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Many surprises
Americans in 1961 Iran

By Fred Sensing
November 28, 2001
The Iranian

One day in May 1961, we landed at Mehrabad airport at about 10 p.m. on Pan Am Flight 2, the first and only around the world flight at that time. As my wife, five children and I, walked from the plane down the ramp, the heat from the tarmac and the hot desert wind struck us in the face like being slapped by a large hot paddle. It was the first surprise of many that we were to experience the next three years.

Both my wife and I were unprepared for the next few days that we were to encounter. She was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, a town of about 250,000 and I was born and raised around Nashville, Tennessee, a town about the same size. We had a three-year tour on the island of Oahu, at a military post known as Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

My wife had never traveled outside of America. I had spent a few years in Japan, with the U.S. occupational forces, completing two tours in Korea serving in a combat arm of the U.S. Army. Other than the good upbringing by my family and institutions of the time, that was the extent of our readiness to face what was to become a life-changing experience for both of us.

We were met by our sponsors and several well wishers who were there to meet friends and family arriving on the same flight. There was very little commotion about our arrival. My wife, and especially I, saw this as just another day in our life together. We had been married for six years and had five children, four boys and a girl; Joe 5, Fred 4, Ed 3, Mary 2 and Tom five-months old.

We were of the Catholic faith and not permitted to use any type of birth control, so we were having one baby almost every year. Don't know how my wife kept up with the demand on her energy and time. As I look back, only a giant could have done her job. At that time, I thought my work was a big demand. But now I realize she was ten times more capable than I in all respects.

We were escorted to a somewhat small hotel operated by people from India. In our room there was a small reception for an hour or so and then people left for their home. We were in a large room on the third floor which had a large French door that opened on to a large balcony.

Since our children were very young, my wife was worried about one of them waking up and roaming on to the balcony and taking a terrible tumble over the edge. She and I tried to take turns getting a little sleep and keeping watch on our children.

I had absolutely no problem sleeping but realized that she needed some rest and I did my turn sitting by the door to the balcony. So by sun up we were a couple of very tired people and the children were rested, hungry and loaded with energy, while my wife and I were tired, hungry and very low on energy.

We had been instructed not to drink water from the taps because we would surely get the dreaded Tehran trots. Therefore it followed that we could not even drink the soft drinks. And, it followed that the food must be unsafe also. So we did not dare eat anything that was not prepared by us or the restaurant at the American Embassy.

By the time we cleared up and dressed, it was getting late and the children were getting irritable and needed to be fed breakfast. We stopped by the front desk of the hotel and learned that it was only a short walk of five blocks to the American Embassy. With five children in tow, we headed there on a mission to find water and food.

Walking up the steps from Takhte Jamshid Avenue to the entrance of the embassy, we located the restaurant. We ordered cereal, fruit and milk for the children and had coffee and pastry. While we were eating, my wife told me she could not stay at that hotel and wanted to move to a more Americanized hotel named The Semiramis that was on the corner just across from the embassy.

I personally thought the Indian hotel was adequate and protested. But my wife's instinct, which I had grown to trust, was that it may not be safe for the children. We had been placed at the Indian hotel because it was far less expensive. But, my wife was never one to allow anything to interfere with what she thought was best for the children. So we returned to the Indian hotel and told the management that we were moving to The Semiramis. We packed our luggage and got a taxi.

The Semiramis was much nicer. No French doors, no balconies, and a restaurant that we felt would be safe to eat in. We also acquired our own water bottles. The hotel staff were more experienced in the needs of the Americans, so our needs were fully accommodated.

We were permitted ten days in the hotel, allowing us time to locate to a suitable house. Going through a rental company and with the help of the car and driver provided to us, we found a house about ten blocks from the American Embassy. I have forgotten the name of the street, but it was a big tree-lined boulevard that ran from downtown up the hill to Shemiran.

After a few days, the house was prepared and we moved with the loan of some furniture from the local military and friends who were well-settled. My wife seemed to be able to manage so I reported to my job at the embassy.

We had been there only a few days when one of the more than frequent political demonstrations turned into a riot. The street in front of our house was on the main through fares for the Shah to move from the downtown palace to the palace up in Shemiran. That is where demonstrators decided to hold their protest, and that happened to include the area in front of our house.

This was one of the larger demonstrations. So I guess the Shah got a little nervous and ordered the military to fix it. The word was broadcast over the local TV and radio that effective 6 a.m. the next day, any demonstrators would be arrested. Demonstrators chose to ignore the warning and continued. The Iranian army came down our street with horns blasting as well as their guns.

My wife called me at the embassy and told me what was happening. I knew there was no way for me to get home in view of the circumstances. So I told her to take the children to an inside room and stay down. The Shah's army would have taken care in short order, which, naturally, they did. In those days, the Shah was like God. He spoke and the military acted. There was a reported 2,000 killed. But the information we were getting was more like 20,000.

I got home as soon as possible and my wife had had her fill on the downtown activities. She wanted to move to Tehran Pars, an area about 15 miles east of town -- a suburb considered more safe. There were many Americans as well as other foreigners who lived there. So with the help of the rental agency and the driver, we located a house there and relocated to Tehran Pars.

Each house there had its compound surrounded by a 10-foot high brick wall. Guess that was the custom then. On one side of us lived a German family and on the other was a wealthy Iranian family. I know he was wealthy because he had four wives.

We had a very, very nice house. Large four bedrooms. Double spiral stairways that lead to the upper level with the bedrooms and a large balcony. We entered the compound through double steel doors that allowed a vehicle, and through a garden that had to be maintained by a part-time gardener. The house had marble floors and the walls were plastered with a mixture of mud and straw. Some used to jest that it was made of camel dung.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Fred Sensing


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