This story is based on my experiences in Iran as a helicopter pre-flight instructor in Isfahan, Iran. The persons and events described are entirely fictitious. However, the Iranian trainees I taught were flesh and blood personalities, many of whom died in the 8 year Iran-Iraq war, even with Iran's superior helicopter force (738 against Iraq's 112.)
The story was first published in Buffalo Spree Magazine, the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Issue, Winter 1992.
Alice C. Linsley
We were all miserable the day that Sergeant Rahmani was caged outside in the hot sun, visible from the airless staff room where the instructors gathered to drink stale coffee. There were no trees or shrubs, just an endless stretch of dusty earth and the dejected Rahmani slumped in the sweltering heat.
Company policy said that the Americans were to keep their noses out of the Iranian Army's business, and the barbed wired enclosure, 7 by 7 by 7 feet, had the strategic effect of reinforcing policy.
The Iranian government's contract with Regent Helicopter Company was concise and unambiguous. We were to teach the Iranians how to fly helicopters, to read the manuals in English, and to maintain their aircraft. We were to be respectful toward all nationals and their traditions, especially careful not to tread on any Islamic sensibilities. No boozing, no provocative dress, no public display of affection, and no public disturbances that might reflect poorly on the company when it came time to renew the contract.
I poured a second cup of coffee and turned my back to the window. I liked Sergeant Rahmani. He was one of the smart ones who had trained on fixed wing in Texas, spoke good English and kept physically fit. I was willing to bet that he didn't steal the eggs from the mess hall supply. More than likely he'd been framed. It was a game the Iranian trainees played to see who could get away with what, and it was more fun when it involved humiliating one of their betters.
The call came from the adjoining conference room where we were to be briefed about the Shah's inspection team, arriving in 3 days. Everyone was feeling the pressure from company headquarters in Tehran.
I dropped the stir stick onto the cigarette scarred table and headed to the briefing. Nick still wasn't there, which wouldn't score him any points with the boss man. He had forgotten about the meeting and I'd reminded him more than once, that very morning posting a hastily scrawled note to his locker.
Nick and I shared a Persian style house in the oldest section of Isfahan, away from where most Westerners lived. We did this to save money. Nick was sending most of his money back to his wife in Texas and figured that they'd have their mortgage paid in another year. I was buying Persian carpets for family and most of the remaining money went directly into an investment account managed by my brother, a financial genius.
I had vague ideas about what to do with the money once my contract was up with Regents. One thing for sure, I was getting out of Iran. Anti-American sentiment was on the rise. There were rumors that the Ayatolla Khomeni, in exile in France, was rallying supporters inside the country with hopes of returning.
Besides, the flying business was getting on my nerves, and more and more I hated my image in the mirror. There was no way to look feminine in a blue flight suit and boots. I thought I'd like to do something, well . . . more normal, more ladylike.
The briefing room was stuffy, even with the windows open. It smelled of cigarettes, though the smokers had stubbed their smokes as soon as Colonel Diggert began the briefing. Most of the instructors were Vietnam vets with many flight hours and gunner training. Joe Blake could shoot his initials on the desert floor. I had watched him do it. For the most part they were all good guys. I was the only female instructor.
There was a shuffling of chairs when Nick slipped in and took a seat. Colonel Diggert thanked him for the courtesy of showing up. The others snickered. Nick shrugged his shoulders, muttered an apology and when no one was looking, winked at me. I rolled my eyes. The guy was such a loser! Still, I felt sorry for him. He really needed to go home and be with his family.
I wondered how Rahmani was doing in solitary. I considered what I would do when I got off work. I thought I'd head over to the Pahlavi Hotel for a few drinks with the other guys. For some reason I wasn't in a hurry to go home.
My mind wandered back to the briefing. Colonel D was explaining the reason for this unscheduled visit from Tehran.
“There's concern about the increase in washouts. The rate was 8% in the first group, then 12%, then 22%, and it looks as if it will go higher with this next cycle of trainees. Most of them are shepherds who haven’t even driven a car. No cause and effect reasoning. You know the deal... the Army lands a copter on the edge of a village and all the hopefuls are recruited to become pilots. Just sign on the dotted line, a 15 year enlistment. Then when they wash out of flight training, they move them to infantry.”
“Another concern is the problem of parts. Right now we aren't getting what we need to make repairs and the fleet is only 48% operational. Apparently the parts are in country, sitting on the docks in Abadan. That's not our problem to fix, but we'll still take it on the chin.”
“The good part of this story is that we have a great safety record, and you guys are to thank for that. We keep that good record and address some of these other concerns, and Regents has a good shot at being renewed.”
“The inspectors will arrive here at 1400 hours and be escorted to the flight line to review operations there. We've been told to expect about 15 people, including Regent's top people from Texas. I'll post the duty roster in the staff room. Everyone needs to look sharp!”
“When the briefing was over, I headed to my locker, slipped into my flight suit and collected my helmet and clipboard. My next student was Sergeant Yahbib, recently graduated from ground school. I recognized him as the fat one. There was only one explanation for his getting into the program: family connections. When I asked him about it, he sheepishly replied, “I have uncle.” I said, “Okay, sergeant. Let's make him proud.”
We climbed aboard and put on our helmets. I asked him, "What's the first thing you're going to do?”
“First I do checklist.”
I watched as he tested instruments, rotors and pedals.
“Good. Always do the checklist. It could save your life one day.”
“Yes, sir,” he replied, his eyes growing wide in his corpulent cheeks.
“That's okay, Sergeant. 'Sir' or 'Lieutenant.' Whatever stirs your fancy.”
He looked at me blankly, not understanding the colloquialism.
“Okay, everything checks out. What’s next?”
“I get clearance.”
“Nope. Not before you secure your safety belt.”
“Too tight,” he said, his brown face creased by a toady grin.
That’s when I knew it was going to be a long day.
* * *
I returned to the house before dark, escaping the raunchy jokes invariably circulated after the guys had consumed a few too many beers. I swung open the huge metal gate and parked my motorcycle in the courtyard. The house was surrounded by a high mud wall topped with shards of broken glass. I took off my New York Yankees cap. I always wore my blonde hair tucked up when I was in public. Honestly, at times I would have preferred to wear a chador, but it wasn't practical on a motorcycle, and it was against company policy.
I entered the house, tossed my keys and some Iranian coins on the table, and went into the kitchen. The refrigerator held 3 beers, a container of bluish milk which I had mixed from powder, and two eggs. I fried the eggs, and gobbled them while I sorted through the cassettes looking for my favorite music. After I slipped the cassette into the player, I headed for the shower, and then to bed where I was asleep almost instantly.
Nick came back after midnight. I heard the metal gates rattle and then the sound of water running in the bathroom. Then came a loud tap on my door.
“What is it?" I asked.
“Can I talk to you?”
I looked at the clock by my bed. “It's already after midnight. Go to bed!”
“I just wanna talk for a minute,” he whined.
Against my better judgment, I tossed aside the sheet and got up. I slipped on my jeans and adjusted my tank top which was clinging to my sweaty breasts. Then I opened the door a crack.
“So what's so important that it can't wait until tomorrow?”
“Why didn't you stay for the celebration?”
He smelled of beer and sweat as he pushed himself into the room and flopped into the chair next to my bed. That's when I suddenly remembered that it was his birthday. Geez! The guy just turned forty and I hadn't even remembered.
“I wish you had stayed. Ya know I been feeling real lonely for my family and...”
“I'm sorry, Nick. I should have baked you a cake.”
“Nah. I wouldn't ask that.” He hung his head. “But I wouldn't mind a birthday kiss.”
“Maybe tomorrow. Right now, you need to go to bed.”
Nick rose and lost his balance as he reached for me.
“I thought maybe you were lonely too.”
“Get going, cowboy!” I opened the door wide. “Out, before you do something you'll regret.”
“You're always so high and mighty! You know you want it ...”
I shoved him out the door and heard him swear as he stumbled down the hall to his room. I dragged the chair over and wedged it under the handle. It wouldn't keep him out if he really wanted in, but I was pretty sure that he was too drunk to make a good effort.
Back into bed, I couldn't sleep. I thought about Nick, about the upcoming inspection, about Sergeants Rahmani and Yahbib. It was time for a change. I decided right then to put in for a vacation. I had been saving my days and it was time to get away. With that thought, I finally slept.
I welcomed the hectic pace of the days that followed, crossing each off my wall calendar. Nick, usually subdued, never spoke of that night. A badly sunburned Rahmani was greeted back at the barracks with much hilarity, and Yahbib washed out of the program and was transferred to artillery.
The inspection set off a chain of events that none had foreseen. The Iranian commander was demoted and replaced by a harsh critic of Americans. We could do nothing right in his eyes. Crates of rusted parts began to appear. A fresh batch of trainees arrived, all unskilled laborers, but glad to have 3 meals a day and starched uniforms. With all that was going on, Colonel D ignored my request for leave until he knew he could do without me for 2 weeks.
I’d worked twenty-three months straight, with only 1 week off. According to the terms of my contract I could take 4 weeks leave with pay. In this job one didn’t get much emergency leave, so I opted to take only 2 weeks and bought a ticket to Athens.
I slept during most of the flight and when I arrived it was late afternoon. From my window seat I could see the sun glinting off the Aegean Sea. The landing was smooth and with only one suitcase I easily made my way to the airport entrance where I hailed an eager cabbie.
“You from America?”
“Yes. From New York”
“I know New York. The Yankees, right?”
I nodded since he was watching me in his mirror.
“You have boyfriend?”
“Yes,” I fibbed. “I’m going to meet him at the hotel.”
“Hotel Syntagma very nice hotel,” he said, and thankfully that seemed to be the end of his interest in me.
The Syntagma was a luxury hotel in the heart of the city. I paid the cab driver as the bellhop took my suitcase to the front desk. My room was on the fifth floor with a view of Syntagma Square and the Parliament building. After a shower, I changed into a sundress and slipped on sandals. My first objective was to buy some drachmas and find a place to eat. The man at the front desk took care of the money exchange and recommended a traditional taverna within walking distance of the hotel.
I could smell the sea as I walked toward Plaka, the ancient city. As I made my way to the restaurant, I peeked into the shop windows. There were ceramics, textiles and beautiful glass creations. I stopped to look at a display of gold jewelry, admiring a pair of delicate gold loops. I imagined wearing them with my hair up, but I passed them by. Company policy prohibited jewelry, except for chains that could be hidden under clothing.
The taverna had café tables on the sidewalk. I sat with my back to the front door, watching people pass. Greek matrons, dressed in black, tottered by carrying parcels and grocery sacks made of plastic netting. A young couple pushed a child in a stroller. An Orthodox priest in black robes hurried by, his heavy gold cross swinging as he walked. None of the passersby seemed interested in the diners, but I found them interesting.
There was a noisy group of German tourists drinking and chatting at one of the tables farthest from me, and closer were two men who I felt certain were South Africans. One of the men wore an eye patch.
Surrounding us were the sounds of the city and the aroma of grilled lamb. I ordered lamb kebab which came with rice and fresh sprigs of rosemary. The lamb was perfectly braised so that the outside was crispy and the inside tender and juicy. The waiter also delivered a garden salad drizzled with olive oil and fresh squeezed lemon juice. The salad was topped with crumbed feta and a few briny black olives. I decided to try the house wine, which was chilled Retsina. At first, I wasn’t sure that I liked it, but its pine aroma was the perfect companion to the lamb.
After dinner I walked back to the hotel, stopping once more to look at the gold earrings. I fell asleep quickly, exhausted from my travels, and I dreamt of Nick. He was riding my motorcycle down the narrow alley to our house and waving a cowboy hat over his head. Nick had offered to buy the bike, joking that I’d probably meet a Greek lover and never return. We’d had a good laugh about that.
Then I dreamt of Sergeant Rahmani. I was feeding him kebab through the wires of his cage. He smiled and took the kebab and offered it back to me. I woke with tears in my eyes and felt a strange resolve.
I ordered breakfast and ate at the small table overlooking the balcony. When I finished eating, I cleared away the dishes and took out 2 sheets of hotel stationary. The first letter was to Nick, telling him that he could keep the motorcycle, and the second letter was to Colonel D telling him that I quit. I could have called him, but I didn’t want to deal with his attempts to talk me out of my decision.
Then I took a leisurely bath and put on a red sundress. I clipped my hair up, put on some makeup, and went downstairs to mail the letters. After mailing the letters, I cashed a few traveler’s checks and headed back to the jewelry shop for the earrings I had admired. The saleswoman held up a large hand mirror for me to see my reflection. I pulled a strand of loose hair from my face and swung my head, making the gold loops dance.
Leaving the shop, I felt free. I stood on the sidewalk watching all the activity in the square before heading to the shops on Ermou Street. I purchased a few sacks made of plastic netting that I had seen the Greek women carrying, and I continued on to the flea market, moving from vendor to vendor. Their tented stalls were packed closely together and the market was crowded with morning shoppers. The sun was already warm on my shoulders, but the fresh sea breeze kept me cool. I turned toward the largest section of the outdoor market. I smiled at the children, and contentedly lost myself in the crowd.