…before you hire the guide and donkeys, you’ll need to go to the army headquarters and ask for a military escort.
I’d only been told that the problem at the satellite Earth station outside Kermanshah was noise. I hadn’t been told what kind of noise. But when a parabolic antenna of more than 100 feet in diameter points to outer space, only the imagination can limit what “noise” might be coming in. So with the little boy’s head properly bandaged and his father properly scolded from the accident en route, I became adamantly anxious to analyze the anomaly. But like all dreams, it soon faded. The Iranian technician in charge immediately informed me that the noise was on the signal coming from Tehran, not from outer space. And it was separate from the other problems caused by the microwave dish out of alignment, which still hadn’t been resolved.
On the new problem, the signal would become distorted only on isolated occasions. The technician escorted me to the microwave radio room and set up a complex device to analyze the incoming signals. After waiting an hour and a half for the distortion to appear, we realized it only happened for the duration of certain telephone calls then went away. The problem had to be coming from the switching office in Tehran. So Felicity and I, after thanking the ineptness of the defense contractor mentality, returned to Kermanshah, had an excellent dinner of shashlik – lamb loin roasted in garlic and ghee – and headed back to Tehran in the morning.
The next day, I found an extremely knowledgeable Iranian technician at the telephone switching office in Tehran who knew exactly where and how to monitor the international calls that would end up at the earth station. As he was well aware of the nature of his countrymen, he assumed that lesser educated people who screamed into the phone to carry their voice across the cosmos were the root of the problem. He had suggested that Page put ten-cent limiters on the 18 international phone circuits to keep the screaming from over-driving the modulators. But no one would listen to him… I assumed because he was a funny little brown Iranian and reputed to come to work on a donkey.
But instead of evaluating him, I invited him to a lunch of jigor kebab – sliced lamb hearts charbroiled with ghee, garlic and hot sauce served on pita bread with a side of tomato and cucumber salad. Then I asked him to find an electronic component supply store so we could buy some limiters. He knew exactly where one was located because… well… that was his job. He soldered them in place and set up the monitoring equipment. I set up an international call and screamed into the phone as loud as I could. No distortion. We spent the rest of the afternoon sipping tea with crystallized sugar while monitoring the signal and discussing our families and the history of his ancient nation. We didn’t see a single case of distortion. Another problem solved by crossing that dreaded line into the terrifying Iranian culture.
Back in the engineering office I was delighted to find out that they would be teaching me a new trick. A site near the Iraq border did not yet have a reference line. Since I had no idea what a reference line was, they would gallantly and generously use this site as my training ground. It wasn’t a complex site; it only had a passive microwave radio reflector, sort of like a giant mirror permanently installed to reflect the signal from one parabolic dish to another. It was the simplest sort of site we had.
And the task was also simple. I would go to the isolated hilltop and pound a four-foot two by two wooden stake into the ground at a random location near the center of the proposed building area, then stick a colored thumb tack in the top of it. Then I would select a prominent mountain peak in the distance, photograph it with a Polaroid camera then mark which one I’d selected on the photo with an indelible marker. Leave the beam in place and bring the photo back.
“Yep.” They explained to me that the Reference Line would be the imaginary line from the thumb tack to the mountain peak. The surveyors would set their calibrated telescope exactly above the thumb tack and point the cross-hairs at the peak. They would reference all the angles necessary to mark the foundations to that reference line, instead of magnetic North because compass readings would not be accurate enough. The placement of the bolts in the concrete foundations needed to be calculated within a hundredth of an inch. I learned that all construction sites use a reference line and now I would be able to set one up, all because my fellow engineers and managers were such very nice people.
But it smelled fishy to me. “Why couldn’t the surveyors bring the beam, the thumb tack, the hammer, the camera and the marker on their first trip?” I asked. “It would take about five minutes. The only problem would be to find a spot to drive the stake that wasn’t too rocky.”
I became surrounded by apologetic but encouraging faces. “Well you’ll need to stop in Marivan and hire a guide with donkeys. We don’t know exactly how to get to the hill-top,” said one face.
The idea appealed to me, so I said, “Well that shouldn’t be too difficult.” I’d rented cars, vans, pickup trucks and 10-wheelers before, but never a donkey.
Another face added, “But before you hire the guide and donkeys, you’ll need to go to the army headquarters and ask for a military escort.”
Yet another face said, “Yes, the other side of the hill is in Iraq, and they don’t like Iranians. Once your head appears at above the hill, they might start shooting at you.”
And still another face added, “Then the military escort could shoot at the people who shoot at you, and when they run away, you can set up the reference line.”
The most encouraging face then added, “It’s the last reference line of all the sites we have. So we thought we’d give you the honor of setting it up.”
I tried to keep from rolling my eyes as I pondered. There may not even be any angry Iraqis or guides with donkeys or military escorts available in Marivan. There may not even be a hill. But on the other hand, there may be Iraqis waiting to shoot me before I got to the top up the hill. The only thing I knew for sure was that they didn’t know much about the site at all, because none of them had ever actually been there. But I also realized that my shine was beginning to fade because I was now expendable. So I offered them the same sort of horse manure they shoveled.
“I’ll go over to Marivan and check it out. If a reference line can be set up on that hill, I’m the one who can do it.” I held back my smirk as they padded me with histrionic “atta-boys.” I would get to see yet another part of that intriguing country… at their expense.
Marivan turned out to be an isolated but pleasant little town near Zarivan Lake, a little-known tourist attraction considered by some to be a lost paradise. Many of the police and army personnel I found spoke enough English to know that I wanted to go to a specific hill, and, yes, they knew where the hill was. The donkey men didn’t speak any English, but others were happy to translate for me, perhaps only because Allah had provided them a new and enthralling episode of synergy. All of them offered what little information they had with sincere smiles and friendliness. But not a single one of them wanted to go to the hill, and there was not even a suggestion of a reason why. There was no mention of Iraq, shooting, rifles or danger. All I could find out for sure was that none of my smiling helpers would go. Period.
I asked for supervisors, thinking that they could explain the problem and order someone to escort me. But all supervisors seemed to be on vacation and no one knew when they would be back. But as long as I was there, they would be quite pleased to show me the rest of the area. After two days of happy and tasty meals, trips to the local tourist attractions and gallons of tea with crystallized sugar, I decided it was a job for Mr. Shababian. I went back to Tehran and invited him to lunch.
“Where did you say the site is?” asked Mr. Shababian after ordering lunch. I had a map and pointed to it, and after scrutinizing the location, he said, “That’s too close to the border. That’s asking for trouble.”
“What trouble?” I asked.
“Well, Iraq and Iran aren’t the best of neighbors. There are occasional border skirmishes, so to avoid them, most of us just stay away from the border.” After a pause, he snickered, “But there are a few on both sides who like skirmishes and go looking for them. But they have to get close to the border.”
“So what about the military escort?” I asked.
“That would be looking for a skirmish. Apparently nobody in the Marivan area wants to do that – and I certainly don’t either. So you’ll have to move the site.”
“You have to select another location.”
“But the sites that point to the reflector are already installed. I think they’re even up and running, waiting for the reflected signal.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he replied, shaking his head. “Even if we send a military guard, have a skirmish and then build the site, they’ll just come along some night after we finish and blow it up.”
“What if we set up military guards?”
He chuckled again. “Then they’d know it was important and would want to blow it up even more.” He leaned forward as he said, “Look, Richard, this is a telecommunications project to help our country, not a propaganda exercise to start trouble. We avoid skirmishes. Relocating the site and rerouting the signal is the only answer. Period.”
I’d seen his resolve several times before and could only say, “Well my people aren’t going to like that.”
As he settled back in his chair he said, “I know that. Just tell them they need to move it and that I’ll have an official letter over to them later this afternoon.” Then he ordered thick, black Turkish coffee for us both and offered to pay the bill.
The next morning I was summoned to the coop of chicken hawks. The slurs rained.
“Why the fuck are you letting Shababian push you around?”
“He should have enough pull to get a military escort. He’s an asshole!”
“He’s not an asshole, he’s a chicken shit!”
“No, he’s a pussy!”
“What’s he afraid of? These fucking rag heads have skirmishes all the time.”
I interjected, “But his point about them blowing it up makes sense.”
“Bullshit! They could put snipers with night vision.”
Suddenly it all made sense to me. Telecom industry people sometimes manipulate truth to promote the demand for products. When we do, more people communicate. Defense industry people also sometimes manipulate truth to promote the demand for their products. When they do, more people die. To be a good defense contractor, you have to not care. Page Communications Engineers was primarily a Beltway defense contractor. Killing was more enticing than talking.
I knew there was nothing more I could say to keep me from moving down another rung on the Page ladder.
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