Most historians consider Persia – the original name for Iran – to be one of the oldest civilizations on earth, founded in 550 BC by Cyrus the Great and maintaining its sovereignty over several centuries, despite radical regime and boundary changes. Consequently, it had a 2,500 year birthday in 1950. But the enormously popular leader at the time, Mohammad Mosaddegh who had nationalized the nation’s petroleum industry and oil reserves, saw no need for an international celebration. However, in 1953 he committed the unforgivable sin of attempting to audit the American and British oil companies that were beginning to rob his country blind. So the CIA orchestrated its very first covert operation to depose a legally elected official, and then installed a puppet dictator named Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, more commonly known as the Shah of Iran.
Because of his attempts to westernize Iran, the Shah gained a popularity of about 30%. To win the hearts and minds of the 70% who preferred to trust in God rather than the dollar, he devised several cheap tricks – the most heinous being the secret police, SAVAK who would slaughter any man, woman or child who spoke ill of him. He also passed a law requiring all businesses to display a picture of him or his royal family on a prominent wall, or risk the business shut down and the owners executed. Lesser carnival acts included calling himself, “Shah Hahn Shah (King of Kings),” wearing a snappy uniform and flying his own jetliner. But in spite of all this, he maintained warm and cozy ties with Washington and London by promising not to audit the oil companies that were robbing his country blind, as had done his predecessor.
Perhaps his most elaborate publicity stunt – and perhaps the most elaborate of all time – was the 21-year-late, 2,500 year multi-million dollar birthday party for his nation in its ancient city of Persepolis, built by Darius the Great in 513 BC and one of the most prominent ancient ruins in the Middle East. The 500 lavish guests included another ruler of an extant ancient monarchy, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, along with Vice-President Spiro Agnew, Princess Grace and another sixteen presidents, nine kings, five queens and two sultans. Clearly, the King of Kings could rub elbows with the Cream of the Cream.
And to assure his gala event reached the entire planet, he’d waited until his brand new telecommunication system was tested and ready to reach the satellite up-link station at Kermanshah for worldwide distribution. To get there, the signal had to pass through several microwave relay stations equipped with two sets of everything needed for transmission, along with an automatic transfer system to keep the predicted outage time down to a few seconds a year, making it one of the most reliable systems on earth. All sites ran on commercial AC power but had a battery backup system and a standby diesel generator to keep the batteries charged during a power outage. Still, the King of Kings insisted that for the 30 days previous to the five-day event, each site be manned by an engineer, a technician and an installer to ensure that no force whatsoever could disrupt his show. I was assigned the engineer position at a site called Dukuhak, two hours out of Shiraz.
My team included a Hawaiian technician I’ll call Kani and a Filipino installer I’ll call Uri. We met for the first time on a Monday morning in our field office in Shiraz, and after strangely non-committal handshakes, set out in a long-wheel-base Land Rover with the company colors to get supplies for a four-week camp-out on a mountain top in the middle of a bleak and unforgiving desert. The relay station itself would only have room for cots between the aisles of equipment, and there was no bathroom or water. While we were scrunched into the narrow front seat of the Rover, the distance between us remained vast. Kani and Uri obviously knew each other, but didn’t care much about the newcomer. From their muttered conversation I picked out the gist of it, “We’ll share our food but the fucking Yank can cover his own ass.”
I tried joining in, “Hey, why can’t we all share? I’ve had roommates before.”
Uri looked at me through his permanent grin, but his tone of voice couldn’t hide his disapproval, “Naw, man, you Yanks don’t like to share food. It’s always, ‘no that’s my cheese, don’t eat it’ or ‘get your own bread.’ We don’t want to have to bitch over every bite.”
“Well I’m not like that. I can share food. I’ll eat whatever you guys like.”
Kani leaned over from the wheel to look directly at me. “Hey, man, we’re Asians. We eat a lot of rice,” obviously trying to put me off. But he didn’t succeed.
“Well, I can eat rice.” I’d spent a lot of time in the South and thought of New Orleans red beans and Mississippi rice and gravy, along with visions of flied lice in Japanese and Chinese restaurants. Mmm… But as my appetite took control of my voice I pleaded, “But can we have potatoes once in a while, just for a change? You guys could eat a potato now and then, couldn’t you?”
Uri looked at me suspiciously then turned to Kani. “You can eat potato now and then if it please the Yank?” His disapproval was waning.
I was leaning forward in the seat so I could see Kani. After a quick glance into my eyes he answered, “I guess maybe so. He don’t look like no normal Ha’ole to me.” I felt complemented, but I was unaware that the endearment came from the old Hawaiian language meaning “one who lacks breath,” or “one who cannot share his planet as it was created.” Click to read “Alo’ha, Ha’ole”
As we traipsed through various bazaars to get cots, water and food, I realized this wasn’t a new experience for them. The company had told me at the indoctrination lecture to be aware of open markets, but these two seemed quite at ease. They knew enough Farsi to haggle prices for a camp stove, charcoal, a cooler and dry ice. Conversation revealed that they’d both spent several days on similar undertakings during the installation and testing processes. Uri had even camped out at Dukuhak before. Because I’d submitted the lead to the more capable, the tension softened even more and rewarded us with a deck of cards to accompany the folding table and chairs. We all played hearts, a game similar to bridge or pinochle but a bit easier. Neither of them drank, so I decided to forgo beer to avoid additional alienation.
After an hour of smooth travel on the highway, we turned onto a one-lane dirt road as we saw the site on top of a nearby mountain. When it started getting steep, Kani stopped and kicked in the four-wheel drive. For the next 45 minutes, he expertly maneuvered through ruts, rocks and loose gravel, shifting gears as necessary to maintain the safest speed while avoiding plummeting into the surely fatal chasms that moved from one side of the road to the other as we twisted around the switchbacks, a few of which required stopping and backing up. The whole time, the engine purred smoothly as if driver and mechanical beast were one.
We finally arrived at the concrete block, 10 by 16-foot repeater site in mid-afternoon with three stomachs audibly growling at the delay. Uri immediately volunteered to cook, and started picking out what he needed while unloading supplies. He was about five feet tall and sturdy as a Shetland pony. Kani came in at about six feet but with a bit of a sagging belly. He did the bulk of the unloading work, seeming to know exactly where to put everything. I stayed out of the way.
Soon the site was alive with the savory aroma of Filipino-style chicken adobo cooked in soy sauce, ginger, garlic and hot chili peppers. Uri served it with two scoops of rice in traditional Hawaiian fashion. It was good that both Kani and I agreed we could eat it every day for both lunch and dinner without any complaints. When we unanimously elected Uri head chef of the project, his ear-to-ear grin and sparkling eyes radiated his honor. “Yaa, OK!”
As the food settled in our stomachs, more casual conversation began. Uri talked about his 18-year-old son who played in a rock and roll band, and I mentioned my Australian girlfriend who would come a few months later. But Kani’s doe eyes showed deep concern when he started talking about his wife, seven months pregnant with their first child and now living alone in their apartment in Shiraz, isolated far from everything she’d ever held dear. We began discussing the strict rules of the occupation of the site.
We were only allowed to leave to replenish our supplies, and only one of us at a time could go. Under no circumstances could we ever allow the site to be unmanned, or manned by only one person. A technical error could dump the precious signal, and two minds could respond faster than one. But we quickly realized that these instructions had come from the same minds that wanted us to flee the scene if we hit a child on the road. So we unanimously tossed the rules in the trash and began organizing our own plan.
Uri and I would alternate days driving Kani to Shiraz. Because it was a four-hour round trip, we’d leave at six every evening to get him to his wife by eight and the driver back on site at ten. Then we’d leave at four in the morning to get him back at eight. To save time, he’d buy our supplies while shopping for his family’s daily needs. The company reimbursed us for gas, but the additional expense would arouse suspicion. Kani offered to foot the bill, but got voted down. We’d split the cost because we’d all enjoy our time off the mountain.
The telecom equipment had a constantly on-line maintenance circuit called an “order wire.” A scratchy speaker could bark out the name of any person called by anyone on the system, any time of the day or night, perhaps catching us breaking the rules. But the planned excuse would be “he’s taking a dump,” hiding somewhere behind a rock out of earshot, and perhaps taking his time reading or just gazing at the vast vistas of the distant valleys below. Everyone would understand. Repeated calls for the same person would warrant the excuse of diarrhea. “Yep, he had to go again.” But as it turned out, we never needed a single excuse. We were pretty much forgotten. And the few seconds-per-year of calculated outage was on our side, leaving us with only one real problem: what to do with our time.
Breathtaking vistas can indeed become moot after a few days. But the inherent beauty doesn’t go away; it gets ingrained somewhere in the subconscious mind making the boredom more bearable, if not delightful. Although we lived in a tiny cabin, we never once got cabin fever. But we did seek subtle changes, some of which were quite amusing. After about seventeen consecutive meals of chicken adobo and rice, I asked Uri if we could have potatoes. He and Kani agreed, so my mouth watered with the thought of the succulent chicken dish served with whatever side of potatoes Uri would create. But no! Potato adobo served over rice confirmed Kani’s original Asian claim. And the taste ruled out any complaints.
We spent most of our time playing hearts while slinging BS about just about everything. But even that became droll. We didn’t play for money, but an old idea from my Navy days came to mind. We’d play for water. The object of the game was to take as few tricks as possible and avoid getting the Queen of Spades. But whenever the “bitch” got dumped on someone, they’d have to drink a soda pop bottle full of water. The first one who couldn’t hold it any longer lost the game. Groans and guffaws broke down the boredom a bit more. But overall, it was the underlying peace and unity kept us sane.
One night after Uri returned from delivering Kani to his wife, he mentioned that the next day would be his 40th birthday. After returning a half-hearted greeting, my mind said shit, it’s too late to get a cake. We leave Shiraz at six in the morning and the bakeries will still be closed. Why didn’t he say something sooner? When I picked up Kani, we were lost for ideas for a party. Nothing was open and we couldn’t find even a cupcake or a candle of any kind. But then we saw an agha selling watermelons. All was not lost! We bought one, and before Uri could see us, we stopped and carved “Happy Birthday” in it with a pocket knife. We made another hole about an inch in diameter, and while I distracted Uri with the groceries, Kani went into the standby generator shack, twisted a paper bag, dipped one end into diesel fuel and the other into the melon. After lighting it, we joined in with the traditional birthday song, with Uri’s laugh shaking him like a small earthquake.
As we said our goodbyes in Shiraz at the end of the stint, I realized that it had never entered our minds to watch the celebration. We could have easily patched a TV set into the government channel passing through the site. But the show wasn’t for us. Nor was it for the Iranians. It wasn’t to celebrate the nation’s birthday; it was to celebrate the Shah’s wealth and importance. Five hundred dignitaries were invited. Twenty million Iranians were not. But for me it was a success because I finished the experience with two more friendships. I would not see Kani again, but I would see his native land, Hawaii. And having known him, the karma would open my eyes wider to its reality. I would, however, see Uri again. And his natural calmness would turn out to be a life saver…
Watch for “In the Trenches of Paradise” for Hawaii and Chapter 7, “Yours and Mines” for Uri, both to be completed later.
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