As a Pan Am flight attendant who traveled often to Iran in the 1960s and 1970s -- almost up until our very last emergency evacuation flights from Tehran -- I was transfixed by the film Argo, transported back in time with a strong feeling of déjà vu. The sights, the sounds, the fury of the crowds, and even the smells that were conjured up in my memory, came rushing back to me. The overwhelming vividness of the images made me feel I was there -- now - walking on those streets, and trying to make sense of what I was seeing.
Tehran was a frequently visited Pan Am destination because it was part of our famous round-the-world flights, both eastbound and westbound. The country of Iran straddles East and West, and therefore has always been strategically significant in the world.
Before my first trip, I eagerly consulted our Pan Am "bible," -- The New Horizons World Guide. To visit what used to be called the "Persian Empire" sounded exotic and intriguing. The truth was more complicated. I found Iran to be a complex country with a great deal of national pride about modernization juxtaposed with an ancient culture that bred resentment of Western culture.
Replacing his father on the throne of Iran in 1941, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi pledged to act as a constitutional monarch who would defer to the power of the parliamentary government. Instead, in 1967, the Shah crowned himself "King of Kings," heir to the kings of ancient Iran. He soon after began preparations for the over-the-top 1971 celebration of the 2500 anniversary of the foundation of the empire by Cyrus the Great.
Pan Am crews visiting Iran could feel the excitement -- and extravagance -- of this upcoming world event. We witnessed the building of the beautiful white monument outside of Mehrabad Airport, known as the Shahyad (King Memorial) Tower, now renamed the Azadi (freedom) Tower. Argo shows several shots of this gleaming white building, and captures the splendor of Tehran nestled at the slope of the Alborz Mountains. The scenes in the Grand Bazaar in the film were obviously not shot at the bazaar in Tehran -- a spot so familiar to those of us who loved to shop -- but it was close enough not to be distracting.
The last time I ever ventured out to the Grand Bazaar was in the fall of 1979. I went with a group of flight attendants, dressed as we always were to show respect for Iranian customs and dress codes. Leaving the bazaar, walking in the middle of four friends, I noticed a strange, menacing level of activity. I nervously observed a flow of people who were either just anxiously mulling around or walking quickly, all in the same direction. Suddenly, a large well-dressed man was striding directly toward me. Before I could figure out what to do, he walked right up to me, aggressively trying to grope me.
On the corner stood two policemen, watching the whole thing. From the hostile looks on their faces, I knew that if I turned to them for help, they'd put me in jail. My friends and I made a hurried beeline for a cab, and we sat there, dazed, wondering what had just happened. Even the taxi driver stared at us in a malevolent way. I knew that Tehran was no longer a safe place, and it took a while for my heart to stop beating so fast.
I had one more round-the-world trip scheduled to stop in Iran. The Shah had not yet left, nor had the 52 U.S. hostages been taken. When our Pan Am crew arrived in Tehran, the air itself felt thick with anger and hostility. I found myself anxiously looking around as we boarded our crew bus. It was suggested that we try not to be seen, so I found myself sitting on the floor of the bus in the middle of an impending revolution. I sat there thinking, "I can't believe this is happening," and I could only imagine what a prize it would be to kidnap an entire Pan Am crew. We arrived at the hotel safely, and it wasn't long afterwards that Pan Am began evacuating Americans. Seemingly overnight, Iran went from being America's steadfast ally, to declaring themselves to be our mortal enemy.
And here is where the heroism of the Pan Am crews who volunteered to participate in the evacuation comes in. Historically, because Pan Am was known as the international flag carrier of the United States, the airline considered the well-being of our citizens to be part of the employees' commitment to ensuring passenger safety in our "Pan Am World." When Pan Am sent out a request for volunteers to help with the evacuation, more than enough people responded. If I hadn't been at home in Los Angeles -- too far away to get there in time -- I would have been there too!
Pan Am had always been central to many evacuations and missions of mercy around the world; for example, the Bay of Pigs, Beirut, and Vietnam, to name just a few. Argo accurately portrays the atmosphere of danger, panic, and violence that these brave Pan Am volunteers agreed to face. They knew that they were putting their lives on the line, flying into the world's most dangerous place. Their individual stories are compelling, these volunteers having had a front row seat in an erupting and massive revolution.
There's no doubt that we former Pan Am employees who were very familiar with Iran will collectively proclaim, "Bravo, Ben Affleck, et al. You nailed it!"