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The Iran of Old in the Days of My Youth

by Mark Dankof


It was only yesterday--the late spring of 1973. I was preparing to graduate from Fairmont East High School in Kettering, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton. My father had just returned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB) from Vietnam, retiring from the United States Air Force after 32 years on active duty. The years between 1969 and 1973 had been particularly difficult ones. I had attended 3 different American high schools in 4 years. My father had been the United States Air Force's Air Force Logistics Command (AFLC) liaison to Southeast Asia in those days, coordinating American logistical support for Nixon's air war over Southeast Asia. He had received the Legion of Merit from the President for his efforts, but in the prosecution of an effort which had torn the United States politically and culturally asunder in the years leading up to his retirement. Two years later, in April of 1975, Saigon would fall to the Communists of North Vietnam.

I was looking forward to beginning at a new school in the fall of 1973, Valparaiso University of Indiana, and doing so without the miserable backdrop of the Vietnam War. My father had spoken of a new life as a civilian in the continental United States, selling insurance or teaching school. Since we were American Midwesterners, it seemed idyllic to imagine my father and mother in a mid-sized Middle Western town, becoming normal citizens and blending into the landscape and benign background of Dayton. Personally, I wanted to forget the Tet Offensive, Kent State, Cambodia, the Christmas bombings, and all of the collective pathos of a time which caused me to stand out among my classmates in junior high and high school--when I didn't want to. Other kids had Dads who were doctors, lawyers, teachers, construction workers, and insurance salesmen. My Dad was a uniformed representative of a war everyone wanted to forget, right down to the Air Force full colonel's wings on the lapels. I can still him showing up in his uniform at Dayton's Welcome Stadium, to watch me compete in Sectional and District Track Meets leading to the State Championships in Columbus. There would always be a brief murmur during his initial appearance in the largely African-American constituency seated on the West Side of the Stadium, followed by a grudging silence. But there was never a hint of an overt incident during any of his appearances at Dayton's premier track and field events. Part of it may have been the quiet John Wayne type of aura that surrounded him in those days. Another aspect may have been the unpretentious and decent character of his persona. I used to get a kick out of walking over to him after the conclusion of some of the big, sold-out Friday night meets at Welcome Stadium in those days. Inevitably, he would be seated in the middle of a crowd of people that looked like young, angry employees of H. Rap Brown, Malcolm X, and Huey Newton. Yet they gave him a grudging acceptance as one of them, sharing coffee, pencils, and programs. H. Rap Brown and Malcolm X met Dwight Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon at those events in those difficult times. Radical, black, urban, 1960s angry America encountered older, white, rural, Depression-era America at a halfway-point in civil conversation. How did he do it?

Following my high school graduation, early and mid-summer 1973 in Dayton were comprised of accompanying my father to the apartment swimming pool, and watching Sam Ervin's Watergate hearings. I felt like I was simply biding my time until heading for the greater Chicagoland area and the confines of Valparaiso University. Vietnam would be behind me soon; 4 promising years of college lay just ahead.

I no longer remember the exact date when my father announced in mid-summer 1973 that he had his first post-USAF job. It would not involve a long-term residency in the States, but a relocation as a newly hired employee of the Lockheed company, doing Air Force logistics for a foreign country. Destination: Iran.

It seems impossible to believe today, but I then knew nothing about the place or its location on the globe--until my father explained its role in the ancient world as the center of the Persian Empire: Daniel, Queen Esther, Cyrus the Great, Darius, and Artaxerxes were more than familiar from my days of reading the Old Testament in Sunday Schools around the world.

"They have a monarchy," my father intoned, "just like in Biblical times. Their King is called the Shah. He's our ally in impeding Soviet influence in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf."

My response was simply to clarify my own status in this latest mission. "So when I'm not in Chicago going to school, I'm going to spend the summers with Steve down in Texas [brother at the University of Texas law school at the time]?"

My father's response was typically clear and to the point. "Negative. Lockheed will pay your way to Iran each summer and Christmas that your mother and I are over there. You already have the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam under your belt. One month in Tehran and some background reading and you'll adjust fine. You'll also have some experiences that will serve you in good stead for the rest of your life."

My first arrival in Tehran was in May of 1974, courtesy of Dutch KLM connections from Chicago to Amsterdam to Mehrabad Airport. The memories of that evening remain indelibly imprinted in my mind. The night lights of Tehran; the Elburz Mountains; the utter chaos in passport control and customs; and a virtual sea of humanity in the terminal beyond customs, anxiously awaiting family members and friends arriving from abroad. I can still see my father and mother amidst this mild mob scene, beckoning me to their location beyond the glass that separated international arrivals from greeting parties. My sense of relief at spotting them was palpable.

Another mental snapshot frozen in time remains etched in my heart and mind until the day I depart this earth: the memory of the huge portraits of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and the Shahbanou, Empress Farah, which were prominently displayed for new arrivals and returnees to the Land of Persia as the respective groupings awaited processing through customs. To my knowledge, it was the first time I had encountered them in photographic encapsulement. The Shah was a strikingly handsome man whose countenance of strength was accentuated by the military uniform and aura of regalia underscored by the medals on his chest. The Shahbanou was the most striking woman I had ever seen, combining sheer beauty with the conveyance of intelligence and sensitivity. But what I remember the most was her eyes, which seemed to suggest a sadness and acquaintance with tragedy and pain amidst the vicissitudes of life. I mentally noted that night that her picture suggested the combination of qualities and cohesiveness of character I'd expect of a Persian Queen, using the Biblical Esther as a baseline.

Shah and Shahbanou in Kennedy's Camelot

Leaving Mehrabad Airport that night began a kaleidoscope of experiences and memories that I still reflect upon a generation later. Places like Lar Valley, the Church of Saint Thaddeus in Iranian Azerbaijan, Hamedan (Biblical Ecbatana), Susa (Daniel's tomb), Persepolis, the resting place of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae, Shiraz, and Isfahan continue to resonate in my night thoughts. In Tehran itself, the palaces at Golestan, Niavaran, and Saadabad revisit me regularly, along with Shahinshahi Park, the Crown Jewels at Bank Markazi, Rudaki Hall, the Hungarian Paprika Restaurant and what was the American Embassy at Takhte Jamshid and Roosevelt Avenue in those salad days. It seems like yesterday, just as Moses tells us in Psalm 90 that a "thousand years are as a watch in the night." My ever-aging body, however, manages to tell me how long ago all of this is starting to be. In that time, I was running 10 miles a day in the morning and jumping rope in mile high altitudes, while hitting cleanup and playing center field for an Air Force fast-pitch softball team that bent service rules to let a USAF retiree's kid play. Now, I go to my Philadelphia apartment complex's gym--to walk on the treadmill and read the newspaper in the sauna room.

I turned 21 in Tehran during the American bicentennial year of 1976. On that occasion, my father presented me with a Pahlavi ring. It is one of several remaining physical evidences of my youth in the land of Persia. The other is a diary I kept in that fateful summer by God's grace, which can be accessed as A Summer of a Thousand Nights.

Mark Dankof's 21st Birthday Party, Golestan
No. 4 off Saltanatabad Avenue, Tehran, 1976

But despite all of the physical beauty of Iran and the repository vault of history within its confines, what I remember most is the character of the Persian people. While I cannot prove this, it remains my opinion that they have a capacity for love and decency virtually unmatched by any other division of the human race upon the earth. I believe that there is a reason for this special gift which resides within their hearts--what one commentator recently observed as the "tortured history of Iran." Tragedies at the hands of Greeks, Mongols, Arabs, Turks, Russians, British, and yes, Americans, have put this amazing culture and nation under the relentless heel of foreign exploitation and oppression with consistent repristination in time. I subscribe to the view that the best of this nation have survived, and continue to survive, by a worldview which looks simultaneously back and forward--back to the days of the apex of the Achaemenid Kings of Ancient Persia beginning with Cyrus, and forward to an eternity where the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in history are overcome by the gracious provision of the God of the Universe.

But this leaves us with the ominous character of the present. The Land of Persia is presently ruled by a cadre of thugs in the guise of an Islamic Republic. The cabal of Mullahs and their trail of oppression, murder, and terror is plainly visible except to the blind by choice. The Western powers, in turn, are motivated far less by the idea of political independence and autonomy for Iran--and human rights for its people--than they are with the question of who ultimately controls fossil fuel reserves and pipeline routes. The average Iranian--and the average American--would seem to be the perpetual hostages of these evil forces and the powers of darkness which work through them. Can the land of Cyrus, Darius, Rumi, Hafez, and Khayyam--and the nation of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison--ever be reclaimed for their respective peoples in such a lamentable age?

I do not know the answer. But as my nocturnal thoughts on a younger life long vanished in a Biblical land 3 decades ago begin to recede in favor of a brief night's sleep in the American City of Philadelphia, I remember by name those I know personally with the greatest personal stake in the restoration of Iran's fortunes, Shirin Neshat, Fereydoun Hoveyda, Bahman Nassiri, Farrokh Ashtiani and Ahmad Ashrafi.

This is followed by a closing remembrance of the scores of Iranians I do not know, and have never heard of, who need the identical deliverance of their homeland and families from the nightmare of the last 27 years marked by the movements of the stars in their courses. May their glorious time come in a moment to be determined by the great God of History.

This is not simply my prayer tonight, but has been my prayer in all the nights that have transpired since the fall of 1978.

It will be my prayer in all the days and nights that remain in the twilight of my own existence on the earth.



   (Mark Dankof is a Lutheran pastor and free-lance journalist, occasionally contributing to Iran Dokht, Al Bawaba, Nile Media, CASCFEN, and other Internet news sites. Once a 3rd party candidate for the United States Senate in Delaware [2000], he maintains the web-site Mark Dankof’s America while pursuing post-graduate theological education at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His commentary may be found regularly on SARTRE's Old American Right and Republic news site, Breaking All the Rules and at DixieInternet.com.



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