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Intriguing family letters detail exciting foreign adventures
By Mary Jo Dathe
, Glimpses of Yesteryear
Monday, March 17, 2014 10:26 AM
Assorted ads from the Baghdad Times, 1928, when Howard Keck, Spring Valley graduate, was chief operator at an oil well in Iraq. Note the ads were often in both Arabic and English. And temps — over 100 degrees!
This column concludes a story on Spring Valley graduate, Howard Keck, who took work with the Turkish Petroleum Co. near Bagdad, Iraq, in the 1920s. His sister, Verna Keck Steffens of Racine, saved his letters and the Iraq newspapers he had sent home.
In May of 1928, Howard reported it was getting hot, and the country was totally barren. But, he lived in a cool adobe house and they had electric fans. When they had a day off, the fellows went to a subsidiary of the Tigris River, four miles from its mouth. They 'harvested' fourteen gazelles, lots of black partridge and sand grouse, welcome fare back at the camp in place of the usual mutton that was served almost every day. All about the countryside were mounds, ruins of ancient cities, that contained interesting relics. There were ruins of the great canals that made this country between two rivers so rich and fertile to feed a huge population; now it was barren and under-populated.
Six months later in a November letter: "Time flies. I have a personal servant who waits on me, brings me tea every morning, takes care of my clothes, undresses me and puts me to bed, always at my call. I go hunting a great deal and play cribbage. On the rig, laborers do the heavy work so life is easy. Some American wives have come, and I've been invited to splendid meals - those southern ladies know how to cook! I'm thinking about all the old families at home around Hamilton - Hales, Neills, Kecks, Greens, Wilsons, Sanborns, Woolridge and others. All seem to be breaking up and moving on. I sent Margaret (his niece) a silk handkerchief, gazelle horn, and the pencils she asked for. I've visited ruins near Kirkuk where archeologists have found 1,200 tablets and other treasures, maybe from 1,500 years before Christ. They found a 90' well with glazed brick, still in good condition."
In February, 1929, another letter. Howard had a good Christmas, invited to the boss's home for a big feed. There was a bachelor party, too - they played golf, lots of liquid refreshments, excellent food. Some fellows got too much wet goods, but no women present, so no matter. "We are getting lots of rain and it is a good thing. After five years of little rain, the farmers needed it, otherwise they were facing a famine. Not much wild game this year, but fellows went out and got three gazelles and four big cranes, so much better fare than sheep or goat. Got a little piece of beef at Kirkuk and sure tasted good. I'm now a full-fledged driller, have charge of my own rig, work eight hours a day and a raise of $100 a month. I may sign on again - it may be the best job in the world today. How long have I been gone? Have met so many people, the conditions under which I live are so different, it would take years to get back to life on the farm. Even so, I like to hear you write about the neighbors."
What happened to Howard Keck, we do not know. His letters and newspapers are fascinating evidence of a local farm boy going off to see the world. The papers are under the banner, "The Baghdad Times" in the summer of 1928. Much of the paper is in Arabic but noticeable are the ads in both English and Arabic. Some are unique: "For the first time in Baghdad, B.V.D. underwear - the world's most comfortable underwear in Tropical and Nainsook material." Six-wheeled transports offered overland mail between Baghdad, Damascus and Haifa. Westinghouse electric fans offering quiet coolness were featured in each of the three newspapers. There were "two familiar blends" of whiskey, Goodrich tyres and nail-proof tube protectors, Black Cat and Black & White cigarettes, Tennant's Light Beer and more. A market report carried ups and downs on wool, lamb skins, carpets, loaf sugar, tea, barley and textiles. Other ads were for Cadbuy chocolate, Remington typewriters, and full page ads for the Studebaker, and the Chevrolet Imperial Landau. Exide batteries were available for trouble-free motoring, and the admonition to Buy BP motor spirit from the pump, imported from Great Britain.
News? There was a lengthy report on a polo tournament in Mosul, reports of the Olympic games at Amsterdam on boxing, swimming and diving feats. Results of a cricket match were posted as well. The Royal Air Force flying boats traveled 16,500 miles, hit 70 ports from London to Melbourne, to prove reliability of the crafts. Two 500 h.p. Napier Lion water-cooled engines propelled each craft at a maximum of 108 mph.
Thanks to Clarence Klenke of Racine, for sharing this intriguing family history. Watch for another history coming soon.
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