A Teen Runs to the Fire in 1970s Ethiopia

Apr 21, 2015

Writer Tim Bascom at home in Forest City in front of an Ethiopian piece of art.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

  Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Tim Bascom was 16 years old when his parents decided to return to Ethiopia where they had served a previous mission. It was 1977. The country was in turmoil, emperor Haile Selassie booted from power, a Marxist revolution in progress. Bascom says he needed to document the experience of living through this revolt to understand how it shaped his young life.

“We had lived in Ethiopia during a very turbulent time for one year," he says, "and one of the questions I kept asking was ‘why was that one of the best years of my life?’ It didn’t seem to make sense.”

Bascom’s family had been living for six years in Troy, Kan., population 1,200, when his physician father felt called by God to head back to the horn of Africa. At the time, Bascom says personally he was becoming restless and bored in Middle America and starting to question his own future.

“What can I matter in this world?" he asks, "What can I do? What is important? What will I give myself to? Is there a cause? Is there something really important?

Bascom was speaking to a gathering in a lounge of the library at Waldorf College in Forest City. He’s director of the creative writing program at Waldorf. The group was assembled to hear him read from his second memoir, “Running to the Fire.”  He says that’s what his family did while most other Western Christians were fleeing a nation under siege from Communist rebels.

“The mission was losing missionary after missionary after missionary because of the circumstances," he says, "and [my parents] had been contacted and asked, would you come? Particularly my father because he was a doctor and they were now down to just one doctor in the whole country for the mission.”

Bascom read a passage from his book, which details a scene making it clear why so many missionaries wanted to escape the violent chaos in Ethiopia during the 1970s. One day he was sitting at the back of a bus on his way to school when armed guards forced the driver to stop at a checkpoint. A soldier stared at Bascom.

“Then the gun barrel came up aimed at my chest," he reads, "and with a snarl the gunner began to jerk as if riding a jackhammer. I fell to the floor heart hammering. When I peered down at my torso, I expected a row of bloody holes.”

When Bascom next looks out the window, he sees the guard slapping a comrade on the back and laughing at the fear he created with the fake shooting. Bascom did encounter real cases of bloodshed, like the time he came across an Ethiopian boy about his same age who had been shot in the head. Bascom recalls these incidents in vivid detail, much as he did in his first memoir, “Chameleon Days.” These accounts are not all from memory. He gives himself some literary license to recreate his family history.

“A memoir is a carefully built account crafted with a creative element to it," he says, "an imaginative element, to get as close as possible to what actually happened given that you have huge gaps in what you can remember.”

The epilogue of “Running to the Fire” describes Bascom’s first time back to Ethiopia, a trip he took in late 2010 with his youngest son. The eighth-grade boy, a bit younger than Bascom was in 1977, was able to see firsthand where his father came of age during a revolution. 

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