Richard Queen, the freed American hostage, and I began as bathtub companions.
I was born 10 months after Richard, a good age difference for basin-bathing a la deux. Our mothers, both Bulgarians, met through a mutual acquaintance and became fast friends in Washington in 1951. Harold Queen, Richard's father, worked for the Department of State, and my father, who became Richard's godfather, worked at the World Bank. I was the recipient of Richard's outgrown diapers, shorts and other castoffs of infancy.
After the families went their separate ways -- his to New York and mine to California -- we kept in touch through letters and occasioanl reunions when we found ourselves in the same part of the country.
Last November, Vice Consul Richard Queen, 28, was taken hostage in Iran, and became a participant in one of America's most politically explosive nightmares. Richard's mother, Jeanne, has come to Washington several times from her home in Maine for State Department briefings and has shared her personal ordeal and her son's letters with my husband and me.Richard was freed for what doctors have called a "neurological disorder." So far, that's all that's known.
The image that comes clearest to mind to describe Richard is that of a quiet giant. He stands in the vicinity of 6 foot 4 -- solid (at least when he left for Iran), and shy from top to bottom. I remember his dressed in neatly pressed jeans and loafers, his hair cut short. I might add that Richard looks much better without a beard, which hides his defined and assertive jawline and which is uncharacteristic of the Richard I know. I recall family get-togethers with the Queens throughout the years in quick snapshots: Richard, the quiet one, his brother Alexander, the handsome one, and Jeanne, the mother, the gregarious one.
This image hasn't changed over the years. Richard showed up at our St. Patrick's Day party shortly before leaving for Iran, wearing an Army-issue loden jacket (his fulfillment of the wearing-of-the-green requirement), six-pack in hand, and proceeded to sit quietly, talk quietly and drink and eat heartily for the entire hell-raising bash.
Indeed, if there's a choice between eating and talking, Richard prefers to savor good and plentiful food rather than words.
At another reunion in the spring of 1979, Richard polished off a mammoth stew at a Georgetown restaurant while everyone else argued politics. It was an evening filled with continuously replenished wine carafes and much pontificating. Even pre-Afghanistan, the machinations of the Kremlin have always sharpened the tongues of Bulgarians, especially in Jeanne Queen's case. Richard, however, was more preoccupied with his Persian lessons, bitterly complaining that "learning the 'squibbles' is impossible, just impossible." Even worse, lamented Richard, was that his studies and struggles to learn Farsi (which he eventually mastered), would be for naught. The Iranian revolution had just erupted, and of course, as we all knew, no American could conceive of setting a toe in Iran.
Shortly thereafter Richard was to learn that he would indeed be stationed at the embassy in Iran to "witness history," as he liked to say. His last evening in the United States was spent in New York with his uncle, brother and mother. Richard Bennett Queen, his uncle, recalls that Richard was ready to burst with excitement and anticipation. A few months later, on Nov. 4, Richard became an unwilling participant in what came to be called the "hostage crisis."
After the embassy takeover, his letters to his family were, at first, deeply sentimental and emotional. They were messages of loneliness, helplessness and inordinate boredom. They later became more philosophical. Throughout all of them, however, Richard said that in one way or another, he expected to be released.
My family took Jeanne to dinner after one of the State Department briefings, and it was then that I saw Richard's first letters. We had prepared ourselves to be supportive of an over-wrought mother, but we saw instead a woman who smiled and engaged in small talk while discussing the hostage situation and her son's uncertain future. She took the letters out of her purse, and gave one to each of us.
"I'm angry, sad, frustrated, and miss you and love you all very much."
Such emotions filled the earlier letters. But Richard always made an effort to throw in a joke or two.
"Since there's very little to do," he wrote in one, "I find myself eating a lot. If I keep on being this bored, I'll have to go on a diet."
Later letters showed that he not only had his senses about him, but a business sense as well. One requested that his savings money be put in a money-market certificate. In another, he asked his parents to change his legal residence to Maine, for tax purposes.
In his later letters, Richard indicated he was doing what psychologists say is vital for a person being held captive to do: mentally accepting the circumstances and making the best of them. Richard wrote his uncle in New York, "I'm perfectly prepared to wait out my captivity, no matter how many months it may take."
Leave it to methodical Richard to organize the library in the embassy. Psychologists noted at the time that this was a positive, constructive response to the crisis.
But what was most important, Richard was quoted as saying after his release, "was the knowledge that the whole country was supporting us. The 100 percent support was so important to us."
Those are the words of an American patriot, which is what Richard is. His uncle calls him an all-American boy in whose eyes America can do no wrong. Richard, he says, is "true blue."
I recall visiting the Queens in Scarsdale, N.Y., many years ago, and haranguing Richard about his interest in military board games. I felt it was obsolete during a time of anti-war sentiment among our peers. His good-natured, soft-spoken defense of his favorite pastime was even more infuriating.
I didn't understand. Richard regarded a military career as the highest patriotic service offered an American. And, because of vision problems which kept him out of the Army, the Foreign Service became the conduit through which he could serve his country.
One need only look to his family environment to understand Richard's public-spirited enthusiasm. He is, essentially, a third-generation diplomat. His mother's father was a diplomat in the Bulgarian embassy in Rome, where his mother grew up. His father worked for the State Department. An interest in international affairs became second nature to him through his mother's multinational friends and the family's annual vacation trips to Rome. Richard's international background made him thirsty to understand and if possible, be a part of world events.
As it worked out, Richard participated in a world event more than he might have cared to. Whatever his ailment may turn out to be, whatever assistance he can provide the government in releasing his colleagues, those of us who know him are mainly relieved that he is free.