© 2017 Kimberly Ayers. All rights reserved.
Excerpt from Vagabond Gifts: An American Childhood in Saudi Arabia.
It has grown stuffy in the departure lounge. Close to four hundred women and children have been waiting more than an hour. The mothers with babies on their laps sit in worn leather chairs that used to be modern. The older kids sit on hastily packed suitcases, crammed to the allowed maximum 20 kilos and then some. The air-conditioning system moves the stale and smoky air through the vaulted architecture but the public address announcements are lost in the echoes among the soaring arches. Slender men with epaulets on their shirts gather in the corner to check flight manifests one more time. The good-byes to husbands and fathers have been said, leaving them in this place that is no longer as safe as they thought it to be. The place is Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. The date was fifty years ago this week. It was the start of the Six Day War.
Trouble did not come to the American oil towns at the edge of the Gulf but in 1967 the outside world proved too much for even the cautious Saudis and the omnipotence of the oil company. They were calling them riots. No-one was saying who started it but a group of angry men had attacked the U.S. Consulate south of Dhahran with rocks and clubs and tore down the American flag. They got past Dhahran’s Main Gate by beating up the guards and had hit the Communications Building. They moved through neighborhoods in the middle of the day, busting out windows and burning cars. Our neighbor who lived down the street was taken to the hospital, grazed by a chisel that had been thrown at him.
It was after lunch, I think. I looked up from my story problem to see people marching down Third Street toward the school. I thought it was a parade. Back to my math. I first knew something was wrong when parents and children started pouring into the school gym during my fourth grade P.E. class. Our game of dodge ball stopped as Aramco and Saudi security officials appeared at the doors. Adults streamed in, other children streamed in and the bleachers were quickly filled. Some men spoke at hastily set up microphone stands. The voices boomed out from the loudspeaker and rushed whispers of conversation flew among the grown-ups in the crowd. It seemed like hours before we were allowed to leave for our homes, not sure of what we would find when we got there. Our house on 11th Street was untouched, its windows hidden behind a tall hedge, but farther down the street a car lay overturned in the middle of the road, bashed in on all sides. Neither the company nor the Saudis were taking chances. By late that evening, we received word that aircraft were being chartered from the few commercial carriers serving Dhahran at the time and that women and children would be evacuated over the next several days. Dinner must have been a quiet affair for other families as well that night, wondering in a gentle shock how a political conflict a vast desert away could have touched us.
“Shirley, it’s the darndest thing,” said my father, between mouthfuls. “Seems some fella shimmied up the flagpole at the Consulate, fell down, broke his leg, and they put him in our hospital. They say the poor guy’s so scared he thinks one of the guards is gonna kill ‘im in the middle of the night.” This was Dhahran, this was Aramco and this was Saudi Arabia. How could this have happened? The company grapevine said the instigators were Palestinians – expatriates, like us — angry over U.S. support for Israel.
They told us we were going to Milan. We were called to the theater, the largest gathering place that wasn’t near the risky perimeter of town. While waiting for the buses that would take us to the airport that hot Thursday afternoon, the lights dimmed and up on the screen came Fred McMurray in “Follow me, Boys.” Appropriate, I thought. I don’t remember if the popcorn man was working that day. Our flight was crowded and felt like a bizarre field trip from a bad dream. Here were all these kids and grown-ups I knew but we were in a wrong place at a wrong time. There were a lot more babies and it seemed like all of them were crying. The older kids talked and played games. The stress of the last few days finally quieted the aircraft, and perhaps some of us were sleeping when we touched down in Italy.
It was late at night when we arrived, only to be told that the supply of Milanese hotel rooms had run out. In the balmy darkness, the leftovers of us boarded a bus for Stresa, a small town on Lago Maggiore. After tumbling into an unknown bed I woke the next morning to a Merchant-Ivory production. The room was awash in the early summer sun and filled with dark furniture and soft white linens. The pensione’s garden where we took our breakfast was softly ablaze with roses. Across the cobbled street was a boat dock on the lake. My mother and I would spend an idyllic three weeks there. Our family was due to go out on long leave anyway at the end of the month and northern Italy seemed like a good place to pass the time ‘til then. We filled our days with boat trips to Switzerland, an excursion to the castle in the middle of the lake where I saw my first peacock and modest dinners surrounded by ageless waitresses who pinched my cheek and stroked my hair and begged me, “manga, manga — andiamo!”
From Europe, we flew out of the frying pan and into a fire of sorts. My mother cabled my grandmother in Cincinnati but received no return wire. We arrived at the airport in northern Kentucky and called the cottage where she lived. Still no answer. We arrived at her house and learned from a neighbor that my grandmother had gone to Middletown just north of Cincinnati to be with Sissie, my great-aunt. There had been race riots in Cincinnati that had spilled into outlying districts and Grandma was taking no chances. From a nearby motel the next morning, we called my grandmother’s friend, Edna Blair, to drive us north. Dear Edna! This woman – in her sixties at least – drove through glass-strewn Cincinnati neighborhoods in her dark green Cadillac to come collect us. My mother remembered passing a block-long car dealership in Avalon just north of the city. All its glass walls of windows had been shattered and lay in shards across the sidewalk and street.
And she remembered another time, just several years before, when we landed in Los Angeles from Hawai’i. We were camped out at a small motel, waiting to pick up a rental car to drive cross-country. Toward evening, the motel manager rapped on the door and told us to stay inside, that we’d be safe. My mother peered around him and upwards, where she saw men with rifles the roof. He told us it was riots. It had started in a neighborhood called Watts. That summer of ’67, my father remained in the Kingdom — safe, he told us. Years later, I found out that because he once held the rank of lieutenant in the Illinois National Guard, he was teamed up with Saudi soldiers to patrol sensitive Army installations until he left. One night, he surprised a guard at one of his stops and the startled fellow rammed his bayonet into the car, missing my father’s chest by inches. I don’t remember ever asking him whether he volunteered for this duty.
In 1967, my family wondered how events so large and shocking could intrude upon our small and quiet lives. More than two decades later, as soldiers from families around the U.S. headed for our desert for the first time, they must have been wondering the same thing. Twenty-one short months into the twenty-first century, jetliners slammed into skyscrapers and the Pentagon and a country field in Pennsylvania. America was hurled into the geography of the world’s pain and strife as it had never been before. In short order, American troops were back in Iraq. Why does this happen? We learned the reasons by living there, not from political columns in the newspapers or interviews with diplomats on the evening news. And in the 1960’s, what about the people of Los Angeles, and Cincinnati and Detroit? Did they have any warnings? Did they choose to ignore them? They certainly had no ready answers to the rage that spilled out into their streets. Were they asking the right questions? Were we?
The American families in Saudi Arabia were a mission of sorts, dealing not in the currency of diplomacy but in the unwritten communiqués of our daily lives among the Saudis. We bungled some jobs, coming in too fast and too loud, and managed others with respect and graciousness. We did not have the luxury of distance that came with the formalities of diplomatic protocol. What we knew of each other was learned face to sweaty face, over piles of vegetables in the village markets, and piles of pipe out in the drilling fields. When my mother and I arrived in the States that summer, I felt oddly disturbed by the questions people asked. Armed with the only information they had, they kindly asked us about the headlines. They would then comment on how terribly complicated thing were “over there,” and expressed their relief that we were okay and then dropped the subject. It was as far as they could go. They could react in wonder to our drama but somehow missed the one playing out in their own front yards. Maybe they thought it would go away. It was the end of a conversation that for my parents had begun the day they came to the Kingdom and continued when we returned that fall.
Back in Saudi Arabia, the living room windows had been replaced and the streets cleared of glass and debris. Everything looked the same but the once-solid center had cracked. I was nine years old and the real world had shown up on my front walk. American foreign policy could get as close as the garden gate. In the summer of ’67 we learned this place would never be the same.
And that was fifty years ago.