Welcome To Sand City
Once in Sand City, I found I had 3 full-time jobs; that’s 24 hours a day—count ‘em. My employers were masters at squeezing all they could out of one for only a nickel’s pay—then trying to steal some.
At various points in my tenure I worked to design whole or parts of new towns—complete with airfields, commissaries and clinics—in the desert; Designed and located 50 rural supply points stretching between the Rub’ al-Khali [the desert known as The Empty Quarter] and southwestern Iraq; Prepped annual material supply budgets averaging US$ 750 million expressed in Gregorian and Hijri calendars, and US$ and [local] Riyals; Designed and located material reclamation centers to refurbish precious and frightfully expensive material supplies; Coordinated design and construction of a large air-conditioned “special products” warehouse; Worked as Assistant to the GM for Drilling and Workover, responsible for operations and budgets for 50+/- onshore and offshore drilling rigs and personnel [I was located in the Yellow Submarine between several GMs, the VP of Everything and the Minister of Petroleum—how convenient for my nocturnal acorn-gathering activities]; Designed increasingly permeable concrete “Lincoln Log” erosion control structures for selected shorelines [after the manner of Sidney Makepeace Wood]; Coordinated design and procurement of housing barges (*) [a/k/a “floating hotels”] for some of the 50,000+/- imported foreign workers on our desert projects; Assisted His Royal Majesty’s Navy to secure special emergency material supplies; Coordinated annual conferences that gathered local and worldwide rep’s in the subterranean splendor of our Blue Bunker; and did miscellaneous dirty tricks.
(*) SIDEBAR: I lived in a Mediterranean-style villa in [camp] that cost about US$ 500,000 in 1978. A lot of bucks for a house selling for 1/5 that in the US of A. Why? Because we had to import everything. We had no trees for lumber, no manufacturers of windows, doors and other building parts in country and there was no Home Depot for emergency supplies. You had it, or you waited.
We imported building sand. Huh? You’ve got 800-foot high dunes and trillions of tons of sand available!? Uh, Uh. Under a microscope, it was perfectly round from eons of blowing around. “Ball-bearing” sand. No rough texture to promote cement + grain cohesion. Useless for construction.
[Editors note: While Pop was an ardent admirer of the Saudis, he had a particular empathy for many of the foreign workers brought in to do the menial work the Saudis thought was beneath them. I recall Pop mentioning the “Pakis”, more correctly Pakistanis, in several conversations. He found the Pakis to be hard-working, affable people, eager to please. “No” was absent from their vocabulary. A couple of the Pakis Pop befriended did some minor “under the table” work at the house and on his car. One house project was anything but minor, however. As far back as I can remember, Pop lived with a healthy amount of paranoia. As he aged, it got worse and the FBI inquiry did nothing to quell the feeling he was being monitored. Not watched, mind you, but monitored; It’s an entirely different level of fear.
Living in a Muslim country with no passport (it is surrendered on arrival) would make any rational person cautious. Pop took that caution to much greater heights, for some very good reasons. With an alcohol still in house (highly illegal – story to follow), and a lingering fear of a “jihad” (holy war), Pop devised an escape plan. He stuffed a small soft-sided suitcase with a change of clothes and toiletries, nothing unusual if examined. But the bag also held a sizeable amount of Saudi currency (riyals), a selection of currencies from surrounding countries, as well as a few British pounds and some U.S. dollars. You never know where you may need to cross the border, so the variety of monies was a wise precaution. Beyond the “bug out” bag, Pop had a highly illegal 12 ga. shotgun in-house.
To keep his alcohol cooker out of sight, Pop recruited a couple of his Paki friends to build a false wall to hide a small room in his company supplied house. Access to the room was though a locking mechanism that resided in what appeared to be an electrical outlet. Remove the cover, trip the lock, and the wall pivoted open. Inside was the still, the shotgun and various other illegal / questionable material. The use of the word illegal is significant in this story as Saudi Arabia has no “due process”. The discovery of any of the items in the secret room would have led to jail, no passing “Go”, no collecting $200. ]
Why Spy? Why Steal? Can’t Ask?
One important duty was to steal various and sundry pieces of paper showing sensitive petroleum production and shipping details the [locals] were withholding from us for spite? for payback? to show their new powers? And /or because of the U.S.’ unswerving support for everything Israel did?
Our host country [Editors note: Saudi Arabia] had almost single-handedly supported post-WW2 worldwide industrial growth with cheap oil and then became the world’s swing producer in times of supply crises—for which hardly anyone ever said “shoo-kron” [thank you], so you couldn’t blame them too much for flexing their muscles.
“They” and “them” in Washing-Dick needed buckets of numbers to gauge U.S. and foreign energy policies and to try to concoct countervailing strategies and tactics for itself and its friends.
This particular task profoundly illustrates the typical kind of innocuous-looking gunk that spies spy daily.
We, and others, also used shoreline spotters to report loaded/unloaded oil tanker traffic into and out of the region’s sea-lanes.
Moonshine Becomes You
At home, I designed a non-smellable (not odorless) mash fermentation apparatus for my 316 grade stainless steel alcool cooker and columned still (which is vitally important to frustrate the religious police and Moslem neighbors in bone-dry Sand City). I made passable gin and wodka, plus some of the best “aged” bourbon-style whiskey you ever dribbled down your chin, and some whisky that tasted like Scotch if you drank enough of it. (Arabs called alcool by another name: “Sid-E-key”—“my friend”.)
I also made excellent red wines using varietal yeasts smuggled in from Boots Apothecaries in jolly old England and bottled juices from Lebanon bought at the bazaar downtown. Busy, busy.
[Editors note: Pop managed to ship the still back to the U.S. when he returned @’85. While I never saw it function, the sheer number of components and the design are impressive. Besides the main chamber and a refracting assembly, there is an electric pump and a couple of filters. It resides, in pieces , in the garage. I have no plans to resurrect the still, but it has a great deal of sentimental value.]
The Parachute Rigger; The Persian Clubfoot
One of the most interesting duties was to troll for guppies in the local towns.
Understand that during the ‘70s and ‘80s there were no satellite TV channels and no Playboy TV channels, just government-censored TV with no unveiled women.
Football (soccer) and CHiPs (a California cop show with Eric Estrada) were big.
The human promenade on the bazaar’s streets downtown was an even bigger daytime and evening entertainment.
Locals who had studied in America were desperate to re-contact western liberal customs. The local religious regime was stifling and dangerous. I was once responsible for monitoring students overseas—interesting episodes involving pimps and whores and cultural stereotypes.
So, if you could make acquaintance with an English-speaking potential info source at a sidewalk Shwarma vendor [i.e. lamb haunch electrically grilling on a vertical revolving spindle, then thin sliced into Pita bread sandwiches as it spins], or in one of the dozens of gold souks in a bazaar stuffed to overflowing with jewelry, or at one of the local coffee and hookah stalls, you might have a data mine.
Government agency, Royal military, well-traveled young businessman—it didn’t matter. They were all eager to impress and to get invited to your house in camp, especially if there might be western girls present. Get a+ b+ k+ m+ z = Bingo!
Almost no need to mention the need to beware western or local homosexuals, which were aplenty. [I was surprised to learn later that the Brits placed major value on mining gay bars and sending straights into them for “letter drops” and other duties. I guess that’s where Philby and Maclean came from.]
Forward To The Past
Fast forward to a foreign field: 1982? Beirut, Lebanon US Marine barracks guarded by a sentry with an unloaded rifle! 283? Marines killed by a truck bomb.
Robert C. Ames, Director of CIA Near East and Asian Intelligence, killed later in the car bombing of the U.S. Embassy, Beirut. Huh? What?
Where’s American HUMINT? Supposedly 100,000+ on the CIA payroll, plus how many thousands more other intelligencers in the rest of the Gang of 42/72. Were there too many retired admirals collecting emoluments from foreign interests while wearing that visible corona of mystery, danger and past skullduggery?