Americans in 1961 Iran
By Fred Sensing
November 28, 2001
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
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
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
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.