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Going west
MOO... MOO... MOO...

June 27, 2000
The Iranian

I was standing in the middle of a vast green prairie when a herd of cows -- the kind with white patches -- came toward me. The biggest one stepped close, her big eyes fixed on me. Suddenly I heard a voice. "Have you been eating the grass around here?" Panicked I said. "No - no, MMMrs. cow. It's not mmme. Th th there must be a mistake."

She paused for a moment and then said, "Let me see your grass permit. We are from AIN, the Animal Immigration and Naturalization service and have heard that you have come to the Midwest and have been eating the grass that our country cows should be eating."

Shaken, I began to look for my passport. Then someone shouted, "Next stop Lincoln."

I opened my eyes. I was on the Greyhound bus riding back to Lincoln. There in my shoulder sack was my passport with my student visa stapled to one of the pages to hide the secret words on the back. Relieved, I started to think about the second summer I had just put behind me in the U.S.

I had seen the ad in the school paper. Summer was approaching, and I had to find a full-time job -- one that would pay better than my job at the school cafeteria. The ad was by Quad State Construction Company. Experts in building grain elevators. I called the advertised number and was asked to come to the office.

The office was actually a warehouse. A middle-aged man in worn-out overalls met me at the door. He gazed at me for a few seconds, then pushed aside the tools that were on the top of a table, spat in the trash can, and put an application form in front of me. While I was filling out the application, I saw him spit a few more times, wiping his mouth with the palm of his hand. I felt uneasy. When I handed him the application, I realized that the side of his lower jaw was a little puffed up, and when he spat a viscous brownish liquid came out of the corner of his mouth. I thought the poor man must have a toothache. It reminded me of back home in the village and the dark brown plant root used to ease a pain.

"Mr. Hoss... Hooss...?"

"Just call me Ali."

"Oh, that's easy. Olly, right?"

I didn't dare correct him. "Yes, that's right."

He looked the application over and said, "Okay, everything looks fine. You'll get a letter from the main office in Des Moines."

I had just finished my last final exam when a letter from Quad State Company showed up in my mailbox. I was being offered a job in Hartwell, Nebraska. I went to the library and had to look through quite a few maps. Where was Hartwell? I was getting frustrated. Finally... aha! There it was. Hartwell, a tiny dot in the middle of the Nebraska plain. No wonder I was hired so fast. Who would go to this place, population 77 and in the middle of nowhere?

I sat frozen on the chair, staring into space. For a couple of days, strange thoughts rushed through my mind. Maybe they thought that foreign students didn't know the ins and outs of things in this country and that some, like me, needed the money and could be hired as cheap labor. Finally, I decided to take the risk and go west. I bought a bus ticket, and left for Hartwell.

It was a cool morning in early May. The sun's rays, penetrating through a few scattered clouds, painted a faint golden color over the fields as the Greyhound bus hurtled west on Country Road 6. Meadows, farmhouses, and cornfields rushed by. I thought about my hometown in the lower Persian plane. Flat and scorched by the desert sun, with its dry jagged mountains scratching the cloudless sky.

The day got warmer and the bus seemed to stop at every one-cemetery-one-church-one gas-station town. Around midday the bus stopped on the shoulder of the road. "This is Hartwell," the bus driver said, pointing toward a few houses about half a mile away, dozing in the haze. I got off the bus. Above me the sky seemed endless. The only noise was the fading of the bus engine as it disappeared behind a hill.

A few yards away next to an old Texaco gas station, a cafe with a faded sign welcomed me to the town. I pushed open the door. The old couple at the counter stopped talking and turned around. A middle-aged woman wearing a dirty white apron stood behind the counter. On the wall behind her was a sign reading "Coffee - All day $1.5, half a day 75 cents, 2 hours 35 cents". I asked for directions.

"Oh, yeah. The co-op," she said."It's over there on the other side of the main road. Go over the hill - it'll be right in front of you."

When I reached the top of the hill, I saw the radio tower and aluminum roof of the co-op building shining in the sun. Inside, a country song was playing loudly, and two men were bending over a John Deere lawn mower. I asked for Arch, the construction foreman. One of them pointed toward a small wooden shack a few yards away.

Arch, a tall man with a high forehead, looked me over as if he was deciding whether I was suitable for the job. I handed him the letter, and he gave me a one-page application, which I filled out except for the address, since I didn't know where I would be staying. I put my bag in the corner of the shack, fastened a carpenter's belt around my waist for the first time in my life.

The afternoon sun poured heat down on the half-naked men, some with long hair coming down to the middle of their backs from under their hard hats. Shouts, hammers pounding, electric saws screaming, and cutting torches' hollering hovered in the hazy afternoon. I stood there completely lost.

"Hey Jeff - Jeff!" Arch called to one of the long-haired man. "This is Olly. Show him what to do."

The base of the grain elevator was four big circles of concrete. Long iron rods and lumber were piled up all around. The dugout dirt had buried the bright yellow dandelions that extended out toward the cornfields surrounding the site.

Jeff kicked a pile of boards with his cowboy boot. "This is a 'two by two.' This is a 'four by four'. This piece is no good - see, it has a crack." Then he picked up an electric saw. "You have to be very careful using this motherfucker. These saws are fast and vicious. They could cut your finger off in a second and you won't even know it's gone until the blood runs down your skin. Seen it many times." His shot-red eyes blinked fast. I watched and listened quietly. Getting used to the swearing, shouts, the hard hat and the belt all in one hot afternoon was making me dizzy. Finally Arch shouted, "Let's get out of here," and in an instant there was silence. Everybody rushed toward the shack, hanging their belts and hard hats on the hooks. As I picked up my bag. Arch yelled. "Yoohoo, Olly! Come here." I stiffened, thinking he was going to tell me I wasn't fit for the job.

"Ali, do you have your work permit with you?"

Nervously I opened my bag and handed him my passport. He glanced at its red cover and read out loud, "The Kingdom-Government of Eye-ran." I felt a weakness in my stomach.

When I applied for extension of my work permit a month earlier the immigration office had returned my student visa form stamped in red ink "EMPLOYMENT DENIED". I was relieved when Arch handed back the passport, not noticing that I had stapled the four corners of the form to one of the pages of my passport to hide the secret on its back.

Outside Jeff and his two friends, DC and Tom were waiting impatiently to get on the road. Adding me to their group would lower the cost of the motel room. I got in the car and found a place among the odd things piled up in the back of the old van. Jeff had let his hair loose and it was blowing over his bare shoulders. As I sat up straight to feel more of the cool breeze from the window, I saw Jeff had a magazine spread open on top of the steering wheel, looking at the nude women while driving. Astonished, I sank back into the seat.

A few minutes passed and I was dozing off when I heard Jeff. "Hey Tom, do you have any more speed pills?"

Tom handed him a little white pill, and took one himself. My God, these Americans have an answer to everything, I thought. This must be something new - taking speed-control pills so not to drive over the speed limit! After stopping at the grocery and liquor store, we got safely to the motel. I went straight to the extra bed. Tom brought out a jar-type bottle from a bag under his bed, went to the bathroom sink, where DC was trying to wash a few dirty plates with a bar of soap, and filed the jar with water. It looked like the water pipe used to smoke tobacco back home, but smaller and without the long sucking tube. He pinched some tea-like dry leaves from a plastic bag, placed it on the top of the water pipe, put a match to it, and started to smoke. Passing the pipe to Jeff, he held his breath and his eyes widened as if they were going to pop out. It looked odd - not like the way water pipes were smoked back home. I watched every move he made, trying not to fall asleep. Later, I was awakened a few times by loud shouts of my roommates' drinking and swearing at each other over cards.

After a couple of weeks I got to know the crew better. Paul was a professional grain-elevator builder, a hard working, beer-drinking kind of guy, who shouted and cussed at everyone. He teased me, called me names and laughed loudly. He was interested in learning obscene Persian words. To my surprise, he would remember them days later and used them at the others, laughing so hard that chewing tobacco leaked out the corner of his mouth. John, a carpenter, was a chubby and nervous man, shy but direct. He always asked questions about Persian women. Jack, the beer belly man was a welder. I often saw him at the cafe, emptying glasses of beer down his throat like he'd been left in the desert for days and had at last found the water of life. Seeing me at lunch time glancing at The Wall Street Journal in the co-op office, he would yell, "Hey you Eye-rab sheik. What's the price of oil?" I would scream back at him. "I'm not Arab you idiot, I am Persian." It never did any good.

I learned quickly how to get back at them. When they gave me a hard time or made nasty comments, I would start speaking Persian. Some would get mad, especially Jack who would clench his jaws and show me his fist. One afternoon at the cafe, Jack said, "Hay, sheik. How many oil wells you have?"

"Only one," I answered.

"Oh really? How did you get it?" Paul asked.

"Well you know," I said smiling, "In Iran every time a child is born into a family, if it is a boy, an oil well is drilled in the back in his home. If it is a girl, a flying carpet is woven for her."

I thought I really had them this time. But DC imitating my accent said, "You're bull-shitting. Why are you doing this shitty job if you have an oil well?"

"I'll tell you why, big mouth. Because the only thing that came out of my well was saltwater. Even the cows refused to drink it - that's why." Jack took his wallet out and turned to me. "Hey Olly, how about swapping one of your oil wells with my wife. Here's her picture."

She was a beautiful woman. Shocked, I asked, "Why do say that about your wife? She's very pretty."

"You can have her - she's a bitch. Isn't it what you people do there in Eye-ran, Eye-rabia, or wherever the hell you're from - screw each other's wives?"

"If I had an oil well," I said, "I wouldn't be sitting here, talking to a man who doesn't respect his own family and doesn't know shit about anything. Where the hell do you learn these stupid things?" I left the cafe quietly.

Alfonzo and Ricardo, were two Mexicans I became friendly with. They were quiet and didn't mix with the others, and never went to the cafe. They talked lot about Mexico. One day I asked about the student uprising of 1968 in Mexico City that I had read about somewhere. Ricardo stared at me suspiciously and didn't say a word. But it was different when I asked about Zapata. He talked about how the Mexicans love him and in some rural areas even consider him a saint. The rest of the summer he would tell stories about his grandfather who had fought alongside Zapata.

Casey and Russ joined us in the middle of summer. Both had beards and long hair. Russ talked a lot about Rock-and-Roll, Woodstock, and the sixties. He argued that we don't need technology, machines, and cities and should all go back to nature. They would work for awhile and then disappear into to Colorado mountains. One afternoon, when we came down from the scaffold, Casey opened his car's trunk and showed me his guns, inviting me to go hunting with them. He had said that he was in Vietnam and they should have killed all the Vietnamese. I thought they didn't like it when I told them that the U.S. didn't have any right to be in Vietnam, and wondered whether they were planning to take me hunting and shoot me. I had heard the term redneck before but that wasn't the time to look and see if they actually had red necks. I ran quickly to where Jeff was waiting for me, and got into his van for the trip back to Hartwell.

During the first week of August, the sky poured down rain as if it had been storing water all year long. The work went on. The rain brought excitement to the crew. Everybody worked faster, rushing around in bright-yellow company raincoats. It rained and rained. Even my underwear got soaked. I remembered hearing people in the cafe saying that this was a dry county and tried to imagine what a wet county would be like.

One day, on the last week of August, a few of us were trying to put a big conveyer in place on the roof of the grain elevator. I hadn't had a chance to catch my breath when Jack came up to the roof. "Hey, Olly - there're a couple of people down on the ground asking about you." He didn't give me any time to wonder who they could be or whether he was joking. "They're wearing ties and suits and say they're from Immigration." My first thought was that I was a hundred feet up in the air with only one way down and Immigration officials at the bottom of the steps. I must have looked as if my life was escaping from my throat, because Jack right away said, "God, don't panic man! I was just joking!" I sat down silently, the others staring at me.

The next day I decided to leave. I arranged with Arch to send my last paycheck to the International Student Office at the university, since I didn't know were I would be staying. Arch told me that the first day he saw me he gave me only one week. He said he was giving me two extra days pay. It was three o'clock in the afternoon when I said goodbye to the crew. Alfonzo, and Ricardo, stood with me by the road while I was waiting for the Greyhound bus to Lincoln. When the bus stopped and as I was getting on, I saw Wayne the cowboy in his pickup coming toward the bus and blowing on his truck's cow-sounding horn, moo... moo. The white bullhorns mounted on the front of his pickup shone in the afternoon sun. The co-op building and the grain elevator disappeared as the bus went down the hill, but I still could hear the horn. MOO... MOO... MOO...

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