Noilly Prattle: June 2012

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Persian Odyssey: Part XVIII – things fall apart

street demonstrations
Between August and December 1978 strikes and demonstrations increasingly paralyzed the country.

How to describe what amounts to being in a combat zone?

When I was a kid there was a section of Boston's Washington Street and the area around Scollay Square that was often referred to as “the combat zone”. It was an area of bars and strip and clip joints frequented by sailors from the nearby naval base and civilian habitués seeking thrills of various kinds—including barroom brawls, from which the zone's nickname was partly derived. One high school rite of passage in the 1950s for boys was to be able to brag about having seen some T&A at the Old Howard burlesque theater in Scollay Square. But, I digress. Nostalgia, I guess!

Esfahan became, by degrees, something of a combat zone with weapons more deadly than the fisticuffs of Washington Street. Many of the haunts of the expat community and their association with “western corruption”, such as movie houses, restaurants, clubs, discos—even some banks—were attacked with molotov cocktails, homemade bombs and various and sundry incendiary devices. Gunfire and machine gun rat-a-tat-tats could be heard in the streets, especially at night outside of our high walls, making venturing on the streets between sundown and sunrise a risky business.

Abassi Hotel and Shah Mosque dome
Living alone left me feeling insecure. In chaotic situations like this, one seeks the shelter of the tribe in the community cave. The tribe was no longer gathering at the customary newly burnt out shells of our watering holes and the sense of isolation became increasingly stronger especially after business hours. Fortunately, there were some other guys in the teachers' room at the school looking to get together (one of whom was my original roommate J.) and we decided to share a house with a couple other guys owned by a doctor who was sympathetic to the ancien régime and was courageous enough to rent the house to foreigners. This house was not far from the old Abassi Hotel and practically in the shadow of the dome of the Shah Mosque, but also in a central area that was particularly busy with the nighttime fire fights between the rebel Islamist forces and the Shah's soldiers. The rat-a-tat-tats were closing in on us.

darkness in daylight
D. had moved on after our rift and had also moved from our house. I wanted to do a little fence mending and apologize for what had happened. I decided to go and see her one night on foot (I had sold the Yamaha) in spite of the risks. So I put on some dark clothes and a dark woolen cap (trying to look like a local in the dark) and headed for her house. I hadn't known she was with another guy, so I just made polite noises and small talk for a few minutes and excused myself, but D. followed me down the stairs. At the bottom I turned and we hugged each other, I told her that I was sorry for the way things had not worked out and that I had decided to leave Esfahan as soon as possible. She wished me well and said that she wasn't ready to go yet. And so I turned, blended into the shadows, and walked off into the night.

idle Hueys - flight training suspended
A sense of gloom was slowly descending on the teachers' room. The base was now involved in a struggle for its own existence. Training programs languished as did the teaching staff who spent most of our days hanging around and speculating on what the future might bring—should I stay, should I leave? There were incidents of scuffles with the locals and the expats. For example, I shared a cab to go the base one day with several other local people as far as a traffic circle where we would pick up the base bus to go the rest of the way. When the cab reached the stop I was angrily hustled, almost pushed, out of the cab for no apparent reason except that I was a foreigner. I was relieved to see other teachers waiting for the base bus and joined them.

demonstrations became increasingly more violent
Things went from bad to worse. We would get lectures from company supervisors telling us that, according to the Embassy, things were going alright and we should hang in until the rebels were defeated—show support for the Shah. Meanwhile, the banks were shut down and we could no longer get our money out. For some people who had been in Esfahan a long time that was a very serious development since they had considerable sums locked up in Iranian rials. My money was mostly in cash. Still, we kept getting assurances from the Embassy that it was just a matter of time now and things would be back to business as usual. People were agonizing over whether to get out or stay. Surely, some of the more naïve and obtuse ones reasoned, the Embassy must know better than we did how things were developing in the streets and the rest of the country. Then the airport was shut down and it was no longer possible to leave whether you wanted to or not. So much for the Embassy's assurances. This was sometime in December as I remember it.

To be concluded...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A river runs through it

V+1-Day and we went back to the eye clinic for the first of a series of follow up checks on road buddy's previously reported eye surgery.

bag lady? she was picking up
berries off the ground
We parked the car and I headed for a nearby park that borders a street called Nishigawa, named after a stream whose name means West River that runs (don't ask me why) on a more or less north south axis through our city, while she went to the clinic. Over night, there hadn't seemed to be any negative reactions from the vitrectomy and she felt I could get in some "walking" exercise instead of holding her hand unnecessarily in a crowded clinic waiting room. I agreed and we decided to meet at the clinic in about an hour, so I grabbed my camera and went looking for stuff to shoot--still whiling away the time. 

Having lived in this city for so long I tend to forget that I'm still a stranger in a strange land (ask any expat who lives in Japan). I thought I would open my eyes and look at Nishigawa as if I were a tourist fresh off the airplane toting a camera. Looked at that way there is something Japonesque about our town that reminds me that I am always a wayfarer, that reminds me to always keep my eyes open and not let things get to a too oh!-been-there-done-that place in my head where I forget to wake up and smell the flowers because it has become routine and stale and I no longer notice the endless variety of life that is as inevitable as getting up and finding yourself still alive. (When you don't, inevitability will no longer have any meaning whatsoever.) So, Nishigawa, a river quietly runs through it but the city busily flows all around it. 

water and stone are popular in
traditional Japanese gardens
herons are ubiquitous around here
hoochie kootchie joints are ubiquitous, too
home on wheels
what the well-dressed homeless are wearing this year 
schlock art--lots of that
cleanliness next to godliness around here
you could eat off the streets, almost!
After banging around and snapping away, I went to the clinic as arranged. Happily, the follow up was positive and road buddy was able to go home without the bandage over her eye. While we were waiting to pay the bill a woman, looking very professional in a white coat, came into the waiting room, called my name and asked me in English to come with her. I was surprised and said: "You mean me?" She said: "Yes, you." I wondered to myself what she could possibly want with me. After all, I wasn't a patient and there was nothing wrong with my eyes. I though, darkly, that maybe she has something negative to tell me that they didn't want to tell road buddy directly. 

Turns out that she recognized me from when her daughter had been a student in my class and wanted to thank me, in the polite Japanese fashion. So, I picked up the tempo and asked her daughter's name. She told me and I said that of course I remembered the name, etc., etc. It wasn't until after we concluded the conversation and I returned to the waiting room that I put two and two together. The woman was the wife of the husband and wife team that runs the eye clinic and that my former student's father had performed the surgery. It truly is a small world. Well, I know where to go should I ever need eye surgery. Maybe I can get a discount, you think?

glass case display of menu items in wax,
very convenient for foreigners
who can't read Japanese

old fashioned hearth-table
in soba shop
We decided to celebrate with lunch at one of our favorite restaurants just down the hill from our house. It's a charming old Japanese style place that serves soba (buckwheat noodles). I had my favorite called Tenzarusoba--tempura and cold buckwheat noodles. Yum!


Tuesday, June 26, 2012


optimism prevails in pre-surgery
The day has finally come and, as of this writing, pretty much passed into personal history as V-Day—vitrectomy day.

clinic on 8th floor of bldg. in center
This was road buddy's second vitrectomy. It was more critical than the first one since, if left untreated, it could lead to severe distortion in both eyes (instead of only one) causing an inability to focus on letters and words and thus making reading extremely difficult if not impossible for all practical purposes. The vitrectomy procedure is now pretty mainstream, but there is a small chance of complications (a macular hole) and the more cautious doctor preferred to wait until the vision falls to a level that is unacceptable for reading before “risking” a vitrectomy. He refused to do it at this time.

Our Station - view from
eye clinic waiting room
Since she can only read with one eye, road buddy did not want to completely lose the ability to read and so sought second and third opinions. Both the second and third opinion (more progressive—or, perhaps, confident) doctors were willing to do the surgery now; she decided to go ahead with it and today was V-Day.

no, he isn't a patient, happily
We both went to the clinic at 10 o'clock in the morning. My plan was to go out to lunch around noon when the surgery was scheduled, but I was informed that I couldn't leave without “the doctor's permission”. Imagine that! Why? In case they needed to contact me if anything “went wrong”. So, I went out to lunch around 11 o'clock and when I got back road buddy was already gone in for prep—taking my novel in her backpack. A kind nurse came out shortly and informed me that the surgery was underway. All I could do, obviously, was wait with no book to read.

whiling away the time
Some 45 minutes later another lady, dressed in blue that I guessed were surgical togs, came and told me that the surgery was over. I gave her an interrogative thumbs up sign and she said, yes it was successful and that road buddy would be resting for a couple of hours. I nodded and said arigato and took out my camera to while away the time. After a while I took off my shoes and stretched out on the waiting room bench and dozed off and on.

more whiling away the time
the famous "lady in blue"
The same lady in blue called my name and I awoke with a start. She laughed and told me that I could go into the recovery room and see road buddy. She was still on drip infusion and groggy from the operation but was coherent. I told her that I had heard that the surgery had gone well and she said that yes that was right. She dozed a bit more, I read a bit and we chatted a bit for another hour or so until the lady in blue unhooked her from the drip, she got dressed and we paid the bill and were able to leave. I guess we had “the doctor's permission”. If there are no complications in the next few days we will be home free. We are keeping our fingers crossed and knocking on lots of wood.

the bill came to about $2,760 total -
 co-pay was $720 at current yen/dollar exchange rate

ready to go

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Persian Odyssey: Part XVII – Like a falling stone

desert landscape
We flew over the desert to a training area where the students were put through their paces on various flight procedures and maneuvers. I am glad to be able to report that communication snafus were at a minimum, so much so that I was able to relax enough to enjoy the flight itself and the views of the ever changing landscape below. If you ever saw the flight scene in the film Out of Africa it would give you some idea. I even spotted lots of camels on the desert floor under me. Finally we landed for lunch and a well earned break. There were several camels and locals nearby and my Texas cowboy asked me if I'd like to take a ride on one. Yeah, like you'd even have to ask, right? It was exactly what I was thinking: “Boy, would I love to ride a camel.” A little negotiation and a camel obligingly knelt down and I clambered up onto its hump. The camel stood up and hoisted me up with it and the guy whose camel it was led us around in the desert with me riding high and proud and having the time of my life. 

in my flight suit on the camel
After lunch we went back up, did some more training exercises until it was time to start heading back to the base. Well, I was pretty relaxed and used to flying in the helicopter, the student was flying pretty smoothly as well and there wasn't a lot of talk going on between the two pilots. Suddenly, without warning, the rotor quit and the damned Huey started to fall straight down like a rock, very un-Out of Africa-like, with the desert floor rushing up to meet us. I think I was too stunned to scream. The Texas cowboy sat there calmly observing the near but not quite panicking student who was struggling with the controls. Down we kept on dropping and I figured my time on earth was untimely up.

view from the back se

There wasn't much point in making a scene, so I just tensely awaited the end hoping it would be instantaneous and painless. Suddenly, I felt a jolt and the helicopter stopped falling like a rock and seemed to be falling as if something was cushioning it. The hand of God? The rotor blades were turning again, but I couldn't hear the sound of the engine. Shortly thereafter, the still cool as a cucumber cowboy pushed a button, the engine kicked in again, the Huey stopped falling and continued its normal flight back to the base. I found my voice and shakily asked the cowboy what the hell happened back there? He said: “Oh, that! It's just an emergency procedure for when and if you lose your engine.” “What if the engine hadn't restarted?” I asked. “Well, when the chopper falls like that the air catches in the rotor and starts it spinning and breaks the fall. Theoretically, you could land the helicopter that way, but it's not easy and not too smooth. For training, we restart the engine to make it easier for the student to land.”

“Well, that's nice to know,” I said. Muttering to myself: “You could've told me beforehand.”

And, yes, I went back up a few more times (and lived to tell about it) until the base went into shutdown as the strikes and demonstrations, bombings and fighting in the streets that defined the autumn and winter of 1978 accelerated to their climax.

To be continued...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Persian Odyssey: Part XVI - Hueys

typical Huey used to train cadets
pilot training
You simply haven't lived until you've gone up into the wild (and I mean wild) blue yonder as an in-flight tutor  in the back seat of a Huey with a “Texas cowboy” instructor pilot who may or may not think the student pilot is “stupid” (but probably does) and where both come from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Instead of returning to classroom duties, I requested this in-flight tutor and problem solver assignment because 1) I wanted a change, 2) I had never flown in a helicopter and 3) I thought it would be fun and exciting. The job, plain and simple, was to iron out communication problems in mid flight between these two, on both of whom all our lives depended. And, to be completely honest, I doubt if the Texas cowboys had much confidence in either the student pilots or me. But to give the instructor pilots their due, they were very competent pilots and teachers. The fact that I'm alive today and writing about it is testament to their skill. 

what "rock-a-bye-baby" looks like if you blow it

Helicopter pilot training isn't simply a matter of taking off, cruising and landing. What else, you may ask? Emergency procedures is what else. Remember, Hueys, after all, are not passenger aircraft, they are combat machines—and THAT can lead to any number and type of “emergencies”. One of these is what I came to call, evocatively enough, “rock-a-bye-baby”. Rock-a-bye-baby perhaps shouldn't be classified as an emergency procedure, more like breaking a horse. It may even have been an inside joke, for all I know, on the part of the Texas cowboys to scare the flight suit off both the student and the poor schlep whose gone and gotten him or herself sitting in the back seat. These right stuff he-man types probably thought of English instructors of either sex as she-men.

left/right rocking maneuver
In the rock-a-bye-baby maneuver, with the Huey hovering a mere meter or so above the ground the pilot begins to rock the aircraft back and forth (side to side and front and back) until the rotor blades and nose and tail practically touch the ground. One slight miscalculation and we'd all have been cooked in a great ball of fire. Hearty guffaws and high fives all around and we're off into the lemon yellow blue with the rest of the training squadron. 

medium high flight

Riding in a helicopter and flying over the desert is an experience not to be missed. High Flight, a poem by John Gillespie Magee, Jr,* describes the feeling best: 

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

*Unfortunately, Magee felt the fist of God a short while later and was killed in a mid-air collision in England at 19-years of age.

To be continued...

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How to save the equivalent of $1,194...D.I.Y.

Living nowadays mostly on a fixed income, we have joined the ranks of the nouveau pauvre (newly poor) since I have more or less retired—at least from the full-time nine to five rat race. Although not on the verge of tumbling onto the street in this 21st Century Depression (bank savings no longer generating interest income that is not to be laughed at and equities on a wild Wall Street casino roller coaster ride), unnecessary expenses seem prudent to avoid. Lack of prudence being what has gotten us into this global economic meltdown. But, to the issue at hand.

Our metal outdoor spiral fire escape was showing signs of rusting here and there and we decided that it should be repainted before it could rust through and collapse. Accordingly, I repainted it myself and saved around $1,194 on a quote to have it done by our house builder for $1,257 at current yen/dollar exchange rates. It cost around $64 for the materials to do the job (wire brush, paint, thinner and brushes). Even if I had charged a reasonable amount for “sweat equity” (as a friend of mine calls what his labor is worth), it wouldn't have come anywhere near the original quote.

And, then too, who can do a job better than you yourself can anyway?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Persian Odyssey: Part XV – Flashback

When I returned from my motorcycle journey through Ancient Persia, I came back to an increasingly turbulent present day Iran and the third of the four houses that I rented within the year that I lived in Esfahan. There were no restrictions on where we were allowed to live as foreigners in Iran as was the case later, for example, in Saudi Arabia where foreign workers were required to live in compounds specially designated for foreigners.

The incredible beauty of Esfahan aside, individual homes, in harmony with the city, can also be quite charming. As is characteristic in that desert part of the world Iranian homes are enclosed by relatively high walls, a world unto themselves, with a house and courtyard within. There is often a small fountain and garden in the courtyard and the house opens out onto the courtyard.

Returning from a 2½ -year stint with the Peace Corps in Africa, I got a job with a company based in Chicago that had a contract with Bell Helicopter International to teach English in Esfahan, Iran. I shared my first house with J., a colleague I had met in Chicago at the home office of our company (I've seen it referred to ironically as “Belemedia”). Pretty close to its actual name in fact. J. and I were hired at the same time and we decided to share a house once we arrived in Esfahan. A funny story about him: he was rather phobic about eating local food and would always soak vegetables and fruit purchased from local markets in an anti-bacterial solution (such as bleach and water), but always complained of stomach disorders anyway—the bleach, I wonder? Me, I ate anything I wanted (unsoaked and unbleached) and never even got the hiccups. One of my favorites stops, while off on short bike jaunts, was eating at roadside stands that sold lamb kebab with roasted tomatoes and salads of mixed herbs. Nun (pronounced 'noon') is the most delicious flat-bread I ever tasted. It is baked in kiln-like ovens by slapping the dough on the inside wall and baking it. We would go in the early morning before school to the bakery and buy some, piping hot fresh from the oven, scrape off the ash residue, take it home and eat it immediately with some coffee for breakfast.

I soon met D., a teacher at the school. We were attracted to each other, and after dating and discoing and cycling around the area for a while we decided to get a place together, so we rented what was my second house with all the right characteristics, high wall, courtyard with fountain and garden and a nice house with a great cellar that made a wonderful den. Unfortunately, I felt constrained by domestic bliss; the bloom was soon off the rose and I began going out again—on my own. I then met C., another teacher, at my favorite disco, and she was soon riding pillion on the Yamaha. Naturally, living in a goldfish bowl and frequenting the same haunts as expats usually do, word got around and I came home one night to find the door locked, which led to a ruckus in the neighborhood—shouting match and threats to break the door down, etc. Soon enough, a hunt for another house, this time alone, my third—the one I came back to after returning from my odyssey.

Meanwhile, I had returned to work at the air base, this time as an in-flight tutor to the students who had graduated from the classroom part of their English and pilot training program. Essentially, I rode in the back seat of the UH-1 type Bell helicopters (Hueys) that are synonymous with the Vietnam War and tried to rectify any communication problems between the “Texas cowboys” (many were Vietnam veterans) instructor pilots and the Iranian cadets they were flight training. Hooeee, Huey!

mosque in Nain (famous for carpets) near Esfahan 
relatively unadorned but blends beautifully into the desert around Nain
interior of Nain mosque dome also plain but beautiful

metalwork tray (one of my few remaining mementos)

miniature 7 by 12 cm. (another memento)

To be continued....