Dave was in his office at the university when he got the call.
“There’s a plane leaving Shiraz in three hours.” The voice on the other end was Dave’s friend Martin. “There are two spare seats.”
The airport had been closed for more than a week, but somehow a British construction company had convinced the authorities to open it for a charter flight to pull the last of its employees out. Their wives and children had been evacuated weeks ago. Martin, an internist at a Christian hospital, had treated some of the company’s employees and they tipped him off about the flight and the spare seats. Martin’s wife and daughters would be taking five of them. Dave and Lynne, he said, could have two.
Dave biked home through deserted streets, soldiers watching him from tanks as he rushed through the intersections. He burst in the door and told Lynne that they had one hour to pack. They scrambled, valuables first—cash, Bibles, clothes—then ran out the door with one suitcase each.
The bus to the airport took 30 minutes. As they passed a gas station, Dave saw a man being pulled from his car by soldiers and struck in the face with a rifle butt. The bus turned before he could see whether it was a foreigner or an Iranian.
The airport terminal was closed, so they ran around the building, across the tarmac, and onto the plane. They got on, sat down, looked at each other. Martin’s wife and four daughters were there, buckled in, but Martin had stayed behind. The flight would take them to Bahrain, drop them off, and then come back for another batch of employees.
The doors closed and the engines started up. The plane taxied, accelerated, took off. As soon as the wheels left the ground, the passengers erupted in cheers and applause. When the plane leveled off, the flight attendants opened Champagne.
The date was Jan. 3, 1979. Dave and Lynne had moved to Iran to be Christian missionaries, but it had become gradually, then suddenly, clear that they had chosen the wrong country, the wrong time, the wrong reason to be there. Soon, the country spiraling and shrinking below them would be an Islamic Republic, the Shah going into exile, the Ayatollah Khomeini coming out of it.
“Welcome on board.” Dave looked up to see a flight attendant looking down. “So would you like to buy a ticket for this flight?”
* * *
Dave and Lynne are my parents. I’ve been hearing this story for years, how they moved to Iran with no idea the revolution was coming, how they got out right before it began. This “one hour, one suitcase” dash to the airport is family lore, a story we tell over and over.
Last year my parents unearthed a box with all of their letters from Iran, June to December 1978. They describe the city, the culture, the politics, their jobs, their friends. They do not describe a country crumbling around them, a revolution obvious and inevitable. In fact, much like my parents’ letters now, they are mostly about the weather.
Starting last fall I sat my parents down for a proper conversation about what happened. I read their letters, made them repeat the timeline, interviewed their friends who were there in ’78. And I kept asking the same questions: How could you not see the revolution coming? Why didn’t you leave sooner? And what were you doing being Christian missionaries in Iran in the first place?
The third question, it turns out, is the easiest to answer.
Dave got the idea in 1975. At a conference for Christian students, he met a woman who had just returned from a stint as a “tentmaker” missionary overseas. The idea was named for the Apostle Paul, who supported himself making tents while spreading the Gospel. Tentmaker missionaries moved to non-Christian countries and took day jobs in their professional fields, then did some light missionary work in their spare time.
This sounds dastardly, like some sort of Salvation Army covert ops, but the idea wasn’t standing on street corners with a picket signs or handing out Bibles. The objective, as the woman at the conference put it, was just to “witness”—set a good example, answer questions, be an ambassador for Christianity in countries where most people didn’t know one.
Dave had met Lynne a year before the conference, at another social event for young Christians. Just after the conference, they started dating, and Dave pitched Lynne the idea of spending their first few years of marriage doing this tentmaker thing. Dave was from rural Ohio. His only experience of the world was two years on the USS Enterprise, parked off the coast of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Dave was one of the aircraft carrier’s dentists, cooped up below decks, only seeing the ports for a day, a weekend, at a time.
Lynne was the daughter of an Air Force colonel, and grew up in two-year stints on military bases in Germany, Greece, all over the United States. She lived in France for a year in college, and she still reads Little House on the Prairie in French, over and over again, almost every year. For Dave, being a tentmaker missionary was a way to catch up to Lynne’s international experience, to turn his brief glimpses of other cultures into a stare. For Lynne, it was a way to start over somewhere as an adult, a return to the arrive-and-adjust cycle she remembered growing up.
In 1976 they got married, and in 1977 Dave started sending out applications to teach at dental schools in minority-Christian countries. Egypt, Hong Kong, Iran—they weren’t all that concerned about where they ended up. The point was to go somewhere different, difficult. The specifics they could figure out after they arrived.
The first response came back, a job offer, a two-year teaching gig at Pahlavi University in Shiraz. They looked up the city in an atlas: 4,000 years old, 500,000 people, 90 minutes’ flight south of Tehran. Sure, why not? They accepted the offer and started packing.
They arrived on June 22, 1978. Lynne was 26, Dave was 32. In pictures they are tan, arms around each other, bellbottoms and newlywed smiles. Lynne looks like Barbra Streisand in A Star Is Born. Dave already has the Johnny Carson comb-over and the Rob Reiner turtlenecks he still wears now.
Their first impression of Shiraz was the dust. The mountains flanking the city were the same beige as the streets. Dust blurred the traffic signs and the smiling posters of the Shah on the street corners, piled up in patterns on the blank walls encircling grand villas and private gardens. Underneath the dust, Shiraz was a hodgepodge of new shops and supermarkets opened during the early-’70s oil boom sharing streets with public buildings abandoned during the bust that followed.
It was, at that time, a great city in which to mingle with other religions. Dave and Lynne rented a duplex owned by a Jewish couple. Every morning they walked past Zoroastrian temples, synagogues, and mosques next door to each other. They bought yogurt and flatbread at shops run by Baha’is, Assyrians, Christians, and Hindus. Dave’s colleagues at the university were Iranian Jews, Indian Christians, British atheists, mixtures of nationalities and religions they had never encountered before.