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Volume 20, Number 5September/October 1969

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Discovery! The Story of Aramco Then

Chapter 11: The Unicorns of Dahna

Written by Wallace Stegner
Illustrated by Don Thompson

SYNOPSIS: There wasn't ever a time, it seemed later, when everyone could just relax and say the job is done. For more than 15 years the effort to find Arabian oil had been underwaystarting with the adventurers and financiers of the 1920's and ending with the successful discovery of oil in 1938 by the California Arabian Standard Oil Companybut the pace had never slackened.

One reason was that the Saudi Government kept coming up with little jobs for Casoc to do. One involved the assignment of two surveyors to define certain of the kingdom's boundaries, now, when they might include or exclude a major oil field, of primary importance. Another had to do with hydrographic soundings in the Gulf, a job that was assigned to likeable Charlie Herring. Charlie started the job but never finished it. En route for a day's outing on Bahrain he and his wife Pauline were killed when the cranky company launch exploded and sank.

They had other tasks too, like preparing for the first visit of King Ibn Sa'ud. The King led a caravan of 500 cars and 2,000 people to Dhahran to preside over ceremonies marking the day the first tanker carrying Saudi Arabian crude sailed to western oil markets.

Then came the fire.

On July 8, 1939, Dammam No. 12 exploded, sending a shock wave of sound and air rolling across the desert and a column of flames 200 feet in the air. One man was killed instantly and Bill Eisler was burned so badly that Monte Hawkins' heroic rescue and the subsequent medical efforts were of no value. He died a few hours later.

The next 10 days were a test for the men in Arabia. Although alone with one of the world's worst oil fires they decided they would put it out themselves. Dangerous as it was. it was their fire, by God. and they were going to make the most of it. To do so they had to go right into the heart of the volcano, rising screens, closing valves, trying this, trying that. But they went, and they went again. Until out day they got a grip on it. a grip they slowly tightened until they could get sum mud into a line and snuff it out like a match.

They were happy man that day. First they cabled the experts in New York to go on home. "Fire extinguished,'' they said smugly, "Professional fire- fighters not needed." Then they all got stoned, slept a while and went back to work.

The German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, made its repercussions felt even to the shores of the Gulf. The news came as no special surprise—the Company had been fearing war, and stockpiling against the possibility, for some time—but the outbreak of actual fighting meant an immediate threat. It seemed plausible that the Axis, fully aware of the importance of Gulf oil to the British fleet, might have planted troublemakers, saboteurs, and possibly even armed groups in the area. Technically neutral, but feeling threatened nevertheless, Dhahran pulled in all the geophysical and geological parties from the desert and put the exploration crews, with their cars and trucks, on 24-hour-a-day patrol around Dhahran and between Dhahran and the other wells, camps and installations. Twenty-four hours a day operators monitored everything that they could get on the radio, English, German, French, Italian, Russian, and American. The boys in the bunkhouse—they had set up one of the field radios to keep track of events—concurred in liking the French news best: it came on in a soft feminine voice.

While Tom Barger, who had been recalled from the field along with the other geologists, led a reconnaissance group on a swing around the concession area, there were long conferences in Dhahran on the possibility of air attacks, on problems of logistics and supply, on security measures. But Barger and his party, talking with every band of Bedouins and every local amir they could find, came across nothing suspicious. Everyone received them with hospitality, no potential saboteurs looked at them out of the corners of their eyes in the majlis or around the campfires. Eventually Dhahran decided it was safe to send the field parties back to their work. People wrote reassuring letters back home but the optimism had a certain nervousness about it. It struck them all that the home office in San Francisco didn't seem to be sufficiently alarmed. San Francisco was not sitting on an important and logical target, and San Francisco was not in frequent contact with the British on Bahrain, who as active belligerents and custodians of Britain's oil supply were sobering companions.

Actually, after the first scare, the war did not much affect them except by the gradual choking off of their supply lines, and in the beginning that result was not too apparent. Other difficulties crept back to absorb them more—the routine, day-by-day problems of reconciling their heavily mechanized industry with local habits and with the local Arab representatives and police. Compromise and agreement were easier at the policy level, between Lenahan and Najib Salha, say, than between the men in the field and the Saudi local officials. Here in the Eastern Province the contact was man to man, and since each man was the product of a culture profoundly different from that which had formed the other, there were inevitable incidents of misunderstanding, prejudice, conflicting notions of law and justice. One of them, on December 19, 1939, involved John Ames.

Ames was one of the Bunyans. As a by-product of drilling oil wells, he created legends, often in the company of Hank Trotter, once an All-American at California, or of Bill Eltiste, Steve Furman or Homer Florey, a boiler-maker whose hands were so stiffened from using hammers and sledges that they used to lay a silver rupee on the bar and bet him that he couldn't pick it up.

They told, and still tell, a good many stories about John Ames. They said, for example, that once Trotter, Ames, Furman, Florey, and Dr. T. C. Alexander were gazelle hunting up near Kuwait. The country was dikaka and gravel plains, rough but without serious hazards. Nevertheless, in the midst of the flint plains where only genius could have found a rock bigger than a teacup, Florey and Alexander found and hit a rock three by six feet. They moved it about a yard, mostly inward upon the bumper and radiator of the pickup. The crowd, all of them capable, if necessary, of rebuilding the pickup on the spot, swarmed out to fix the thing up.

A block on the sand, a few twists of the jack handle and they had the front end up in the air. John Ames crawled under, and lying on his back began to hammer and pound. In a minute he had pounded the pickup off the jack and brought the truck's front cross member down across his chest. Pinned down, he swore, briefly. Then he said, "Get the damn thing off me." Trotter stooped, got a grip, tightened, grunted, and lifted the front end off the ground. "How's that?" he said, meaning was the car high enough for Ames to crawl out. But Ames, who thought Trotter had knocked the car off the jack in the first place, crawled out swearing at Hank, resisting Alexander's attempt to examine his chest and implying humorlessly that it was a kind of bum joke to drop a truck on a man. In a minute he crawled back under to resume work, saying to Trotter, "Now stay away from this car, God damn it!"

The Bunyans were of a breed loud, tough, strong, rowdy, good-natured, superbly adapted to the hard- ness of the life they lived and the job they did, and by and large trying seriously to live up to Company , policy and get along with Arabs and respect Arabian customs. They were considerably better behaved, probably, than they would have been at home: Heine Snyder, a driller, once complained that "there wasn't a decent fight in the whole damned four years." It was a queer oil field. It appeared even queerer when John Ames, driving through the Dhahran camp at about 16 miles an hour on December 19, struck a boy who darted from behind a parked tractor.

Ames stopped within 18 feet. He picked up the boy and took him to the Company hospital and waited around anxiously while it was determined that the victim had a broken leg and lacerations on the head, but was in no danger of dying. While Ames was waiting, the Saudi police descended and yanked him off to jail; because he was contrite and sorry about what had happened, he went peaceably. But it at once appeared that he was in serious trouble.

Just how serious was the question. Striking and injuring a pedestrian with an automobile is a grave offense anywhere—and Saudi Arabia is no exception. Further, all residents in the Kingdom, including Americans, were subject to the Shari'ah law, a code with some troubling differences if compared to American practices.

On the official side, there was confusion. Ahmad Lary, al-Hasa representative of the Bureau of Mines and Public Works, was inclined to one line of action, Ghalib Taufiq, the Chief of Police, to another. Ames sweated in jail while the argument went on. Ohliger, unable to obtain Ames' release, protested against the local attempt to treat him as if he were a common criminal and insisted that the police regulations in matters of this kind should be discussed with higher authorities.

Dhahran got on the radio to Lenahan, and Lenahan took the case up with Najib Salha, and Najib instructed Ahmad Lary to release Ames into Ohliger's custody. After that, the police and the Company would be allowed to present their arguments and evidence separately to their Jiddah offices, whereupon the qadi would consider both sides and decide the amount that Ames was to pay as indemnity to the parents of the injured boy. From the beginning, Najib held that Ames should pay hospital and doctor bills as well as the wages the boy would have received during his hospitalization. And if the boy died, he added, Ames' guilt would not be decided according to American practices, but by the qadi in accordance with Shari'ah law.

As it turned out the boy not only lived and collected his reparations money, but emerged from the hospital 15 pounds heavier and cured of malaria, scurvy and an enlarged spleen. But the possibility that an American might be subject to Shari'ah law was enough to make a man thoughtful. The Americans may have been largely ignorant of Shari'ah law but they did know there were some disturbing possibilities. For if it was a small case, by the standards of Americans grown calloused to death by automobile, and geared to handle accidental death or injury in specific legal ways and by an impersonal code, it was not small in Saudi Arabia, where everything from food, housing and habits of recreation to the most basic law of the land was under pressure along the frontier contact of cultures.

Most of Arabia, even the Dahna and the Jafura sands, is laced and crisscrossed with camel tracks. But beyond Ain Muqainima, the last well on the edge of the Rub' al-Khali—an old well to judge by the ten-foot bank of camel dung around its mouth, and indispensable in spite of the hydrogen sulfide stink of its water—there were no tracks. Southward between the Dahna and ar-Rimal reached the long, perfectly flat gravel plain called Abu Bahr, the Father of the Sea, and for miles there was nothing to break the incredible flatness or the equally incredible barrenness.

As the Texans say of the Staked Plains, you could look farther and see less than almost anywhere in the world. Not a jabal, not a sandhill, not a dune, not a shrub or a blade of grass, not a rock bigger than a pebble. Tom Barger's party made their traverses across it by sticking a piece of adhesive tape on the windshield and another below it where the shadow of the first would fall, and marking the shadow with a pencil. Then they set the car on the compass course they wanted, and every 20 minutes stopped to correct their course as the shadow moved leftward. It was the nearest thing to marine or aerial navigation that solid ground could provide, and it went on without a break until nearly noon. Then the country ahead began to roll, and the Dahna dunes closed in from the right. Here, as the Arabs said, the desert "lived." A recent.rain had moistened it, and now there was grass in a narrow yard-wide band along the foot of the dunes on the south side. When the desert "lived" here, the Murrah said, there might be hunting since the wudayhi sometimes strayed up from the depths of the Rub' al-Khali.This was unlikely since the wudayhi, or oryx were among the rarest of Arabia's animals. No one in the party, even the Arabs, had ever seen a wild one. Still, as Barger squatted behind the sedan, sheltering himself and the mercury from the sand which had begun to blow, and shot the sun, Khamis the guide continued to talk about the possibility.

Then they climbed back into the car and started to turn around and saw three—as fabulous as beasts out of a fairy tale, as improbable as three unicorns.

Today, it is forbidden to shoot most game in Saudi Arabia. As in other parts of the world Saudi Arabia has learned the need for conservation. But then things were different and within seconds, as the oryx broke and ran, the sedan and the pickup were roaring after them.

Johnny Thomas, a recruit from the University of Washington, had cut loose with the shotgun, and one of the two bigger wudayhi was down. Barger, driving the sedan, waved at the soldiers to look after it, while he tore out in pursuit of the other big one. The third, a calf, they ignored.

The oryx was not as fast as a gazelle; they gained on him. A little too anxious, Thomas fired with the shotgun before they were quite within range. Khamis emptied the .22, but because of the angle he hit him in the side and hind quarters. Then the bull stopped, and Khamis dropped him with a shot in the head, but before they could come up to him he was on his feet and running again. Tom Barger slid over, reloaded the .22, and shot three times. The oryx went down to stay.

Meantime the soldiers in the pickup had had their own thrills. When they drove up to the cow that Thomas had shot she rose up and charged them. Soldiers scattered in every direction. Some of them got to the truck just ahead of her two-foot horns, which rammed into the spare tire like bayonets. Then she also went down to stay.

To complete their sweep, they tracked the calf to where he had stopped among the dunes nearly a mile away. Barger pursued him slowly while Thomas and Khamis crouched on the running board, and at a propitious moment Khamis dove off like a bulldogger in a rodeo and had him.

For the next day or two they ate the best meat that Arabia provided, and they kept the calf, Butch, force-fed with a medicine dropper. The soldiers scoured the country for miles to bring in bunches of grass, but then they ran out of condensed milk and the inhospitable reaches of Abu Bahr provided no more stubble. For a while Butch existed on Klim, which left him a little pale and sickly, but not too sickly to refuse to butt anything that came close. He gave it to a soldier who came in to get his eyes treated and he knocked the wind out of a sheep who wandered into his orbit. At night he refused to sleep outside, preferring to root and scoop an illusory hole in the matting they spread for him in the tent. He submitted to being wrapped in a flannel shirt on cold nights, and when he wandered outside and got tangled up in the tent ropes he blatted for help like an airbulb auto horn.

He was everybody's baby. But he was symbolic of the losses that accompanied the gains of the industrial invasion. Butch's parents had been unable to escape hunters chasing them in a car, the kind of hunting that was to virtually wipe out both oryx and gazelle before conservation laws were put into effect. And Butch himself, treated more kindly by the newcomers, died of their kindness; born to subsist on an occasional wisp of grass, he fell so greedily upon the alfalfa they brought him in the supply truck from Hofuf that he bloated up and perished in convulsions.

Within two weeks they came across five more oryx. They had broken down a truck in the Abu Bahr and removed the whole rear assembly, axles, differential and all. They had to pull it apart with the lorry while one side was anchored to the pickup, and then they had to dig the broken bearing fragments out of the differential, install new bearings, and put the truck back together. They were feeling in a mood for a change of chores when Khamis spotted the tracks of five wudayhi moving northeast. By a coincidence which they nudged just a little, they too were working in that direction. At lunch, for a laugh, Barger rigged up a lasso out of a piece of rope and demonstrated for the soldiers how cowboys caught cows in America. They were not impressed.

A half hour after lunch, however, they ran into the herd and as two calves veered off, Barger decided he would show them that the cowboy method was not as silly as they thought it. He climbed out on the running board, and hanging on by his eyebrows, while Thomas brought him up beside a fleeing calf at 30 miles an hour, he lassoed her on the fourth cast. Then they ran down the other one and he hindfooted it and spilled it neatly on the very first throw. This time the Arabs were impressed, and complimented him many times on his "idea." If there had been any more wudayhi in Abu Bahr that season he might have started a cultural revolution, and turned the Bedouins into vaqueros.

The boy from North Dakota was developing into a man of real stature in the field. He had every frontier competence in addition to sound scientific training and personal qualities that set him apart. From the beginning he had been the one who carried the conversation when the field parties found themselves invited to drink coffee with Ibn Jiluwi, or local amirs, once or twice with the Crown Prince Sa'ud when he was camped near them, and most notably when King Ibn Sa'ud came through on his visit to Ras Tanura. Though he might go visiting in a pair of pants whose seat had long been gone, and which he had to cover by a woolen bisht that drowned him in sweat, Barger could hold his own in most conversations, stumble through a more formal visit with the Crown Prince without the necessity of an interpreter, and even get a "Praise be to God" out of the taciturn Ibn Jiluwi. He had a native grace, and a sensitiveness to Arab notions of decorum. Not only did he know much of interior Arabia better than almost any Company man except perhaps Steineke, but he knew Arabs.

One day Steineke came down to the Jabrin oasis that was their base for the Rub' al-Khali exploration, and said that he had been approached by the Government Relations Department to see if Barger could be wooed away from geology. Steineke left it up to him: Barger had a long leave coming, his first contract was about up, his second could be negotiated on the old basis or on the new. What was certain was that he could come back either way, to a promotion and a raise. He was the kind who grew with the job.

Tom Barger did not think, then, that he wanted to go into government relations, where he had no training to build on except a knowledge of Arabic. Time and the accidents of the war period would change his mind. His knowledge of the Arabic tongue and the Arab people was more valuable to the Company than all the training he had slaved through in geology and mining engineering. But before he made the decision that would move him over into the area where Bill Lenahan, Bill Burleigh, Roy Lebkicher, Floyd Ohliger and Gavin Witherspoon worked, there was a last job in the field: an exploratory trip to the towns of Layla and Sulaiyl, at the foot of the Tuwaiq Mountains, and a look at the new concession area south of Sulaiyl which Lenahan had obtained in his negotiation of May, 1939. No one from the Company had ever seen any part of that country. Layla was all but virgin territory. The only westerner who had ever visited it was H. B. St. JohnPhilby, and he had been there only once, in 1917.

Max Steineke, prevented at the last minute from going, sent Dick Bramkamp, the paleontologist, in his place. While they waited for Bramkamp to arrive with the mechanic Shaubi, Barger and Thomas amused themselves by planting 60 frogs in the wells of the Jabrin oasis, so deadly with malaria that the Bedouins came there only at date-picking time. It was the geologists' pious hope that the frogs would eat the larva of anopheles and that the names of Barger and Thomas would be immortalized in the medical journals. They also had a bath and shampoo, the first of either in two weeks, and Thomas oiled up his hair and beard, which in ordinary times were full of dust and practically felted. They had a contest to see who could find the longest hair in his beard, a competition which Barger won by a sixteenth of an inch with a hair just about three inches long. But Thomas's beard proved more useful, if not so ornamental, because his whiskers were perfectly round, and Barger found that he could use them as cross hairs when adjusting the sextant.

When they had all that taken care of, and were sitting in the tent enjoying the itch of unaccustomed cleanliness, a sudden windstorm struck them, blew all their papers off the table, filled the tent with fine sand, swung the lights. They staggered out with their eyes full of grit and tightened the ropes and got the tent secured and came back in. It had lasted only minutes—just long enough to dirty everything up again and fill Johnny Thomas's oiled beard with a new collection of real estate.

Their destination was so deep inland, and the isolation of the inhabitants from western contacts so complete, that Ibn Jiluwi sent an extra 10 soldiers from Hofuf to accompany them. The eyes of Salih the cook popped when he saw them. Their Amir, Muhammad ibn Mansur, was Ibn Jiluwi's tax collector and right-hand man, and came by the special command of Ibn Sa'ud. The nine "soldiers" were all prominent men, four of them amirs themselves. Physically and in every other way they were a very superior lot.

They loved a joke and they took the trip as a picnic, and because Ibn Jiluwi was in Riyadh visiting the King, his own tea-maker came as one of the Hofuf detachment—a stout and cheerful man named Faraj, loaded down with a rifle, a Mauser pistol and two bandoliers of cartridges. He had a trick of adding rose water to the tea, which gave it a touch of sumptuous, oriental splendor. Faraj carried the rose water in an old Scotch bottle, and he treated it with great care. Two Autocar lorries, two pickups and a sedan, loaded with 15 soldiers, two geologists, two cooks and a houseboy, and three drivers, left the Jabrin camp and made the Dahna sands by noon. That night they camped in a desolate waste of rocks on the Huraisan Plateau, and the following afternoon, as they came from the east across a great plain, they saw black islands of palm groves floating on the mirage, and mountains beyond. That was Layla, the capital town of al-Aflaj. Hordes of ragged boys and a good many men poured out of the towns of Layla and Saih, to the south, and stared at them where they camped, but none came close. Amir Muhammad ibn Mansur sent word of their arrival by three of his soldiers; somewhat later, he dressed in his best and took his whole army in to pay a call on the local amir. Later still, on invitation, the entire party went in to dine with the son of the amir, acting as host in his father's absence.

This they were used to—the great platters heaped with layers of wheat gruel, rice, whole sheep, chickens. Tidbits were piled on the plates of the guests, so that they didn't have to enter the tugging contest, all with the right hand, by which the Arabs wrenched boiled mutton off the carcass. When they had had enough they rose, wished the blessings of God on the host, and held out their hands for the servant to pour water over them. Being guests, they were lucky: first whack at the towel.

Layla was surrounded with old mud forts, most of them from the time just before Ibn Sa'ud brought peace, but some of them reputed to be of the time of 'Ad, the king of the mythical lost city of Wabar (which some think is Ophir) in the Rub' al-Khali. West and southwest of the town were the clear blue ains, or wells, of the Aflaj, called wells presumably because there was no word for lake among the Arabs of Arabia. One the Americans measured was 85 feet deep, and one they swam in was a quarter mile wide and three-quarters long. From all of them covered canals led out, some of them into barren sand long gone back to desert. Along the canals were the stone manholes, designed to be built up above advancing dunes, that they knew from Qatif. Where a dune had moved on, the manholes were left like a row of chimneys across the desert.

After the first excited outpouring from Layla at their arrival, the inhabitants stayed out of sight. The visitors moved uneasily, conscious of being watched. Muhammad ibn Mansur and his soldiers disliked the place intensely; no one would salaam them, and people refused to sell them meat, calling them servants of Unbelievers.

Other people of the region were less standoffish. At Wasit, up the Wadi Hamar in the Tuwaiq Mountains, they could hear a mile away the mighty drone of voices as the inhabitants came running to look at the first foreigners and the first cars they had ever seen. These were friendly. So were the people of Sulaiyl, southward along the Tuwaiq Escarpment, which they reached two days later after examining the surface geology of the wadis that emptied every few miles into the desert, and after a thunderstorm had soaked them in the night. Sulaiyl, at the mouth of the great Wadi Dawasir, was a round of dinners and visits and coffee; the Hofuf soldiers, who had sworn that if they went back through Layla they would hand a beating to anyone who would not salaam them, mellowed under constant hospitality.

At Sulaiyl, too, Barger had the often repeated opportunity to play doctor, which could be heartbreaking when it was not, as in old Salim's case, funny. The first patient brought to him was a 10-year-old boy who had hurt his leg weeks before by falling off a camel. "God lengthen your life, O my uncle," he said in greeting, and lay without whimpering as Barger examined the leg, evidently broken, much swollen, and scabbed with continued infection. Barger told him to soak the whole leg in hot salt water twice a day and keep a clean rag over it. Beyond that, it was with God. Allah kareem —God is kind.

The boy came back next evening and, magically, the swelling was very much less. The doctor prescribed more of the same treatment, gave the boy a couple of Maria Theresa thalers (dollars) and some clean rags, and had done everything he could. Another boy, paralyzed from the hips down, who was brought in by his tearful father on a stretcher, he could not help. "This sickness is from God, and if He wills, He will cure it. Allah kareem. I can do nothing for him."

Down in the new concession area, at the well called Hisy, where a donkey drew water under the protection of a mud fort, they met a very old man, wrinkled like a monkey, 'whom the soldiers nicknamed the Old Man of Hisy, the Brother of 'Ad. "O, Old Man, how old are you?" they said to him, and grinning with wrinkled gums he creaked in his low old voice, "Mubty"—ancient. He would not accept a ride in the sedan back to his fort. "I will go by foot," he said. "I have gone a long way on my feet." He had never seen an automobile before, but he was not surprised by it. If such a thing appeared by his ain, it was God's will.

Ain Hisy was their deepest penetration into unknown Arabia. Three days later they were back at Layla, where they stopped only for water. Their meat needs did not need to be satisfied by the Layla suq; they had been having great gazelle hunting. The soldiers, who preferred the certainty of buckshot, were a little astonished to see Barger pick off a running gazelle (and gazelles had been clocked at nearly 40 miles an hour) with a .22 from the back seat of the sedan.

From Layla they went back toward Jabrin, stopped while Thomas, Barger and Dick Bramkamp made some important geological examinations just west of the Dahna, and got into Jabrin camp in the midst of boiling heat on the 18th of April, 1940. Within a month Barger was on his way to Dhahran, and in a couple of months more on his way home on long leave.

When he came back in 1941 the war would have sharply restricted Company activity, field work would be suspended, and after driving Roy Lebkicher across Arabia as a temporary replacement for Bill Lenahan, who was leaving after eight years, Barger would find himself a government relations man. Garry Owen would arrive in the spring of 1942 to take over Lenahan's work, and Lebkicher would return to Dhahran as manager of relations. The camp at Dhahran would have been pinched in upon itself, into what Phil McConnell would label the Time of the Hundred Men. For quite a long time, the new country Barger and Bramkamp had opened up would stay unvisited, as remote as if it still belonged to 'Ad the King of Wabar, or his ancient relative the Old Man of Hisy.

Editor's Note: The concluding chapters of Discovery! will be continued in the January-February issue because the next issue will be devoted entirely to a survey of education in the Arab East.

This article appeared on pages 16-23 of the September/October 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1969 images.