A Better Place

On New Year’s Eve 1945-46, JoAn Monroe met Bill Ramsay’s train at the station in Des Moines, and they drove back to Knoxville where they were to be married in the Methodist church sometime later. Dad hung up his uniform and focused on settling back into civilian life, glad to be rid of the military and all that it stood for. Time to get a job, go to college on the G.I. Bill, build a house, raise a family, and make the world a better place than he had seen. Mom would always have her music. Church choirs and solos, voice lessons, concerts, performances and shows to put on. And a house to keep, meals to prepare, kids to take care of, and a husband to keep up with. Keeping busy was never a problem.


A favorite family story took place when Dad was a county extension agent in Winterset, Iowa. He was expected to entertain visiting “dignitaries,” and once he invited a representative of the Dairymen’s Association for dinner. After-dinner conversation took place at the kitchen table over coffee, and Mom didn’t think twice about taking a new package of oleo margarine to the table to knead the button of yellow dye into the otherwise pale white oleo. You see, in keeping with dairy-lobby-imposed Federal regulations, margarine wasn’t supposed to look like butter on the grocery shelves, so the margarine companies included a packet of yellow food coloring in the packaging, and all the economical housewife had to do was break that packet with her thumbs and knead it into the margarine to make it look like she had put butter on the table. The conversation trailed off until the dairyman finally addressed my mother.  “I really have to ask, what is it you are doing?” He’d never seen oleo in the wild before. They had a good laugh after my mother explained, and a few weeks later my Dad discovered a couple of extra bucks in his paycheck to help pay for real butter, thanks to the lobbying of their dairy association dinner guest.

He was working for the Farm Bureau in Charles City when he got the call from Washington. At first he was sure the operator meant Washington, Iowa, but it turned out someone in D. C. had come across the application Dad had submitted years before to the International Cooperation Administration for a job as an agricultural engineer to work with farmers in what were then called “underdeveloped countries.” He thought he could make a difference in the lives of peasant farmers condemned to eke out a subsistence living from exhausted soil when all they needed was a boost from a little chemical fertilizer, insecticides, a lot more water, and improved yields from hybrid seeds. It had worked in Iowa, so why wouldn’t it work in Asia and Africa? My Dad was a bit of an idealist.

His first assignment was Iran. His background as a county agent made him uniquely qualified to bring the concept of agriculture extension to the developing countries. Essentially, extension is about getting the results of laboratory research into the hands of the people where they can be applied toward the betterment of mankind. In agriculture, this meant convincing stubborn, tradition-bound farmers that these new techniques will not ruin them. Keeping to the centuries-old practices of their ancestors had brought most of them back from the brink of disaster time and again, so what was to be gained by listening to this tall Winston-smoking stranger in khakis who couldn’t even speak their language? If his interpreters could only convince a few village elders to let them sow a few seeds in a barren field no one else wanted, then maybe he could show them. So the extension team showed up with a gasoline-powered rototiller and some hybrid seeds, scattered some fertilizer pellets, diverted a little water from the communal ditch, and sat back and waited. With a little luck the wheat in the test plot would grow taller than that in the surrounding fields, would yield twice as much grain, and all the farmers would be clamoring for…rototillers, because that was obviously what had made the difference. Now the extension team had a new challenge: convincing the farmers and the elders that the change came not from the technology but from the practice of using the new seeds and fertilizer. And the process repeats itself, with new realizations and misinterpretations until at last the farmers get it, or they or the extension team give up in frustration, hopefully without too much bloodshed.

Meanwhile, Mom was busy organizing, getting things done. When we arrived in Shiraz, at first we lived in the Park Saadi Hotel, where my sister and I were spoiled by the staff, who served us Pepsis whenever we were thirsty much to Mom’s horror. When we moved across the street to an octagon-shaped somewhat dilapidated summer tea house that had belonged to a former Shah when Shiraz was still the capital of Persia, she put all her efforts into transforming this echoing museum into an American home. Workmen in trucks with American flag handshake shields on the doors unloaded furniture and appliances under her direction. With only a few words of kitchen Farsi at her command, getting things where she wanted them required a great deal of gesturing and trial and error. The living room had a 50-foot domed ceiling over a marble-edged eight-sided pool with a fountain in the middle, and conflicting instructions bounced off the eight walls, with an undercurrent of falling water to complete the cacophony. Eventually everything fell into place and a brief, resonant peace settled over the living room—until the commissary truck arrived from Tehran with cases of American brand foodstuffs to be stacked in the pantry awaiting future meals.

Music was Mom’s passion. She firmly believed that there was no such thing as someone who could not sing, and wherever we lived, she set about recruiting any newly arrived talent, often before their suitcases were unpacked. The 50-foot dome in our living room rang with the la-la-las of her voice lessons, strangely brittle electric piano chords, and show tunes from the record changer deep in the high-fi console. Everywhere we went she was accompanied by a piano, usually a used upright, but, in Shiraz, our limited air freight allowance made her settle for a laminated beaver board keyboard with an early synthesizer that (I was to discover much later) made her sound exactly like Mose Allison. Not that she played jazz—the piano was primarily for accompaniment while she or her students sang show tunes, arias, or art songs—and she would have preferred an upright or a baby grand, but a “real” piano was beyond our reach in Shiraz in those days. The electric piano was a reluctant substitute.

Mom was a regular soloist in church choirs growing up, and she continued that tradition in the Shiraz Anglican Church. News of her talent reached the United States Information Service and the Iran-American Society in Tehran, and before long she was booked on a tour performing American folk songs, show tunes, art songs, even a couple of popular Persian ballads (in Farsi) at various auditoriums around the country. With the Soviet Union on the northern border and Sputnik a recent launch, a good will tour was a handy propaganda tool for the US government’s interests. Not that she was trying to sell America or advance the anti-communist agenda. Her patriotism was purely altruistic and cultural in nature, her way of doing her part to bring peace and help solve the world’s problems. Her husband could confront these problems head on with technological advancements, while she worked indirectly with interpersonal connections that left diverse people feeling a little better about one another. She joined dozens of more famous American musicians who toured Europe, Asia, Africa and South America as good will ambassadors in the 50s and early 60s.

Eventually, our sea freight arrived, two lift vans full of trikes and bikes, step stools and sewing machines, crockery and bedding, and much, much more. It had taken over six months for these goods to make their way across America to a port, around the Cape to the Gulf and up the desert from Abadan, so many of them had already been replaced in the local bazaar. Rose patterned china from China replaced the Lennoxware, much of which was damaged in transit, and appliances that ran on 220 volts had taken the place of familiar toasters, mixers and percolators that required transformers and adapters, and never ran quite the way they had at home. Nevertheless, we welcomed the waffle iron as well as the irreplaceable wringer washing machine, even after it fell off the truck when the crude pulley and goat hair rope failed to lower it gently to the pavement.


By the time the sea freight got there, we had settled into our new life in Iran, and all these familiar possessions had changed from necessities to nostalgic mementos of a life we had left behind.