A problem that would require engineering assistance had surfaced in a town called Bandar Lingeh on the Persian Gulf in the South of Iran. To assess it, I was scheduled to fly to Bandar Abbas, the largest city in the area, and go by road to the problem site. A driver would be waiting for me at the airport in a late-model Willis Overland, a quite comfortable vehicle for negotiating the pot-holes and ruts on the rocky road along the coast. But because it was almost always sunny in Tehran, no one had anticipated that the weather could be a deciding factor in the success of the trip. Although Iran is mostly desert, heavy rains in the mountain regions could cause flash floods in the rivers that flow into the Gulf, without any indication of a problem until actually arriving at the swollen banks. There were no bridges, so crossing the rivers required the water to be relatively low.
Finding the driver waiting outside the tiny airport presented no problem. We would leave immediately on the three-hour, 110 km trip to Bandar Lingeh. As we traveled through the barren desert, I watched the distant mountain ranges looming on my right with occasional glimpses of the Persian Gulf on the left. Soon we arrived at the first river crossing, but before we could even see the water, a 200 pound, soaking wet soldier of apparent authority stopped us, opened the driver side door and pulled out my docile chauffeur by his shirt front. After slapping him briskly across the face several times to get his undivided attention, he ordered him to go back to the Bandar Abbas army headquarters and have a helicopter sent immediately. As he ordered me out of the vehicle, he turned the driver’s head toward the river so he could see the stranded convoy with the soldiers standing on the roofs of the heavy-duty trucks that would soon be swept away in the rapidly rising current. The driver sped away without a single word in a cloud of dust caused by the spinning wheels. Before I could truly comprehend the situation, I was alone with the few soldiers who had swum to safety.
Because the Shah had ordered all military personnel to study English, I could communicate with them, even though the urgency of the situation combined with their lack of expertise made conversation a bit strained. They pointed out the shell of a bus that had tried to cross just a short distance away. It was crushed up against a huge rock with the windows broken out and water swirling through. The soldiers’ solemn and broken English succeeded in woefully reporting that they had found no survivors.
After an extremely tense wait of immeasurable time, a helicopter arrived and methodically lifted the soldiers off the roofs; and none too soon. We watched all but the last truck get slowly tumbled and turned by the relentless river, then disappear into the rolling brown rapids as they washed downstream. Soon the remains of the bus joined them. Not much more was said as a transport truck came to take most of the soldiers back to Bandar Abbas. Four remained to make sure no one attempted to cross. My driver at last returned and the soldiers advised us that the waters could perhaps subside within a few hours… or it could take days. There was no way to know. All the other cars that came to cross turned back, but the ones we could see on the other side of the river waited. The desert landscape suggested that there was nothing for them to return to. Although Bandar Abbas was the largest city in the area, its hotels weren’t much better than camping out. And the driver had assured me that the Willis was loaded with all the necessary provisions. So after considering all the issues, I decided to wait it out with the soldiers. It was an hour or so before sunset.
Shortly, a person walking up the river bank surprised me by shouting out my name in perfect English. He was a short, lumpy Irishman with blond curly hair and blue eyes, about forty-five years old whom I had met in our office building in Tehran. He worked in the test engineering department across the hall and we’d met informally and had chatted a few times before. He had an empty twenty-liter heavy plastic jar tucked under his arm and his hair was wet. He wanted to know if there was any way he could get a ride into Bandar Abbas. I asked him what the Hell had happened.
With an admirable and ornery grin on his face, he explained that his jeep was on the other side along with his driver. But his wife was flying into Tehran at midnight, and no power on this earth was going to stop him from meeting her. He had emptied and dried the inside of the water jar, stripped off all his clothes, put them inside, screwed on the cap and jumped into the river hugging it like bear clinging to its baby. By kicking his feet furiously, he had managed to reach the shore about a mile downstream. Would I be able to take him to the airport in Bandar Abbas to see if he could catch the next one-hour flight to Tehran? There was no way I could refuse.
When my driver and I returned just after sunset, the river had shown no signs of subsiding. We all began chatting to pass away the time. The driver spoke very good English and we all got to know each other while learning a few extra words in each others languages. After a while we were all getting hungry, but the soldiers admitted that all their provisions were on the trucks. I assured them that I had enough food for everyone, but when they saw the cans with the foreign labels, they politely refused. They were Muslims and were afraid that there would be pork products inside. They turned down even the tuna fish and the sardines because they could never be sure. My driver said he would fix something for me, but the synergy that I had learned earlier from Mr. Chief Engineer Agha Mohandess Shababian started to kick in. I thought it would be quite rude to eat in front of them when they had nothing, so we would share the discomfort together. But by two a.m., the persistent river had not dropped an inch and we were all as hungry as teenage wolves.
When I offered to drive back into Bandar Abbas to look for something they could eat, the youngest of the soldiers had a better idea. He said that he had grown up in this area and there was a restaurant just a short way down the road. He even knew the owner. The other soldiers just laughed at him telling him he hadn’t grown up enough to know where he was, and that there were no restaurants for miles. They were well-trained in that area and knew everything about it. But the young fellow continued to insist and, after a short and jovial argument, the chorus of grumbling stomachs took charge and we decided to give it a try. Although not a single vehicle had approached since sunset, the soldiers drew straws to see which one would stay on guard to stop any unwary traveler that might try to cross. The rest of us piled into the Willis.
Only a few hundred yards on the road back to Bandar Abbas, we made a left onto a narrow and trampled pathway that I would not consider to qualify as a road. The Willis slowly groaned and grumbled over waves of irregular terrain until we soon arrived in a small village with about seven unmarked and long-before whitewashed mud buildings on each side of the now wider trail. After the young soldier told us which one was the restaurant, we got out and went up the stone steps of a porch-like structure with a corrugated galvanized steel roof supported by flimsy sapling trunks. We found the owner asleep in a cot set up to block the entry like a human burglar alarm.
The young soldier woke him up and told him the problem. After offering mutual blessings from Allah, he apologized that he was too sleepy to get out of his cot. But if we wanted a meal, we were welcome to cook it ourselves. There was dough already prepared, hot coals in the dome-shaped oven and plenty of wood to get the fire hot enough to bake some bread. Allah had also provided fresh eggs and clarified butter. And of course, he trusted the young soldier to do the cooking because he had known him since he was born. But he was simply not going to get out of the cot. We would have to carry it away from the doorway with him in it, and then return it when we had finished washing the dishes. Would Allah please help us not to jostle him too much? We could leave some money under his pillow as we left.
After moving the assembly of man and cot, we fumbled our way into the dark room. The young soldier found a kerosene lamp and lit it, illuminating a humble country dwelling with shades of the past centuries showing in every nook and cranny. A low wooden table seemed to be hand-made of thick branches for legs and irregularly hewn boards for a top, worn to a shine by ages of use. It was surrounded with ample cushions covered with a thick woolen fabric that I’m sure was once brightly colored. The walls had brownish photos inside rustic wooden frames. Some of the adornments on the wall seemed to have a second purpose, like the three-foot steel rod that I didn’t yet recognize as the bread hook.
Luckily the young soldier knew exactly what to do. First he tossed some wood onto the coals and fanned them to get the oven hot. Then he flattened bread dough on the table, formed it into two-foot, half-inch thick ovals and firmly pressed in handfuls of the coarse gravel that was in a pile near the oven. Then he slapped the loaves into the clay dome oven so that they would stick to the inside walls. He then readied a smaller fire on the side to heat up an ancient cast iron frying pan for the eggs.
When the bread was golden brown, he pulled the loaves off the oven wall with the hook he had removed from its nearby storage place. As he slammed each flat loaf on the table, the gravel popped out and skittered in various directions, leaving lacy bread that could be broken apart into crusty little fingers. He served us each three eggs sunny-side-up, sprinkled with black pepper and swimming in clarified butter. We could spoon on the chunky, spicy red sauce to taste, then swirl bits of the warm bread into a mixture made by mashing the eggs with a fork. We drank strong, black tea served in little shot glasses with small chunks of crystallized sugar to suck on to sweeten it in out mouths. It was one of the most delicious meals I’d ever eaten.
As the young soldier had now earned the respect of his peers, he was placed in charge without word or fanfare. As he prepared a make-shift take-out meal for the soldier left at the river, he told the others how much money they would have to pay. I could not contribute because I was the visitor. And they, of course, were the soldiers tasked with serving whoever may happen to be in their country. As we left, he gently placed a small handful of coins under the owner’s pillow without waking him, then directed the other soldiers to help move the cot back to its original position. Then he nodded approval to return to the river.
I took a nap in the passenger side of the Willis and, well after the sun had risen, saw that the river had subsided enough for us to say goodbye to the soldiers and be safely on our way to more of the Persian Gulf. As the tension of the adventure had passed, I began wondering what the problem requiring engineering assistance in Bandar Lingeh might actually be. As we lurched along the rustic dirt road for a little over two hours, we saw very few vehicles other than an occasional antique bus or an overloaded, ten-wheel Mercedes truck lumbering by. Near the small groups of mud structures I assumed to be towns, we saw mostly mopeds and animals and only a few cars or pickup trucks.
We finally arrived at the target site, a two-story, freshly constructed telephone equipment building on the edge of town with a microwave tower and a chain link fence partially constructed. The parking area was freshly paved and was littered with Page vehicles, cable reels, trailers and various crates of electronic equipment, some empty and some yet to be opened. Inside, a gentleman of about 30 broke away from his installation task to introduce himself as the technical installation supervisor, speaking with a British accent. I’ll call him “John.” He was unaware of any engineering problem in his department, but there was another fellow working in the standby generator room. But that was a different department.
I went out of the building and found the entrance to the equipment that would automatically provide electrical power in case of an outage. Inside, a gentleman who was puttering with some equipment identified himself as the clean-up man sent to polish off the minor issues found on the final inspection of the installation. He claimed to be from Ireland, but I assessed that the nation would be reluctant to claim him. He was short and thick, dressed in filthy, almost worn out clothes, had an unkempt, short beard and reeked of sweat and un-brushed teeth. I assumed he had been hired from the floor of a pub.
“Are you the one who called for engineering assistance?” I asked.
“Indeed, I be,” he replied and then chuckled. “I have a question about the conduit clamps.”
“The conduit clamps?”
“Yes, there’s a few missing on the run up the wall inside the closet there. I’ve got some clamps and tools to install them, but I don’t know whether to use straight-slot or Phillips screws.”
“That’s your question?”
“Indeed it be. The drawings have been taken away and there’s no information here.”
“So how much time do you have until your year is up,” I asked. All employees would get a 15% bonus after staying a year in the country. But they must stay the full 365 days to earn it. Then they could go home.
He pulled out a pocket watch, opened the cover and scrutinized the time. “Six days, three hours and twenty seven-minutes.”
Problem solved. He was a short-timer. I realized that he would be gone before anyone in his department even read my trip report. So for the sake of courtesy and pity, I posed as a person thinking for a few seconds and said, “Use straight-slot screws.”
He looked at me sorrowfully and said, “Well, I don’t have any straight-slot screws.”
After returning to my think pose for two seconds, I said, “Well, then, go ahead and use Phillips.”
“Well, I’ve got some Phillips screws, but I don’t have a Phillips screwdriver.”
“Well, why don’t you just zip into town and buy either some straight slot screws or a Phillips screwdriver? Either one will do.”
“I don’t have any money.”
I gave him the equivalent of ten dollars in Rials, the Iranian currency. He snatched it out of my hand, but then said, “But I don’t have transportation.”
I called to my driver who was taking a nap on the front seat of the Willis. “Do you think you can find a hardware store so this gentleman can get a screwdriver?” Huge mistake! I should have given the driver the money and told him what to buy. They came back two hours later with the driver rolling his eyes and the short-timer drunk. He had no screwdriver, screws, money or a receipt.
I said to him, “You know, if you worked for me, I’d fire you on the spot.”
He laughed and said, “Yeah, but I don’t work for you. And I’ll be long the fuck gone before anyone knows.”
I didn’t bother to ask his name.
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