Americans, including ‘Argo’ pair, recall embassy’s fall in Iran

He was the transportation coordinator for a sci-fi film; she was the script writer. Or so they said.

The colonel? He was the CIA spy. Or so his captors said.

In November 1979, it was dangerous to be an American in Tehran, Iran.

Mark and Cora Lijek got away. State Department employees, they masqueraded as filmmakers long enough to escape Tehran. Their exploits are depicted (embellished, too) in “Argo,” which won several Oscars, including best picture, at this year’s ceremony.

Jonesboro resident Charles Scott, in 1979 a colonel in the U.S. Army and the embassy’s chief defense liaison, wasn’t as fortunate when Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy nearly 34 years ago. Scott and 51 others spent 444 days as prisoners.

Friday, the three shared a stage at the Shepherd Center as guests of the Atlanta chapter of the West Point Society. The society hosted a fundraiser for SHARE Military Initiative, a center program providing care for veterans who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries and/or post-traumatic stress disorder in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

» More on the SHARE Military Initiative: Shepherd Center's Program Aids Soldiers

For nearly three hours, the Lijeks and Scott shared memories about the uprising — and dispelled some misconceptions, too.

“’Argo’ was a good movie,” said Mark Lijek, 61 and a Seattle resident. “It’s just not history.”

What happened on Nov, 4, 1979 — Scott called it “the worst day in my life” — is the stuff of history. Iranian students stormed the embassy, taking as hostage Scott and dozens of other Americans.

Their capture capped months of mounting unrest following Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s abdication. When President Jimmy Carter allowed the former Iranian leader to enter the United States for medical treatment, tension in Iran boiled over. Students and others who saw the shah as a puppet for American interests took the embassy and every American they could find.

The Lijeks weren’t in the main building when it fell. Bob Anders, the head of the immigration desk at the U.S. Embassy, directed them to his apartment.

In the next six days, they moved five times. By then, the Americans on the run numbered six.

They came, at last, to Canadian diplomats John Sheardown and Ken Taylor. Sheardown was Anders’ Canadian counterpart, overseeing immigration affairs; Taylor was that country’s ambassador to Iran. They welcomed the Americans to a couple of Canadian homes.

It was, the Lijeks agreed, a godsend. “The first days (on the run) were the worst,” Cora Lijek said.

But the Lijeks and their fellow fugitives knew they couldn’t stay indefinitely. Surely someone would start asking questions.

Enter CIA operative Tony Mendez, an expert on “extractions,” spiriting people out of countries. Working undercover, he visited the six Americans and made an audacious proposal: pose as filmmakers scouting locations to shoot “Argo,” a sci-fi thriller.

“I called it ‘Buck Rogers in the Desert,’” Mark Lijek said, referring to the comic-strip action hero from the last century.

Cora Lijek, 59, who read the script Mendez provided, agreed. “It was pretty cheesy.”

The Lijeks realized how fortunate they were. “When you think about what was happening in Iran, to the hostages, life (for the six) was surreal,” he said.

Scott’s life was defined by pain. His captors hung him by his wrists; they called him names and accused him of spying.

“You are as good as dead,” one told him.

Striding the stage, Scott, now 81, paused, remembering a night prison keepers herded him and other captives outside. In the darkness, they heard rifles cocking, an order to ready, aim —

No one whimpered. No one begged for mercy. If they were to die, they’d do so with guts.

“I realized I was in the best company I’d ever been in,” said Scott.

Then — Fire!

It was a mock execution, another cruel moment among many.

The moment the Lijeks anticipated came Jan. 28, 1980. The six Americans, still posting as filmmakers, arrived at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran. It was 5 a.m.

The Americans, who were carrying fake Canadian passports, fretted. Cora Lijek and two others had been active in issuing visas for travel to the United States. What if someone recognized them?

A sleepy clerk making tea reviewed their credentials with hardly a glance. He waved them on — not the sort of ending, said Mark Lijek, that audiences pay to see. “Argo” has a more dramatic ending.

The six arrived in America, making headlines across the world. In Iran, Scott’s captors fumed. One, he said, accused Canada of violating international law with its ruse — forgetting that Iran held 52 Americans against their will.

Iran kept the Americans until the day Ronald Reagan took the presidential oath of office in 1981. The country released the 52, who got a heroes’ welcome with a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

End of story? Hardly.

Mark Lijek went on to a successful career in the State Department, with postings elsewhere in the world. While hiding, Cora Lijek reconsidered her decision not to have children. The Lijeks have two.

Scott retired from the Army in 1981 after more than three decades of service and became a motivational speaker. A popular topic: how to get through tough times.

They’ve seen the movie. It is, they agreed, great entertainment.

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