John Krauskopf Remembers Lee St. Lawrence (Iran)

John Krauskopf

In reading the recent Peace Corps Writers article about Lee St. Lawrence I discovered that Lee was a Peace Corps guy.  He had never mentioned this background in all the time I knew him.  We were among a tiny handful of ex-patriots in Ahwaz, Iran, where he was the top adviser to the Iranian Director of the Khuzistan Water and Power Authority (KWPA) and one of the last foreign nationals involved in this project.  I met Lee during the first couple of weeks after I arrived in Ahwaz when my Peace Corps assignment had not yet solidified.  He invited me and the three other PCVs in Ahwaz to come to the KWPA housing compound where he lived whenever we needed a break.  The residents of the 50 or so KWPA-owned western style houses had access to a swimming pool, a cinema, a library holding English books and a club (“cloob” in Farsi) with a full bar.  I seldom took advantage of this invitation because I soon got pretty comfortable in the Iranian culture, but I remember a New Years Eve party at the “cloob” that filled a cultural need.

Then I got Typhoid.  After two weeks in the hospital, Doctor Ajemi was willing to release me, but said I couldn’t go back to work without several weeks of rest and a controlled diet – no more food from the bazaar and the teahouses for a while.  This is how I came to be the house guest of Lee and his wife Anne for three weeks.  This gave me a chance to get to know Lee because he wanted to talk when he came home from the office.  I was the recipient of the St. Lawrence’s hospitality and generosity, but it should have given me a clue that Lee had a special place for the Peace Corps in his heart.

Some months later I was in Lee’s office at KWPA asking his advice about some minor matter when we were interrupted by a knock at the door.  Lee had a very, very British male secretary (think Downton Abbey) who gently opened the door and spoke deferentially, “Please pardon me, Mr. St. Lawrence, but there is a Mr. S. Muggler here to see you.”  Lee responded, “Tell him to leave two bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label, and you can take the money from the entertainment fund.”  While growing up, I thought that it was pretty neat that the milkman delivered right to our house.  Clearly, I was now in the adult realm.

I now know that Lee had a Peace Corps background, and he was certainly kind and sympathetic to the PCVs he encountered in Iran, but at this stage in his life he did not live like a Peace Corps volunteer.  He was well compensated and given a very nice house.  His contract allowed him to ship in his household furniture and belongings which were exotic and collected from all over the world. Among these treasures was an expensive twelve place setting of top-quality china, crystal and table silver. I got to see the splendor of this set by being included at a V.I.P. dinner given by the St. Lawrences when I was convalescing at their home.  One night, Lee came home and Anne told him that one of the plates was broken.  She suspected that Ali, their servant/cook, had broken it, but Ali denied it.  Lee and Ali had a good relationship; Lee paid him well; Ali was diligent and used to working for foreigners.  Lee had one ironclad demand – complete honesty, and this was bound to lead to a clash with the Iranian cultural values about non-confrontation and face saving. Lee asked again what had happened to the plate. Ali tried to defuse the confrontation and save face by saying that the cat had bumped it off the table. This, of course, was a violation of Lee’s rule number one. He then ordered Ali to get out all of the china and silver and set out a formal dinner for twelve on the enormous dining table. Lee then retrieved the cat from somewhere and tossed her onto the middle of the table. The surprised cat landed sure-footedly, then carefully tiptoed around the teapot, through a couple of crystal flutes, stepped over a bread plate and around a big dinner plate and jumped off the table and onto the room-sized Persian carpet. Lee again asked Ali how the plate got broken. “I broke it,” Ali admitted. Lee then told Ali to put all the dishes away. This incident could have been very bad, and it certainly was not culturally sensitive the way the Peace Corps had tried to train us to be.  However, amazingly, both Ali and the cat remained content and loyal to Lee and Anne until his contract was up and the St. Lawrences left Iran.

The following is an excerpt that involved Lee St. Lawrence taken from “El Tor Met Its Match,” a story about cholera, included in my book Iran – Stories from the Peace Corps:

Infected travelers were the main vector in the spread of El Tor. As a defense, Iran set up cholera checkpoints on all the main roads. These were staffed by conscripted Health Corps medical aides who handled the actual injections and army soldiers with rifles who made sure that those who passed either had an official cholera card with them or went over to the health worker to get an injection on the spot. In most areas of Iranian life, a V.I.P. (Mard-e-bozorg in Farsi) can get around such requirements. They use “parti.” (“My brother is a general, and he says I don’t have to do this.”)  They pull rank. (“I’m head of a provincial office, and I tell you I have had this shot, but I just didn’t bring my card so you have to let me pass.”)  They often raise a public fuss with lots of yelling and histrionics. They may even offer some “bakhshesh” (gift or bribe) to avoid the injection. One or a combination of these tactics usually is successful.  But El Tor was different. The army had been put in charge of enforcement. Apparently, when a lowly Iranian soldier is told that no one passes this point without a cholera card or an injection, the consequences of not following this order are severe enough to elicit strict compliance, even in the face of strong social class pressure from a Mard-e-bozorg.

The Khuzistan Water and Power Authority built the Dez dam and ran the electric utility for the province.  Mr. Engineer Ansari (not his real name), the head of the KWPA, was the quintessential Mard-e-bozorg. He set out on a trip from Ahwaz to Abadan in the company Mercedes accompanied by Lee St. Lawrence, his American adviser and one of the few foreign nationals still involved in the development. Lee later related to his Peace Corps friends that he had reminded Engineer Ansari that they needed to take their cholera cards because of the checkpoint on the desert road. Ansari said he couldn’t find his card but dismissed the concern since he was sure they wouldn’t make HIM get another injection. At the checkpoint, the driver displayed his current vaccination card and was passed through. Lee showed the soldier his card, but Engineer Ansari tried to talk his way out of the requirement. Finally, the barely literate soldier ordered Ansari to get out of the car at the point of his rifle, followed him over to the tent and told him to roll up his sleeve. Back in the air-conditioned Mercedes with his newly signed cholera card and a chagrined look on his face, Ansari promised Lee that he wouldn’t forget the card on the next trip.

Four years later I had another encounter with Lee St. Lawrence in Bangkok. I can’t remember how I knew he was in Thailand, but I looked him up. He was working on a dam and development project on the Mekong River, similar to the KWPA project he had worked on in Iran.  He was surprised to see me. When I told him that I had been working on Peace Corps training projects in Iran, he asked whether I was free that night. When I said I had no plans, Lee responded, “Just a minute, let me make a phone call.” When he finished, he said that there was a Peace Corps reception and dinner that night and he had arranged a ticket for me. These festivities were in honor of Neil Armstrong who had recently returned from the moon. President Nixon had sent Armstrong on a goodwill tour around the World. He had that day lunched with the King of Thailand and to meet the famous astronaut all of the Thai government bigwigs.  Interestingly, Nixon had also appointed Armstrong to the Peace Corps Advisory Board. Neil, unlike some political appointees, took his role seriously and asked the State Department to set up this reception and dinner so he could meet PCVs who were actively serving. Thai PCVs from around the capital were called in plus one stray PCV from Iran. I sat at Neil’s table and was able to tell him that most Iranians had stayed up all night to watch the TV coverage of the Apollo landing.

Lee may have left Peace Corps employment and not talked much about it, but he continued to take a quiet interest in an institution he had done much to launch.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer John Krauskopf (Iran 1965-67)taught English in the boys’ secondary schools in Ahwaz, the provincial capital of Khuzistan Province in Iran. In 1969, he returned to Iran for the in-country portion of that year’s Peace Corps training where he supervised a teacher-training summer school. After ten years of involvement in international student exchange with Experiment for International Living, he spent more than two decades as the foreign student adviser and director of the English as a Second Language Institute in Millbrae, California before retiring. He has published a book about his Peace Corps experiences, Iran – Stories from the Peace Corps. John is currently serving on the Board of Directors of the Western Railway Museum in Solano County, California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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