Evacuation

Alison Melotti-Cormack

It was yet another pipe bomb that took my feet to the desk, the one with the sign that said “Immediate Evacuation”. The smoke from the pipe bomb curled from the hotel bathroom and window. No, I didn’t want to wait another three days. No, I didn’t want to stand in interminable lines waiting for some unknown form of grace to touch my life. I wanted out. I signed up. There was no one in front of me at that desk.

Very early morning. Black smoke and flags blur the beginning of a new day. A day of escape. My bags. Only two. The dull brown and bright yellow canvas bag both with the carefully, tightly rolled carpets purchased with minimal haggling. The sellers knew they had us. It was the only way to get our money out. Buy something of value and take that with you. Everything else left behind. Clothes, books, furniture, job, dog, hopes. And husband. Still in Esfahan. No phone. No way for him to know if I made it to Tehran. No way for me to know if he was safe.

Back onto a bus. A bigger better bus this time. Not many of us. “Stay close to the aisle, away from the windows.” The driver doesn’t want any attention drawn to his cargo of Americans. But I’m not an American. Not yet. Just recently married into the American family, just crossed the border of my list of “I’ll nevers” to “I do”.  We sit beside our anxiety. There are rumors. There are always rumors in crisis tugging at the entrails and genitals. “Third world wives are being left on the tarmac.” That’s me, much to my chagrin.  A third world wife. That’s why my husband’s boss insisted I leave. He was no longer willing to accept responsibility for my welfare.

“They caught one hundred and eighty CIA agents at the airport yesterday.” No one knows if it’s true or if they actually got out on the last plane, the last Pan Am flight leaving Mehr Abad airport in the February winter of 1979.  “ There are no more commercial flights.” Of course there weren’t. I knew from listening to Voice of America that the voice was completely misinformed and passing on that misinformation. The voice came from some planet other than planet earth, and it was nowhere near the reality on the slab of land called Iran.

“They’re stopping people from leaving if they don’t have the right vaccination stamps and visas.” Frank’s Samsonite case across the aisle opens. All the stamps anyone ever needed for any country anywhere near Iran are present. Twenty-dollar bills and stamps begin to move across bus seats like spilled hot coffee. Nothing like a crisis and a rumor to pull American entrepreneurship into the hero’s seat.

Bus swerves from the airport and into the cargo area. Everybody out. Seven of us join what looks like seven hundred. Mainly men. A diverse group, many Vietnam vets, men who knew how to survive. Men whose wives had already been evacuated. Mainly those reluctant to leave good jobs, good pay, good, often subsidized, housing, good standard of living. Those of us who could not, or would not believe that this was really happening. That Iran would fall, that the Shah would fall, that the Marines were not coming. That America was oblivious to the plight of more than forty thousand of it citizens. We were stuck in Iran during a revolution that was long in the making and American hands were in the creation and enabling of it.

What did America know, or care, of Mossadegh? Of burgeoning democracy in Iran? Of Operation Ajax? Of Mossadegh buried in his living room? 

Nothing. 
It’s easy to get America to keep and bury its shameful secrets. Bowed heads are only for prayer.

My New Zealand passport is taken by a man in Iranian uniform. I hold onto it tightly but he pulls it from me. He is impatient. He has a man with a gun beside him. He carries a stack of passports into a Quonset hangar. No one knows what is happening. More rumors. There are planes coming. There are no planes coming. The planes are coming soon. We wait. It’s cold. I smoke another cigarette. Mouth is dry and furry.

We wait. Am I the only woman traveling alone? I’m hungry. More people arrive. There is nowhere to sit. My eyes stalk the Quonset hangar door. A uniformed man appears. He is instantly surrounded by the crowd. He stands on a box, a press of bodies gathers around him. He begins to call names. Eager hands grasp for their passports. No Alison Melotti. Disappointed shoulders sag into the tiredness.

Smoke another cigarette.

Wait for another hour to pass. 

More people arrive. The rumors are repeated. But now it is mainly quiet. There is no sound of jet engines. No beeping of warning baggage carts. No amplified announcements. No nervous echoes of waiting crowds. We stare at the winter sky, overcast and empty. We wait with our thoughts.
How long do I have to wait? Where’s my passport? What are they looking for? What if they don’t bring it back? Where will they take us? What if there are no planes? Did I wait too long? Is there a bathroom anywhere? No.

Two men, African-Americans more able for a change to navigate the streets because of their skin color, are selling hamburgers out of a laden cooler at five times their cost. They have plenty of customers. I’m cold. My feet are numb. The asphalt doesn’t care. My stomach has ceased its churning. There is only a heavy emptiness. I smoke through another hour. 

And another hour.

And another hour.

Finally I can see my passport, larger than the American versions. It sticks out. My name is called. I brush through the thickening group, my relief shouldering their anxiety to a space where I can inspect my passport. What did they do? I can’t tell.

We watch the sky. We wait. We are quieter now. Even complaints have stopped. Desperation has muted us. Hundreds of us. Watching the sky. Watching the emptiness stretch beyond the horizon. We know we are the forgotten. We are still the forgotten. The thousands evacuated during a revolution in Iran in 1978 and 1979. 

Another hour passes, dragging its weary feet up our spines. We stamp our feet and rub our arms trying to fend off the numb coldness of our bodies. Survival mode has taken over. There is no higher thought than what needs to be done in order to survive. The body shuts down the mind. The mind protests and invents horrors. 

There’s a shout. A hail from somewhere near the top of the mast? Far in the distance five small dark dots appear. A sign of rescue? Voices begin to stir and every body turns in the direction of the dark winged dots on the horizon. Larger and larger they come into view. Military planes. Those who recognize them name them, C-130, C-5, C-141.The massive C-130 Hercules appears to stall in mid-air, pausing to see if it really wants to land, then gently, miraculously, curtsies onto the runway. Wheels are down.

Pandemonium ensues. Suddenly the waiting explodes into action. Uniformed men, Iranians, American, every one is yelling and pointing. People are hurried and pushed and brief jubilation turns to more fear and frustration. “Two bags. Only two, decide what you want. Leave the rest.” The bags are piled onto a huge pallet. A large net is thrown over the top capturing all that is left of our ex-pat lives in Iran. My yellow canvas bag sticks out among the browns and blacks of conventional suitcases. Will I ever see it again? I watch it disappear as I run towards the massive plane sent to rescue us. Bewildered servicemen help strap us into the webbing. They are incredulous about what they are being asked to do and what they are witnessing. I am like a fish caught in a net. Held there against my will trying to breathe. How will this thing get off the ground? The noise of it, like an ancient giant awakening, lumbers down the runway, slowly, impossibly, its nose lifts towards the sky and we can feel its wheels leave the ground. There is applause and cheering as my tears drop quietly onto my numb cheeks. I am leaving Iran. I am alone amongst these refugees from conflict. No one asks about my tears. I don’t try to explain.

I am given a sandwich and a drink of water. The grumbling innards of the C-130 don’t stop me from falling asleep, drooping exhausted onto the shoulder of the stranger strapped next to me. I sleep until we land in Athens, Greece. It was February 10th, 1979. It is three weeks since the Shah left Iran. It is just over a week since Khomeini returned to Iran. In four days, Iranian revolutionaries will storm the US Embassy–for the first time. 

* * *

In the forgotten stories of American history, I am reminded of mine this past week. I am reminded that the Iranian evacuation remains largely unknown, pushed into obscurity. Despite the many reasons for its need and the tumultuous manner of its execution, it was an evacuation that in many ways was highly successful. It happened. Despite the massive ignorance of American citizens of the situation, tens of thousands of people made it home. People were reimbursed for their lost belongings-eventually. And then, there was a massive shrug of the shoulders as attention was focused on the hostages. As self-righteous anger and finger pointing began, plots and plans for heroism were created and blame was apportioned. It’s the American way. Those of us who experienced the prolonged terror of the revolution followed by the evacuation carry the details of that terror inside us. Those details wait for us, ready to be renewed as America continues to forget its sins. 

We have become accustomed to the prickly comfort of dissatisfaction, to the privilege of apportioning blame in small teacups instead of inspecting the much larger context of the canyon of history. We choose to forget the avarice and inhumanity that birthed this nation we call the land of the free. We forget, because forgetting allows us to err on the side of inaction and ultimately to repeat our mistakes in pursuit of an assumed God-given right to plunder, devour, and exploit then sweep the crumbs of evidence under the carpet of forgetfulness. 

We all want to believe that we belong to a humane nation, that we will act with a generosity that abundance allows, that we are a good and just people. We can push blame onto our politicians, the pentagon, the intelligence community, the contractors for the chaos unfolding in Afghanistan. But, ultimately, given a modicum of introspection, it is a situation in which we are all complicit. We have all contributed to a gargantuan military industrial complex that requires conflict, corruption, exploitation, and oblivion in order to thrive. Maybe it is time to end our love affair with willful ignorance. 

Nowhere is the galling shallowness of American unconsciousness more evident than in the hundred different iterations of reporter questions about numbers of evacuees. Like contemporary Rip Van Winkles awakened from our gaslit slumber we acquiesce to their attempt to alleviate American shame and guilt by apportioning it out. We need to ask the hard questions, both externally to the executive branch, pentagon, state department, and intelligence community but also internally. How comfortable are we with the actions perpetrated by government in our name in this and other countries? How did we contribute to this chaos? What did we ignore? Are we really interested in the truth? Do we really care? What are we willing to sacrifice that demonstrates that care and interest? Are we really willing to face the hard truth of the consequences of our perpetual embrace of uniformed or authoritative fabrications, deceits, and mendacities?

We have continually turned from processes, organizations, people, and a history that has pointed the way towards peaceful co-existence and a balanced future. We must return to our past and examine our shortcomings and depravities in order to expiate them. We cannot fulfill the promise of the idea of a free and just America unless we all acknowledge our complicity in her sins. And for that, we are all responsible.