On the television set inside his grandmother's Anacostia apartment, Marine Sgt. William Quarles sees scenes of Iran in turmoil: the chanting of thousands of angry, fist-waving Iranians, a constant reminder that, while 50 Americans are still held hostage, he is free.
"It upsets me. I turn the channels a lot. I feel guilty, like I belong there because I was a part of it," said Quarles, 23, a Washington native who was one of 13 hostages -- blacks and women -- freed by the Iranians on Thanksgiving Day.
At home for 30 days of recuperative leave, Quarles said he feels somewhat out of "synch" with the environment he has returned to and with the events in Iran that have dominated the news and made him a local hero.
"I'd like to forget it," he said, his dark brown eyes staring clear and wide, "but I cannot, not as long as there are still hostages."
During a three-hour interview in his grandmother's living room, Quarles described vividly the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran and how he waited in hiding for his captors to find him.
Speaking above the drone of the cars zoom-zooming past on nearby Suitland Parkway, Quarles puzzled over the accusations he has heard of U.S. involvement in Iran. He said he sympathizes in some ways with the Iranian students although he doesn't like their tactics.
He would like to forget the ordeal of isolation, restriction and fear of death that began shortly before noon on Nov. 4.
"It had been too quiet the month before," Quarles said. "There was tension in the air. You could feel it. Some of my Iranian friends said they feared another revolution.
"The day of the takeover seemed like many other days. There were crowds demonstrating near the embassy, demonstrating as they had done many times before. I was still in my gym shorts and tennis shoes from running when I heard over the kitchen radio the 'recall order,' calling us to the recreation room on the top floor of my building for further orders.
"When I got there, I met other Marines and we could see from the window that there were [Iranian] students all over the American compound. I wondered what the hell they were doing there -- most of them looked like teen-agers with sticks in their hands.
"We saw an American walk across the compound with his hands behind his head. He was surrounded by a group of students. That's when we figured that all hell had broken loose.
"I was still in my apartment building, which was located across the street from the compound. On the radio, the security officer said, 'Don't fire your weapons. When they come for you, give up.' We were ordered to surrender. Marines don't like to give up."
Quarles said he and others watched nervously as bands of students gathered Americans together, jeering and yelling at them.
First, Quarles said, the Americans hid their radios so that the students couldn't use them to listen in on conversations between Americans who weren't yet captured. Then they waited. About an hour later, the Iranians come for Quarles.
Immediately after the takeover he was blindfolded and bound hand and foot. His captors later separated him from the others and each hostage was sent to a different location where they could not talk to other Americans.
"They sat me in a chair with my hands tied behind my back and my feet tied so I couldn't get away," Quarles said. "As the students cooled off, they began to relax with us and they removed the blindfolds and even untied us so we could smoke, eat and use the bathroom.
"We couldn't get any information. As the days went on, I thought, 'Well, if the government was coming, they would have been here.' Sometimes, I would think of execution. I tried to be realistic. I told myself to be prepared to be shot -- 'These guys just might shoot you, man.'"
"Some of the Iranians were pretty cool," Quarles said. "They gave me books to read. They saw me, as a black, as a member of the oppressed. They would sit down and talk to me about going to school. Some of them were studying to be doctors and lawyers.
"They would tell me about friends and relatives killed by the shah. . . Sometimes, as they told the stories, they would break down and cry.
"They had binders of photos of babies, of people they said were friends or relatives who had been shot and tortured by SAVAK, the shah's secret police. I heard stories about people who would disappear; no one would ever see them again, and their families would have funerals without the bodies because they knew the person would be dead. I don't think these things were made up.
"They [iranians] began showing me official U.S. classified documents that proved my government had been interfering with their culture. I began to realize that the U.S. has been doing things there that these people didn't like. It makes you realize thatthere are two sides to every story, and seeing what I have since I have been home, the media doesn't tell Americans all the things that are going on, all the things this country has participated in over there. Later, some of those documents may be declassified.
Quarles says the only physical abuse he experienced was being tied up, although he says he cannot speak for other hostages.
Quarles had been stationed in Tehran for two months before his capture. He use to go running in the hills around the city with friends and otherwise explored the city's bazaars and neighborhoods.
Most of all, he remembers the extreme poverty of a largely illiterate population, many in Western dress living in shanty towns and pup tents just a few miles from the few wealthy people who lived in mansions.
"It was weird to ride along the modern highways that the shah built and see the poor camped out along the median in pup tents," he said. "When I think of that country, more than anything I think of the poverty and the fact that in 37 years, the shah had made $37 billion. I can understand why they want the shah and the money back."
(The Iranian government sued the shah and his wife last week for $56.5 billion, saying they had diverted the money from the country for their personal use. The actual amount of the shah's wealth is in dispute.)
Quarles learned he would be freed only a day before it happened after Iran's leader, the Ayatollah Rubollah Khomeini, wrote a letter saying all the blacks and women should be released.
"I remember, when we were released, boarding the airplane and one of the Iranian workers at the airport screaming at Americans and crying," Quarles said. "I asked one of the Iranians what he said, and the guy said the man was crying because he had a brother killed by the shah. In a way, I felt responsible because I was an American."
Tall and lanky, articulate and deliberate in speech, Quarles dropped out of Ballou High School in the middle of his senior year. He earned a high school equivalency diploma, tried selling encyclopedias, and when that didn't succeed, joined the Marines.
Quarles said he has been alarmed by the scenes on his grandmother's television set of angry Americans calling for punitive action against Iran.
"I hear people say send in the Marines; let's nuke the hell out of them, so that the United States can look good in the eyes of the world," he said. "But I don't think American people really understand. If we did that, hundreds of thousands of lives could be lost on both sides. It could be another Vietnam, all for the sake of this country's image. It would be a mistake.
"I sympathize with the students, but I don't agree with their tactics."
Two weeks stand between Quarles and his next assignment. He will report to the Marine Corps base at Quantico where he has been assigned to work as a Marine security guard instructor before his scheduled release in February. Thereafter he plans to attend a college to earn a degree in business administration. Meanwhile, he has spoken to assemblies at Ballou and other city schools, visited friends and familiar places.His family gave him a homecoming party.
"I really haven't found myself as far as being back home," Quarles said. "A month off is more time than I've had, and it's too much.
"Sometimes I don't know how to deal with it. Sometimes I don't want to be reminded of the whole thing, to watch the television and see some of the faces I remember, to remember that my friends are still there.
"I have a feeling of uselessness."