Letters Home 1

LETTERS HOME 1 – 1960-1961 – from Keith Wheeler


Not great works of literature – Devoid of refined or eloquent writing style – These letters home are presented with only minor editing for general interest and basic clarity.  They represent the observations and impressions of a 24 year old drafted GI as he wrote to parents and friends in the States.

POSTCARD – from Charleston, S.C., U.S.A.

Friday, 10 Jun. 1960


TO:      Mr. & Mrs. John Carter [mother & step-father]

            Corning, Calif

Hi –

            Am flying out at 2:30 PM from Charleston AF Base –

            The trip will take over 36 hrs & will stop in at least 3 bases on the way over -

                                                Love – Keith



LETTER – from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Friday, 24 June 1960

Dear Mom & Dad –

            Well another Sunday (Fri.) is upon us and I find some time to try to bring my correspondence up to date . . . It takes just about a week to get your letters, depending of course on when the planes can fly into here.  Needless to say your letters are a welcome sight as mail here is looked forward to with anxious anticipation.  They’re our only contact with the Western world except for the movies flown in to us.

            It was just a week ago today that I landed here in Riyadh --- and I can say that I am getting acclimated – used to our odd schedule --- and started on my tan.

            The temperature has been running around 120° lately (that 106° at home sounds mighty cool now. . . )  Although the temperature is high here the humidity is very low, making it quite bearable.

            Possibly I can give you an idea of our mission group here in Riyadh ---  It consists of 53 men, mostly officers (at least half a dozen away at all times on various trips; most field grade) --- of the enlisted men, there are only 4 of us in my lowly rank category and I have the unique honor (?) if being the first and only draftee in this country.  As for our living conditions --- we are quartered in three houses of modern 01_23em_villa.JPG (33120 bytes) design north of the city.  I live in the only two story house, which luckily is the nicest of the three --- We share private rooms (usually 2 to a room), and have a nice living room and a couple of game rooms [also military radio room and a photo darkroom] --- the household chores (including bed making) are done by house boys.  We eat in comfortable and homey dining rooms in the house across the road, again waited on by native houseboys.  All the rooms in our quarters are equipped with air conditioners, although they are not always completely effective due to the electrical power problem (it fluctuates a great deal and is easily overloaded – usually when it is hot and needed most).  Also we have a problem with water --- aside from it being scarce and expensive, we can only drink distilled and properly treated water as the regular water is quite harsh on our frail western systems.  Sometimes we have to use water to which bleach has been added, which obviously isn’t the best tasting.  The majority of the officers live in a hotel closer to town.

            Our working conditions are not quite as comfortable --- no air conditioning.  The building itself is of ultra modern design and quite new.  It has a set up for air conditioning but they have neither the power nor personnel to run it, thus our offices, being on the fourth floor and facing the sun, are quite warm --- but to compensate for this we work only a sweaty 5 hours a day from Sat thru Wed and 3 ½ hours on Thurs.  Actually, I enjoy my work and even though it’s hot, the time goes fast.

            To clarify what I mean by modern “design” --- many of the buildings here in Saudi Arabia are quite new and from a distance would seem to put many of ours to shame when it comes to architecture --- but, at a closer inspection many are poorly constructed and the materials they use seem inferior --- plaster falling off the walls, tile flooring is always loose, door frames pull loose from the walls, etc.  Some people blame foreign contractors who come in to the country, build quickly and then leave.

            As for the city itself, I have yet to spend much time in it as our office building is fairly close to our quarters on the north edge of town, also this is one of the sensitive times of the year for foreigners to be mingling with crowds in town.  The main pilgrimage season has just ended and religious fervor is at a high pitch --- so, being subject to their laws and judicial proceedings, it’s safer to keep a low profile.


Love, Keith 

POSTCARD – “RIYAD – Airport Avenue


4 July 1960 (postmarked 7 Jul 1960, APO 616)




TO:      Burton’s Shoe Store

            Chico, California


     FROM:       PFC O.K. Wheeler US56318690

                        US Army Element, USMTMSA

                        APO 616, N.Y., N.Y.




Hello from Saudi Arabia! (& Happy “4th” too!)

            I finally found some picture postcards of Riyadh --- Although they are a bit misleading – exception to the typical scenery & retouched to add color.  The right-foreground is more representational.  The arrow I’ve added points to the Ministry of Defense & Aviation Building, in which I work, the others are other ministry buildings.  The “HOUSE” in which we live is right in line about 2 miles in the background.  Life isn’t too bad here – different and intriguing – BUT a little on the dry side – both climatic and “liquid refreshment” wise –

            Will write more later ---   Keith

LETTER – from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

12 July 1960

Dear Mom & Dad ---

            Another note to let you know I’m still kickin’.  I received your very thoughtful card and letter today.

            I hope everything is going well at home and the heat isn’t too bad.  It’s amazing here --- when the temperature gets down around 100° or upper 90’s (in the morning and late evening) it actually seems cool --- I guess I’m finally a “Desert Rat.”

            Well, Mom & Dad, I’ve been here in Saudi Arabia a month, today, and the time seems to be whizzing by.  With our work and other activities the days are well used up.  I don’t know if I mentioned it or not but we play a lot of sports over here in the afternoons and on weekends --- Baseball, volleyball, and tennis being the main ones. It helps a lot, to stay acclimated to the beat and keep in good physical condition – which is very important over here.  Also – I’m learning to develop film.  We have a dark room in our house which is fairly well equipped to develop and print black and white pictures.  My first attempt didn’t turn out too well, so I won’t send any, but as soon as I get some good prints, I’ll send some.

            Tomorrow we are planning a safari out into the desert (being our Sat. & a short work day).  I’ve been out several times so far --- a bunch of us get a VW truck, a jug of water, and armed with camera and sun helmet --- and off we go seeking adventure like a bunch of kids.  It’s fascinating and we sometimes get a good look at some real different kinds of life.

            I am in hopes of being able to go on a tour to the Holy Lands sometime next month.  If things work out it will be a 3 day tour and quite reasonable (the non-tourist season).

            For the last week or so the political situation here has been a little more active than usual – the US Ambassador just flew in to Riyadh today (from Jeddah where the embassy is located) to meet with the king.  It’s hard to believe just how “fouled-up” foreign diplomacy can get, but it seems to happen.  It seems like there has been some misunderstanding.  It isn’t too serious though and the only way it affects us (aside from our so-called “military-diplomatic relations”) is that our PX supplies have been cut off.  We should have these supply shipments restored to normal when the King & the ambassador work things out.

            Speaking of the king reminds me of another incident --- We have our laundry and cleaning done by a small but good Saudi cleaners --- today I was informed by the owner of the business (with his hands wrapped in bandages) that a pair of my slacks went up in smoke along with 2 of the King’s suits, in a fire at the cleaners.  Undoubtedly the King’s suits will be replaced --- I doubt mine will.

            Well, will close for now --- thanks again for everything --- and, if I may repeat myself, your letters are always a welcome sight.

Love, Keith  

POSTCARD – Eritrea “Prete copto” – from Riyadh


5 August 1960

TO:      Mr. & Mrs. John Carter

            Corning, California


Hi –

            Just got back from Africa – Spent four days in Asmara, Eritrea, East Africa (Ethiopia).

            Had a wonderful time but am bushed – Long plane ride (stopped in Taif near Mecca and Jeddah on the Red Sea, on the way over).

            Will fly out again day after tomorrow on my Holy Land Tour – will spend three days in Jerusalem & surrounding area & 5 days in the air & at Dhahran.

            Will write more later -

                                                Love – Keith





10-12 August 1960

LETTER – from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

26 August 1960


Dear Mom & Dad . . .


            At last I’ve finished my commentary on my Jerusalem trip.   This is why I haven’t written sooner.  As you can see, it is rather a haphazard job --- written in my spare minutes, on several different typewriters (the condition of which is obvious), and under many varied conditions.  Well, at least, here it is for what it’s worth.  I had hoped to make several copies, but time and conditions would not permit, so after you read it, could you pass it around to everyone that might be interested.

            I received your letter containing the article about the “Superior Americans.”  I thought it very good and I’m sorry to say, very true in many cases.  I showed it to several of the fellows here and it was received with varying degrees of acceptance and rebuttals.  At least we got some very good conversation material from it.  If you would and are interested in such related subjects, please read The Ugly American by Lederer and Burdick.   I have lost my copy but it is out in pocket book form.  It delves into the problem mentioned in the article and portrays vividly the conditions that exist in our foreign relations with countries throughout the world.  For many reasons, I am limited as to the comment I can make on our mission here in Arabia and the circumstances are not exactly the same as those that inspired this book, but in many places there is a great deal of correlation.

            Also to help me with some of my work here, could you see if you can locate and send me either the issue of “Life” magazine or the article which appeared in it relevant to Egypt, Nasser and the political conditions of that country and the U.A.R.  It was written by, no other than, Keith Wheeler after his visit to Egypt with Nasser.  I’m afraid that I don’t know the exact issue, but I believe it was in July of last year or around there some time.  If you could find it, I would be truly grateful and it would be of immense help.  If you do send it wrap it well.

            In passing, I might mention that the other day, being curious as to the actual temperature in the sun here, we put a thermometer out in the direct sun.  The time was about 3:00 PM and the reading we quickly got was 138 degrees!!!  A little hot – no?  They say the temperature starts to drop usually some time in September and later on it actually gets cold here.   (At least I hope so – we could use a change.)  By the way, how is the weather back in good old California?   I’m always wondering about it on these hot days.

            Has Marla Ann started back to Lebanon yet?  I’m anxious to hear from her.  If you happen to see her before she leaves you might tell her to use “U.S. Forces” instead of “New York, N.Y.” after the APO number in my address.  This is used when mailing to an APO address while overseas and will possibly speed the letter coming from Lebanon.

            I’m enclosing some more stamps for [nephews] Dave and Steve.  My friends here are quite anxious and happy to help me collect them.  One of the fellows manages an agriculture and development store here in Riyadh (he’s from Lebanon) and is always bringing me stamps from the letters he gets at the store.  I hope they can figure them out alright, as I even have a little trouble telling where some of them are from. 

            Well, Mom and Dad I had better close for now and get to some of my other correspondence – I have been neglecting it while I worked on the commentary.  Hope you all are well and will be looking forward to hearing from you again.

Love,   Keith

LETTER – from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Monday, 5 September 1960


Hi Mom & Dad

            Happy “Labor day”!  Yes we are celebrating the holiday too – not a 3 day week-end, however.  We just got back from King Saud’s palace – We spent the morning touring the grounds, taking pictures, and visiting some of the buildings.  It was quite an experience.  To give you an idea of the size of his place – it is surrounded by a high, pink wall which is 8 miles in length.  Inside the wall it’s like another world – beautiful green trees, shrubs and lawns – there are many beautiful buildings of the most fine architecture and coloring.  In the center of the palace grounds is the inner palace, again surrounded by a wall.  It is here that the King actually has his living quarters, harem, etc.  These grounds are fabulous – flowers and trees everywhere – elaborate fountains spraying water high in the air – beautiful ponds and pools scattered everywhere; one the size of a small lake (they use more water here than in the rest of the city of Riyadh) – all the roads and walks here are made of fine polished marble – I might mention, that it is considered quite an honor to be able to enter the inner palace grounds.  I hope to be able to go back several times before I leave – as I don’t think I got very many good pictures – had to borrow an old camera from one of the fellows. (I hope to be able to buy another camera before too long – or at least, send my broken one out to Germany for repairs.)

            I must tell you of the fabulous and interesting time we had last Friday – I and one of my buddies (from Texas) were invited out for a traditional Arab feast, or what many of the GIs impolitely call a “Goat Grab.”  This was in honor of one of my Arab friends who is returning to his home in Gaza.  The “Goat Grab”, as we call it, is one of the Arab’s big feasts and, although it was a going away party for Jalal, we were treated as the honored guests.  We left Riyadh just after sunrise and drove to the farm of a prince near the village of Al Kharj (an agricultural area southeast of Riyadh).  We spent the morning seeing the farm, swimming in the Prince’s pool, and visiting with the farmers. Then we killed the sheep (or goat) which was to be our meal.  (This, in itself, is quite a ceremony and was fascinating the way they killed, skinned and cleaned it.)  Then about 2:30 in the afternoon we started the feast – everything was completely native and done according to local customs – we sat in a circle on blankets and pillows on the ground – the cooked goat (or sheep) was brought to us on a large platter, the bottom of which was covered with rice --- and, as is customary, we ate with our right hand – ripping pieces of meat with our fingers and rolling it with the rice.   Actually it was quite good, after getting used to an unusual taste and the different way of eating.  Also we had a lot of the different local fruits, and gawa and shai to drink (native coffee and tea).  We truly had a fabulous day – full of fun, joking, interesting talks, playing native games, etc.—the men here really know how to have a good time without any great expense or elaborate preparation.

            I might mention that we are now having Arabic classes (to add to the busy schedule). Several of us have gotten together and are trying to learn the language, with the aid of the few fellows that went to the Army Language School and books that the Army bought for us.  It’s a hard language to learn and will take a lot of time! 

            Have to be running along so will close ---  my week to get our water supply (drinking), also have to go into the city, then later I am going to meet two of my Arab friends – Jamal, who has the agricultural store in Riyadh, and Ahmad, who is with the Bank of Riyadh.  We are going to our movie and then down to the Casino to eat and talk – Anyway, must close –

            Hope you all understand my busy situation and the subsequent low frequency of writing -  Hope all is well – 

                                                            My love - Keith


P.S.  Am sending a few stamps along for Dave & Steve

LETTER – from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

9 September 1960


Dear Mom & Dad –

            I’m glad you liked my so called “commentary” of my Holy Land tour --- I just wish I could have had more time to do a better job of it.  By the way, I just received two boxes of slides that I took on the Jerusalem tour – Sadly, they did not turn out well.

            In answer to your question about TV & radio here – I’m afraid the reply is negative – TV is practically unheard of here in Riyadh.  They do have a small, local station at both ARAMCO and Dhahran Air Field though, but that is close to 300 miles away.  Radio reception here is poor with short wave the only type – Radio Mecca, Cairo and Jordan programs being the best received, but not of great listening pleasure to us (all Arabic).  However, we are able to receive occasionally the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), and Radio America which is one of our sources of world news, but decent reception is late at night.

            As for the food here – it is relatively good, although limited, as they fly it all in from either Dhahran or Asmara.

            Thanks, Mom, for you efforts in trying to find the Life article.  I know it’s rather an odd and difficult request.  If you can’t locate it, don’t’ worry--- I’ll write an official letter to the publishers in regard to the matter.  I would have done this originally but my recollection of the title, issue, etc are quite vague, and it’s rather difficult to explain the reason for this request.  If you ever happen to run across any newspaper or magazine articles about Nasser, United Arab Republic (Egypt especially) or telling of the Arab side of the Zionistic movement in Palestine – I would greatly appreciate it if you would send it.

            I might mention that the situation here in Riyadh has been a little sensitive and tense lately --- Nothing to worry about though, as things are calming down now --- Just my vague excuse for this hastily and poorly written letter!

            Say “hello” to everyone for me.

                                                Love,  Keith


P.S. Am enclosing a couple of stamps from Lebanon for Dave & Steve.  You might tell them that the postmark “Beyruth” is actually “Beirut” --



LETTER – from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

23 September 1960


Dear Mom  & Dad - -

            Another Friday – another week.  This one, at last, has been rather uneventful.  Still working on my Arabic --- Have made several visits to the “souk” shopping, but mainly to speak the language. --- Haven’t seen my friend Jamal as much this week, as his father has just arrived from Lebanon (I was given the honor of meeting him – a quite wise and learned man and good friends with the Saudi royalty – he had just spent several months in Europe on business.) --- and, as per usual, I have been busy with various and sundry other things.  One thing of note is that I might be able to go up to Beirut for four days around the 15th of next month.  Things are not definite as of yet though.  As soon as I find out for sure, I plan to write Marla Ann [friend from California hometown who attended AUB & married into a Beirut family].

            I got your letter and “National Geographic” today – thanks a lot.  The pictures and write-up [on the Holy Land] hold a great interest for me now.  Although I have been there, it was only such a short time.  One just starts to get a vague picture of the situation and it whets the appetite to see more of this strange and fascinating land.  I just hope I will be able to see a little more of it during this year.

            I am sending just a few stamps this time – my friend Jamal is getting some more for me, but will be a little while yet.  I hope they can divide them all up okay – and Alice [little sister] gets her share.  Speaking of stamps, tell Mrs. Johnson that I will be sending her some when I can.  I am going to try to send it through Saudi mail so that she will have the envelope with the full postmarks. 

            Also, I’m sending a couple of snap-shots along – I took these prints off of another fellow’s film.  The building is the entrance to the Royal Reception Hall, located in the outer palace of King Saud.  Here we were served soft drinks and “chai” (a native tea that smells like cologne and has an unusual taste).  The second picture is your long-lost son and his amiable buddy – Louie Prima on the roof of our house.  Louie, our houseboy, is quite a character and without him and his antics, life could get dull.  He’s getting to become quite western now, with our influence and that of our movies.  His favorites are cowboys, California, and Jazz.  (By the way, his real name is Sa-id, but he picked up the nickname from one of his favorite movie stars and singers.)  He’s a hard worker and tries any type of work that we might need him for, but invariably he fouls things up, just from the lack of knowledge (only a desert education).  Then, with his big lovable grin and a “mass quaise sergeant (meaning no good), he pitches in again.  The day this picture was taken, we were building a book case for my room and I was trying to teach him how to use carpentry tools – the finished product was a rough and awkward mess, but we had a lot of fun and he actually was thrilled in his new work.

            Must close –


LETTER – from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

30 September 1960


Dear Mom and Dad . . .

            Well, “Hello and how are you?”  Another week and another few minutes to let you know that I’m still holding out okay on this end.

            I got your letter sending the Life article and the cute card this week.  It does seem as though we are getting faster mail service now (commercial airlines to Europe and then I imagine a jet to the States).  However, it still depends on the “Goonie” flights out to us from Dhahran and some times they are rather spasmodic and undependable.  Thanks for the article.  I did read it before I left, but now it contains more meaning.  For obvious reasons, I can’t show it to my Saudi friends, but the other fellows here were quite interested in it as the Saudis would not let any of this particular issue enter the country.  That’s the way with Life and Time and a few other magazines – They check each issue to see if it’s suitable for entrance, and if not, even personal copies are often confiscated.  The American pilot who finally came to the “rescue” of the “unfortunates” is a personal friend of mine.  He is a TWA pilot who is contracted to fly Saudi Airlines planes; he lives in Jeddah with his wife and family but stays at our house when he is in Riyadh. 

            I wish I could keep abreast of the current U.N. meetings, but as I have told you before, our news service is very poor.  Nasser’s speech was broadcast over the station in Mecca and the one in Cairo, but, being in Arabic, I couldn’t understand a word.  My friends told me that it was a very impressive speech --- was it?  I might mention that, regardless of western views of Nasser, he is the idol of the Arab people --- even many Saudis put him in higher regard than King Saud.  He seems to be the only one who has been able to bring any type of unifications between the different, rivaling Arab nations, and he is always expressing his concern for the “liberation” and the “betterment” of all the classes of Arab people.  Many believe faithfully that he will be the one to lead the war on Israel and “drive the Yahooties (Jew Zionists) into the sea.”

            Actually I have been doing a lot of research into the Palestine Problem, both from U.S. and foreign reports, periodicals and books, plus the first-hand reports of my Palestinian friends who were there in the midst of all the fighting and tension.  I have found that there is quite another side to the story, as the Americans get it.  Although there is no easy solution to this complex problem, the Arab nations and mainly the people have been greatly misunderstood by the Western World.  A great injustice seems to be apparent from their viewpoint.   I hope to be able to gather enough documented and first-hand information while I am here so that I may be able to give a full report on it when I return.  (Also, a severe critical analysis of the novel Exodus seems to be in order.)

            You asked about the female situation here --- Well, there are no available women here with whom to get acquainted.  The Saudi women can not even speak to us, let alone “meet us.”  The wives and daughters of the other foreigners are scarce and kept to themselves.  Many of the men from the States or other countries do not bring their families to Arabia (especially Riyadh) because the restrictive and harsh life here is prohibitive.  Also those families who have children of high school or college age send them to schools in Beirut, Europe or America (sometimes, even younger children are sent out to escape the “undesirable” environment).    Therefore, just seeing an occasional unveiled woman is our big treat. 

            One thing that I do miss greatly here is my music.  We do have a record player in the house, but living on the second floor and it being on the first is an inconvenience, plus the type of music which I enjoy mostly, is unfortunately, not appreciated by the majority.  Some of the fellows have their own record players and records, but myself and my roommate are not among the “higher paid” fortunates.  I hope to be able to hear some good music when I go to Beirut next month, again, if I’m lucky.

            I’m sending along an article you might find interesting.  It appeared in a Catholic men’s magazine; one of the fellow’s wife made a Thermofax copy of it and sent it to him, and I retyped it from the dim, fading Thermofax sheets.  Of course it is mainly concerned with interesting the Catholic reader, but I thought it might help in giving you an idea of the country and some of its unusual ways.  It describes mainly the religious problems at Dhahran in the eastern province, which, because of the influence of ARAMCO oil settlements and the air base, is actually the most liberal of all of Saudi Arabia.  Riyadh, on the other hand, is known to be the strictest Wahhabi city outside of Mecca and Medina.  It is amusing to hear the author refer to Dhahran as an isolated place, as we consider it quite a luxurious and western touch of civilization (by comparison, naturally).  There they have such western, modern conveniences as snack-bars (with MILK SHAKES), a bowling alley, theaters, a swimming pool, a TV station, radio stations that “speak English”, plus the social contacts at the nearby ARAMCO settlement and the westernized town of Al Khobar.  Also, a little misleading in places, is the author’s reference to all of the Dhahran military personnel as those of the Military Training Mission ---actually there are just a few there that are a part of the Mission, the rest and majority, belong to the 2nd Air Division whose job is to run the air base.  (Incidentally, this is not a United States Air Base although it was built and paid for by the U.S.; it is owned entirely by the Saudis and they have the final authority and they can kick us out at will; but still, our military personnel run every phase of its operation – a rather unusual and complicated set-up.)

            I might mention that we had quite a day of excitement and pageantry last week – the president of Ghana paid a diplomatic and friendly visit to Riyadh and the King.  Of great interest was the complicated means by which he was supposed to travel here --- He was to fly in a new jet liner the Russians furnished (complete with Russian crew); the Saudi Air Force was to fly cover in U.S. furnished jet fighter-trainers (Saudi markings and Saudi pilots); and the U.S Mission furnished the ground support for the aircraft (flying U.S. airmen out to Riyadh in advance to service the jets).  Humorously, as it turned out, the Russian jet broke down just after take-off and couldn’t make the trip.  So, about four hours late, the president flew over the anxious crowds at the local airport in a good old U.S. built, Saudi Airlines plane, with an American at the controls, and the escorting jets having a hell of a time keeping back with the slower, conventional powered aircraft.  As the president disembarked from the plane, he was greeted by King Saud himself and given the Red Carpet treatment. ---The Special Royal Honor Guard stood by in full, formal regalia --- the old personal guards of the old King Abdul Aziz were there in flowing, robed uniforms with their gold trimmed sabers and daggers gleaming in the sun.--- The Royal Band tried desperately to squeak out their national anthem and that of the visitor --- and the Saudi Artillery scrambled in mass confusion to get off the full twenty-one gun salute before the Cadillac mounted procession crept out of hearing distance.  Yes, it was quite a day of confusion, color and contrasts.  As the airport is only a quarter of a mile from our house, I went down with a few of the fellows and the airmen to watch the goings on, and as we had our planes and servicing equipment on the field, we got a ring side seat  To top the whole affair off, it took our men several days to get the Saudi jets back in flying order – To begin with, some of the pilots were not very experienced with that type of plane, and with all the excitement, plus a new and different runway, some bounced a bit at landing.  Such is life in Riyadh. . .

            Here’s hoping all is well at home.

                                                                        Love,  Keith


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