Monday, July 11, 2011

A Blast From the Past

Yesterday we went to church with the temperature on the minivan thermometer showing 85 degrees at 9 AM. I hadn't caught a weather forecast for a few days, but my recollection was that it was to be in the upper 90s on Sunday. We stopped to pick up Lynda's mom, Esther, then parked in one of the shady spaces at the rear of the parking lot. It was out day to provide breakfast for our adult Life Group, so we carried that in. The plans were to go out to eat afterward to celebrate Esther's birthday.

At 11:45 AM, the service being over, after some limited talk in the foyer and elsewhere, I decided I should pull the van up to the church entrance so that Esther wouldn't have to walk as far. I exited the south doors from the foyer, and was hit in the face by a south wind that felt like a blast furnace. It was hot.

My mind flashed back to June 16, 1981, a Tuesday, when I first stepped off the airplane at Dhahran Airport, in the eastern provide of Saudi Arabia. I blast furnace hit me in the face then, too, about 105 degrees at six in the evening. Dhahran Airport did not have jetways. The plane was way out on the apron somewhere. We all piled into a transfer bus that was not air conditioned, and made the two minute drive to the terminal. I'm sure it was 120 or higher in the bus.

The terminal was air conditioned, but not overly so. In fact, I think the units were barely keeping up with the radiant heat pelting the roof, the heat island effect from the paving, and the latent heat from thousands of bodies standing in immigration lines, then looking through the luggage dumped on the floor, then standing through the laborious customs inspections. Finally I made it out, after probably an hour, to find a man holding a sign with my name. We walked to a far space in a crowded parking lot, loaded the luggage, and got in a car that had been sitting in that heat for an hour. Five minutes later I could feel good, cool air from a well-functioning car air conditioner, making most of the twenty minute drive to nearby Al Khobar a relative pleasure to what I had just gone through.

Such was my introduction to Saudi Arabia, at the beginning of an assignment we expected to last two years. The family—Lynda with 2 1/2 year old Charles and 2 month old Sara planned to spend a few weeks with her mom, then a few weeks with my dad, then follow me to the most severe of Middle Eastern countries. I would join the ranks of the "married bachelors", a group of about eight men who had come to Saudi and were waiting on family visas to come through. That was supposed to be a six week process.

The heat was just getting started. July is the hottest month in the Gulf countries. The average high temperature exceeded 120 F (official temperature; obviously more in the sun). Night time lows were generally around 90. "But it's a dry heat" you say. That depends on where you are. In Dhahran, about 10 miles inland, it's a dry heat, with some wind most of the time. But in Al Khobar, right on the coast, it's a humid heat. In the heat of the day it was those 120-odd degrees with 50 percent humidity. By 8 PM the temperature had dropped to 110 F, but the humidity had gone up to 70 percent. Apartment semi-enclosed stairway walls sweated, dripping moisture condensing from the air. Those who wore glasses or sunglasses had them instantaneously fog up from the humidity, although they would dry within a minute as radiant energy dried them.

You would think August would be better, right? Not so. Although high temperatures might be 5 degrees less, the humidity went up, to about 60 percent in the day time and 90 percent in the evening. This is not an exaggeration. The walls sweat more, the discomfort that kind of climate brings was even worse. Thus August became our month, during five years of living in the Gulf region, in which to go on vacation.

As I say, these memories came back yesterday. I started the van: 96 degrees in the shade, the thermometer said. We went to our lunch, then to a Goodwill store to look for some bargains, then to the church to pick up our leftover food, then to drop Esther at her apartment, then to drop our recyclables off at the center on the way home. The van thermometer showed between 106 and 110 F the entire time, though the weather people said the official high was 102 F. Obviously more in the sun, out on the pavement in the Bentonville heat island we were walking in.

The years in Gulf region were good years. Oh, some bad things happened, such as the time 1 1/2 year old Sara got away from Lynda, went to the pool, and was just about to climb down the ladder (not knowing it was floaties that let her play in the pool) when Lynda found her. Such as the time 9 year old Charles ran off from our apartment, walked a half mile, got on a city bus, and then got off at the beach club. Those could have both been disasters, but weren't.

Sometimes it all seems like a dream. Did we really live in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait all those years ago? Did we really almost lose Sara in the pool, and Charles to the city? Reason says yes, though thirty years of other life experiences almost say no. The wind blast yesterday was good for me, helping me remember the "ancient" times, and the goodness of God during it all.

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