The lives of military children (“Army brats”, although we were Air Force brats, a source of snobbery in the military hierarchy) can be difficult. Frequent relocation is burdensome and, since we never lived on military bases, we were often outsiders, the only of our kind. However, there are occasions when being in a military family can compensate for any of this, in fact a time where life could not be better. I recommend this for all families: live overseas. We all accept how travel enriches, but to live in another country is a wondrous experience, and for children, it is plain magical.
My family spent 1967-1969 in the city of Tehran, Iran as part of my father’s literally top-secret military career. Due to proximity, we can surmise he was engaged in spying on the Soviets. It may have been stressful for my parents and I am fascinated by the logistics of moving a family of six, all their furniture and a car across the world, but for a child, it was an extended stay in a theme park.
It was an experience that could not happen now, given the political environment. But in the sixties, though things were turbulent in the USA, it was pre-revolution in Iran and Rezi Pahlavi, the new shah, was a “friend” of the Americans.
Although we attended an American school and socialized primarily with other Americans in my father’s unit, we lived in the local neighborhood. Thus embedded, we had the opportunity to experience the people, customs, and culture. Elements of this stint seem anxiety-provoking in retrospect, but with a child’s innocence, I was never afraid. And with an American’s egotism, I believed that we were special and that the Iranians must, therefore, love us although the only evidence I have of this was the local fascination with my light hair.
Yes, there were camels in the streets. And herds of goats and their goat herders. We lived in two different houses and the second one was a child’s dream house. This large stucco structure, surrounded by an 8-foot tall brick “compound,” held many treasures. A pomegranate tree. A separate building aka “servants’ quarters” that served as a playhouse. A swimming pool. A multi-level yard with a paved perimeter. An underground storage area/another perfect playhouse. A high, wide porch ran the length of the house. Inside the house were two memorable features: a large central, purposeless room we called the “Hole” which served as yet another playhouse. And a “Persian version” bathroom. We had a regular European bathroom, but the so-called Persian Version featured a hole in ground over which a toilet was set, sans plumbing. (Although could this memory possibly be true? An open sewage pit in the house?)
We weren’t supposed to use the Persian version, although its charms beckoned. It was the domain of another great feature of life in Tehran: our maid, Robob. Mind you, we were not the kind of people who ever had any kind of servant. No need: we four children doubled as indentured servants, my dad was extremely handy, and my mom could do, or direct, virtually anything. Nonetheless, is this new wonderland, we had both Robob and Mohammed the gardener. Mohammed’s duties were obvious, but how Robob spent her time was more mysterious. She swept a lot. No matter, she was exotic. She dressed in a chador. Cockroaches and scorpions were a clear and present danger to us, but Robob knew how to handle them: she kissed them set them free. We spoke no Farsi and she spoke but a handful of English. We bonded over a strange weekend when my parents were vacationing at the Caspian Sea and we were left with Robob. Prior to helicopter parenting, it was evidently acceptable to leave 4 children under the age of 11 in a foreign country with a caregiver whom they could not communicate. We survived.
Also in the permissive parenting category, although we were not allowed to eat produce that hadn’t been soaked in a solution of 3 parts water/1 part Clorox (note: strawberries soaked in Clorox are no longer strawberries) and couldn’t drink water at all unless it had been boiled, we were allowed to roam the streets and eat the locally made rock candy which was 3 parts sugar/1 part typhoid. I am thankful still for this miraculous physical and culinary freedom, because although there was ample entertainment within our compound, outside the compound was a whole new world. In our roaming, we befriended local kids and followed them home to be served their family’s best tea from a brass samovar, sipped from silver-handled glass tumblers. Our language barrier was no barrier and the view we received into Iranian family life is with me still. These children were also our first exposure to the sport of soccer, something that took decades to arrive stateside.
I did get very ill in Tehran, despite what seemed like dozens of vaccinations. Sanitation was not great, despite all the Clorox and boiling water (and meat imported from Germany and no fresh dairy. And the daily chore of mixing the powered milk.) I contracted scarlet fever, a disease long eradicated in the USA, which was followed by an even more exotic outbreak of a serious eye infection. Even this experience was enjoyable in a novel way. I traveled with my mother by cab to the inner city of Tehran to meet with a Iranian specialist. I was later admitted to the military hospital for eye surgery and enjoyed the attention and sympathy of the nurses, my family and my classmates, who were evidently required to create get well cards for me.
School was also wonderful in the 4th grade (in stark contrast to what awaited in the future) Firstly, I was not “the new kid” having arrived midway through 3rd grade. If fact, at the Tehran American School, being a new kid was no stigma. As the children of military, diplomatic or oil-company parents, we were all temporary in Tehran. We had an hour long daily bus ride to school, grades 1-12 all together, filling the time singing songs such as the traditional “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” and the more unusual “There Were 3 Jolly Fisherman” with its risqué refrain of “Amster, Amster, DAMN, DAMN, DAMN”. The school tried to replicate an American educational experience, down to a school newspaper and a football season with 4 teams, all fielded from the Tehran American School. I suspect that it was not a great achievement to make the team.
My best friend was Kim Kemp. She was also exotic in that her mother was divorced and remarried, a then rare family arrangement. Her stepfather, mother and infant sister shared a different last name which she claimed she could not adopt because “I would be Kimberly Clark like the tissues.” Her step father was oil company (aka rich compared to us military kids) and my first ever sleepover featured all manner of luxury – cookies baked for the occasion, real soda and permission to stay up all night.
American children in Tehran spoke constantly about what we missed from home. Bananas. Television (our shows in Tehran were at least 5 years behind). Real milk, thought we found it undrinkable after a steady diet of powdered. A care package from Nana – bubblegum, comic books and Barbies inspired bragging rights on the playground. But while we missed home and were secure in our knowledge that America was the best, we also now understood that there were other places, other peoples, other ways to live.
This lesson can only be experienced, not taught. I know few families get this opportunity and I would be none too pleased if Lo was to resettle abroad, but for me, it was truly one of the highlights of my childhood.