The one pay telephone booth just outside West Point had a line of people waiting to use it. There were not only newspaper people but press agents as well -- anyone who wanted just a little piece of the hostages.
The man inside the booth was shouting so everyone could hear him, "No, J.B., I haven't found anyone yet, but I'm getting close. I talked to the brother-in-law of one of the hostages, and he thinks we can swing it. . . . I know what you want, J.B. You want a hostage to say on TV that the thing he missed the most in captivity was Grandma Bonny Clyde's Hamburger Helper. Right. That's all he thought about during his ordeal. . . . I told the brother-in-law that. If the hostage says it, we'll give him a lifetime supply of Grandma Clyde's Hamburger Helper and a trip to Las Vegas to our next sales meeting. . . . Listen, J.B., there's an agency here trying to get any hostage to choose between Hero sausages and our hamburger helper. . . . Will that hurt our campaign? . . ."
People were banging on the phone booth, "Come on, you've been in there long enough."
The next man to get in dialed a number and said, "Zack, I think I've got a hostage to tell his story exclusively to us for $10,000. I told him we'd write it for him, and all he'd have to do is pose for a picture with his arms tied behind a chair. He referred me to his agent. . . . What do you mean, how did he get an agent so fast? There are more agents up here at West Point than there are Army cadets. Hold page one open. I'll get back to you. Is Tony writing the story now? . . . . Good. Tell him to keep going. If we don't get a hostage, we'll say we got it from an impeccable source." He hung up, and a woman went into the booth.
"Terry," she said, "it's Rhonda. Tell Arthur I talked to the aunt of one of the hostages, and she said she'd be happy if the Bickering Company put in an entire new sprinkling system for her lawn. Tell Arthur to alert the media right away. We'll hold the press conference as soon as the family gets back home. Tell George to stick American flags all over the lawn where the sprinkler system is going to be. And try to get the school superintendent to give all the kids in town the day off."
I was fourth in line, waiting patiently.
The next person in the booth said, "Ted, I'm still trying to give the lifetime gold pass for the Super-Orbit Roller Coaster to a hostage, but I can't get near anyone who will take it. None of the hostages seem to be very interested in a roller coaster ride at the moment. This is my problem. Almost everyone up here is trying to give a gold pass to the hostages for something or other. The National Football League, the Baseball Association, the circus people are all pushing gold passes, and it's not much of a story. Why don't we forget the gold pass and have a National Hostage Day at the amusement park? Any member of a hostage family will be allowed on any ride free. We'll decorate the Ferris wheel with a large yellow ribbon. . . . I thought you'd like it. Good. I'll spread the word up here right away."
The next person who went into the booth said, "Al, NBC has just offered $250,000 for a mini-series on the hostages. CBS came back with $500,000, and ABC has offered $750,000. How high do we want to go? . . . . You want to go to a million, but I have to sign up all 52 families? It's not easy, Al. Some of them don't want any publicity. They just want to get out of the limelight. . . . You'll settle for half of the hostages? Okay, it's your money. I know you've got the American Embassy in Tehran set built already, but the State Department says it may not cooperate in the show. . . . You'll build your own State Department on the lot? All right, I'll see what I can do. Have you got the cast yet? . . . . You've got to be kidding! You really think you can get Vanessa Redgrave to play the ayatollah?"
It was finally my turn. I called the Internal Revenue Service and got a man on the line. "I'd like to form the Society for the Protection of American Hostages in the United States, and I want to know if it's tax-deductible."
The man on the other end said, "Is this organization necessary?"
I replied, "You better believe it."