Scrounging around the wasteland of the Texas economy in the late 1980s, Benny Whitaker could find little evidence of the American Dream he had diligently chased for years. He had owned a hotel, sold it at a profit but lost money when the buyers could not make the payments and he had to repossess it.
But oil was his real business, and that had meant skipping from one faltering venture to the next as prices plunged and fortunes crashed. And when Whitaker finally stumbled into bankruptcy, he spent 11 humiliating months looking for work.
He found it in Kuwait. And in a sense, he was home.
For a year in the mid-1960s and from 1970 to 1975, Whitaker and his wife, Marjorie, lived in the tiny desert sheikdom, part of the bustling foreign work force that made up a majority of the populace in that oil-rich state, tucked into the back of the Persian Gulf.
Kuwait was an oasis of calm and plenty, a country of relative liberality and comfort, surrounded by giants less than hospitable to Westerners: Saudi Arabia, rich but repressive; Iraq, penurious and thuggish; and Iran, inflamed with religious zeal and contempt for U.S. society.
But in Kuwait, American expatriates found Baskin Robbins ice cream, Arby's roast beef, shiny new highrises, gleaming health clubs and generous company inducements to forget the scorching heat and strange ways of the Middle East.
When Whitaker signed up with Hamad Al Hamad & Partners drilling company and moved back to Kuwait last November, his wife could hardly wait to join him.
"It was just like a big holiday for me," said Marjorie Whitaker.
That holiday ended before dawn on Aug. 2, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the border and drove the ruling Sabah family into exile. The Whitakers were lucky -- they were able to escape, while an estimated 2,600 U.S. citizens remain in the country, their fate of growing concern to their families and U.S. officials.
For those like the Whitakers who worked and lived in Kuwait and have now returned to the United States, there is a sense that a way of life has been lost -- a life of dinner parties and tennis, of British-run schools better than many public ones in the United States, of Sri Lankan maids and thick, sweet coffee.
Not to mention the fact that Americans do not have to pay taxes on about the first $70,000 they earn overseas each year.
"The taxes here really made me go," said James Haack, 47, a drilling supervisor who fled the day of the invasion and returned to Lafayette, La. "I wanted to educate my sons, and that was the only way I could do it. I just couldn't make enough money here."
Money -- that is to say, oil -- was almost as plentiful as sand.
"It was an oilman's dream operating in Kuwait," recalled Jim Leek, an oil executive who lived there in the 1960s and continued to do business in the area in the 1970s.
"They used to joke that all you have to do is put on a Texas boot and push the heel down and you'll have oil," he said. "That was stretching it a little, but not much."
Finding Americans to pump the precious fluid out of the ground was no problem.
"We don't have a large turnover," said Bill Schaub of OGE Drilling Inc. in Houston, which hires people for two-year stints, giving them four days on the job, four off. Schaub says most usually renew their contracts after the first tour.
Drilling supervisors could earn from $50,000 to $100,000 a year, he said, on top of such perks as free housing, travel, cars, more than a month of vacation, free medical and dental care and even life insurance.
The company has supplied about 10 supervisors for most of the last decade, but was asked for eight extra this year as Kuwait sought to increase its oil production, a step which eventually led to conflict with Iraq.
Although the usual flood of job applications has slowed to a trickle, Schaub said he has gotten several calls from people during the last week who still want to go to the area as soon as tensions ease.
"We'll have no problem getting people," he said. "They're a different breed. A little bit of danger doesn't bother them."
"I will definitely come back when things clear up," said Frank Webb, a drilling supervisor.
To be sure, life was not easy in the oil fields. On call 24 hours a day, working 14- and 16-hour shifts, following the ever-moving rigs -- it was hard and sweaty work. "Seven days a week, twice as hard on Sunday," Webb griped about the job the other day from his home in Marble Falls, Tex.
And even much of daily life was governed by the hard traditions of the region, not least among them Moslem strictures. Women do not wear shorts, no one drinks alcohol in public. Diners do not order pork in a restaurant.
But it was possible to stash a bottle of gin in a suitcase coming back into the country. Many people -- Arabs and Americans alike -- made their own liquor.
"A lot of people made booze in the bathtub. Some of it was better than others," Lee said. "The beer was lousy."
Then there was the climate: over 100 degrees in the shade during the summer. There were also sandstorms, paint-stripping hails that could block the sun and obscure the horizon in a dull orange haze.
"You just can't keep sand out of the house," complained one former expatriate.
But for many Americans, the advantages far outweighed the drawbacks.
"We lived good. We had lots of friends," said Betty Seago, who lived in Kuwait for six years with her husband, Guy, a 12-year veteran of the country. "You didn't walk around in shorts. You dressed modestly. But it was getting very open the last couple of years, getting more Westernized.
"We felt safe," she said. "The crime rate was very low, there was some, but not like the United States."
In the 13 years the Whitakers spent living overseas, nothing compared to Kuwait.
"I was thrilled when we were going back to Kuwait. I really loved living there. I really enjoyed myself," Marjorie Whitaker, 49, recalled recently in a telephone interview from Abilene, Tex., where she is staying. "We couldn't find a job in the States. In Kuwait we had money coming every month. There was a lot of nice, nice people there."
"I was so happy to be back; I just loved it there."
Every morning Whitaker could see crews washing the bricks, halls and streets around her highrise apartment complex. "You wouldn't believe how clean they kept those apartments," she said.
Whitaker played bridge two or three times a week and gave coffees for friends in her three-bedroom apartment a few blocks from the glimmering Arabian Sea. Then, on a hot morning early this month, a phone call from a friend changed everything.
Did you hear that? a friend asked. The attack had begun.
Other Americans started gathering in the Whitaker apartment, watching CNN to find out what was happening. Three elected to stay and ride out the violence. Two dozen, including the Whitakers, decided to try to leave.
At first it was slow going, the tires spitting gravel on the rough road that had once been a beautiful American-built highway, its surfaced chewed up by Soviet T-72 tanks. The caravan passed an Iraqi armored column heading toward Saudi Arabia.
"Zillions of tanks," Whitaker said. "I was just scared to death that they were going to get to the border before we would."
They left with one suitcase each. "Benny didn't even fill his up," she said. "I'm so mad. We don't even have any clothes. . . . We lost everything."
Her hardly used silverware service for 24 sits, she hopes, back in her apartment in Kuwait. So does the couple's bank account.
For the first time in recent years, they were able to start putting away a few bucks. But their savings of several thousand dollars is now in an unreachable Kuwaiti bank -- worthless even there since Iraq pegged the kingdom's dinar to parity with its own weak currency.
None of which means Whitaker wants to stay in the United States.
"If we can, we're going to go back," she said. "Life may not give you your druthers, you may want this or that, but life is never going to give you everything," she said. "But life in Kuwait was as perfect as it ever was for me."