Dhahran Recreation Complex - 1948
As far back as I can remember the fundamental rule of life was to never walk along a street when an alley was available.
The alleys of Dhahran offered so many advantages that Milt and I could never figure why the adults didn’t use them too. The alleys were narrow enough that they were shadier, and looking into backyards was a lot more intriguing than the manicured front yards.
Some backyards were like English gardens, some were nothing but a lawn bordered with hedges, and others lay bare and neglected with a half-assembled motorcycle on the patio. Guys stored their boats and hobby cars in the back and some people built garden sheds and workshops along the back fence.
Every backyard had two industrial-strength clothesline poles made of 2-inch steel pipes welded into a T with holes drilled along the crossbar to thread the clothesline through. They were painted silver and in Arabia dried your clothes in ten minutes. They were also terrific impromptu targets for pellet guns but that’s another story.
And of course the alleys offered the freedom from adult supervision. Almost complete anonymity. There was no chance that the nosey Mrs. Almquist would drive by, catch you stealing someone’s gate and mix the news into her relentless gossip machine. You could smoke a purloined L&M cigarette in safety. The alley itself was paved and lined with treasure chests in the shape of the 55 gallon oil barrels that Aramco used as trash cans.
In the 50s, Dhahran was a resource-poor environment. Khobar still wasn’t fully developed, and products, especially American goods, weren’t readily available, so the men hoarded screws and nuts, car parts, metal stock, lumber and tools to barter among themselves. The women collected fabric, traded dress patterns and shared their recipes and dishware while we alley rats acquired and savored exquisite pieces of junk we discovered in the trash.
Find a couple of fluorescent tubes and we would instantly have a dramatic and very brief sword fight that ended in a burst of shattered glass and a faint cloud of super-carcinogenic mist. Milt once found the front end of a trombone and spent the rest of the day blowing into the bare end until his lips bled. If you were real lucky you might find a tattered issue of some True Crime magazine with bold headlines and lurid pictures.
Readers may remember the time that Cecil found some nudie playing cards in an alley. There were treasures to be found. We’d grab stuff and move on.
After a while we’d lose interest in a broken toaster or something, discard it along the way and the rest of the stuff we’d lug home. Milt and I were self-styled scavenger kings.
When we were about 11, we both got crystal radio sets. They were the most basic sort of radio setup, so simple that a kid could assemble it and so magical that it was a gateway device into electronics.
Milt and I became crazed with electronics and fascinated with the multitude of tubes, the rainbow colors and distinctive shapes of the diodes, resistors and capacitors. We had no idea how these things worked but we knew they had power.
So we started collecting them which wasn’t too hard because we knew the alley behind the radio shop, an entire building dedicated to Aramco’s extensive communications department. These were the days before the transistor when radios operated on tubes and equipment could actually be repaired by human beings, so the radio shop trash cans overflowed with hundreds of feet of wire and boxes of defective or expired components from tubes to button switches. We hauled away enough parts to stock a Radio Shack but we still didn’t know what they did.
There was a radio club in Dhahran of a dozen junior high kids and a wonderful middle-aged Ham radio enthusiast as adviser, so we went to a meeting. It was a disaster.
We were a couple of years younger than everyone else and entirely ignorant. The star of the group was a ninth-grade Brainiac surrounded by a few devotees. Curtis really knew his stuff. He came over to talk to us and quickly discovered that Milt didn’t know the difference between an ohm and a millivolt.
Thirteen-year-olds can be particularly cruel, and Curtis turned on us, mocked us and dripped disdain all over us in front of his posse. The rest of the meeting we sat dejected in the back, smoldering in resentment and shame at our ignorance.
But our enthusiasm wasn’t dampened and the next day we scored two boxes of tubes and a power supply from behind the radio shop. We chattered about Ham radios and went to the library to stare at incomprehensible diagrams that might as well have been hieroglyphics.
Every day I’d meet Milt on 10th Street and we would walk to school on 3rd Street. The alleys were perpendicular to our route so we took the sidewalk.
Between 6th Street and 3rd Street there was a traffic circle around an air-conditioning plant that formed a choke point. Every day we passed a red Aramco Dodge truck parked at the curb. We couldn’t help but notice that there were two Motorola portable radios about the size of thick, long brief-cases propped up against the passenger seat. Just lying there.
Day after day we walked by, probably the guy who drove that truck worked nights. Look the door is unlocked again. We were unable to resist. If they wouldn’t tell us how to make the things, we would borrow a couple of working radios and possess the power of the airwaves. So we devised a plan.
Aramco operated its own transcontinental airline until the advent of the Boeing 707 and in the process created the iconic Aramco bag. A heavy-vinyl carry-on satchel emblazoned with the Aramco logo, it was given to every Aramcon going on long leave. The green bag became a universally recognized badge of kinship throughout the airports of the world. It was readily available, and did I tell you that it was just large enough to contain a complete Motorola 20 pound portable radio?
It’s about 3 in the afternoon, 113 in the shade, when Milt and I stroll towards the red Dodge Power Wagon parked across the street from the AC plant. To keep the truck cool, the windows were half down. The keys were in the ignition and the doors were unlocked. We take a deep breath, open the passenger door, scoop up the radios and jam them into our Aramco bags. They fit perfectly. Except for the 4-foot-long whip antenna.
Fumbling around on the sidewalk, we snake the antenna out and then bend it back into the bag, close the truck door and scurry across into the alley. Now we are two kids walking along with Aramco bags, completely inconspicuous save for the curving antenna blooming from the bag.
At one point, Milt’s antenna slips out and snaps to its full height. We think this is hilarious.
Absolutely safe in the anonymous alleys, we work our way home.
About halfway, we run into the only form of life that exists in these mean streets – another kid.
Henry is messing around in his backyard and sees us pass. He is a couple of years younger than us, a good enough kid if a bit simple, but we give him a hearty greeting and press on with our clandestine mission.
At 10th Street we split up and I go into the central air conditioning room built into the side of every house. I hide the radio behind the giant condensing unit and nonchalantly walk into the house.
My sisters are baking cookies with my mom, my brother is practicing the piano. I exchange pleasantries and then split for the phone in the hallway. "Hey Milt. How are you doing? Are you ready? Good. I’ll sign on in ten minutes."
Milt and I synchronize our watches, cheap timepieces with the face of King Saud that we bought for five riyals each in Khobar. We saw that technique in countless war movies, so we knew what to do. Milt and I are a classic example of the adage that a little information is dangerous … and also utterly useless.
Again from watching too many spy movies, we know that when using a radio transmitter the Nazis could triangulate that signal, pinpoint the transmitter and it was Kaput! So we have to keep our traffic brief. We also know that we have to use code names.
I power up the Motorola. "Come in Lizard Head. Do you hear me?"
"Come in Jellyfish. Loud and clear."
"Roger that, Lizard Head. How are you doing?"
"Great. I hear you clearly Jellyfish. Can you hear me?"
"You’re fading, Milt. I mean Lizard Head. Can you read me?"
"Jellyfish, I can hear you."
"Lizard Head, you are clear. So do you think Lana likes me?"
"Yes, she likes you Jellyfish as much as she likes juicy green hedge caterpillars."
"Thanks loads, Lizard Head. We better go before they catch us. I’ll call you on the phone. Ten four, over and out."
"Ten four, over and out."
And cleverly, we sign off before the radio detection units can hunt us down. I then call Milt on the phone and we talk at length about our career as underground wireless warriors.
Over the next few days we exchanged thirty-second bursts on the radios and then spent hours on the phone dissecting our radio technique. The funniest part was that we had the phone and didn’t really need the walkie-talkies but they possessed a magic the phone couldn’t touch.
We had a great friend named Wilkins who was dying to join our network so I gave him my radio. He took it away in an Aramco bag. I figured that I had now washed my hands of the original heist as possession is nine-tenths of a guilty verdict.
Wilkins and Milt communicated in thirty-second bursts and then called me to discuss the salient details. Milt found a scorpion in the hiding place in his AC room and Wilkins said a famous four letter word over the air waves. Our secret network was humming along and all was good.
Four days later the three of us were called out of sixth-grade art class. We were marched in silence to the principal’s office and separated from each other.
I was brought into a bare room with two chairs facing each other across a table. The only thing missing was a bright interrogation light to shine into my face.
In one of the chairs sat Mr. Bricklin, the head of all of Aramco’s industrial security. He was a veteran police department officer from New Jersey who maybe had a few years with the FBI.
He gave me a withering look as if I had been rolling old ladies in Asbury Park and told me to sit down. It must be a lot of fun to sweat out a confession from an 11-year-old.
He told me that each radio cost five thousand dollars, which in those days was like twenty thousand.
In America that was felony grand theft, good for some sentence just short of the electric chair.
In my case, I would go to reform school until I was 18 and, though he didn’t say it, become an accomplished and very well informed criminal. Then he said that my dad, who was a highly placed executive at Aramco, could lose his job because of my perfidy. As if I didn’t know it, he casually managed to mention that in the Kingdom they cut off the hands of thieves.
I’m stressing out and desperately, in a weak voice, play my only card. "I don’t have any radio. Search the AC closet at my house." Oops.
Bricklin broke into a cold, tight smile and hissed, "I know that you and Milt used Aramco bags." Busted. I would strangle Henry.
I returned Bricklin’s steely gaze, a sharp look honed to a razor edge by dueling with hundreds of hardened criminals, and started crying. My dad was going to lose his job because of me.
Next, an overwrought Bricklin broke down Milt and Wilkins until he had the case of the missing walkie-talkies all tied up and delivered to management with a bow.
What Milt and I didn’t know and never could have imagined was the reason for Bricklin’s panic. At that time there were a variety of liberation movements within the Gulf, the Dhofari Liberation Front in Oman being the most prominent. One of these groups with a couple of Aramco-frequency portable radios could get up to all kinds of mischief. The loss of these radios was a major breach of security and Bricklin was sweating it – silently contemplating who might quickly buy his sail boat before he was fired and deported. It must have altered his life to find out that the culprits weren’t a hardened cell of exiled Emarati separatists but rather a trio of misguided, sub-adolescent radio geeks.
The fallout from this caper was enormous. All of society came down on us. Though we were 11, somehow we had ruined our fathers’ careers; we were thieves, felons, Juvenile Delinquents. We weren’t allowed to talk to each other, we couldn’t go to recreation for at least a decade and in my case basically everyone except the gardener was "disappointed" in me. I was crushed, defeated and guilt-ridden.
I turned into an obsequious, pudgy little goodie-goodie, a kid that I would have loathed six months before.
Read more stories by Tim Barger:
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
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