Laura Mae Reeder sat on a slipcovered, floral couch in her Northeast appartment yesterday, clutching a picture of her son, the marine, in one hand and a crumpled telegram she had just received from Quantico Marine Base in the other.
The telegram read in part:
"Your son, Sgt. William E. Quarles is assigned to Marine Detachment, Tehran. This headquarters has confirmed information that the American Embassy there has been occupied by a group of student demonstrators. The demonstrators have taken the marines and other government employees as hostages. . . You can be assured that the U.S. government is doing everything possible to obtain the release of the hostages."
A choke. A sob. But no tears.
She read the note again.
It won't do no good to cry, I guess. I just have to hope that he'll be okay. Hope and pray," she said.
Reeder, a 45-year-old mother of six, works in the print shop at the Department of Energy. She knew her son William, 23, had been assigned to Tehran in September. But she had not worried when she heard that Iranian students had taken over the American Embassy there, seeking the return of Shah Mohannad Reza Pahlavi to Iran to face trial.
"I figured, I don't know why, that he was all right," she said.
But when she arrived at work Tuesday morning, a coworker met her silently at the door with copy of The Washington Post. There, at the top of the front page, spread across four columns, was a picture of her son, with blindfold covering his eyes.
"the minute I saw the picture, I knew it was him," she said. "I was shocked. I didn't know what to do."
So she called the Red Cross. They referred her to the State Department. Later, she says, a Marine lieutenant called her back.
"He told me that they weren't sure at that time whether or not he had been taken captive. They said they had tried to call me, but that they had the wrong telephone number.
"It seems like only a short time ago when he was living at home," she said, putting her arm around her 19-year-old son Tony. William had attended Ballou High School, but when he finished his senior year in 1957 and was two credits short of graduation, he decided to leave school and go to work.
He worked as a stock clerk in a downtoen Washington department store and went to night school. When he got his high school equivalency diploma, he got a job selling encyclopedias in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
"He was always on the road, selling the books, and was really unhappy," Reeder recalls. "I told him that if he didn't know what to do in life that maybe he should go join the service. They would give him an education and a skill, I told him."
"He had always liked the military," she said. "All through high school --and even afterwards -- he had been in the Civil Air Patrol at Bolling Air Force Base. He had worked his way up to commander. He did good things in the service."
Then, one day in June 1976, while William was on the road, she got a call from a Marine sergeant at Camp LeJeune, a training base in North Carolina. "They told me he had enlisted," Reeder said. "I was happy for him. Real happy.
The last time, Reeder saw her son, she said, was last February, when he was on leave from his assignment in Geneva, Switzerland. "He seemed to have grown up," she said. "The marines were good for him. He was working in communications, I think, as a security guard there."
A letter in September told of his new assignment in Tehran.
"He had written that he liked it okay over in Iran," said Reeder's daughter, Theresa, 17, as she fingered a copy of his marine yearbook from Parris Island, S.C.
"But he said the Iranians didn't like marines too much. He said he had some harassment problems, but that it wasn't too serious.
"But then when I saw on TV last night that film of those students parading that hostage around near the embassy, I got scared. I don't know how they are treating him over there, what they are doing to him. They are a little crazy over there, I think."
Laura Reeder sat on the couch, shaking her head. "Why did they let the shah in the country anyway? That's what I want to know. In Mexico they have all kind of cancer treatment. Why didn't he just stay there?
"This is a politican's game, Reeder continued, tears now welling in her eyes and her voice straining. "But they're playing a game with other people's lives. The shah is one man. Let them have him. There are 65 other lives at stake here. . .
"Everybody keeps saying something about keeping the shah here because of a constitution. What constitution, I want to know . . . They just don't want to spend the money to drill for it. . .
"This is a messed-up, mixed-up world, and my son's right in the middle of it. He don't care about no shah and neither do I. Let's just hope they get those people out safely.
"I'll just have to wait until they do."