The end of camelot
Tales from the zirzameen
May 23, 2003
Every night from the roof tops there was shouting "Death to
The King" from the throats of millions of unhappy people. Every
day there were reports from Bell Helicopter H.Q. of shooting incidents
and riots and curfew violations from the night before... and who
was on strike that week, the air traffic controllers, the petroleum
workers, the gas stations we were a country falling apart like the
breaking up of the Antarctic ice pack in the spring thaw... millions
of megawatts of suppressed hostility were coming to life.
The Bell Employees were leaving voluntarily in droves even as
new hires were still arriving. The Shah was becoming more and more
reclusive. One day I found myself alone in the VIP lounge at Mehrabad
airport on the second floor. I hung out there between meeting and
greeting Bell Helicopter employees arriving or leaving the airport.
It turned out the entire airport had been cordoned off and as I
peeked down from the blinds of the VIP lounge windows, there right
below me not more than a few yards from me I espied an Air Iberia
jet liner land and taxi up to the apron. The door opened and down
the stairs came King Juan Carlos of Spain to be met by the Shah
of Iran at the bottom of the stairs.
The two grimly reviewed a row of Niavaran palace special guards.
I couldn't help wondering what the point was, little did I know
that the Shah was looking to Spain as a model while contemplating
how to retain himself as monarch and at the same time give his country
a democracy in a situation in some ways similar to General Franco
stepping down and restoring Juan Carlos to the throne.
From my vantage point in the window of the VIP lounge, I was glad
that I was not one of the revolutionaries who wanted the Shah dead
because if he were more than three or four yards from me I'd be
surprised. Not knowing his mind it appeared to me as if, like in
the story of "The Little Prince" the two monarchs were
off on their own asteroid divorced from everything else in the universe
and the whirring and buzzing of revolutionary activity around them.
Similarly as fewer and fewer of my compatriots remained in Iran,
I found myself partying with the US Embassy staff after hours for
lack of anyone else to play with. The Consul General was Barbara
Belsito, there was Tom Farrell and Sy Richardson who were commercial
attaches I believe.
At any rate I remember one night we were having a cocktail party
in one of their apartments while shooting was going on in the streets
outside. I tried to express my concern for what was happening to
Iran and only managed to draw cynical commentary out of the partying
officials like: "These people are only getting what they deserve!"
or "You think this is something? You should have seen the revolution
in Haiti, I could barely hide behind trees in the garden to narrowly
avoid being hit by bullets..." and so on. I felt thoroughly
disgusted, made polite excuses and walked home.
My beloved adoptive country was falling apart. As the process
began to gain momentum, I was working in Head Quarters one day,
up on Avenue Jordan when we were radioed by the martial law authority
that the curfew starting time had been lowered to 6 pm from 9pm
and since my apartment was way south by Avenue Shah Reza, I decided
to stay over night at H.Q.
I ended up staying in that building for a week without ever leaving.
There was so much fighting going on by now. Finally I decided I
would take a chance and run for home to get a change of underwear
and socks and maybe even a shower. One of our managers started complaining
out loud that if I went home that I would not be coming back and
he didn't want to get stuck having to do all the work by himself.
We had spent the whole week shredding photographs of Bell top managers
posing with the Shah and other Generals form the Shah's armed forces
among other things.
I snagged a taxi and as we drove across town I noticed lots of
rallies going on at every street corner. At one traffic light where
we were stopped someone in the crowd shouted:"Yankee Go Home!"
By the time I got to my apartment down by Shah Reza I saw that there
was a large armored truck blocking the entrance to my alley Kuche
Khagani. It had a heavy machine gun mounted on a tri-pod on the
back of it and three soldiers were sitting back there smoking cigarettes.
I said hello and explained that I lived at the back of the alley
and as I passed around them I asked them what they were up to. They
explained that a rally was going on at the teachers college, which
amazingly enough I had never even noticed before right across the
street from my house. I offered them tea but they acted annoyed
The very moment I got to the top of my stairs and shut the door
to my apartment, they started shooting their machine gun. Good grief!
I called back my office and tried to explain to the supervisor that
I would not be able to return until the shooting stopped. He whined
like a baby: "I knew you were going to do this and leave me
stuck here all by myself." I told him to wait a minute and
opened my kitchen window and held the phone receiver out the window
so he could hear the shooting a few yards down below.
That calmed him down and he confessed that the Head Quarters building
had been under siege last night and he had been forced to lie down
flat in a bathtub to avoid the ricocheting bullets around the office
I found that in my week long absence my two Persian carpets had
been removed by relatives of my Karate instructor Lieutenant Rudbari's
relatives because I hadn't paid for them yet and they needed the
money for some relative in the hospital. Master Rudbari had bought
his way out of a lifetime contract in the Shah's Air Force with
$9,000 and had long since departed the country before the revolution
I also found to my dismay that my landlady, assuming that I wasn't
coming back, had thrown all my personal effects into the vacant
lot next door which people used for trash in general. There were
something like twelve thousand dollars worth of receipts for money
Bell Helicopter owed me for various expenses I had incurred on their
behalf blowing around out there so once the shooting stopped I spent
the better part of that afternoon rounding them up and rummaging
through piles of debris.
Quite oblivious to the pains she had caused me, my old Kurdish
landlady kept weeping
over a picture of one of my former roommates who had been British
whom she kept saying that she would never see again. I hadn't seen
any evidence until now that she had ever taken much notice of him
and I personally had had no strong liking for him especially the
way he had ingratiated his way into Bell Helicopter by making an
end run around me to my boss right towards the end. But I got even
later by getting him shipped out on one of the first evacuation
flights. But now I am getting ahead of myself.
I got tired of his endless weeping and complaining about his girl
"Millie" who had dumped him. As far as I could tell from
the only time I met her, which was also to ship her out of Iran,
she looked like a little tramp.
Anyway, the Kurdish landlady, who used to smoke opium with me,
kept weeping and saying that now that Khomeini was coming everything
"Khoob mishe!" (will get better) and I soberly told her
that I seriously doubted it: "Khoob nemishe!"
A few days later I got a call from security about a man named Tommy
Lawrence, who was in Tehran Hospital, scheduled to have liver surgery
within 2 days and he wanted to go back to the USA for that. The
idea of having major surgery made him nervous in the middle of all
this fighting and strikes and power failures even if they had their
Now here was a request for an assist that I could get behind. I
went that very night with my driver over there to his ward and asked
the duty nurse if we could visit him. He was very nervous when we
found him alone in a private room and adamant about not wanting
the surgery done here. I calmed him down and shut the door and told
him to get dressed. I went back to the nursing station and asked
her what it would take to get the patient released from the hospital.
That would take a note from his doctor who would not be on duty
I thought on my feet for a New York minute and then I asked her
if I could see the patient's records. As soon as she turned her
back and started looking through the file cabinet, I skipped back
into Tommy's room with my driver and supporting him on each side
under the arm pit we quickly and quietly swept him out of his room,
past the nursing station and into the open elevator.
The second we got him into my car we made a bee line for Mehrabad
airport and I called security on my walkie talkie: "Pappa Two,
this is Pappa Four, mission accomplished. Can you meet us at the
departure lobby? Over!"
"Pappa Four, this is Pappa Two, I copy, Roger that. I will
try to get him on Pan Am standby. Call me the minute you get to
the terminal. Over!"
"Pappa Two, this is Pappa Four, I read you, over and out!"
I loved talking on the radio because I could play act all the clichés
I'd heard all my life on TV and in movies...
I then explained to Tommy that what we were going to attempt was
very iffy, that the airport had become a maelstrom, a madhouse of
a million Iranians climbing over eachother and riding on luggage
conveyor belts trying to get to the head of the line, trying to
get to the ticket counters, trying to get Hell out! If we didn't
manage to get him on standby using medical emergency as an excuse
then I would arrange a place for him to spend the night til we could
get him out hopefully the next morning when most all the westbound
flights left anyway.
Once we rendez-vous'd with the security wonk, I told Tommy that
he was in good hands and that if anyone could get him on standby
Mr. Gonzales was the man. I also told Gonzales that if he needed
any more help, to call me on the radio. Tommy smiled faintly at
me and disappeared with Gonzales into the crowd.
I noticed out of the corner of my eye above the crowd a middle
aged Persian man pushing a baby carriage almost nonchalantly along
on the luggage conveyor belt headed towards the Pan Am ticket counter.
My man Hamid and I went and had a tea up on the observation deck
before heading for home and I went and purchased a bottle of cognac
out of the Duty Free shop where I still had friends. I figured that
since I was spending the night alone I still wanted something to
warm the cockles of my heart.
About three weeks later, I got a letter from Tommy Lawrence thanking
me personally for going over and above the call of duty. He thanked
me profusely and said his surgery had been a success.
There were many other strange incidents which took place during
this time of social chaos but two particularly stick out in my memory.
The first came from an exceptionally intelligent sounding Bell Helicopter
employee who had been barricaded inside his house by his landlord
and he was calling us by phone wondering if we could help him. I
asked him why he was being held under house arrest and he said that
he had been gone so much that his landlord was afraid that he would
take off without paying his rent and wanted him to pay several months
in advance. It was a "Catch 22" situation because even
if he had wanted to comply he needed to go to the bank to get the
money. I always found these
kinds of Iranian-style "Mexican stand offs" intriguing.
One time when I lived off Karim Khan-e-Zand, I was awoken at about
5 am by obscenity being screamed out in my alley. I stumbled over
to open my shutters and stuck my head sleepily out the window as
had several of my neighbors on both sides.
We had six units in our building and we shared a central furnace.
Each fall one of the tenants would collect our share of the money
from each of us to buy a tank of heating oil. It would take so long
to organize this that we would always run out of heating fuel first,
before we would ever get the stuff delivered and so we would end
up staying warm with little kerosene portable space heaters we called
: "bokharis." As I eventually woke up I began to decipher
what the argument was all about, complete with some very colorful
The tenant representative who had taken up the collection had
apparently tried to stop the trucker from pumping the fuel oil into
our tank because he had only brought half of what we had ordered.
The delivery person tried in vain to explain that his truck was
only big enough to haul half the fuel at a time and he would have
to come back with the second installment subsequent to this first
partial shipment. The self installed tenant representative could
be heard saying: "Just what kind of a fool do you take me for.
If I let you go, we will never see you again let alone the second
installment of your order!"
The truck driver finally reached critical mass on the frustration
scale and he lost it: "If I didn't come here to deliver oil
what did I come here for? To fuck your mothers? You had better let
me unload this heating oil or I am going to come upstairs and line
up every female in your building in the halls with their backs to
me, every single one of them, your wives, your daughters and your
grandmothers and I am going to fuck every single one of them, do
I started cracking up! I believe he would have too! I don't know
what it was about this apartment but every month when the rent became
due another little skirmish would take place regular as clockwork.
Sirous was an opium addict which had made him impotent. Each month
as the rent came due he would race to get to my apartment ahead
of his wife because he wanted the rent money to buy drugs. He would
always lock himself in my bathroom for a long time and I can only
imagine he was shooting up in there since I never smelled any heroin
His wife on the other hand would race to try to beat him to my
apartment because she wanted a chance to be alone with me. This
was rather scary proposition to me because she had one of those
continuous eyebrows that connects in the middle which Persians think
is the evil eye and she had more hair on her arms than I do and
sometimes I have to push mine aside with my hand to find my watch.
I was caught in the middle of this tug of war for half a year.
Finally one month when they had both shown up at the same time at
my threshold, in exasperation throwing my hands in the air, I pleaded:
"Isn't there some address I could mail a rent check to every
month and save you the trouble?"
Well, going back to my tenant under house arrest, I went over to
his address and found the barricaded house and talked my way in.
I spent a long time talking to the dark haired handsome young American.
He turned out to be quite an amateur herpetologist and had been
off collecting Persian lizards and snakes for all these months he
had been away with some well known naturalist. Once we figured out
how many months rent he owed, I set about trying to find the landlord
but according to his sons who were manning the barricades he had
I went and bought a celokebab for the poor guy and when I was bringing
it back, the neighbors across the street called me over and invited
me into their house. It had gold and marble all over the place and
stain glass in typical arriviste style. The owner turned out to
be an Iranian Supreme Court justice and when I explained the situation
he went out and screamed and slapped a few heads around and in no
time we had the employee liberated. I guess the revolution wasn't
far enough along so he was still able to inspire some fear and awe
but he probably got himself black listed. I thanked him profusely
and he said that anytime I needed anything I should call him.
Another time I got a call from Ed Miller, former NYC police detective
who was the one Bell Helicopter security officer I really liked.
He asked me to go to the address of a certain employee Steve Jacobs
to see if he was there. He had failed to report in to work for a
week and his Vietnamese girlfriend was calling in concerned about
I went by cab to the address. It was a walk up on the 2nd floor.
I knocked on the door and heard nothing. I tried the knob and it
turned. I opened the door cautiously and peered inside. There was
this little man all hunched up in his chair with his back to the
door. He was scared to death and finally after showing him my I.D.
I got him calmed down enough to talk. I asked him what the hell
was going on. He told me that last week a group of plain clothes
police had taken his passport and ordered him not to leave his apartment
and not to use the phone.
This sounded pretty fishy to me so I radioed Ed Miller who then
called the central police H.Q. and had them check their records
only to find that no such detail had been assigned to any of their
officers nor was any exchange of this kind on record. I told the
employee that the men who took his passport were not policemen but
friends of the landlord who probably thought that he was planning
to leave. In fact he had been planning to move in with his girlfriend.
I told him to go back to pack his stuff, go through with his move
to his girlfriend's place and to report to work the next day and
that the real police would take care of getting his passport back
from his ex landlord.
Half of my time before and during the revolution was spent sorting
out messes employees got themselves into of this nature. Landing
in Tehran airport without a visa, expired white book immigration
visas for Vietnamese dependants of American employees seeking entry
to the US for the first time when the books could only be re-issued
in Wash., D.C.; all these kinds of bureaucratic Catch 22 situations
of both American and Iranian authorship. By now in the course of
the events leading up to and into the revolution, we had taken over
the Tehran Hilton Hotel as our staging area and had rented rooms
there so that we did not have to return to home or office in violation
of the 6pm curfew.
One day we heard what sounded like a parade proceeding up Pahlavi
Boulevard. We turned on the radio and learned that revolutionaries
had captured several military bases and were headed for Niavaran
palace. As the parade got closer, and the noise level of the singing
and the cheers rose, we went out on our balcony from which we could
see it was a long column made up of tanks and armored cars swarming
with civilians waving at the bystanders along the sidewalks.
We cheered and waved back although they were probably too far down
below our vantage point from the hilltop Hilton for them to hear.
We did hear someone above us clear their throat and we looked up
to see retired Generals M and S 2nd and 3rd in command of Bell Helicopter
and their aide de camps glowering down at us.... oooops
We went back inside the room and in the middle of the government
broadcast of events, the radio went dead. After a few minutes of
silence a voice rang out dramatically over the radio. It said: "This
is the voice of the Iranian Revolution, we have succeeded in capturing
the following army bases... and ... , we are asking all those interested
in helping to liberate Niavaran Palace to come to ... to be issued
weapons and join in the glorious revolution..."
We turned on the TV in time to see Mahmad, my friend the newscaster
looking nervously over his shoulder at some scuffle going on off
screen as he tried to announce the news and then suddenly he got
up, bowed to the audience and ran off the set leaving it blank....
That night we got a call from the martial law authorities warning
us that the revolutionaries would be sending over a few advance
men to case the joint later that evening with plans of taking over
the Hilton and all the other major international hotels the very
They must have had a revolutionary mole on their pay roll to have
had this information. It was impressive when you consider that all
through the revolution no one ever seemed to know who was doing
what to whom and we all used to listen to the BBC late night short
wave broadcasts to try to determine which forces were responsible
for what events of the day before.
I went to see: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" one
night and the next day, that very movie theatre got blown up. Soon
thereafter all the movie theatre owners shut down and boarded over
their entrances. But nobody knew who was doing it. Hundreds of parked
cars were burned. Armenian liquor stores had all their booze pulled
out into the street and smashed but no one knew who was doing it.
The employees and dependants of Bell Helicopter Inc. were told
to get to the Hilton under their own recognizance and from there
we would take responsibility for getting them out of the country.
One day I heard what sounded like an auditorium full of people clapping
at someone's speech outside the ball room where we were working.
Then I noticed that bullet holes started appearing in lines at the
top of the glass curtain wall of the ballroom. What had sounded
like applause was small caliber automatic weapons fire which I had
never heard before.
We immediately started piling tables turned on their sides and
chairs up against the glass side of the room to act as a barricade
and we kept working. That night in addition to the bullets coming
in through the top of the glass, the power failed so everyone dropped
to the carpet keeping their places in the out processing line and
we handed out candles the light from which they were able to use
to keep filling out their forms.
We had the Consul General come to the Hilton Barabara Belsito
to do her paperwork which kept us from having to get people or paperwork
across town to the US Consulate. That night when I went to the elevator
to return to my room I saw some strangers with guns prowling about
the hall and then I ran right into Sohrab in the same elevator coming
out as I went in. He still looked like Elvis Presley only with an
AK 47. He had been dispatcher for our fleet of office drivers. He
refused to acknowledge that he knew me.
One time at our office at Jordan Avenue, I had innocently offered
half of a pizza we had ordered in for a working lunch but been unable
to consume entirely to the drivers whose waiting room was right
next to our bullpen. Sohrab had complained to upper management that
I had insulted his men by offering them left-overs and I was requested
by management to make a formal apology in front of him and all the
drivers. I tried to explain that I had not offered them left-overs
but to share half our pizza but they were not to be convinced and
I ended up biting my lip and making the apology against my better
judgement just to make my boss happy.
So to see surly Sohrab wandering the halls of the Hilton with an
automatic rifle did not bode well. He used to be an oil worker at
Kharg Island so he said. I found it ironic as much as he hated us
that he imitated Elvis in his mannerisms and speech and hair. I
got to my room and shut the door to find a few bullet holes in my
window. I used a penknife to dig the splattered flat lead out of
the walls of my room up behind my bed which I stood on to reach
them and kept the lead as a souvenir which I later had sealed into
a little plastic sphere at the end of a chain to wear around my
I wasn't sure what lay in store for us in the morning and could
hardly sleep a wink that night. In fact our department secretary
couldn't sleep either and ended up sleeping in my boss's room with
him for fear of spending that night by herself. I hoped her boyfriend
wouldn't show up too early the next morning looking for her.
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