Having been introduced to the North and South of Iran, it was now time to visit the West. The satellite station outside the town of Kermanshah had a problem that an expert technician couldn’t resolve. The microwave radio system that relayed the satellite signals to Tehran couldn’t meet its noise specifications. Although I was a fairly good technician, the equipment was made in Italy by a subsidiary of General Telephone and I wasn’t sure I would be able to help. But Page Communications Engineers had a reputation as being a flesh merchant, meaning they mainly won contracts for the price they would charge for a certain number of warm bodies they would provide for a project, not for the quality of work they could produce. I was unaware that the technician who couldn’t solve the problem had not only failed to look at the site specifications, he wasn’t even aware that they existed. But I was looking forward to the trip because my Filipino friend, Uri from the mountaintop camping adventure would be at the wheel for the 300 km drive. He would also have any hand tools I might need to work on the equipment. It would be great to see him again.
The drive took just under five hours on a relatively straight two-lane highway with nomads walking along the shoulders with camels and donkeys. Uri warned me that the animals could be spooked by the passing cars if the driver honked the horn, as some of the lesser educated visitors to the country would do for entertainment. After passing through the quaint little town of Kermanshah, we drove along an arrow-straight section of highway where I could see every inch of the 11 miles ahead. Then, after negotiating the final curve in a small mountain range, we could see in the valley below the tremendous 120-foot satellite dish next to a shoe-box shaped building surrounded by a 10-foot high chain link fence with razor wire coiled at the top, at a distance of 100 yards from the site center. When we reached the guard gate, Uri, through his permanent and toothy smile, showed our badges and joked in Farsi with the four soldiers armed with machine guns. They waved us through with smiles and casual salutes. He’d been on the installation team that had installed the microwave radios and he took me directly to the equipment room that had the problem.
I found the expert technician asleep on a chair in front of four nine-foot high, 24-inch wide equipment racks that were humming away with no illuminated red lights to indicate any problems. After awakening him and introducing myself, he referred to the three-foot tall stack of test equipment on a wheeled cart in front of the equipment racks. He was a tall, lanky fellow with horn-rimmed glasses resting on his nose, wearing a plaid flannel shirt over a soiled white T-shirt and shabby jeans a size too large. Apparently, it’d been a while since he’d seen a shower or a toothbrush. After fiddling with a few knobs and switches on the cart, he clearly illustrated that the signal-to-noise ratio was outside of the specifications. That’s like saying that if you have five buckets of water, you can only have a half a bucket of slop to pollute it, leaving an acceptable 10 to one ratio of water to slop. But his meters showed that he had a ratio of eight to one. He explained to me in frustration that he had done all the adjustments he knew how to do and had repeated them several times. The equipment was junk, that’s all. I asked him, “What’s your receive signal level?” In the simile, it was like asking, “How much water is mixed with your half-bucket of slop?”
He said, “Huh?”
I said, “The strength of the signal coming in. To meet noise specifications, you need a strong enough radio signal coming in.”
He said, “Huh?”
I looked at one of the radios. It had a meter with a rotary switch on the right and one of the positions read, “Receive Level.” Even though it was made in Italy, the words were in English. I turned the knob and the meter snapped to “4.0” out of a possible 10. I asked, “What’s it supposed to be?”
He said, “Huh?”
I asked, “Do you have a copy of the engineering paper that tells us what it should be?”
He said, “Huh?”
“A stack of papers about an inch thick that should have come with the manuals for the radio,” I explained.
He shrugged. “There’s some stuff over there on that desk but I don’t know what it is. I haven’t looked at it.”
After about 15 minutes of sorting through, I discovered that the receive level should be “5.0,” so the signal coming in was too weak. As I tried to explain it in simple terms that he could understand, Uri reached up to the knob by the meter and turned it to the position labeled, “Distant Transmitter Power.” The meter showed “7.” Uri said, “Transmitter at other end, it look OK to me. We maybe need antenna guys.”
“Well, shit, then. I’m out of here,” said the expert. That’s not my job, it’s a different department.” As he headed for the door, he said, “Let me know when it’s fixed and I’ll come back to finish testing.” He left his stack of test equipment turned on. Uri and I looked at each other with a slight glance at the ceiling.
I called the engineering offices and explained the problem and told them they needed to send out an antenna adjustment crew. Then I said to Uri, “Well, since we’ve come so far, we might as well get as much information as we can. Let’s have a look at the tower and antenna and see if the problem is obvious. We’ll spend the night in Kermanshah and head back in the morning.” Driving in the Iranian desert was particularly dangerous at night. Drivers didn’t properly use dimmer switches and would turn their headlights completely off, then turn the high beams back on again, blinding oncoming drivers so they couldn’t see the people and animals along the sides of road. Several people had been killed.
We went outside to the tower that stood about 10 feet from the back of the building and looked up to see the 10-foot microwave dish mounted at the 180 foot level. I stood beneath with the military style compass Uri had provide me and saw that it was pointed at the mountain range about 10 miles on the other side of a flat, barren desert. The compass reading indicated it was basically in the right direction. But with a microwave dish, “basically” isn’t enough; it has to be exact. I wondered if we could get a more accurate reading by going out into the desert, away from the electronic noise and magnetism. So Uri and I jumped into the land rover and headed out the gate with another flourish of smiles and waves.
At the end of the driveway we made a right and went up the road about 100 yards past the chain link fence, then made another right and slowly drove out into the desert, avoiding rocks and things that looked like they might penetrate a tire. When we reached a point that we estimated to be exactly in the line between the dishes at each end, we stopped, got out, walked a suitable distance from the vehicle to avoid its magnetic effects and started taking compass readings. It was a pleasant sunny day with a slight breeze, not hot and quite refreshing to be in the peaceful tranquility of nature. But suddenly there was a storm in the lull.
One of the soldiers was at the chain link fence rattling it as hard as he could and screaming at the top of his lungs. I looked at Uri to ask him to translate, but he quickly said, “Shh, I listen to what he say.” He and remained perfectly still while listening intently for about half a minute. Then he said to me through his eternal smile, without adding the slightest trace of emotion, “He say we in mine field.”
“What!” I yelled.
“We in mine field. We step on mine… boom… we blow up. We die. We fuck up.” Then he giggled.
“What the fuck are we gonna do?” I was mortified. I had never anticipated what it would be like to be blown to smithereens. Now it was racing through my head, and wasn’t the least bit pleasant.
“Stay calm,” he said. “We not blow up yet.” He looked intently around the ground, still with his unbelievable smile. “Look! We see our footprints. Soldier say walk only where we walk before. We be OK.” He started taking careful steps to plant his feet exactly in the existing footprints. I hesitated, but with his assurance, started doing the same. Then he said, “They cross here. You get in; you drive. I walk in tracks and guide; we keep wheels in tracks.”
Uri held his eyes tightly shut as he took the few fresh steps necessary to get into the tracks. But his grin remained. I got in on the passenger side, taking the final step as a leap to avoid contact with the ground. Luckily I’d left the door open. After wiggling across to the driver’s side, I started the engine and saw Uri in the outside rear-view mirror. He was about 10 feet behind, walking slowly backwards like on a tight rope, looking down at his feet and balancing himself with his arms wide apart. Then he looked up, caught my eye in the mirror and started guiding me by wiggling his index fingers in the right directions to keep the back wheel directly in the tracks. Then he held his hands up to stop. He looked down and took two more paces back, then guided me again. We continued like this for about an hour.
When we finally reached the highway, I backed the Land Rover onto it, stopped and got out. Uri was standing in the middle of the road laughing. I grabbed him in a tight hug with his head into my shoulder and we both laughed raucously to tears. When I finally let him loose, he had the biggest smile ever. As we did a high-five, he said, “We OK man. It Miller time.”
We went back to the guard shack to thank the soldier who had warned us, then went to Kermanshah to find a hotel. We would be in Tehran about lunch time the next day and I would be sure to add the mines to my trip report, just in case the crew coming to align the antennas wanted to take come compass readings. But for me, the most exciting thing about going back to Tehran in one piece was that Felicity, my Australian fiancée, would at last be arriving from London. Hopefully, she would accompany me on any future trips to the outback of Iran.
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