Through two bittesweet days and nights the bearded young man wearing the tiny, yellow ribbon urging "Let our people go" has provided the human link between 52 Americans held captive in Iran and their more than 70 relatives gathered at the sprawling, low-lying Airport Hilton here this weekend. Emotions ran high and tears fell freely.
Sometimes in closed-door State Department briefing, sometimes over meals, but more often in the late-night privacy of their hotel rooms, relatives of 42 of the hostages have listened anxiously as Richard Queen painstakingly sorted through his eight months of memories as a hostage in seach of something to share with them.
Near the end, showing some signs of fatigue despite his determination to talk personally with every relative who wants him to, Queen, the 29-year-old Foreign Service Officer who was freed July 10 after he became ill with multiple sclerosis, is trying to express at a press conference what it's meant to be the person "who was with their loved one, who saw their loved one, who talked to their loved one.
"I represented the closest thing they have to their loved one. It's very emotional," he says of the accumulated anguish heaped uypon him after nine stalemated months. "I've been adopted by four or five familes already." The by now familiar tall, bearded Queen looked preoccupied but maintained a cautious reserve. His main concern was to meet with as many hostage families as possible.
Even the most mundane news out of Richard Queen's bag of memories spread like wildfire among the families, easily distinguishable from other tourists at the hotel by the name tags with American flags on them. The families are attending one of a series of State Department briefings to update them on the hostage situation.
Dorothea Morefield of San Diego, wife of Consul General Richard Morefield, 51, said: "We needed to see for ourselves, make sure he's real and that he's really home safe and didn't grow an extra head. He's functioning."
"No new startling information," she conceded, "but all the thing that loom so bright when you sit at night and wonder if your loved one is getting proper treatment. Things like whether the hostages have toothpaste, where they wash their clothes, how they wash their dishes, how often they take showers are all better to hear than whether they got tossed in a dark dungeon."
So for Winona McKeel of Balch Spring, Tex., Queen brought news that her son had found trousers in a drawer one day when he didn't have any of his own to wear to Easter Services. "They fit," Mrs. McKeel said proudly. She is the mother of Marine Sgt. John B. McKeel Jr., 27. She said she thought it was beneficial for Queen to talk to the families because it helped him know "that everyone cares so much."
Betty Jo Kirtley of Little Rock said Queen told her of moving into a room within the embassy compound where a drawing of an eagle adorned one wall. Beside it was the signature of her son, Marine sgt. Steven Kirtley, 21.
Susan Cooke said Queen told her and her husband that their son Donald, who had been a geology major in college, had gotten hold of some geology books to read. To keep his spirits up he also like to sing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Richard said he knew every stanza," she said.
Teresa and Jose Gallegos of Pueblo, Colo., said it gave them "peace" to hear that the Iranians allowed the hostages to play games even if they were not permitted to converse with one another.
"I slept better last night than I have in a long time," said Mrs. Gallegos, mother of Cpl. William Gallegos, 21. Seeing that Queen, after so many months in captivity, was "normal -- he has no hate in him" made her feel good. "Ti was like seeing your own son."
Kenneth Timm of Oak Creek, Wisc., stepfather of Marine Kevin Hermening, 21, said Queen's greetings "confirmed that they [the Iranian captors] are human beings, not terrorists." Timm's wife Barbara, who became the center of controversy last spring when she apologized to the the Iranians for the abortive rescue attempt, said she wasn't talking to reporters at all. The reason she even came to the meeting, she said, was to talk to Richard Queen. No Surprises
Neither Queen nor Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, meeting families for the first time, nor the battery of government experts brought along any surprises. Nobody expected any, some family members said, though there was always hope that there might be. What made this gathering at the Airport Hotel different from earlier ones they have attempted at government expense around the country was Queen's presence.
"He's tangible, he's been there and he's here now," said Louisa Kennedy, wife of hostage Moorhead C. Kennedy, Jr.
What made Queen so consistently reassuring to the families was partly what one medical expert here described as "being just a very unique young man to begin with." His "scholarly approach" towards filling his days of captivity (devising his own university course frombooks at hand) and his powers of observation and compassion were qualities that would have been just what the doctors might have ordered for people frantic with worry.
In two short days Queen became everyone's personified symbol of hope.
"He shows it, the way he handles his feelings," said Jadwiga Stokes off Bethesda, who learned quite a bit about hope in the 13 months she waited for U.S. Vice Consul William Stokes to be released by his Chinese captors in Mukden in 1948. Here with her husband, who addressed the families, Jadwiga Stokes said, "there's a glow about Richard."
But if families drew comfort from Richard Queen, it quickly became apparent to anyone watching him move among the group that it was a two-way street.
"I'm still partly back there," he said. "I can't be really free until they're all out. So any way I can, I want to ease their burden."
Often just the act of touching Queen helped relatives satisfy that need. Susan Cooke of Memphis said when he met with her and her husband Ernest, she hung on to Queen's hand, not wanting to let go.
"I said, 'I hope you don't mind, butit's the next best thing to having Donald to hang on to.' He said he didn't mind at all."
The Cookes, whose son Donald, 25, worked as a vice consul with Queen issuing visas in Tehran before both were taken hostage, said they tried to convince Queen that he should not feel guilty because he was released and the others were not.
"It just makes us feel bad if we think you feel that way," Susan Cooke remembered telling him. "It means so much to us to have him here. We really want him to be happy that he's back."
From medical experts at the sesions, families have learned that because of intense bondage formed among captives, guilt feelings are not uncommon for those who go free.
"Richard's being here really helps the families, but there is ambivalence, too," one expert explained. "Richard feels he was singled out. And quite understandably some of the relatives here feel, 'Why him and not my son?" So you have to be able to support that."
Frustrations experienced by the families are similar to those surrounding military personnel missing in action. "It's worse some ways than a war because there's no sense of things coming to an end," said an official.
In line with what experts call "ventilating" those frustrations, Secretary of State Muskie's two-hour luncheon meeting Friday with the families gave them a chance to tell him how they felt. When he invited them to make him their target, some only too gladly took him at his word by protesting what Muskie later called U.S. "policy of a diplomatic rather than hard line."
"Sure people raise their voices, and when Muskie came to my table I told him how I felt and what I thought they should do about it, said Toni Sickman of Krakow, Mo., mother of Marine Sgt. Rocky Sickman, 23. "That's my trouble," she lamented, adding that while there are "no ulcers yet, I am getting high blood pressure."
Susan Cooke said she told Muskie that "the most frightening thing for me was they might try another rescue attempt. He definitely agreed with me and said he'd resist it -- that only under extreme circumstances would he consider such a thing."
We got out our hostilities and then we were ready to give him a kiss for coming," said Dorothea Morefield.
One intrusion nobody was able to ignore was news of militant Iranians demonstrating in Washington and the mounting anger among Americans.
Calling their reaction "restrained," one official said the families are in "a real bind and just as angry and frustrated" as the rest of Americans. But the suggestion of using the militants as a quid pro quo to break up the log jam drew an exasperated response from Dorothea Morefield: "We can't lower ourselves to their standards and hold those students in that kind of situation. That's disgraceful."
"As far as I'm concerned," said one mother, "they can put those Iranian students on a plane and send them to Iran."
If there's one thing families can agree on, it's that they will continue to disagree. Or as Ernest Cooke explained it: "They're a cross section of the Untied States from every economic level and ethnic background. Opinion ranges from one spectrum to another, so just try to get them even to agree on what to have for lunch."
But in small groups there is the undercurrent of some agreement about how America seems to be getting its face rubbed in the dirt too much these days. "I don't think we should let people step on us anymore," Virgil Sickman told another hostage father, Richard Heermening of Milwaulkee. "I think too many countries use us. We don't have that backbone anymore in Washington."
Hermening nodded his head in agreement. "That's the way it always is -- it's the U.S. who has to give, give, give and in the end, what do we get for it? Those militant Moslems back east, what do they do when they're freed? They go back and do the same thing all over."
Wearily, Hermening said they have a right to live in this country "if they're here legally, but I can't see that they have to inflict their views on the Amercian pulbic. If they want to demonstate, let them go home and show their support for Khomeini." A Mile a Minute
On Muskie's plane coming west from Washington a couple of days earlier, Richard Queen stood in the aisle watching the overhead shelf and talking at length with the secretary of state. At other times during the flight he talked to Jan Muskie ("I wasn't crazy about coming west," Mrs. Muskie told a reporter, "But I wanted to meet Richard Queen"), to official like deputy assistant secretary of state Peter Constable, Middle East affairs, director Sheldon Krys and anybody else who felt like listening.
Funny thing, he said, he never used to talk so much but ever since he got home from Iran he hasn't been able to stop. No topic has been avoided, from the tiny lobsters imprinted on his necktie (he's from Lincolnville, Maine) to his 29th birthday last Thursday ("I even got a card from the Canadian tourist office"), to his meeting with President Carter which was supposed to last 15 minutes but stretched into 45, with Queen doing the talking for 40 of them.
Afterward, he remembered seeing himself on television.
"And there I was," he said in wonderment, "my mouth going a mile a minute." Treasured Visit
A panel discussion by five government doctors helped answer some questions for the families, ranging from how to overcome sleepless nights to what effect visiting a hostage might have on him. Later, Richard Hermening said he had been refused a visa to visit his son, Kevin, "and I'm kind of glad I didn't go. I don't know how nice it would be to say, Okay, Kevin, I'm going home now. You have to stay.'" Kevin's stepfather, Kenneth Timm, said when he and his wife Barbara saw Kevin for the last time in Tehran last Spring, "his final statement to his mother was that he would treasure our visit the rest of his life."