Flight

Volume ďIĒ was missing from our home encyclopedia. Iíd taken it to school for my 2nd grade report on Indians and it had gone astray. So nobody could look up Iran the night Dad came home with the news that we would be going to live there. I crawled under the porch and leaned against the wooden lattice work to confide in Cookie, our black cocker spaniel, that I certainly didn't want to go to no ďI-ran.Ē Two weeks later I couldnít find Cookie anywhere. When I asked Mom, she wondered how long it was going to take me to realize heíd been given away since I was the one who was supposed to feed him.

 

The airport in Des Moines was the height of modernity to us. It had a gift shop and a coffee shop, and presumably a restaurant though Iíd never had the chance to go inside. There was an observation platform on the roof and a long hallway leading to the gates with lots of windows for watching the planes taxi in and out, load and unload. And these vending machines that sold flight insurance. Our send-off committee made quite a commotion in the hall, friends and family, mostly Momís aunts and uncles and cousins because Dad had gone on ahead in November to Washington for orientation and on to Iran to start his job and get ready for us to join him. Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal in June of 1956 and, though the Suez Crisis didnít directly affect Dadís project, the State Department didnít consider it safe for dependents to travel in the region. Once hostilities from the Six-Day War had subsided, we headed out on the big adventure on our own.

 

Fresh from the mid-morning service at the First Methodist Church in Knoxville, our ride dropped us and our luggage at the airport curb. I wore a suit and tie. Mom and Janet wore their Sunday dresses, each with a corsage. Momís voice student who had provided the corsages was there with his family, and they were having a hard time being heard over the laughter and shouts of encouragement from the Monroes and Rankins, Ramsays and Andersons who packed in around us. The womenfolk hugged and kissed us, tearfully insisting that Mom remain vigilant in the heathen world we were about to enter, while the men gravitated to the windows. Like combine buyers at an auction, they shifted uncomfortably from sizing up the aircraft equipment on the runway to watching the shiny toes of their Sunday shoes scuff imaginary dirt on the floor. Gradually Mom managed to draw our crowd of well-wishers closer to the gate, towing Janet and me closer to the doorway, waving passports and boarding passes at the agent, and breaking free to slip through the door. Then we were on the runway heading toward the stairs leading into the cabin of the DC-3 leaning back on its haunches ready to catapult us into the sky to Chicago and New York and many exotic destinations yet to come.

 

By the time we got to New York Janet and I were too exhausted to marvel at the tall buildings and crowds. Mom loaded us and our luggage into a taxi to take us directly to our downtown hotel and bed. At breakfast in the coffee shop, the Scottish waitress regaled us with tales of Rob Roy in the Highlands, and how his arms were so long he could buckle the knee straps of his breeches without bending over. I was fascinated by the story and her accent, struggling to imagine what knee-length trousers would look like. Janet thought she was one of those people Mom had told us about who donít speak English, so she soon lost interest.

 

The rest of the day was a blur of activity: contacting the airline to confirm our flight, bundling up against a blustery New York in January, then discovering we could cart our mountain of luggage through the underground passage to Grand Central Station for the bus ride to Idlewild. With so much ahead of us we didnít have time to think of what we had left behind. Mom made all the arrangements, of course. All I had to do was hold my little sisterís hand and try to keep up.

 

The aircraft was amazing. A TWA Constellation, wide-bodied (for the time), four engines and a triple tail. I stared at it through the plate glass at the gate, amazed that anything so immense could actually get airborne, and with all these passengers. It would take us all night to cross the Atlantic and half the next day to get to Frankfurt, where we would wait for the Pan Am flight to Tehran. To keep us occupied, the flight staff gave Janet and me plastic wings to identify us as members of the crew. Janet got to help the stewardess pass out blankets and pillows, and I had a route map of the world that I could use to chart our progress. Eventually when we got tired, Mom changed us into our pajamas and the stewardess helped her tuck us into the berth in the bulkhead behind our seats. The drone of the engines lulled us into a sleep so deep we didnít notice Mom climbing into her berth above us later that night.

 

Our arrival in Frankfurt was uneventful except for the inevitable lost luggage. Turns out our bags had been checked through to Tehran, so Mom would find them waiting for us when we returned to the airport next morning. We checked into a hotel where we slept comfortably in our underwear until we were awakened by the sound of children playing in the courtyard below our window. I couldnít understand a word they were saying, ďBut,Ē I announced excitedly to Mom, ďthey are laughing in English!Ē (This often-retold anecdote was to become a source of deep embarrassment in my adolescence, but I guess it was my first exposure to the power of humor in intercultural communication.)

 

Mom shielded us from any problems she might have encountered confirming our onward flight and returning to the airport, but Iím sure she took advantage of the opportunity to use her high school German during our brief stay. Iím also sure she would have loved a visit to a museum or a night at the opera, but with us along it was probably out of the question. Later in our overseas experience, once she got the hang of it, she would have plenty of opportunity to turn a short layover into a sightseeing tour. But for now she had her sights set on an even greater adventure ahead.†

 

The flight to Tehran was much more crowded than our flight to Frankfurt had been, and we arrived in a wad of pushing, shoving people eager to get customs out of the way so they could be enveloped in the arms of the frantically waving relatives on the other side of the glass partition. Mom had been warned about the volatility of the political climate in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis and the Mosaddegh assassination, so she impressed upon us the necessity of being on our best behavior and not drawing attention to ourselves. It was so hot in the customs hall that everyone had removed their coats, and the coats over their arms made it even more crowded in the seething mass of humanity pretending to be a line leading up to the customs inspectorsí stations. The room was heated by a pair of large kerosene stoves in the center of the room, and stove pipes leading from those stoves jutted across the room until they reached an elbow, where they shot straight up into the ceiling. The pipes were about six inches in diameter, and they were hastily constructed of several segments joined together by a ruffled flange at the end of each pipe. Mom kept being swept away to the front of the crowd and having to lose her place in line to find us lost at the back. Finally, she put me in charge of holding Janetís hand and waiting for Mom to tell us to join her when it was our turn. Janet and I hung back by the stoves where it was warm and as the crowd thinned out we slowly made our way forward, following the line of stove pipes. Janet was tired of carrying her coat, so she draped it over the stove pipe beside her and leaned against it as if it were a railing. The stove pipe collapsed and clattered to the marble floor.

 

The noisy crowd suddenly went stock still. Soot shot into the air. Janet burst into tears.

 

The crowd broke into nervous laughter and unfamiliar words of condolence. Before Mom could reach us, strangers were on their knees wiping away Janetís tears and asking if she was OK. Janet continued to cry, now because strangers she couldnít understand had surrounded her. Some of the strangers gently moved her away from the stove pipe while custodians attempted to rejoin it to the elbow piece. Mom finally reached Janet and swept her into her arms. Mom tried to soothe her and convince her that everything was going to be all right. A man from airport security collected our passports to usher us through customs. So much for keeping a low profile.

 

Once outside the customs area, Mom took an account of all our checked luggage and carry-on bags. As we were about to step outside into the cold she reached for her coat, but it was gone. She wanted to return to customs to see if anyone had turned it in at the lost and found, but the people we were staying with in Tehran smilingly assured her that there would be no point returning to look for it. The coat had a synthetic Persian lamb collar, so surely someone had taken it for the real thing and it would be gone. We should just take it in stride as an introduction to Iran: the jostling crowd that had turned into kind strangers, and the necessity of being willing to part with something of value to someone else.

 

Now that we were seasoned air travelers, the trip to Isfahan and Shiraz on an Iran Air DC-3 puddle jumper was a piece of cake. I got a window seat so I could marvel at the high mountains and vast deserts we flew over. Janet made friends with the stewardess, the last remaining American crew member on the airline, and she was thrilled to help pass out candies to the passengers before take off. Mom pointed out the mosques and covered bridges in Isfahan from her window, but she couldn't hide her excitement that she was soon to be reunited with her husband after all these months.