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OPINION | RICHARD MASON: A delayed homecoming is still sweet

by Richard Mason | November 1, 2020 at 8:45 a.m.

Welcome home. Those well-spoken words touched a real American nerve when Vertis and I handed the customs agent our declaration and multi-stamped passport. He knew we were expatriates returning to the USA. We were smiling from head to toe.

Before that welcome home, there were some difficult times for Vertis and me. We had taken a two-year transfer assignment from Kingsville, Texas to Benghazi, Libya, and had struggled to adjust.

When 19-year-old Vertis boarded the plane to fly to Benghazi and meet me, it was her first flight. We were two young Americans, trying to pay off college debt by working in a country where Esso paid a hardship allowance, which meant double pay.

Our last few weeks in Benghazi were grueling, and it started when I was called into the District Geologist Office.

"Well Richard, you're our top well-site geologist."

I was puzzled at the compliment, but since all of the senior geologists had recently been transferred back to the States, I just smiled.

"Richard, you have one more assignment before you head back. We have moved in on a rank wildcat in Concession Six, and Saturday a rig from Algeria started drilling. They have just set surface casing."

"Concession Six? Where is that?"

"Concession Six is over near the Algerian border. That's about 800 miles from Benghazi. You'll fly commercial to Tripoli, and then a company DC-3 will fly you 200 miles south to the rig. Be at the airport at 8 a.m. tomorrow. Here's your Alitalia ticket. Look for a guy with an Esso sign at Tripoli, and have a report on my desk by 8 every morning, and don't screw up. New York is watching this, since it's the first well in the basin. The company dropped a ton of money to get that concession, and it would look bad if you missed a show."

"Okay, but I haven't missed a show of oil yet."

"Well, you better not miss one on this well, or they'll hang you out to dry."

My boss wasn't the most employee-friendly person I've known. A little nod of his head, which meant I was dismissed, and I walked back to my office.

Vertis wasn't thrilled when she found out I'd be 1,000 miles away for two weeks while she packed and got ready for a big moving sale. But 12 hours later, I was at the Benghazi airport terminal, which was in an old World War II Quonset hut.

With a roar the Alitalia jet (late, as usual) skipped down the taxiway and stopped 50 yards from where I stood. I knew the routine, so as the pilot cut the opposite side engine, I walked out, took an open seat, and minutes later we did a fighter jet climb.

An hour later the pilot announced he would be applying air brakes, and the plane dropped like a rock. The Alitalia pilots fly like they drive.

I walked into the Tripoli terminal. Esso used some former Australian carrier pilots, and this one was standing there with a cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth, holding up a piece of toilet paper with Esso scrawled on it.

I figured the DC-3 would be an easy ride south, but no! It took two days. The first day, we flew into a raging sandstorm, where I was sure it was going be my last day on the earth. The next day, I arrived in the red sand desert of western Libya, where the temperature reading at the office trailer registered 120 degrees.

The rig had a crew of French roughnecks, Libyan roustabouts, and two Americans, an Esso drilling engineer and an Esso geologist. The Americans were in charge of a multimillion-dollar drilling venture, and both were graduates of Norphlet High School. He was older so I didn't know him in high school; lottery odds.

I was held over, and the two-week assignment stretched to 23 days before I flew back to Benghazi.

I hadn't shaved, and when I deplaned in Benghazi, Vertis' mouth dropped open. She didn't recognize me for a moment. The cowboy hat I was wearing was something I picked up in a poker game with the French crew. They barely knew how to play poker, and poker had nearly put me through college. I did more than okay, and in one hand, the French guy tossed in the cowboy hat to call.

I don't have a clue where he got it, but he thought two pair beat three of a kind. It doesn't. When I got off the plane I was wearing the hat. Vertis wasn't impressed.

"Lose the hat and shave, or ..." She didn't need to finish.

It was one week until we were to leave for the States, and time for a huge garage sale. We were selling almost everything from our little Fiat 500 to our refrigerator, and frantically worked to get everything marked, trying to guess what items to price high and what to almost give away.

"Our last night in this house," I announced.

Our sale started the next morning at 8; there was a rap on the front door at 6 to start the sale. Wow; it seemed some things, such as our refrigerator and window fan, were priced too low, and were snapped up during the first hour.

I managed to sell the Fiat for $600, but would have taken a lot less. I couldn't wait to turn loose of that piece of junk. Esso had put a shipping container in our front yard, and the items we wanted to send home were put in it. By 9 a.m. we had sold everything, and later that day finished the container packing.

Since we had sold our bed, we had friends drive us to the Grand Hotel in town where I had reserved a room. The hotel had agreed to give us a ride to the airport the next morning at 4 a.m. We didn't sleep much, and at 3:30 we were waiting in the lobby for our 10-minute ride, and soon were boarding South African Airways to Rome.

We took our seats, preparing to take off. I squeezed Vertis' hand, and as the plane gained altitude I said, "Take a last look at Benghazi." Vertis looked and said, "That's our part of town with no lights!"

In a few minutes one of the cabin crew came by and asked if we would like something to drink.

"Yes," I said. 'We're celebrating. Bring us two glasses of champagne."

I looked at my tough-as-nails bride, who survived those two years in Benghazi, and all I could think of to say was: To us! We made it!

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