By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006
It was a small thing really, barely bigger than a credit card, tucked unpretentiously in a small black case. For each of the 52 American hostages who bounded off the plane, free at last, the ticket stuffed inside the box was another of the trinkets that piled up around them. A modest reward for the cold, metal muzzle of a shotgun pressed against their faces.
For 444 days they had been tied and blindfolded, held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Iran by student revolutionaries incensed at the United States' decision to admit Iran's ailing and deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, for medical treatment. Long before 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, there were the Iran hostages. Their plight paralyzed a country unaccustomed to such an affront and likely cost President Jimmy Carter reelection in 1980. Then, 25 years ago today, they were released the moment Ronald Reagan took the oath of office.
They returned to an adoring nation that gave them a ticker-tape parade and welcomed them as heroes. They were besieged with flags, yellow ribbons and countless gifts, among them the tiny box from Major League Baseball. Inside was a lifetime pass to any major or minor league game.
What each did with the pass says something about the group of 52 diplomats and military personnel. Some embraced it, using it often. Others tucked it away, rarely, if ever, pulling it out. The response was as varied as the ways they approached their notoriety and fame, back then and in the quarter-century that has passed, a quarter-century that has seen the number of living former hostages dwindle to 42.
Rocky Sickmann, a Marine guard from outside St. Louis, immediately put his in a safety deposit box. Bruce Laingen, the embassy's charge d'affaires, would later gush about the pass: "Not many people have that!" Steve Kirtley, another Marine guard who now lives in McLean, used it last June to take his two youngest sons to a Nationals game.
In the case of Barry Rosen, the embassy's press attache from New York, the little gold card helped to heal his family.
He stepped off the plane at Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, N.Y., on Jan. 25 gaunt, weary and a disheveled mess. He scanned the crowd and found his wife, Barbara, "looking as beautiful as ever." Beside her stood their son, Alexander, dressed in a suit and their little girl, Ariana, an infant when he had left more than two years before, in a red coat and a matching red dress.
"The movie should have ended right there," Rosen said with a laugh.
But the hero to America was a mystery to his family. Alexander, just 2 1/2 when Rosen left for Iran, had only vague recollections of his father; Ariana didn't know him at all. His return was an intrusion.
"My children were very fearful of me," Rosen recalled. "It wasn't that I was an ogre, they didn't know who the hell I was. They were with their mother all the time and then this strange man walked in the house. I couldn't take them out of the house. They wouldn't go anywhere with me."
Then the baseball pass arrived. Rosen grew up in Brooklyn a Dodgers fan and loved National League baseball. Maybe his kids would, too. "If it's a way of bringing us together, let's use it," he remembered Barbara saying.
Their first game, at Shea Stadium in New York, was so wonderful, he couldn't have drawn it better himself. The sky was clear, the sun sparkled on the grass. They arrived early to watch batting practice and then didn't want to leave.
"They had never, never been to a baseball game," he said. "You see a baseball field for the first time and it's a beautiful, beautiful thing. I got Alexander a glove, I got the kids hats. My little girl was squirming all over the place. But we were all together and that was the important thing."
For the next several years, the family fractured by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's revolutionary leader, went to baseball games together, often as many as 10 times a season. The ritual was always the same, as soon as the coming year's Mets schedule came out, Alexander and Barry picked the games they wanted to see. Then Barry called the Mets and the tickets would be waiting.
"It really cemented my family," said Rosen, who now runs Columbia University's Afghanistan Education Project. "Even now, my son is going to be 30 and we still go to games. It's a way to connect."
* * *
In the days after they came home, the gifts started arriving. It began with a rush of American flags, attached with overwrought missives insisting the flag had flown for 444 days over the sender's home and how they wanted the hostage to have this memento. "A lot of them looked like they had just been sewed," Laingen said.
But it was more than just flags. Soon, some or all began receiving an eclectic collection of presents -- a new Electrolux vacuum cleaner ("the really good one" recalled William Belk, an embassy communications and records officer), a Ducane grill, the promise of a new pair of jeans every year, free rentals from Budget Rent-a-car in Detroit, free dinners, trips to Mardi Gras, trips to Hawaii, trips to Puerto Rico.
There seemed no end to the glut of handouts.
It's hard to pinpoint the worst moment of the 444 days, but the mock executions seem a good place to start. For several days in late January and early February of 1980, the captors showed revolutionary films to the hostages, gory movies with scenes that always ended the same way: with a supposed enemy being tortured and shot.
Then, one morning, about a week later, Sickmann remembers being jostled awake at 2 a.m. by men wearing masks, just like the executioners in the revolutionary films. Sickmann was pulled out of bed and dragged by his hair to a hallway outside where, he said, the other hostages were lined up against the wall. His heart dropped.
"You thought instantly that there had been a military rescue and they're going to shoot us," he said. "You want to be tough in that situation, but everything changes. You lose body fluids. Some were praying, some were cursing left and right."
They took Sickmann into a room and told him to strip -- an act of shame in Islamic culture. His mind flew back to the films. There were three men with rifles and he was certain this was the end. They told him to turn around and put his arms in the air, then they blindfolded him, which in the films was the final act before the killing.
He braced himself and waited for the bullet to crash into his skull.
Only it never came. After a few minutes the guards told him to put on his clothes and go back to his room.
And while shots weren't fired, something died in him, in each of them that night.
"How does someone ever forget that?" Sickmann, now the director of military sales for Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, said all these years later. "Life was uncertain after that. You didn't know if you would live or die."
* * *
In the garage of his home outside Jacksonville, Fla., Alan Golacinski, an embassy security officer, keeps three boxes of things that were sent to him after his return from Iran. In the containers are football jerseys, sports memorabilia and letters. He hasn't opened them in years. His wife keeps after him about throwing away the cartons and one of these days he is sure he will.
"I don't want to sound ungrateful," he said. "I just don't remember all" the gifts.
But still they kept coming: a box of Idaho potatoes, tickets to a Broadway show, a VCR back when VCRs were cutting-edge technology.
Another Marine guard, Kevin Hermening, was given a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, though he later turned down the offer to study journalism at UW-Oshkosh. The Ducane grill he received was stolen off his porch several years ago.
What is the reward for suffering? Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn discussed the topic one day in the middle of the hostage crisis with Jeremiah Denton, a Navy admiral who had been held captive in Vietnam and later became a senator from Alabama, as they sat at a baseball game in Cincinnati. Sometime that afternoon, Kuhn is convinced, the idea of a lifetime baseball pass was discussed, though he can't remember the actual conversation. What he does know is that the gift is unique.
"You know, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you that we gave out passes to anyone other than them," Kuhn, who retired in 1984, said recently.
Charles Scott, an Army colonel who was the embassy military attache, often found himself face-to-face at Atlanta Braves games with the man most responsible for his captivity and ultimately his release -- Jimmy Carter. To this day, Scott, now a public speaker, can't forgive the former president for allowing the shah into the country.
Still, whenever he would run into Carter, he'd eschew the traditional handshake and bury the former president in a giant hug.
Many years ago, Scott offered the Carter Library several boxes of letters he received in the days after his return, but when the library told him he would have to catalogue each envelope, he took the package to the back of his yard and burned it.
"Life does go on," he said.
Hermening, the youngest hostage who celebrated his 21st birthday in captivity, came home to the Milwaukee area and immediately into the best years of the Brewers. He loved going to the games in those days. So much so that he and his wife drove from Milwaukee to Baltimore the last weekend of the 1982 season for a showdown that would determine the winner of the American League East.
Belk settled in Bellingham, Wash., not far from the Canadian border and fell in love with the local minor league team, going to games on a regular basis. He brought the pass when he traveled, watching games in Seattle, Baltimore and Los Angeles.
He now has a home in Georgia. "In fact, from here I'll probably go down to Atlanta quite a bit; I can use it there," he said.
Laingen, who lives in Bethesda, used it to go to Orioles games but gave up after the franchise seemed to spiral into disarray. Embassy political officer John Limbert, who grew up watching the Washington Senators in Griffith Stadium, used the pass in Baltimore as well, but he lost interest.
Like many of his colleagues, he got busy and fell into work, in Limbert's case as president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents active and retired foreign service officers. He held the post until last year.
* * *
In Marin County north of San Francisco, an Iranian immigrant and oriental rug dealer named Taghi Rezaian made a public declaration: He would give each hostage a $1,000 oriental rug. All they had to do was call.
"I wanted to welcome them back," Rezaian said. "I'm Persian by birth but by choice I'm American. I'm a proud American."
The hostage crisis had not been good for Rezaian or his business. Several times people threw rocks through his window. The first few times he called the police but after the police reports of the attacks on his store started to appear in the papers, he stopped calling.
"I wanted to tell everyone that I'm an American no matter how long I've been an American citizen and a taxpayer," he said.
When asked how many hostages had taken him up on his offer, Rezaian said he thinks 48 or 49 eventually got rugs. However, none of the 10 hostages reached for this story said he took one of Rezaian's carpets.
When he first returned from Iran, Kirtley went to baseball games all the time. He was a Marine drill instructor stationed in San Diego. Sometimes in the evenings, he'd drive over to where the Padres played, flashed the pass and spent the rest of the night sitting in the bleachers.
"I used it to just go down and watch the San Diego Chicken," he said.
But eventually life took over. He became a father and moved to a new, stable life in McLean, working as an information technology consultant. He turned out to be more of a football fan than baseball, but it was hard not to notice the new baseball team that came to Washington last year.
Only Kirtley didn't know how to go about using the card at the Nationals games.
"It took me literally weeks of research," he said. Finally he stumbled across a site for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. He called and the woman who answered told him to just come to the game. So one night last June, Kirtley brought his two youngest sons to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. They showed up early to the main gate only to discover the ticket takers had no idea who he was or why he had this strange pass. Some calls were made and suddenly the woman he had talked to on the phone came racing up shouting, "Mr. Kirtley! Mr. Kirtley!"
She led them inside and brought them to a section of seats 12 rows from the field, just to the third base side of the Nationals' dugout. But the woman didn't leave; instead she walked to the bottom of the section, spoke to a security guard and then waved Kirtley's two boys down, giving them seats in the front row right next to the dugout. About 15 minutes later, the guard came up to Kirtley and said, "You can go down too."
"It was amazing," Kirtley said. "But the thing that was too bad is I don't think my kids knew what a big deal it was. I did know but it was their first game, they didn't know that this didn't normally happen."
After all, how many fathers get a lifetime ticket to baseball?