It was 1:15 a.m. yesterday when a phone rang in the darkened apartment in a southeast Washington housing project. Marie Quarles, who calls herself "just a plain, ordinary person" of 55, went into her kitchen to pick it up -- and hear the good news.
"Hi, mom, I'm all right; you don't have to worry," said the faraway voice of Marine Sgt. William E. Quarles, 23, who calls his grandmother "mom."
He phoned to tell the sturdy, religious woman who raised him since childhood -- and taught him "that life wouldn't be easy" -- that he was safe and flying to West Germany with the first three American hostages released yesterday from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
"Praise Jesus!" Marie Quarles said. "Thank the Lord!"
Standing in her apartment surrounded by open Bibles, prayers on the walls and photos of her four children and 18 grandchildren, she talked for five minutes with her most famous grandson, half a world away.
Then she called his mother, Laura Mae Reeder, her daughter, to tell her that William had tried to get through to her, too, but couldn't. He hoped to be home in a few days, she reported.
The phone rang again. It was a State Department official calling to inquire what she had learned about her grandson's 16-day ordeal.
"Our channels of communication to Tehran are limited at the moment," a State Department official explained yesterday."We have to rely on whatever information we can get."
Another Washington area family also received word yesterday that ended two weeks of sleeplessness and growing anxiety. Judith Rollins, wife of Lloyd A. Rollins, a State Department employe held hostage, was told by the State Department that her husband would be released today.
"I'm absolutely ecstatic and full of joy," Mrs. Rollins said from her home in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County. She said that she and her two daughters, Patricia, 16, and Terri, 13, had been losing sleep since the takeover of the embassy in Tehran and had been filling the hours with prayers.
For Marie Quarles, who took the day off from her job as a laundress at Bergmann's yesterday, the phonee has hardly ever stopped ringing since her early morning calls.
Well-wishers such as neighbor Mary Walker have beaten a path to Quarles' cheerful two-bedroom apartment, behind gray, steel doors at 2639 Pomeroy Rd. SE ever since her grandson appeared Sunday on TV newscasts from Iran.
"Did you see William on TV?" they asked.
But even though her TV has been on almost around the clock since her grandson's capture, she missed it when the former Ballou High School student was paraded out for a press conference with fellow hostages.
"I didn't really know he was all right until he called. But I just had a feeling he would be . . . "
Mary Walker, who lives next door, was with Quarles when she first saw her grandson behind a blindfold on the front page of the newspaper two weeks ago and wailed, "What am I going to do?" Walker went about setting up prayer vigils, she said yesterday. She and Quarles agreed that their prayers for the release of William and the other hostages have, at least, been partially answered.
"Last week was tough," said Quarles, a widow who moved to Washington, D.C. from South Carolina as a girl of 17.
"I didn't know what was going on. But I figured the Lord would make a way. He can open doors no man can open. I had faith he would open this one."
It was Quarles who tried to instill in her grandson her "right and wrong," down-home Southern Baptist values.
He lived with her as a student at Douglass Junior High, and through his senior year at Ballou High School, which he finished two credits short.
He went on to work as a stock clerk at Woodward & Lothrop, to earn a high school equivalency diploma, and then, after selling encyclopedias up and down the East Coast, joined the Marines in 1976.
"I always tried to get him to understand that life wasn't easy, that it would be a series of uphills and downhills," said Marie Quarles, "and that he would have to figure out things for himself."
Her grandson's red Parris Island yearbook lay on a coffee table; his photo sat framed by the TV. "I never felt he was a grandson; I always treated him like a son."
When he returned home to visit in February, on leave from staff duty in Geneva, Marie Quarles noticed a new maturity about her grandson.
"He could express himself about different things," she said. "He liked what he was doing. He had grown up."
During that visit, she said her gandson told her "wanted to see other parts of the world, that people had been very nice to him everywhere he went."
He had always been determined, she recalled, and interested in military matters. During high school, he worked as a volunteer with the Civil Air Patrol at Bolling Air Force Base and worked his way up to commander.
"He was always talking about joining the military," said Antwone Hunt, 23, his best friend from high school who dropped by yesterday to share Marie Quarles' happiness. "He always had discipline and self-control."
And they laughed at how if Quarles hadn't washed and pressed her grandsons uniform to perfection, he would do it over -- himself. There was always an empty Brasso can around the house to keep his brass buckles shiny; and he took pride that he could always see his face in his shoes, they said.
"He always looked the part," said Hunt, who throughout high school competed with his friend for military honors. "Whenever William set his mind to something, he stuck to it."
One of the only childhood pals who never joined the military, Hunt works as a security guard for George Washington University. There he often talks to Iranian students who support their fellow students' demands that the U.S. exchange the former shah for the remaining hostages.
"They told me blacks and women would be released because, in America, blacks and women are not the ones who make the decisions," he said. "Their cause may be just, but I don't agree with their methods.
"But I can somewhat sympathize. It's almost like we felt about Nixon: everyone wanted to see him impeached, but he got away. To them, it's the same with the shah."
When William Quarles phoned his grandmother a second time yesterday about 1 p.m. and talked for 15 minutes, Hunt had just left. But the marine asked his grandmother to get his friend's phone number so they could celebrate when he came home, she said.
A Scandinavian Airlines flight flew Quarles, Kathy Gross, 22, of Cambridge Springs, Pa., an embassy secretary and Ladell Maples, 23, of Earle, Ark., another marine, to Copenhagen, where they transferred to a U.S. Air Force jet for the flight to Frankfurt, West Germany.
From Rhein-Main Air Base there, they were taken the U.S. Air Force Hospital at Wiesbaden for medical observation, officials said.
A State Department official said yesterday the hostages would come home after medical checkups, debriefings on their captivity and a rest of from two to five days.
He called his grandmother from the hospital.
"No sooner did they check him into the hospital than they started asking him questions," an overjoyed Marie Quarles said after speaking to her grandson yesterday afternoon. "He wanted to know how things were at home and I told him reporters were everywhere."
"Is it that BIG?" he asked.
"It's that big," she said.
"I think he must be getting tired," she added. "He said he was beginning to get a headache. I believe he's ready to come home."