I was listening to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross speak with “Argo” director Ben Affleck earlier this week.
“Argo”, as you may recall, is a ‘based on true events’ movie about something called the Canadian Caper. It’s the story of how six Americans stranded by the Iranian Hostage Crisis were smuggled to safety thanks to some brave and clever plotting by Canadian embassy personnel and CIA operatives.
I’ve blogger earlier about the way a Hollywood movie made primarily by and for Americans arguably deprived some of the Canadian players of credit they deserved. In that post I mostly focused on Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador to Iran during that period in question. Something I neglected to do was talk enough about John Sheardown, who died on Dec 30, at age 88.
Sometimes I suspect we give too much glory to WW II veterans, because that war seemed more clear-cut, more heroic than the messy conflicts that have followed since. Other times I think, no. They don’t get nearly enough admiration.
Read more about John Sheardown and decide that question for yourself. As the Ottawa Citizen reports, when the Americans who had escaped first approached Sheardown for assistance, he replied “Hell yes. Of course. Count on us.” By many accounts he also exclaimed “Why didn’t you call sooner?”
This Citizen Op-ed speaks to Sheardown’s life-long can-do spirit. While serving with the RCAF during WW II:
He once broke both legs in a low-level parachute drop over England (for which he was awarded a “caterpillar card,” one of his prized possessions). After crawling from the drop zone to a local pub in the dead of night, Sheardown introduced himself to the owner and asked him for a Scotch.
The Globe and Mail called Sheardown a diplomate daredevil, and more.
When his future wife encountered him for the first time in London, she asked a friend who the well-dressed man was. “Why, that’s John Sheardown, the kindest man on Earth,” the friend replied. “If he was down to his last penny and he thought you needed it, he would give it to you.” The two were married in Los Angeles in 1975, his second marriage.
Zena (Khan) Sheardown and Patricia Taylor (wife of Ken Taylor) deserve much credit for the ‘Canadian Caper’ as well. As reported by the Washington Post:
In the aftermath of the Iranian crisis, [Ken] Taylor and Mr. Sheardown received the Order of Canada, one of their country’s highest civilian honors. Mr. Sheardown waged a public and ultimately successful campaign to recognize his wife with the same award. Patricia Taylor, the ambassador’s wife, also received the prize.
“The men went to the office every day,” Mr. Sheardown told the New York Times in 1981. “The wives had a 24-hour responsibility. What we did was a normal extension of our functions. What they did was extraordinary.”
If this sort of story interests you, it’s worth exploring some of the first-person accounts, such as this Oct 2012 Slate article “I was rescued from Iran. It wasn’t like the movie” by one of the Americans Sheardown sheltered, Mark Lijek:
John became our substitute father and Zena our buffer against the outside world, answering the door and telephone, dealing with the gardener—who had ties to the komiteh. The landlord was trying to sell the house, so she had to contend with him and with visits from potential buyers. We needed to stay invisible; she helped ensure that we did.
Largely because of “Argo” Sheardown’s death was international news. In the UK the Telegraph marked his passing and paid tribute to his resourceful courage in rescuing the American fugivites.
“We were under surveillance,” Sheardown recalled in an interview. “We had tanks at one end of the street and a fellow that walked up and down. They were always suspicious.” During the two months they housed the Americans, the Sheardowns had to think of ingenious ways not to arouse suspicion. To disguise the need for extra food, they bought groceries at different shops, while Sheardown disposed of rubbish on the way to work to camouflage the amount of refuse they were generating.
The New York Times also reported on this back story and why it didn’t all make the movie:
After “Argo” appeared in theaters, Ms. Sheardown said, its director, Ben Affleck, called to apologize for leaving her and her husband out of the movie. In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Affleck said he had been fully aware of the Sheardowns’ heroism before the film was shot, but had reluctantly omitted it for reasons of length, drama and cost.
“They got lost in the shuffle,” Mr. Affleck said. “It really did break my heart a bit.”
“Argo” won big at the recent Golden Globes (best picture, best director for Ben Affleck). The movie has been nominated for seven catagories (including best picture) at the upcoming Academy Awards.
In light of all that – and because he seems like a really good guy – I just wanted to offer a tip of the hat to the life of John Sheardown.
Maybe they don’t make ’em like that any more, maybe they do. Either way, courage and grace under pressure are worth saluting.