands that we make ourselves scarce, so we flee down the alley away from the apartments. We are stoked and full of energy.

Our brilliant insight is that if we circle around to Recreation and then innocently happen to be walking down Hoover to 8th, we can check out the chaos. It takes us about six minutes. There are already a dozen adults on the corner. No one pays any attention to us because the fire truck rolls up to join a dozen trucks and cars clustered on the curb. In the courtyard, in front of the building, the residents are shuffling around in a daze talking to each other. There’s the grizzled night foreman, Burt Simmons. Pasty-faced Bricklin, the head of security, has a half dozen of his Saudi patrolman standing around.

A black sedan pulls up, and Quint Tocksin, the District Manager, steps out of the car. Lean and tall, he’s resplendent in a white linen suit, highly-polished, black Italian loafers and his thick wavy hair carefully pomaded. There is a cloud of dark fury floating above his head. He has been at a state dinner with the governor of the province and the visiting president of Standard Oil of California — and now he is a plumber responding to a service call for a backed-up toilet. He told Burt that on the phone, but the night foreman had 30 years of experience in oil camps from Indonesia to Peru. Burt said, “But Quint, what if this is the canary in the coal mine? It could be a helluva lot worse. Some damn thing that’s leaking Hydrogen Sulfide gas into the system. It smells damn awful, not like rotting eggs but maybe something deadlier.”

Quint really, really wants this to be a fouled sewer pipe, so he can hop in his Buick and get back to the banquet. As the crowd recognizes him, he straightens his posture and dons the confident face of the manager who has seen everything before. Even though he has no idea what is going on. He walks straight up to the refugees clustered on the lawn courtyard in front of their apartments. Greets by name the people he knows and nods to the others. He really doesn’t want to hear their whining, so he immediately says how sorry the company is for their plight. We’ll take care of it right away. It’s probably just a backed-up sewer pipe.

He would have given them all free drinks coupons if he had them. He’s rescued when the bow-legged Burt Simmons ambles over for a private conversation. “Where is this smell coming from?” says Quint. “It’s everywhere. Bricklin’s guys are trying to pinpoint it.” “It doesn’t smell too bad.” “Not until you get closer.” “Oh, hell. It’s just a clogged toilet.” “The worst one I ever smelled.” “I’m going to go into that corner apartment, walk around, take a whiff and prove it.” “No, you don’t want to do that.” “Watch me,” and with all the casualness he can muster Quint walks to Apartment Three.

Meanwhile, Bricklin and Hatim, the manager of the Saudi patrolmen, are prowling around with flashlights in the backyard of Apartment Two. Checking out the same porch-door that guy in the bathrobe used. They both have handkerchiefs pressed against their noses. We’re starting to inflate at the cheeks from repressed laughter, when one of the guys on the corner goes, “What’s that smell?” and looks at Smith. I look down at the steaming fish-goo on his tennis shoe and quickly say, “Oh it must be a breeze from the apartments,” as I nudge Smith off the corner and downwind across the street.

Bricklin and Hatim go to the back of the yard fronting Hoover street, drop their handkerchiefs and start talking. Bricklin is sure that he is missing a clue or forgetting to do something vital. It’s good to get some clean, night air and he’ll spend a minute or two to think about it. Hatim lights up a Salem cigarette.

Fritz Adrian was a brilliant cartographer, responsible for many of the finest maps Aramco ever produced. His wife Stella was a tiny, bright-eyed Austrian woman with endless energy. An accomplished harpist who could play jazz clarinet. They were eligible for upgraded housing but liked their apartment. Apartment Three. Most of the lights in all of the apartments are on as Quint approaches the Adrians’. The blinds are open, and it looks like a diorama that Fritz and Stella have just stepped out of for a minute. The front door is wide open. He gets about six feet away from it before the wall of stench stops him like an invisible force field. He pauses and pretends he is carefully inspecting the place as he thinks to himself, “It doesn’t smell like bad eggs, so it’s not hydrogen sulfide. This is a terrible stink. Oh well, I can hold my breath for a minute. I’ll take a big breath, go in the door, walk around for a moment and then stroll out like everything is fine. Then leave.”

He walks into the Adrian’s tidy, almost minimalist living room – a couch, two easy chairs, and a coffee table. The walls are nicely decorated with Fritz’s collection of antique maps and tapestries woven by Bedouin women that Stella knew. Off the living room, near the hallway to the back of the apartment stands Stella’s harp, a tall gilt-covered beauty carved with vines and leaves galore.

[The half-naked angel at the top of the instrument had caused a big uproar at customs. It was bad enough that the harp was a musical instrument, but this sculpture of a wanton angel was the last straw. Customs had impounded it and denied clearance. The next day Stella called an Aramco taxi cab. At this time the security at Dammam customs was fairly decent. Not just anyone could come barging in, but there was no protocol to deal with an angry, five-foot-tall Austrian woman. Stella sliced right past two soldiers with fixed bayonets, a policeman with a revolver, a handful of clerks and a panicked Hejazi office manager who followed behind her as she burst into the office of the Director-General of Customs. Fadl had just concluded an arrangement with Najib, the Lebanese representative of Middle East Airlines, and Khalil, their Saudi agent, and was having a cup of tea with them when Stella appears screaming in English and German for about a minute before concluding with the words, “I want my harp.” The room went dead silent. Fadl spoke very little English and has no idea who this woman is. He asks Najib in Arabic, “What is she talking about?” “She wants her harp,” replies Najib. The Director-General stares coldly at Stella for a few seconds and then starts laughing. Except for her blonde hair, she looks exactly like his diminutive wife Fawzia on a bad day. And Stella got her harp back.]

Quint has now spent 20 seconds in the living room. Aware that he can be seen from the courtyard, he figures that he’ll slip out of sight into the hallway, wait 20 seconds and then casually walk out of the apartment. Even though he’s not breathing, the stench is attacking his nostrils. Once out of sight, he clamps his fingers over his nose. In the backyard, Hatim has barely smoked half of his Salem when it suddenly occurs to Bricklin that maybe it is a gas leak. He says, “Hatim, put that out, we have to turn off the electricity right now. The whole place could blow up,” as he scrambles to the power box at the back of the building.

In the hallway, Quint counts patiently, “Eighteen, nineteen, twenty seconds. I’m out of here.” He turns to leave, and the lights go out. What! He spins around. He steps forward right into a wall. He’s confused, sees the faint glow of the street lights through the living room windows and rushes forward. He takes two steps and then trips at the end of the hallway, throws out his right arm to cushion the fall and plunges straight into the harp. His hand goes straight through the harp’s strings as it falls to the floor. This knocks the air out of him, he gasps, he inhales, and then it’s over.

At first, he gags, then everything he has eaten for the last week comes surging forth. His right arm is pinned beneath the harp. With his left hand, he claws at his tie and rips the two top buttons off his shirt trying to breathe, but the next breath is just as bad as the first one. Finally, he extracts his arm from the harp. Every knuckle of his hand is bleeding profusely as he manages to stand up and stumble out of Apartment Three. His face is a pale yellow, his eyes albino pink, his hair is matted in sweat over his brow, his right arm is trailing a bloody hand that he wipes off on the leg of his linen trousers. His finely tailored dinner jacket is a science experiment in stomach bile and various ingredients. He manages about ten feet before he skids to his knees on the courtyard lawn. Burt is standing there with a thermos of coffee. “That didn’t work out so well. Here, drink this,” and hands him a cup. Quint snatches it like a slightly demented beggar, drains it in two giant gulps and composes himself.

After a few moments, he stands up, ready to pretend that everything is fine. The two newly acquired deep-green grass stains on each knee of his trousers don’t do much to abet that pretense. Burt says, “What the hell?” “What the hell? What happened to the lights?” “I’m not sure. All of a sudden they went out.”

Before Quint can say another word, Bricklin with Hatim in tow comes trotting up like a needy German shepherd looking for a milk bone and a pat on the head. “Lucky I realized that the whole place might blow up and cut the electricity.” Quint focuses his eyes in pure hatred at Bricklin and smolders while reminding himself that Bricklin’s performance review is coming up next month. Burt says, “What? Why didn’t you clear it with me?” “There was no time. It was do or die.” Die! thinks Quint as he wipes his face with his sleeve. Burt says, “Did you find the source? What is it? “Hatim discovered the problem. It’s kids.” “Kids?” croaks Quint. “What’s kids?” “We don’t know who. But someone put a dead hamoor in the AC unit.” “Yup,” says Burt, “only kids would do something like that.”

Quint stares through his pink-shot eyes at Burt, then he looks over at the group of displaced residents. Oh my God, there’s Stella Adrian. She’s smiling and waving at him. Quickly he turns to Burt and says, “Fix it.” And then confidently strides across the lawn directly to his Buick. His shirt is ripped at the neck, his ruined suit permanently stained with gastric acid, blood and Bermuda grass. He believes he can still pull this off when on his third step he realizes that he has lost his right shoe in the apartment. He runs the rest of the way to his sedan and drives off. Burt turns to Bricklin, “Fix it.” Bricklin turns to Hatim, “Fix it.” Hatim turns to Issa, his second in command, and says, “Fix it.” Issa spots 19-year-old Ali who is new on the job and says, “Fix it.” Somehow young Ali finds an old Omani gardener sleeping under a bower of oleanders and says, “Fix it.”

There aren’t many people left on the corner still watching. Smith and Landis have departed to go burn his tennis shoe, and Ben has faded away in the hope that Jeannie might still be up. The refugees have all left to spend the night with friends, but there are still about twenty salaried Aramco employees hanging around – half a dozen Americans and the rest Saudi firemen and security guys. I move up from the corner and see Ali leading the Omani gardener to the AC room. He looks in and then, apparently unfazed by the stench and oblivious to everyone watching, crosses the alley to root around in a garbage can until he finds a brown paper bag. Apparently the deal is that he gets to keep the hamoor. He steps into the AC room for a minute and then comes out with the paper sack in his arms. Watching from across the street it’s pretty funny to see everyone part like the Red Sea. The invisible force from the dripping bag presses everyone against the side fences as the old man blithely trots through them, down the alley and up Hoover Street. That night back in his lair, the old gardener thinks to himself. Tomorrow I’ll go to that mimsahb’s house on 6th Street where I planted those hibiscus plants last week. She’s tall and beautiful for an American — though much too skinny, but she’s cheerful and always greets me kindly. She once sent her servant out to bring me an ice-cold bottle of Tuborg ginger ale. I’ll cut the fish up and bury it all around those flowers, and they’ll please her. Her husky son with the thick glasses is okay too. Twice this summer, he’s given me fresh hamoor heads from his catch. He’s so generous. Too generous. It’s almost as if he doesn’t know that the cheeks are the best part.

ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories by Tim BargerARABIAN SON: 21 Stories by Tim Barger E-book: $4.95 Paperback: 142 pages ~ $12.95 ISBN: 978-098820505-5