AT FRANKFURT, where my plane had been delayed by ice on the runway, I could see the big plane with United States of America written on the side and my heart swelled and sank (was it them and had they also been waiting?) and then rose again as the plane swooshed into the sky and headed toward America. Going home, baby, the hostages were going home.
All the way to America, I looked for that plane. I thought it could be near, maybe near enough to see, but I never caught a glimpse of it. That was also the story, of course, in Wiesbaden where the hostages were kept from us and so I never did get close. It was always too far away and I had something I wanted to say.
I sent them notes through the State Department people, great bundles of civility and smiles, who admitted later that they did not pass them on. I called and left messages and then, as in high school, sat by the phone for calls that never came, and ended the day listening to recorded interviews. Sometimes I saw a face in person and sometimes I heard a voice on tape, but never the two together.For that you had to watch television in America.
Television has awesome lenses that can bring you close and show you faces. We in the technologically backward world of print journalism can only squint into the fog. We don't have the technology and we don't have the money and as a consequence we cannot stake out a hospital, cover every entrance with television crews and bring the story to you that way. It's okay, there are other things we do well.
But not the hostage story. This has been a television story. It has been since the embassy in Iran was seized and the ayatollah's claque gathered daily at the gates to sing Death to America and other ditties of the Iranian revolution. The event itself, the actual capture of the hostages, happened right before our eyes, in our very living rooms. It did not happen this way in Vietnam. For all its celebrity as the first television war, The Living Room War, Michael Arlen called it, Vietnam never showed young men being captured.
I suppose there is a danger here. There is a danger of defining news -- or even what is important -- only by what can be seen on film. There are, after all, things of towering importance that cannot be shown. Ideas cannot be shown and most threats (the energy crisis, for instance) cannot be shown. The future cannot be shown and things the camera does not happen to catch cannot be shown. The British missionaires jailed in Iran were not shown and the American journalist similarly jailed in Iran was not shown either. Their suffering, their plight, is not any different because they could not make the tube.
But this story could be seen and into it dropped reporter after reporter and we became engulfed by it. You could go to Germany and put your nose up against the hospital gate where the hostages were staying and learn nothing -- see nothing, hear nothing. You could be so close and yet so far that you got cut off from it. Away from a television set the story got lost, the hostages got lost, and it wasn't until the airport, until I sighted a plane that said United States of America on it that it started to reshape itself.
So all day across a cold Europe, I raced that plane in my imagination. I raced it over Belgium and then England and then Ireland and then I lost it, of course, when it stopped at Shannon and we kept going. Next came the ocean and the landfall at Newfoundland and then, quickly now, Maine and Massachusetts, Nantucket and Long Island in a flash, and then, off to the right the incredible skyline of New York.
From there it was a different plane and home to Washington -- a wonderful entrance from the west. The city sparkled, all blue sky and white monuments, and then home to watch on television as the hostages arrived at West Point -- a friend crying at the homecoming, me wondering how I am always so close and yet so far and determined that I will use this thing that I have -- this column -- to say all I ever wanted to say back at Wiesbaden and Frankfurt and across the Atlantic and now here:
It's awfully nice to have you back.