Where did it all start? Here’s a sneak peek at a cut down version of Chapter 1 in my memoir, with the working title of “Jeddah Brats”
Chapter 1 – Travel to a Foreign Land
The first time I remember hearing that we may be going to a foreign country is an easy memory to recall. Here I am trying to learn to eat with a fork stuck out of the end of an arm cast; when my parents bring up the subject of moving to another country. Let me back up here already, why did I have a cast on? It doesn’t have anything to do with the story, but it adds a little flavor to where my mind is set and a little later you’ll see how this relates to the story.
My name is Rhonda, and at the time I was a very rambunctious eight year old tom boy going into the 3rd grade. I have 2 older brothers that I often tagged along with and I also had a history that would continue to the present day of getting hurt in unsual ways.
That particular summer, my brothers were playing on a team at a baseball game and while mom eagerly cheered the boys on, I played on the jungle gym. Back then, people who made play grounds hadn’t yet discovered that pea gravel and deep sand could prevent or lessen injuries. Remember I said I was accident prone? Up to that point in my life, my folks had only had to make maybe two trips with me to the clinic for emergencies; a broken collar bone at just under age two and a knocked out tooth that bloodied me up from another jungle gym in the first grade.
Now – back to the ball game. It was a very hot June day and I was playing on this great jungle gym that just so happened to be set in a sea of asphalt. No sand – no gravel. As I got hot and sweaty, I got more daring and began to hand walk across these monkey bars. Before I knew what was up (not me), my hand slipped and I was falling straight down to the asphalt. I think I screamed, I don’t recall, but I do remember putting my hands out so I wouldn’t plant my face in that mean black surface. Mostly it worked, but I hurt real bad and had a nasty gash on my chin with plenty of blood. Kids screamed, parents came running, and mom found me, as usual, in the middle of the mess. Did I tell you mom was a nurse? Somehow, I ended up in the front seat of the car with my arm propped on a Sears catalogue and a bloody T-shirt held to my chin as we sped down North Oak Trafficway to Doctor Hall’s office. They took us in immediately and set to fixing me up. Here’s the important part that you probably thought I would never get to: I had cracked my jaw bone and had a nasty gash. Did I mention I hated shots? The doc said he was just going to ‘clean up’ my chin a little and soon it would feel and look better. The doctor said it wasn’t going to hurt as a nurse draped a cloth across my face so I couldn’t see anything. I asked them if it would hurt and the doc said no; then while my mom and the nurse held on to either side of me, the doctor STUCK A NEEDLE IN MY CHIN! I screamed and was up off that table in no time, but they did finally calm me down, I suppose, as my chin got numb. I left that day with two more shots, both in the butt – tetanus and something for infection, a cast on my right arm and 17 stitches in my face. After a restless and painful night, I had to return the next day for more x-rays and they were surprised to discover I had also broken my left arm and my collar bone. I now didn’t trust doctors and had a morbid fear of needles that would last into my thirties.
So, let’s get back to the beginning of my story. I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my family and trying to eat with a fork stuck out of my cast, when the folks all of a sudden tell us we are moving to another county. I had never even heard of Saudi Arabia at that point but my brothers were both real excited and exclaimed things like, “Will we live in the desert? Can we ride a camel? Is it true about Ali Baba and his thieves?” I was the book reader in the family, so I had read about the Arabian Nights, but my brothers actually KNEW, as older brothers often think they do, absolutely everything about Saudi Arabia.
I don’t remember being upset that we were moving, but I could tell that my mom, who was then only 27 or 28 years old, was nervous about something in the deal. I don’t know who made the final decision to go, but soon, preparations were under way. Dad was to leave in just over a month and hopefully, we would soon follow around the time of Thanksgiving. Because of some religious holiday, which I now know was Ramadan, we didn’t actually make it until after Christmas, on December 29, 1966.
Remember my fear of needles? It was going to come back and haunt me big time. My parents had been very conscientious about making sure we had all our vaccinations as little kids and we had already been through several childhood diseases such as mumps, measles, chicken pox – you name it! But the great American government in its infinite wisdom had declared that we needed to be inoculated for much more. For my birthday in 1966, I was given the first round of shots which was Yellow Fever. Happy Birthday to me! We would go once or twice a week, sometimes getting as many as two shots in each arm, through the middle of August. I screamed and cried through each session, and nearly fainted once when the nurse broke a needle off in my brother’s arm. We had our smallpox repeated, cholera, SPT, Tetanus, Typhus, Typhoid, Yellow Fever and many more. All of this was courtesy of the doctors who worked for TWA on Richards Road at the old downtown NKC airport. In later years, I was to get a job in that very same building, and each day I would shudder and rub my arms as I walked through those doors with the memories of sterile tile floors and SHOTS firmly entrenched in my mind.
Also during that time, we had to get passports and visas for Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. It took many months, starting in July and ending just before Christmas of 1966 before we could get all the right permissions for our trip. Meanwhile, my stitches came out and the sling and left cast were removed and back to school we went after Labor Day. I learned to write left handed because the right arm wasn’t healing quickly. I started school in third grade that year with one cast on plus sore arms from all the shots. The next few weeks were a blur as we packed up all of our furniture and belongings to be sent in big crates ahead of us. Our house was bare by Thanksgiving and we waited eagerly to get our paperwork. After a tearful Christmas spent saying goodbye to a multitude of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, we finally set out to travel half the way around the world. Mom, with three young children, left her family and home and together we traveled to France and then on to Beirut, Lebanon, where we had a tearful happy reunion with dad at the American hotel. The noises and smells were incredible – the mix of people and their dress were astonishing. Amazingly, the hotel seemed pretty modern and treated us well, and mom seemed to be relieved that this wasn’t going to be her worst nightmare anymore.
Children being the way they are – we soon, or rather, my brothers did – found a way to entertain themselves. Our rooms were about 10 stories up with doors that led to a balcony. While I was still too small to see over the rail, my brothers had no problem climbing up and hanging over. Tired of just looking, they decided to have a spitting contest. It didn’t entertain them too long, so they added more to it. They would time a spit ball to see how long and where it would land below. Then, patiently waiting for the right target to walk by, they’d wait, goober up with a big phlegmy HHHAACKK noise, aim and spit! As soon as it hit someone, we’d fall back and laugh. Finally, one man caught us as a particularly nasty goober got him splat on the cheek. He was angry and shook his fist at us and yelled – then like frightened rabbits we ran back in our rooms, sure that the man would come find us. He never did and I never told on my brothers (I’m TELLING NOW- HA!), so our parents never knew what trouble we had caused. It wasn’t the last time either, and I’ve often wondered these latter years how these foreigners tolerated the Americans or their children anyway.
On another trip to Lebanon, my brothers showed their neat trick to some kids we were traveling with and they soon graduated from spit balls to girsch coins and pennies. In France, they tormented waiters by puckering up and making kissy noises, then rolling their eyes and saying stupid things like “Ooo-la-la”. I never did figure that one out but it upset a lot of people for some reason.
Back to the story. The next day we entered the final leg of our air travel. We left Lebanon and boarded a small TWA jet and flew directly to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. When we debarked at the Jeddah airport, we were assaulted by shimmering waves of heat, noxious fumes and a multitude of men in gowns.
Before we had left the states, mom and dad had carefully gone over a list of forbidden things while packing our luggage. Things like pork, booze, bibles with pictures, books with pictures and Christian ornaments were taboo. It wasn’t a major deal for our family, although I was upset to leave most of my books behind. We took no chances this first trip. My parents knew as we arrived in this new country that we would have to go through customs, where they would inspect the contents of our bags for forbidden items. My dad had been through this detailed search before and friends had told of their experiences, which were not good. We stood in line and watched with growing apprehension as we watched the agents tear through bags. They would even go so far as to take bags, turn them over and dump everything out. They would then paw through, heedless of the items falling on the filthy concrete floor and rolling under the tables.
Finally, the time for my family’s turn came. I was first for some bizarre reason and we lined our cases up on the table. I had a cute little black patent leather ‘hat box’ style case with a handle strap and pink cats etched in felt on top. A large grubby man in a white thobe and white lace skull cap approached the table and unsnapped the two gold latches on my case. He lifted the lid – and screamed! Backpedaling away quickly as he turned a sort of pale shade, he turned and fled across the room and through a door. Quickly, two men came out of the door, followed by a now more timid agent who was whispering to them and pointing at us and saying something like “LA…LA” The two new men walked up, slowly opened the bag top and peeked inside. Then, they quickly slammed the top closed, stamped our passports and shooed us away with arms waving while saying, “ Yallah, yallah.” Confused, we grabbed our unsearched bags and breezed on out of the customs building.
“Sis,” dad asked, “what’s in your bag?”
“Just a few toys – oh, and my troll family. Do you want to see my new one I got for Christmas?” I opened my case, and there, lying on top, were mommy and daddy troll, some kid trolls and a couple of baby trolls, each with its own brightly colored unique hair and that hideous gnarled up troll face. Some even had caveman style clothes on.
My father laughed then and escorted us out to a taxi line. Later, we would all laugh at the incident as we recalled our quick transit through one of the toughest customs checks in the world. Those men were not used to seeing dolls of any kind, and the strange ugly faces of the trolls probably looked like some kind of demon to them. I know the first man will have had night mares from the encounter, but also a great story to tell his buddies. Most stories about customs are bad experiences, but now my dad had a new, funny story to share with his friends. For awhile, people joked about ‘trolling through customs.’ Forty years later, I still have a couple of trolls in my home as good luck guardians; one of which was my mom’s that I never knew she had until she died.
Another impression from that first arrival was the horrible condition and facilities of the women’s rest room. Mom and I, very alone, and very obviously foreign, walked through a door into a room lined with chairs, then through another door into a smelly, dark, concrete room. I almost threw up. There were four curtains, sort of, and we pulled one open to find an open drain with a concrete ledge around it.
“Mommy, where’s the potty?” I asked. I’m sure I probably whined a little too. She had no clue what to do either. I’m not sure how we figured it out, but it was our first exposure to open pit toilets with no ‘throne’ to grace our behinds. Awkwardly, we were able to place our feet on the ledges and hike up our clothes and take care of business. Fortunately for us both, I think we only had to do number one as there was nothing to wipe with. Later, we would become more familiar with this type of toilet facility, and it would not be the worst we had ever seen.