THE BANGUI BOTTLENECK
By now, in its various retellings, most Americans know about that political theater and patriotic causus belli known as the Iranian Hostage Crisis. For those few who do not, this enduring scar on the American psyche began on November 4, 1979 when fifty-two US Embassy workers in Teheran were taken hostage by Iranian “radicals” and held captive there for 444 days, by any stretch, a nice round number.
To this day, the “crisis” stands as a Rorschach test of political ideology. Some, like then-President Jimmy Carter, saw it as an act of “terrorism and anarchy”. Given that it probably cost him re-election, you can see why. Others, less prone to nationalistic jingoism, saw the hostage-taking as a crude though highly effective stick-in-the-eye payback for CIA meddling in Iranian domestic politics. (See: “CIA-backed coup d’etat, Iran, 1953.”)
Even the prologue to Ben Affleck’s Oscar winning movie “Argo” offers a short primer on that little piece of U.S. spy agency meddling: at the time, the bulwark of U.S. foreign policy not dedicated to fighting a Cold War that had already been won, was focused on installing far-off dictators (in Iran’s case, Shah Mohammad Reza Palavi) sympathetic to our appetite for natural resources (in Iran’s case oil), and keeping them in power for as long as possible. In Iran, this would be 20-odd years, until the 1979 Islamic revolution, which ran the Shah from “Persia” like a fugitive from a chain gang.
At precisely the same time as the Hostage Crisis, three-thousand and one-half miles away, in the capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui, Eddie Frank’s fledgling Tusker Trail (then known as the Tusker Trail and Safari Company) was undergoing a little crisis of its own.
Eddie was midway through leading one of Tusker’s early trans-African overland expeditions. A dozen intrepid adventurers, including Eddie’s peripatetic brother, Laurence (seen at right doing his best “Jagger”), had answered Eddie’s call to adventure – a 1-inch classified ad in the back pages of the LA Times (the 70’s low-tech version of Craig’s List) to travel overland from Munich to Cape Town for a mere $1,850. That’s $5,835.96 in today’s money.
Eddie’s overland route was as far-flung as it was audacious. The group would meet in Munich, travel south through the Alps in a German army surplus M.A.N. 4×4 truck – customized single-handedly by Eddie with forward-facing “coach” seats and a removable canopy – to Palermo, Sicily, where they would board a ferry to cross the Mediterranean for Tunis, North Africa. From there they would cross the Sahara south through Algeria, pushing into Niger, then Nigeria, and then Cameroon at the equator, where they would hang a left, as the saying went, for East Africa.
Because of the nature of today’s geopolitics (read: American-hating Islamists in North Africa), this route today would be suicide for anyone other than a member of AQIM (Al Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb). But those who did get to see the Ahaggar Mountains in the Algerian Sahara (“lunar”, according to Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon); or Niger’s Grand Agadez Mosque, built in 1515, as you emerge from the desert, stand among the overlanding community’s elite.
Once passing into the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) from Cameroon, en route to Zaire and then Tanzania and Kenya, Tusker’s crisis struck: Zaire had randomly closed its borders as it was to do, forcing all eastbound overland traffic north through the Sudan, which, overloaded by the sudden bureaucratic avalanche, closed its borders as well.
Thus, Tusker’s eastward trek was halted, and with little choice, Eddie had his group set up camp in the C.A.R.’s capital, Bangui, in a vacant dirt lot adjacent to the “luxury” Rock Hotel, where the scruffy Tusker travelers could be found evenings, spending all their pocket change drinking up the hotel’s beer. And if budgets weren’t busted at the bar, the French pastries about town – a holdover from the French colonial era – certainly finished them off.
Food was plentiful in the marketplaces, and so Tuskerheads (as they called themselves), by now skilled in cooking on the campfire, never went hungry. Even more accomplished, though, were the local thieves, necessitating a round-the-clock guard duty in camp to protect the gear, the food supply, and of course the overlanders’ precious camera equipment (pre-digital, of course).
And because of the logjam at the C.A.R.-Sudanense/Zaire border, within a week of Tusker’s arrival, the dirt lot devolved into an ad-hoc tent city populated by vagabonds, truckers and like-wayfarers with no-place else to go.
Operation Pigeon Toe
Just as going forward was not a Tusker option, neither was retracing their steps west. Where would they go? Back to Tunis? The expedition was East Africa-bound, and no amount of geopolitics, large or small, would deter it. That was Eddie’s mindset, at any rate. It has served him well over the years, in many a like-pinch.
Not quite as interminable as the diplomatic mess in Teheran, Tusker’s Bangui Bottleneck was well into its fourteenth (dusty and boring) day when, after much persistence, Eddie finally got access to an official at the U.S. Embassy, Head Consul Cox, an affable former Navy pilot. Though sympathetic, Consul Cox leveled with Eddie: without an official directive from D.C., there was nothing he could do to help get Eddie and his by-now motley group out of the C.A.R., and into the Sudan.
By then, President Jimmy Carter’s attempt at a Special Ops rescue of the Iranian hostages in the form of Operation Eagle Claw (more aptly dubbed Operation Pigeon Toe), had become the late-night talk show host punchline du jour. Unlike the efficient takedown of OBL (Osama Bin Laden), as chronicled by “Argo’s” Oscar rival, “Zero Dark Thirty”, Carter’s foray into SpecOps derring-do was nothing short of disastrous. Two helicopters collided on landing in the desert outside Teheran, costing the lives of eight U.S. commandos, one Iranian civilian, destroying the whirlybirds, of course.
The Network Effect
It was against this historical backdrop that Eddie realized he’d have to pull off something just short of a miracle. While getting no joy from the Consul, he would have to reach further afield to get the hell out of dodge: he would need help from Washington. The closest Eddie had come to Washington was getting his dreaded “draft letter” from the Draft Board over ten years prior, back when young men of a certain age faced conscription – that is, forced “employment” in the country’s only true job corps – the Army, and no, that was not during the Civil War. Try Vietnam.
Eddie went on to call everyone he knew from his past life in Los Angeles – before he got into the adventure business. That would include actors, photographers, gaffers, models, wannabes, has-beens, lowlifes, his accountant, and even a criminal or two. And calling from Bangui to L.A. back in the pre-cell/pre-Sat phone days was a lot harder than it sounds. It meant queuing hours for a shot at a phone in the local Post Office, which, more often than not, would not work; or sweet-talking (actually, bribing) the night manager at the hotel to let him dial out. And by dialing, one means turning a rotary “dial” with your index finger.
Finally, after exhausting all possible contacts with (fantasy) links to Washington, Eddie knew that he was out of options and at the mercy of “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”, which is to say, the network effect – 30 years before social media.
A long week went by. By now, more than two dozen vehicles had piled into Bangui’s dirt lot. Hair was growing long and tempers short, and sanitation was decidedly less than five-star. Studiously, and without fail, Eddie would get over to the U.S. Embassy each day to see whether the Sudanese or Zairian border had come open, or by some miracle, intervention from on high had occurred. It was starting to feel as if Hell would freeze over before either would materialize.
But then, taking even Eddie by surprise, deliverance arrived. It came in the form of a Telex (the precursor of networked texting, using an arcane Rube Goldberg apparatus that looks like a prop from a 50’s sci-fi flick), from none other than the U.S. State Department. As memory serves, the text went something like this:
“You are hereby instructed to help the Americans led by Eddie Frank obtain their visas for onward travel to the Sudan.” Signed Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State.
It seems that because of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, paranoia in Washington broiled at a fever pitch, and once “State” got wind of Tusker’s Sudanese visa dilemma, many feared that this or any group of Americans stranded in the Third World could be taken hostage, which would cause even greater embarrassment to the Administration in the run-up to an election year. And so the Cyrus Vance telex came through.
Thus armed, Eddie gathered up all the Tuskerheads’ passports, strode triumphantly into the since-shuttered U.S. Embassy in Bangui, and with the help of Consul Cox, got everyone stamped with a visa for the Sudan.
The Truth Comes Out
As Tusker’s monstrous orange M.A.N. converted 4×4 truck pulled out of the dirt lot tent city for good, everyone on that vehicle became the envy of the still-stranded citizens. The rest, as they say, is history.
Tusker sailed onto the Sudan, and into its future as one of the world’s leading adventure outfitters. And three days later, after trouncing Jimmy Carter at the polls to become the 40th President of the United States, on the very day of his inauguration, Ronald Reagan got the Iranian hostages released, leading many to suspect a side deal between Reagan and the Iranians to keep Carter from saving the day, and most likely winning re-election. Over thirty years later, the truth of what happened in Teheran remains a mystery.
Equally a mystery – until now – has been the identity of the person who got all the way to the top of the State Department on behalf of Eddie. She can now be revealed as his mother.
You’ve heard of burning vehicles being lifted to free trapped children. Well, as a rising account executive at British Airways in Los Angeles, Evelyn Frank achieved the diplomatic equivalent. On her two sons’ behalf, she networked her way through heavy traffic during an international crisis, all the way to the mighty Cyrus Vance. Don’t ask how. It was a mother’s prerogative. Anything to protect her boys.
Eddie Frank had exhausted all his cunning, ingenuity and stamina to get his overland group out of Bangui. It would not be enough. Even world-class adventurers, albeit in embryo, need a mother.
Photo credits: Tom Koutz, Eddie Frank