Morning revealed an ugly city under construction using ancient building tools and techniques. We stood gazing out the hotel room windows as an endless circuit of running workmen pushed primitive wooden wheelbarrow loads of hand-shoveled dirt up rough-hewn plank ramps out of a pit about 20 feet deep just across the street. No backhoes or cranes or any other modern construction equipment were anywhere in sight. Traffic on the streets was as chaotic as it was noisy. Cars and trucks and donkey-pulled carts jostled for position on lane-less streets by sheer force of will and inscrutable trust in judgment and quick reflexes of fellow drivers. Traffic lights were nonexistent. A few brave jay-walking souls waded out into traffic to cross streets, somehow avoiding death. Vehicles surged and weaved and lurched and halted in a random flow that reminded me of army ants on fast march along jungle trails.
Watching the vehicular maelstrom of Tehran was as fascinating as it was frightening. We discussed the wisdom of our parent's plans to venture out into it together as a family, having just experienced a few days earlier a wild ride from airport to hotel in Beirut which shook us all up considerably. Dad and I had been in one taxi on that ride, my mother and brothers in another which had rocketed away from its parking spot at the terminal exit at breakneck speed the moment its driver had closed his door and fired up the engine. Dad had blanched at the sight of that, thinking we had just lost half of our family to kidnappers, but it had just been a friendly race competition between our taxi drivers through the narrow, hilly streets of Beirut to see who could arrive at the hotel first. We all arrived safely within seconds of each other and nervously laughed about it as we checked into the hotel. But Beirut's traffic was mild compared to Tehran traffic. I was pretty worried about our first ride in it.
After breakfast we bathed and dressed and went out into the city to begin getting acquainted with all it had to offer. Farsi was the language spoken so we immediately began learning the basics of it. Counting up from zero and learning the number pronunciations, their symbols and names printed on colorful Iranian currency:
Zero, sefr. صفر. ۰.
One, yek. یک. ١.
Two, do. دو. ۲.
Three, se. سه. ۳.
Four, chāhār. چهار. ۴.
Five, panj. پنج. ۵.
. . .
And taxi speak: turn right (dast-e-rast), turn left (dast-e-chap), go straight (mostaghim), go faster (zoot zoot) and stop (vâysâ).
At 16, my mind was a sponge capable of absorbing much more than it knew what to do with and eventually I learned to speak Farsi well enough to converse with cabbies driving ubiquitous government-sponsored orange cabs throughout the city. The best part was that you could take an orange cab almost anywhere in the city for a few rials (mere pennies) back then. You just had to be careful not to get dropped off in an area where taxis did not run or you ended up hoofing it back to civilization. In addition to the orange cab, there were big lumbering blue taxis and private citizens would even give you a ride for a few rials too, sometimes in the bed of their beloved, strange-looking little Citroën pickup trucks, a wild way to travel the streets of Tehran.
A few days after arriving in Tehran we enrolled in classes at Tehran American School and started pretending to learn stuff there, but the real learning experiences happened outside its stale, dank classrooms in the various districts of the city, especially the old districts in the southern side of Tehran. I played hooky a lot with classmates and alone without worries about truancy police catching me out, although I did have to be careful not to stay out after curfew for risk of being jailed by Iranian police. Being thrown in jail in Tehran was usually a one-way trip to nowhere good. I failed to get home before curfew one night after visiting a girlfriend at her house a few miles away from our house one evening, and while walking home I was detained for about an hour for questioning and general harassment by two Iraninan policemen. Scary.
Overall, though, the six months I spent in Tehran were rewarding in the most unexpected ways. Our choir teacher, Janet Hartnell, hauled her class to Tehran University one day where a small rock band I was a member of performed Peace Train and Horse With No Name on stage there. When the curtain opened, a TV camera operator briskly wheeled his camera out on stage and pointed it directly at us. Somehow we managed to avoid freezing up from stage fright and rocked through both songs to the delight of a large Iranian audience of university students. We learned later that the performance had been beamed out live across the country on Iranian National TV.
There were other more exotic experiences like leaping over fires to celebrate Chaharshanbe Suri (the eve of the last Wednesday before Norwuz, the Iranian new year's day). I had been riding home just after dark in an orange cab when the driver suddenly turned down a dark side street with several fires burning in a line down the middle of it. I tensed, thinking something was amiss and worried about being detained after curfew again by police, and that maybe I was about to be kidnapped and secreted out to some remote desert location to be held for ransom of some huge amount to be paid only in American dollars. The driver sprang out of the cab and proceeded to run and leap over each of the small fires, turned around and nimbly leapt over them all again, then urged me to do the same. I did and we laughed and cheered one another as more people arrived to leap over the fires. An enjoyable but simple, impromptu cultural event I've never forgotten. But as much fun and adventure as I had in Tehran, I never forgot my friends in Sayre, longing to return to spend my senior year in high school there with them. I stayed in touch with our grandparents and the Williams family via airmail letters carefully penned on ultra-light, pre-printed and postage-paid blue paper that folded up into its own envelope, dreaming of the day I would return and hoping Jimmy had come home safe and sound.
In early spring of 1973, my parents agreed I could return to Sayre to finish high school, probably thinking I would be safer in the USA as my teenage wildness peaked than I would be in Tehran, and they were right.
Around The World & French Atomics~
We departed Tehran in June, taking a circuitous route around the world through Bangkok, Singapore, Sydney, Hawaii and San Francisco before landing at Will Rogers Airport in OKC and driving back to Sayre. The trip home had been more leisurely than the trip going to Tehran. We enjoyed a few days in Bangkok seeing sights and taking a river ride in a long canoe-like vessel with an outboard motor driving a propeller at the end of a drive-shaft about five feet long (that saved having to include a rudder on the boat for steering). But we picked up a bug of some kind in Bangkok and were sick for two days at the end of our stay, vomiting frequently and prodigiously until our poor bellies were thoroughly emptied.
We paused in Singapore only briefly on the way to Sydney where we finally started to feel better again and could get up and out to enjoy that beautiful capital city, its people and strange marsupial creatures down under. While in Sydney we found out our planned stay in Tahiti would not be permitted because the French were testing their new nuclear bombs on some atolls out in the French Polynesian islands someplace too close for comfort there, so after a brief stop in Fiji to pick up passengers and fuel, we went straight on to Honolulu. Freaking French warmongers. I've never understood why so many nations decided they absolutely had to have a world-killing arsenal of A-bombs.
As our almost empty Qantas jetliner taxied out for take off from Sydney International Airport, I donned a set of those cheap surgical-rubber-tube headphones airlines sometimes provided in individually sealed plastic bags for passengers to use to listen to looped, canned music piped out acoustically (rather than electronically) through hollow tubing to a little hole in one arm of each seat. After enjoying the thrill of my first takeoff in a 747 Queen Of The Skies, I stretched out across my empty row of seats and snoozed all the way to Fiji, enjoying strains of Bread's Guitar Man (one of my favorites), America, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Cat Stevens and other popular rock artists of the era as we raced behind the Sun toward the International Date line to finally arrive back in the continental states in San Francisco the day before we left Sydney.