I wasn’t actually riding cross the desert on a horse with no name. It was more of a Pinto and the driver was an odiferous little Yemeni named Musa. Nevertheless, I was riding across the desert, on my way to the airport.
I had just completed the first six months of my one year assignment in Saudi Arabia and was headed home to spend Christmas leave with my family in Virginia. The year was 1977 and I had accepted an unaccompanied assignment in the Kingdom because I needed the money and this would clear up some big debts and get my college bound son off to school. I also had a new wife who I left behind in the States; one who was not particularly happy at being saddled with couple of teenage boys she hardly knew.
This type of work was nothing new to me. I had been a cold warrior since the 1950s. Cold warriors were civilian engineers who were employed by companies and the military to build, and sometimes use, their latest weapons of war.
For seven years I was a civilian employee of the US Air Force working technical jobs around the country and later, I was employed by several major contractors engaged in turning out vast quantities of armament for the military. These jobs would usually last a couple of years and then I moved on.
I always brought my family along wherever I took up a new assignment so my kids became used to frequent changes of schools. The pay was excellent and I thought it would never end. Wrong. Vietnam had finally ground to a whimpering halt and I was out of work. Now, after a long layoff, a new chapter in my life was before me.
Saudi Arabia was like no other place in the world in those days. It was transitioning from the 15th century to the 21st with no stops in between. They were finally getting their share of the petro dollars that the foreign oil companies, ARAMCO and BP, had been taking for 50 years or more, and now they were spending it to bring their desert nomads into the modern world.
The Kingdom was ruled by an absolute monarch and his family. His word was law. Foreigners were viewed as probable enemies, useful, but only to be tolerated and watched. I was a small cog in a vast machine helping the SA Army bring their communications capability up to a more modern standard and I had been very busy trying to complete my assignment in the allotted 12 months.
I got along well with my military masters; but it was a difficult adjustment. Unlike the US Army, the Saudi soldier ambled in around 8:00 AM; notice I said “amble in” and not “Fall in”. They went to prayer and lunch around 12:00, came back after a while and left at 4:00 PM. I was frequently frustrated at the slow pace of things.
Evenings were bad for me. Imagine one channel of television showing only Muslim prayers, soccer and Egyptian soap operas. There were no theaters, no bars and no night life. The Americans and Brits would get together on week-ends (Thursday and Friday) consume some homemade liquor and speak what passes as English in those mixed groups. Punishment for being caught after drinking was always jail time and/or whippings. I needed some R&R.
Entering the Kingdom was difficult, getting out was worse. Christmas was the time when everyone wanted to go home. Our employers seemed to take delight in working us overtime on every Christian holiday so the best solution was to get out of town. Hence, all flights were booked solid months ahead of time.
The national airline, Saudia, was just getting started and had no international flights. To fly to Europe or the United States one had to go domestic air to the coastal city of Damam and then take a short flight across 15 miles of the Persian Gulf to the princely realm of Bahrain. This more cosmopolitan island was making a very good thing of being a banking, transportation and entertainment hub for their surrounding Arab neighbors.
I made my reservations two months in advance and was at the airport early. This was necessary because of the paperwork and searches involved. To complicate things, there was no such thing as getting in line or queuing up, as it was called there. The fiercely independent Arabs felt that every man has just as much right to be at the front as anyone else, regardless of who was there first. This meant that there was a crowd shoving for place along the counter with everyone waving their papers at the poor beleaguered clerks and very little getting done. My size allowed me to push and shove with best of them and I eventually cleared all obstacles and found my way to the waiting area.
The common waiting room was crowded with people standing, sitting on benches and sleeping on the floor. There were no signs showing departures and all flights were announced in Arabic, not my best language at the time. If I missed that one, the next flight that I could get out would be in nine days.
Unfortunately that is exactly what I did. The flight was on time, which was a totally unexpected thing in those days, and the doors were closed and the plane was taxiing out before I realized what was happening. What to do, what to do?
I had a house in the departure city and I could have gone there to nurse my disappointment and try to figure out a rational way to explain to my bride my failure to show but something impelled me to catch the next flight to Damam several hours later. By this time I was praying non-stop, “Help me, Lord. Get me to Bahrain in time to catch my 6:00 AM flight. Lord, just this one time I need one of your miracles.”
An hour later I was in the Damam airport departure center. It was about midnight and things had thinned down considerably. There were no more flights to Bahrain until six the next morning, the exact same time that my Pan Am flight was departing for New York. I didn’t see how prayer was going to help this situation, but then, it couldn’t hurt either. So I prayed on and on. Maybe the Pan Am flight would be unexpectedly delayed until I arrived, but I didn’t think so.
I went into constant prayer mode. I was hunched over that hard wooden bench like a Tibetan monk with my jacket over my head mumbling, “Lord, help me. Lord, help me!” I’m not sure what else I mentioned but every little while I would surface and look around for an airline official I could appeal to. All I saw were sweepers and a couple sleepy porters. This continued for five hours. Did I despair? I don’t know. Was I continuing my appeal to God without expectation of His response? I don’t know that either but continue I did.
Around 5:00 AM I saw a man who looked like he might be an American in a Saudia senior pilot’s uniform walking behind the unattended clerk’s desk. I couldn’t let this one get away. I yelled at his, “Hey, wait up. Can you help me?” I must have spilled out my story in one long sentence. He looked at me and said, “Come on.”
“Come on. Get your suitcase and papers and come on.”
I was right on his heels as he led me through a back way over to the passport counter where he spoke to the guard in Arabic and the guard stamped my passport. Out to the flight line and up to a small twin engine Saudia executive plane where a couple of American women were in the process of telling their men goodbye and shepherding several children aboard. My suitcase was shoved into the baggage compartment and the pilot said, “Find a seat.”
We were off for Bahrain. During the short fifteen minute flight I found out that these were families of American employees of Saudia Airlines. Their husbands were saving them the hassle of taking a regular flight across the Gulf and expediting them on their way to the good old USA by using one of the executive aircraft of their employer.
They also had some pull at the other end. In a short while I trailed the women through customs, passport control and the airline ticket check counter. My Pan Am seat was still available and I was out of there. I was going home.
I didn’t talk about this story for years. I thought I’d keep it between God and me until I really needed to tell it. My frantic prayers were heard and answered in a spectacular way. It’s difficult for someone who wasn’t there in those days to understand just how spectacular it was. The odds of meeting the only American officer who could help me in the way this one did was in the mega-millions. It just defies any explanation other than God’s hearing and answering a prayer.
God had His influence even in that most Islamic of nations and He must have pulled a bunch of strings for me. I was golden that day. If I had been able to buy a lottery ticket I would be a rich man right now.
Never give up on God; He never gave up on me. I will never sell Him short. He always hears my prayers and He always has my back. Thank you, Lord.
Mike Spillman © 2019