Monday, March 12, 2007

18.) The Hitchhiking Years: Surf's Up and an Aramco Pioneer

Laguna Beach was the place where I confronted mankind's march to conquer the planet. It arrived in two parts. First, there was 1972 when I was hitchhiking down the coast of California. I was a mere 18 years old plus a few weeks. In fact, I would soon be needing to stop somewhere and register for the draft. Vietnam was still hanging over this nation like an awful poisonous cloud. Thank God nothing like that could ever happen today.

Forgive the sarcasm, but I awoke in a strange mood this morning. I've enjoyed this extended nostalgic jaunt but you have to be on the lookout always in case something is beginning to do you harm. Living in the past is one of the true wastes of time there is. It starts as a comfort to you - plus a break from the present - but it ends up making you more aware of the swift passage of time and your own fleeting mortality. So let's press on:

The view from the cliffs over the Pacific Ocean was stunning. I had a couple of encounters during this stretch that were unforgettable. First, I arrived in one of the little coastal towns and this young teenage girl just sort of glommed onto me. It was her chance to interact with a complete stranger and she was fascinated by me. It was innocent but what a parental nightmare: A drifter comes to town and your daughter is extremely forward with him as he wanders through. Here's the amazing part: She was absolutely devastatingly cute. Tan with brown hair. You grow up hearing these Beach Boys songs about how hot the women of Southern California were and then the next thing you know you're walking around with one. Picture a teenage Julia Roberts only much, much cuter, plus she was boy crazy. Though all we did was talk, I'll never forget that.

Speaking of Beach Boys songs, I also met this surfing couple - the prototypical Southern California pair. She was very beautiful, tanned, and gorgeous, while her handsome surfer boyfriend was friendly enough but not talkative. They took me to this beach and the guy put on a wet suit and went in surfing while I chatted with his surfer girlfriend as she watched him lovingly, sitting there in her little bikini. It was nice to see the songs could be true, and I always had the utmost respect for the surfing lifestyle after this. Incidentally, I would sort of interview the people I was with - ask questions about their lives just to get a sense of what was going on. This girl said something that was so sexy that it's stuck with me all these years.

By the way, after talking with her for a while, this surfer dude was like a hero of mine just for dating her. He rode one last wave to the shore and came in. He was toweling off naked and I was talking to the girl asking what the social scene was like in the area. Did they go to many parties? The girl just said no and then gave me a super sexy smile and nodded towards the surfer god guy and said, "He's my party." I've never forgotten that, either.

Back to part one of bearing witness to our impact on the planet: It started as I camped out high above the waves on the cliffs of Laguna Beach. I was all set to drift off with visions of surfer girls dancing in my head, when I heard an animal stir in the brush very close to me. I hated that, and I had to move. I don't know what it was but it was substantial. This animal stuff was always a possibility camping out. You would sometimes have an encounter with the wild kingdom. I never saw the beast - I just knew it was there and it was time to move.

Here's part two of the story: The very next year I would drive by the same spot in Laguna Beach with my college roommate and the entire area was being road-graded for a sub-division. My little animal friend had to be gone. That's the real story, isn't it? First, the Beautiful Children of the Waves show up, then there's a sub-division. It was a real glimpse of our interaction with the planet.

Most people like to separate themselves from the problems of the environment which is cute. They act like they're not really consuming oil or creating garbage - that they are exempt from most of the blame simply because they have the right mental attitude about it. Back then, a lot of people weren't completely aware of the role oil played in just about everything that makes up modern life, right down to those rock records we loved so much.

Being born in Arabia, I always felt personally innocent of the geo-political part of the situation. I didn't fill out any forms to be born in an oil town - I know that. And the adults who made it happen were my father and his friends. Incidentally, my Dad always used to say how we were wasting oil by burning it. He was the one who told me they made records out of it, plus a million other products.

These men who ran Aramco were my real heros as I grew up, and none was more impressive than the CEO - or Chairman of the Board as we called them - a legend named Tom Barger.This was one of the guys who, in his 20s, rode around the wilds of the Arabian desert in a Land Rover, and discovered one of the biggest oil fields on earth. Not to overstate it, but he helped find the energy that allowed humanity to thrive, doubling in population since the 1950s. Indeed, some anthropologists refer to this era of human beings as Petroleum Man, and if you have a problem with it, wait till you see what happens when cheap oil starts running out. You might already be living in that world right now.

I bring this up because my next stop on the trip would be La Jolla, California where I stayed at the home of Tom Barger who had retired a few years before. Sure, I would see him back in Dhahran all the time, maybe just out fixing his car - he was a normal guy, not like the CEOs of today - but I had never really visited with him. This would be my chance. It was your typical Aramco tribal hospitality which is to say excellent. His daughter took me for a walk on the beach, and I stayed in a really nice room. Mainly, I listened to what this legendary man and his family had to say.

To me, it was like meeting with one of the great pioneers of the Wild West, only those days were over, so young men had to go farther to have a great adventure. Some even went to Saudi Arabia.

He looked like a senior version of Buddy Holly, and just exuded competence, not to mention integrity. Think about it. Setting up a company in a harsh foreign desert was an incredible task. I mean, these were whole towns that had to be created complete with our own airline. Plus, the engineering problems were dramatic and virtually everything had to be brought in. So this guy was a real American leader in the best sense. You remember those, don't you?

When we sat down to dinner with one of his sons and other family members, I was in for a real grilling. He asked me what I thought of Vietnam and a bunch of other stuff, and I told him. You know, certain people make a huge impression on you. Nobody I ever met impressed me more than Tom Barger. He was a legend of the Arabia days. When I see oil executives now they just seem like clowns compared to this guy. Especially that fat greedy idiot from Exxon/Mobil.

It was always interesting to see how people reacted to my little adventure on the road. Frankly, some adults didn't get it, but to men like Tom Barger, it was important. It reminded him of being young and heading out into the world to find your way. I had been born into an adventure in Arabia, so it was up to me to try and find something else to keep it going.

I could see Tom got a kick out of that - out of the spirit behind it. Not that I would have anywhere near the impact he did, but still, it was coming from the same place. It meant a lot to me that he seemed to approve of what I was doing. My father understood as well. Men who go off to places like Arabia and set up a grand life are a different sort. They have more of a love for adventure than your average person.

This picture above is probably the only one from during my journey. My Mom had taken a snapshot of me the day I left but this one above was me leaving La Jolla during the actual trip. I would ride on the back of a chopper motorcycle in this outfit holding my backpack between me and the biker. It was 1972. I was barefoot and free.


At 9:40 PM, Anonymous butch said...

Bill, I love reading your 'Hitchhiking Series', thanks for writing it. But on a logistical/political note, this caught me a little:

"Nobody I ever met impressed me more than Tom Barger. He was a legend of the Arabia days. When I see oil executives now they just seem like clowns compared to this guy. Especially that fat greedy idiot from Exxon/Mobil."

So you finally met an oil executive and he 'impressed you'. How do you know you would not be equally impressed by that "at greedy idiot from Exxon/Mobil" had you met him personally, or Cheney/Rove/Bush (insert evil right-wing enemy here) if you had met and known them personally?

You judge people through you own, limited and selected looking-glass. Maybe the devils you see aren't any more evil than the ones you envisioned in you past until you got to know them.

At 11:34 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

I did meet George Bush and he reminded me of someone on a tavern pool team - friendly but not to be trusted. Still I didn't come to any conclusions till I learned more from his deeds.
As far as the Exxon CEO, I think any man who accepts as much as he did to retire is a disgrace to humanity. It was obscene and says something about the character of the man.
That being said you have a point. Many people can be charming in person. I heard the American guards enjoyed their time talking with Saddam. But my opinion of Tom Barger was based on a couple of decades living in the same town with him, and hearing my parents talk about him growing up.
He was a guest in my parents home many times and we went there. This visit was just different because it was in the States, and I was staying in his home, and we talked directly for quite a while. Although I'm sure I communicated a little with him out in Arabia this was different. Besides I was an adult by this point, whereas I was a kid for most of his tenure as CEO.
In addition, I also read a book I believe was called, "Discovery: The Story of Aramco Then" that told his story, and a book of his letters back to his wife when he first got to Arabia in the 30s.
So my meeting with him in La Jolla wasn't all I was going on.

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