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Volume 20, Number 3May/June 1969

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Discovery! The Story Of Aramco Then

Chapter 9: The Second Wave

Written by Wallace Stegner
Illustrated by Don Thompson

SYNOPSIS—For the California Arabian Standard Oil Company the deep test well that the Company called Dammam No. 7 was the climax in the long, yet dramatic search for oil in Saudi Arabia.

The search had begun in the 1920's when various financiers, adventurers and engineers took the first bold steps that would eventually bring the Standard Oil Company of California, later Casoc, into the Middle East to negotiate an agreement with King Ibn Sahid, map the country, choose likely locations and begin to drill.

For the geologists and drillers in charge of such operations, these first years—the free wild years in a strange landwere exciting and memorable. For the Company they were excruciatingso much so that when Dammam No. 7 failed to produce anything after ten months of drilling, top executives ordered ace geologist Max Steineke back to San Francisco. There they put the crucial question to him: shall we go on with it or not? Max drew a deep breath and said yes, go on with it. Casoc did and a few months later brought in what was clearly a commercial fieldto the delight of everyone from San Francisco to Riyadh.

Understandably King Ibn Sa'ud was particularly happy. He even decided to visit the oil camp and in April, 1939 set out with a 500-car caravan. Ten days later, he, his caravan and an entourage of approximately 2,000 people reached Dammam for ceremonies and feasting they talked about for years after. Two days later, His Majesty boarded the tanker D.G. Scofield in Ras Tanura and turned the valve that would let Saudi Arabian oil flow into the world and the world flow into Saudi Arabia.

In the meantime new problems had arisen. With the outbreak of World War II oil became more precious than ever and Casoc's negotiation teams were soon busily competing against avid spokesmen from Germany, Japan and Great Britain for their preferential rights in the uncommitted areas. The Company also had to find and train new men to replace the veterans who had come, found oil and gone. Some of those men were immediately assigned to help Saudi Arabia with a most acute problem: how to define frontiers whose accurate definition was suddenly of immense importance.

Saudi Arabia, a kingdom established over a period of a quarter century through the union of many amirates, sultanates and shaikhdoms, was never a clear image: its edges, or many of them, were blurred. The geographical unit of the Arabian Peninsula was not a political unit, and the precise line where the territory claimed by Ibn Sa'ud met the territory of Yemen, Aden, the Hadhramaut, Dhufar, Oman, Muscat, the Trucial Coast, or Qatar, was a matter of vague tradition and of agreements between Great Britain and Turkey that dated back to 1913 and 1914 and by which Saudi Arabia, for one, hardly considered itself bound. Where Ibn Sa'ud's territory joined the new state of Trans-Jordan was a matter of dispute. Where it met the shaikhdom of Kuwait, the buffer areas called the Kuwait and Iraq Neutral Zones, and the new state of Iraq, had been generally established between Ibn Sa'ud and Sir Percy Cox at the 1922 al-'Uqair Conference where Frank Holmes got the first oil concession for al-Hasa. The protocols of al-'Uqair described the boundaries between these northern neighbors and Saudi Arabia, but there had never been a survey, and the only available map was the Asia 1:1,000,000 Geographical Section, General Staff War Office 1917-1918, which Casoc surveyors had demonstrated to be inaccurate by as much as 25 miles at some points. Neither was there an adequate hydrographic chart of the Arabian side of the Gulf.

It was inevitable that the Company should take an interest in these blurred edges, for the concession ran to the boundaries of the country on south and east and north. But the Concession Agreement specifically prohibited any interference by the Company in the political affairs of Saudi Arabia, and the Company therefore could make no move to try to define its concession borders more clearly. It did, however, take the initiative in the hydrographic survey of the Gulf. And it did at the Government's request provide its surveyors on two occasions, once to survey in connection with an Iraqi party the border region along the north, from Kuwait to the Trans-Jordan border, and once to establish astronomical stations in the region around Selwa, at the foot of the Qatar Peninsula.

The hydrographic survey dated from the flurry of expansion in 1936, when Roy Lebkicher in London had several conferences with the British Admiralty to see if the Admiralty, either by itself or in collaboration with the Company, would complete its soundings of the Gulf waters on the Arabian side and survey the possible channels for the proposed company port at either Dhulaifain or Ras Tanura. Though the Admiralty was friendly and the Saudi Arab Government raised no objections to the notion of a joint British-Casoc survey, it shortly developed that the Admiralty did not have a ship or men available at the time. In the end the Company provided them, Captain Ike Smith of the El Segundo making the soundings and charts, and Charles Herring of the Engineering Department doing the coastal hydrography with a crew that at various times included Theodore F. Clausing, Jerry Harriss, J. Dougery, Hank Trotter and James Anderson.

There was a good deal of debate about the relative merits as a port site of Dhulaifain, which had high ground, and Ras Tanura, which was a long low sandspit sticking out into the Gulf. Ras Tanura won, and Lenahan applied for the reservation of land there for Company use. Subsequently, survey crews carried the coast hydrography along to the vicinity of the Neutral Zone border. They were at it off and on from July, 1936, to September, 1939, when Ras Tanura began to deliver oil to tankers.

By that time Casoc had begun to turn over its data to the Admiralty, and the Admiralty was incorporating the information in its charts. The channel for 20 miles was ultimately marked, not with the poles stuck in the bottom which had guided in the first ships with construction materials for Ras Tanura, but by permanent beacons. The lights were put in by Walt Miller and were serviced by tender.

Charlie Herring, who started out in charge of the hydrographic survey, was not there to see the end of it. The day after the Fourth of July, 1938, he and his wife, Pauline, started for Bahrain in the Calarabia. The weather was clear, calm, and hot; the sand bar, as they went half-speed through the shoals out from al-Khobar, was black with cormorants, and in one place they saw sea cobras lying inert in the water. Al Carpenter, in charge of the launch, loafed and smoked at the wheel; the four crewmen, barefooted and stripped to the waist, were making things shipshape. Cranky but very fast, the Calarabia straightened out in deep water and tore a long rip in the placid Gulf astern.

To Pauline Herring it was still romantic and exciting, almost as exciting as it had been when she was in charge of the drawing files in Socal's San Francisco office and catalogued draftsmen's sketches of the Arabian operations, before she met and married Charlie Herring. Now, sitting aft with her husband, enjoying the whip of the breeze and shouting to make herself heard, she was planning things she would buy in Bahrain's suqs.

About halfway to Bahrain, the Calarabia's whole stem blew apart, killing her instantly.

Herring, terribly injured himself, managed to swim to her and hoist her partly onto a floating hatch cover. The water was littered with smoking fragments and bits of gear; the launch was already gone. A little way off Al Carpenter, badly burned, was half-floating, half-treading water with a piece of wreckage for support, while two uninjured Saudi crewmen put together a raft from a half-burned life preserver, an empty fire extinguisher, and bits of planking lashed together with a piece of manila line. Onto it the three crawled or hooked their arms; onto it they pulled a third Saudi deckhand, hurt and half-conscious, and supported him there until he died.

The hatch cover that held up the Herrings had drifted a good distance away. Al Carpenter called, but got no reply. It appeared to him that Pauline was surely dead. He called again to Herring that they should tie themselves together, but Charlie either would not leave his wife's body or could not hear him. A little wind bobbed them, moved the floating wreckage around the edges of the oil slick. The great sky glared down, cloudless, nearly white with heat. Borne by winds or currents, the two little clusters of bodies drifted slowly farther apart.

About one o'clock that afternoon Dick Kerr came in from Bahrain on another launch and noticed that the Calarabia was not at her berth. He inquired of the pier gang pusher, who said that she had started for the island. The gang pusher had also seen smoke out in the channel, but thought it was a steamer at Manama. Kerr had imagination, and he was by that time a four-year veteran of Arabia, with a good notion of what trouble in that country could mean. He rounded up Oliver Boone and the two of them sent out boats to search. That evening they got in touch with Bahrain: the Calarabia had not come in. Bahrain too began sending out boats. In al-Khobar they cursed the restrictions on their use of radio for ship-to-shore communications.

About noon the next day Boone's boat found Carpenter and the two Saudi deckhands, still clinging to their patchwork raft. Carpenter, burned, broken, dreadfully sunburned, and in deep shock, was there only because the two Saudis had hung onto him for hours and refused to let him slip into the sea. Boone raced him to shore, while the other boats went on searching for Herring and his wife. That afternoon they found them floating close together, both dead. Still later they picked up the body of one of the crewmen, torn by barracuda.

That was the first bad accident involving Americans in Arabia. It saddened them all, for they were a tight little group, and Charlie and Pauline Herring had been very well liked. But the courage and endurance of the Saudi deckhands was the sort of demonstration that bound Arab and American together: there is no surer bond than shared disaster.

In the early days in the Arabian Peninsula, no one paid much attention to territorial boundaries. Even, in 1922, when Sir Percy Cox attempted to pin down Ibn Sa'ud's borders with Kuwait and Iraq, they came up with two Neutral Zones, one snuggled into the corner between Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, the other a diamond-shaped affair with its' eastern point in Wadi al-Batin and its western point at Ansab (Nisab). From there the northern boundary of Saudi Arabia ran to Judaidat Ar'ar, from there to Mukur, and from there to the Jabal Anaza, situated in the neighborhood of latitude 32° North and longitude 39° East, where it terminated against the border of Trans-Jordan.

Since the land then was used for nothing but the grazing of sheep and camels, and the only valuable things along it were the water wells, which were used indiscriminately by Bedouins from both sides, no one cared exactly where that northern frontier lay and for 17 years no one really knew.

Now, however, with an Arabian oil concession reaching up to the line, and a Kuwait oil concession reaching down to it, it became vastly important. Realizing that ownership of an oil-producing structure that lapped only a mile or two over on one side or the other might be worth many millions of dollars, Saudi Arabia and Iraq decided they had better do something. They appointed a joint commission for a survey.

As was by now customary when a problem involving industrial or engineering know-how arose, the Saudi Arab Government turned to Casoc, and Casoc rented out two surveyors who, with Amir Abdul Aziz ibn Zaid (later Minister to Lebanon and Syria) as political representative, met the Iraqis at Wadi al-Batin on April 5, 1938, to launch a survey.

According to their instructions, they were to make, in conjunction with the Iraqi surveyors, sketch maps of the "corner" or "angle" points established by the Treaty of al-'Uqair, connect and reference these by a system of triangulation along the boundary. They were also to collate topographical information regarding wells, towns, and prominent landmarks for about three miles on each side, and this the surveyors, Charlie Herring and Al Parker set out to do. Herring, however, was transferred three weeks later and assigned to the hydrographic survey that would, three months later, lead to his tragic death.

Herring's replacement, Dick Hattrup, a young engineer fresh out of Stanford, worked with Parker and the Iraqis until near the end of May, at which time they had finished about 40 per cent of the triangulation by methods which, according to mutual agreement, were to be of approximately third-order accuracy. The country along the border was broken and craggy, higher and rockier than the desert southward, and in winter grazed many camels that were gathered in summer around the wells.

They knocked off the survey during the heat of summer, returning to it in September and proceeding methodically through the completion of the Iraq Neutral Zone and on northwesterly until they were within 13 miles of Mukur in-Na'am, the Well of the Ostrich. And here they struck a snag. The al-'Uqair protocols carried the line from Judaidat Ar'ar to Mukur, but it developed that no one knew exactly where to start in Judaidat Ar'ar, which was a cluster of several wells. Did one start in the measured middle of these, or did one take some easily distinguished landmark within the area as a triangulation point, or did one establish by astronomical means the precise map-location of this lost dot of human settlement on the 1:1,000,000 War Office map and use that? The Iraq survey party, now under an Englishman named Godfrey, chose to establish their starting point by fixing the map-location; the Saudi Arab and Casoc party disagreed. So they went northwestward through the wilderness triangulating two distinct nets along lines a mile or so apart. And then, when they began to look around for Mukur, they found that the word mukur meant simply a well, and that there were two dozen localities containing the word mukur within a distance of 100 miles, and no clear indication which of them the treaty-makers had had in mind. Worse, the treaty-makers themselves had worked mainly on information provided by local guides so it was doubtful that anybody knew.

Since this was a problem not for surveyors but for politicians, the survey parties closed up shop for the summer in early June, 1939, and referred their difficulty to their respective governments. In July there was a conference at Riyadh. Nothing came of it, but the survey parties were ordered back to the field anyway, and from October 31 to some time in December Hattrup and his two helpers, John C. Wells and "Dutch" Schultz, sat in their camp near Mukur in-Na'am while the Iraq party sat in its camp 60 miles away, neither side able to continue and neither willing to give up the premises which had landed them that far apart. The government conferences went on, and the parties sat, sometimes driving back and forth to pay visits and exchange dinners. It was on one of those trips that they shot the ostrich.

Dick Hattrup accuses Roy Lebkicher of starting the story that he shot the ostrich. He insists that he did not shoot, but only shot at the ostrich, a featherless and most ungainly looking bird that popped up out of a wadi, escaped Hattrup's surprised and buck-fevered snap shot with the .22, but succumbed to a slug from the army rifle of the amir's soldier-servant a little farther down. Hattrup's glory is only partially dimmed by his miss: he is the only Casoc or Aramco employe so far uncovered who even got a shot at an ostrich, a bird which was then rarely found anywhere in Arabia except in the Great Nafud to the southwest of where they were then camped, and has never been seen since.

By that time, as it happened, the government representatives had come to an agreement, and soon the survey parties were able to get together again. Triangulation proceeded amicably to the Jabal Anaza, where a Trans-Jordanian delegation met them, listened carefully to the explanation of what had been done up there, and held its counsel.

Later, after years of negotiating, Saudi Arabia and Jordan agreed on their boundaries and conducted a joint survey which appears to have satisfied all concerned. But from the time when the parties shook hands and parted on Leap Year day, 1940, no more substantive accomplishments can be reported on the Iraqi-Saudi boundary. The survey data and the maps rest in the files somewhere, waiting political approval. Casoc and Dick Hattrup, having done their engineering part, and having no political part to play, went back to other jobs.

The best history of any action is the experience of the men who lived it. The history of Aramco in its early years is only very partially the agreements and contracts and transactions of the Company, its negotiations with the Saudi Arab Government and its balance sheets and its effect on the world oil market and the policy of nations. It is also Fred Davies and Floyd Ohliger, Bert Miller and Krug Henry and Max Steineke and the other geologists, Bill Eltiste and Guy Williams and Jack Schloesslin, Felix Dreyfus and Dick Kerr, and after them the second and third and fourth waves of replacements and reinforcements—Jim Sutton, Les Snyder, Floyd Meeker, Dick Hattrup, Don Mair, Tom Barger, Walt Miller, Charlie Davis, James McPherson, dozens of others.

Perhaps what makes the early years memorable to them all is the freedom they had then, the absence of regulation and the bookkeeping of civilized business. On this frontier they were thrown on their own resources, they were given a job and trusted to do it, they worked twice as hard and faithfully as if they had been driven to do so, they had what in spite of the discomforts they knew was a grand job. They were attendants at the birth of a world. The "bug" might chase them out of Arabia, but frustration never would, and their morale was expressed in the words written home by a recruit who had just picked his way into their midst along al-Khobar's rough pier in 1936: "It's a great bunch of guys here, and the boss is a prince."

That feeling was shared by many recruits, some of whom didn't turn out to be such bad guys themselves: as a sample, one could do worse than record the experiences of Tom Barger, who would later become President and then Chairman of the Board of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), the corporate successor to Casoc.

Tom Barger, brought up in Minnesota and North Dakota, got his first experience as a mining engineer in Canada and Montana. While he was riding out the depression working as a miner in Butte, he was hired to go to Arabia by Doc Nomland, chief geologist of the Standard Oil Company of California, who told him: "Fifty per cent of the business is getting along with your partner, 40 per cent is surviving in the environment, and 10 per cent is professional." Nomland also told Barger that the Arabian venture did not look too promising, and that he might not be there long. If they pulled out of Arabia, however, he could expect to be sent to the Dutch East Indies. Meantime they wanted him badly in al-Hasa. Barger took Nomland at his word and broke all records on trips out to Arabia—he got there in 12 days—only to discover as he came down the pier, that the demand for his presence had been somewhat overstated. "A man with a big jaw and a big grin introduced himself as Steineke," Barger would relate later, "and said he didn't know exactly what he was going to do with me, but was happy to have me there." So much for breaking records.

For the next couple of days Barger read reports and tried to absorb in 48 hours the total known geology of the region. Then he drove up to Jubail with Walt Hoag in a Marmon-Herrington station wagon, and got bewildered and scared trying to get through the narrow, ditch-cut and crowded streets of Qatif. Two or three days after that, Steineke found a job for him: he could help make some astronomical observations and determine the precise location of several points down by Selwa, where an unsettled border dispute between Saudi Arabia and the British was creating friction. The Company was making these observations at the Government's request, as basic scientific data to be used in talks with the British.

On the way down, Steineke broke the rookie in with some more desert driving, first scaring him to death with roller-coaster churning across the dunes south of al-Khobar, and then turning the wheel over to him across the dikaka beyond al-'Uqair. Because he was scared of getting stuck in the sand, Barger drove like a madman. Steineke sat cradling the chronometer in his lap and let him go, at the mortal risk of his neck. He had a relaxed habit of letting a young man find his own way; it was a habit that endeared him to them for life.

Down at Selwa, Walt Hoag and Jerry Harriss, still hating each other cordially, were housed in a corrugated iron storehouse, Steineke dropped Barger and the chronometer off and drove back to Dammam, and for a couple of weeks the three surveyors made observations in the disputed zone. Barger understood that these were somewhat important to the Saudi Government; he did not understand until later how much political tension quivered along that border ready to be touched off, or that his first job in Arabia—so casually did important jobs fall to them in this environment—would involve him in an international problem that would smolder for years and eventually erupt in near-violence near Buraimi in 1955, and again in 1957.

They finished that detail and came into Dammam camp for Christmas. Hoag's distaste for Harriss was so unlimited that he demanded a transfer, and was sent to Jiddah to supervise the drilling of some water wells the Government wanted. That made a team out of Barger and Harriss—Tom and Jerry—and threw the raw recruit into the field in the most difficult, unknown and exciting section of all Arabia, the Rub' al-Khali, the Empty Quarter. On its northern edge, in the company of Harriss, a half-dozen khuwiya or Bedouin soldiers, a cook and houseboy and two or three Arab drivers, he spent the first four months of 1938.

No one else in camp except Harriss spoke English. Barger lived with his copy of Van Ess's Spoken Arabic of Mesopotamia open in his hand. Others had learned Arabic well and fast: Art Brown, Felix Dreyfus, Allen White and Bill Eltiste for four, and Harriss' erstwhile partner, Walt Hoag, best of all. Many others never got past the pidgin-Arabic stage. Steineke spoke Arabic always in the second person, feminine gender and present tense. But Barger learned it with a speed that astonished them all. By April he was talking not only with the soldiers and guides of their party, but with Bedouins whose dialects and pronunciation were markedly different from those of the townsmen.

Fortune could not possibly have been kinder to this tall, husky, and very competent young man. He had not been raised on the edge of the West for nothing; he had the proper frontier skills. He was a better shot even than Steineke, and there was no quicker way to win the respect of the Bedouins. He had a talent for laughter. And a good deal of his quickness at picking up the language came from the fact that the Arabs respected him and talked freely, and the further fact that Barger was a shirt-sleeve democrat fascinated by the Arabs and their rugged life. Also he was lucky in the guides assigned to the party. One was Abdul Hadi ibn Jithina, a member of the wild Murrah tribe that had sheltered Ibn Sa'ud's father when he was in flight from the Rashidi. The second was an old 'Amiri, Salim Aba Rus, wrinkled and bearded like a wise man out of the Bible. The third, who rapidly became Tom Barger's close friend, as he was Steineke's, was Khamis ibn Rimthan.

In few places on the world's surface could an American meet so much that was strange, unwritten, unknown. Only two Europeans had ever crossed the Rub' al-Khali: Bertram Thomas in 1930 and Harry St. John B. Philby in 1932. Barger and Harriss, working its northern edge from a base camp at Selwa, were only a few years behind the first western explorers, and in the course of their work they inevitably touched dozens of places where an American or European foot had never stepped. Many of the Bedouins who came warily out of the great wilderness into their camps had never seen a car. Old Salim the guide had never ridden in one until they came. About the only thing he knew about the foreigners was that they could cure ailments, and the first night Khamis brought him in he requested treatment for three: his back bothered him, he couldn't hear out of one ear, and he was constipated.

In those days, field parties carried a variety of drugs, and geologists prescribed with great confidence for many diseases. Old Salim's back was easy; analgesic balm would do the trick. His ear was harder. When Jerry Harriss questioned him, he found that Salim had once been a professional pearl diver, and that he hadn't heard out of that ear for seven years. Jerry asked him how the other one worked. It worked well, said Salim. "God is merciful," said Jerry. "Praise be to God that you can hear out of one ear at least."

That didn't exactly cure Salim's ear, but it left him without any recourse except to admit that God was merciful. Now the constipation. They gave him a compound cathartic pill. Salim appeared in the morning and complained that he had not been cured. Vowing to cure him or break records for effort, they filled a tomato can half full of a mixture of mineral oil and castor oil. Salim sniffed it and balked. When they warned him of all the things that would happen to him if he didn't drink, he said he was afraid his stomach would throw it out again. Barger found an orange, the last one of a sack left by Steineke when he visited the camp. Salim had never seen an orange before, but eventually was persuaded to drink the oil and eat the orange for a chaser.

In the morning he was wreathed in smiles. His stomach had "walked." And all through the next two or three days he talked earnestly to Khamis in the back seat as they drove. He had never in his life felt that he needed more than a camel, a woman, and a smooth piece of sand to keep him happy. He had now added oranges to the list.

Down in the Khor Qada region, near the great salt flat of Muttia, where the wells gave only salt water and tribesmen of al-Murrah lived for months on camel's milk, the party stopped at a salt well to fill their empty drums and cans with water for the car radiators. A band of Bedouins was there drawing water for their camels, and among them was an albino, a man who looked like a Scandinavian, with a snow-white beard and a pale skin reddened by exposure. They christened him the Lost Engineer because Khamis jokingly suggested that he was an American muhendis (engineer) whose car had broken down.

But they were the American engineers whose car had broken down: a few miles farther on they broke the drive shaft on their station wagon. Deciding to go on with the traverse in their other cars and return to this one later, Harriss took Abdul Hadi ibn Jithina and Ibrahim the driver back to the well to find a Bedouin to help guard the station wagon. They found only the Lost Engineer and his family still there. A colloquy ensued.

"Peace be unto you."
"And to you, God's peace."
"How are you?"
"I am very well. How are you?"
"I am very well."
"Praise God. God give you health."
"God give you health."
"God give you eyes."
"God give you eyes."
"God give you strength."
"God give you strength."

These amenities went on for another five minutes. Then: "We have a broken car, and come to see if you will assist in watching it."

"For how much?"
"A rupee a day."
"I will come for two rupees."
"One rupee."
"But it is necessary for me to have two rupees."
"One rupee is the price."

They kicked this around for ten minutes. The Lost Engineer was sad at such a low offer until they took pictures of him and his family, and then he agreed to come for one rupee while his family looked after the camels.

Leaving Ibrahim and the Engineer, the party went on south-southeast for about 50 miles, Khamis being the guide, though this was country he had never been in before. The second day they traveled about 60 miles in an angled course southeast, then south, then southwest, and finally northeast. The third day they drove northwest until noon, turned north a while, and then swung northeast to complete the traverse. For three days they had had no clear landmarks, no jabals orwadis, nothing but an expanse of rolling sand hills. Toward evening, Barger asked Khamis to give them a compass reading on the station wagon they had left. Khamis squinted a moment and raised his arm. "How far?" Barger asked. Another moment of thought. "About eight miles," Khamis said.

To test his "Bedouin triangulation" they pointed the cars on the course he set and took off across the roadless and characterless country. At a little more than seven and a half miles they came upon the station wagon. With some guides, they would have been able to rely on neither the direction nor the mileage, nor even the recognition of landmarks. The three they had in the Rub' al-Khali were all good, and Khamis incomparably the best of them. They learned to trust him as fully as they trusted their compasses and speedometers.

In camp it turned out that Ibrahim was disgruntled. He had been visited during their absence by many of the Lost Engineer's friends and relatives, all of whom, it seemed, had to be fed—they were mukhtal. Being told this, Ibrahim had fed them without protest. In his dialect, mukhtal meant "crazy." He didn't learn until too late that in the Lost Engineer's Murrah it meant only "hungry."

During the evening the Engineer demonstrated that he was a true Arab, and no Scandinavian masquerading. He reached over and punched Harriss on the leg.

" Ya, Harriss! And will you pay me?"
" Yes."
" Ya, Harriss. How much will you pay me?"
"Three rupees for three days."
"But aren't you going to pay me six rupees?"
"No. The price was one rupee a day."
"But I am a poor man."
"The agreement was for one rupee a day."

A shrug. It was evidently useless. But it was worth a try.

Tom Barger was still with Harriss down in the Rub* al-Khali when the word came in March 1938 that No. 7 was a big producer. That was fine, but it did not immediately or drastically affect Barger's life, except possibly to keep him from being sent on to the Dutch East Indies. He went on doing the jobs that needed doing. For a while, after a brief return to the Dammam camp in April, he was doing surface mapping at Dick Kerr's seismograph camp at Abu Hadriya. When he had finished that he accompanied Max Steineke and Max Thornburg, then vice president of Caltex, on a trip up the coast as far as the border of the Kuwait Neutral Zone. None of their parties had been up to that boundary on the ground; Barger mapped it, and thus had a part in the establishment of another of Saudi Arabia's uncertain borders.

Back in the Dammam camp, he cleaned up the maps of all the field work he had participated in that season while Jerry Harriss prepared the geological report. Barger also prepared an appendix in which he included, with the brashness of youth and a six months' acquaintance with the country and with the Arabic language, a description of the flora and fauna of the Rub' al-Khali, a list of the Arabic names of the plants and animals, and a list of geographical names in Arabic, using an Indian interpreter in an attempt to get the spellings right. Khamis, who later in his career would become the chief adviser to the Arabian research section of Aramco on matters of place names, was considerably amused.

The geological report was still unfinished when Steineke sent Barger and Harriss off to Kashmir to follow the example of the first geological parties and do their paper work in the mountains. Harriss did not make notable progress on his report during their month at Srinagar; the last three days of their leave they spent down on their hunkers in a Karachi hotel room, frantically drawing contour lines onto maps. But they still didn't have it done when they arrived on Bahrain, and when Harriss had to go into the hospital there for an operation there was still further delay. Then Harriss fell in love with his nurse, a fact which made his recovery remarkably slow. In mid-September he was still not back, and the report was still not done. Rather than let him sit around doing nothing, Steineke sent Barger up north of Abu Hadriya to help Bill Seale measure a base line from which to begin an accurate triangulation net.

It sounded simple, Barger said later, but almost from the day he arrived it began to go sour. One day, for instance, after staying up all night futilely trying to stave off the arrest of their mechanic Shaubi (the man with the "spare wife") and their cook for a local offense, they returned to learn that they had a dead tractor out by the seismograph camp. "Just stopped," the driver said.

They also learned the heat waves were so bad they were unable to work in the daylight and would have to work that night.

Greasy with sweat, Barger rolled in and tried to get a few hours of sleep. Almost immediately Booger Arnold came over from the seismo camp and woke him to suggest going gazelle hunting. Bill Seale went instead and Barger went to sleep again. In a few minutes he was being thunderously thumped by Dick Kerr, overflowing with good nature and noise. He watched Kerr and Jim Cary eat lunch, and at 1:30 took to his bed again, his head thick with a cold and his prickly heat in full blossom. That evening when he cranked on the generator for the radio transmitter he couldn't make it go. Two days before he had had the whole thing apart. In his whole time on this station he had got about two messages through to Dhahran; most of the time what he sent was as intelligible as a fire siren.

That night he took the radio over and had John Lewis at the seismo camp work on it. The next morning he spent cleaning sand out of the tractor's carburetor and getting it started. When he returned to camp to communicate with Dhahran, the generator had conked out again.

He sat and looked at the generator a long while. He had had it apart enough times to know that it was useless to take it apart any more. It was cranked by a rope wound around a flywheel, like an outboard motor. After long thought, Barger jacked up the rear wheel of one of the pickups and started the engine and put the pickup in gear. Then he pressed the generator's flywheel against the rear wheel of the pickup, which spun it much faster than he could do with the rope. After a little tinkering, he got it running, and could turn his attention to greasing a couple of the Fords, a job Shaubi would have done, if still at liberty. And on the following evening Ramadhan would begin. That meant workers tired from fasting by day and staying up to eat at night.

It was a peculiar way to be a geologist, but it was the standard routine for making veterans in Arabia.


This article appeared on pages 22-31 of the May/June 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1969 images.