Across the nation, as a long Sunday passed slowly to the rhythm of televised bulletins, Americans mixed anticipation with caution and tentative relief with a certain cynicism after 442 days of hyped-up hope and dashed dreams.
In public places, few weekenders glued themselves to televisions.
Most paused to listen once, but few stayed at the screens as the slow drumbeat of news from the White House, from Algeria, from Tehran rolled on through the afternoon and then across the evening. Instead, Americans went on about their weekend business, as if this long-running soap opera of 52 hostages should give way now to a new season's epic.
In Baltimore, Mickey Damico had the television going in his import store in Little Italy. The set was blaring as an afternoon bulletin interrupted televised tennis matches. "See, nobody's watching," Damico said. "There are maybe 10 people in here and nobody is paying attention."
Americans everywhere tied the the timing to Washington's governmental transition just two days away. Some credited Jimmy Carter for a down-to-the-wire doggedness in his final days. Others, even in what could be Carter's ultimate hour as president, gave the plaudits to Ronald Reagan.
"I really feel for Jimmy Carter this morning," said Bobby Elkind at the Irish Pub in Baltimore. "He's struggled like hell to get this thing taken care of without spilling any blood. It would be really great if he could get the credit."
In San Antonio, 85-year-old Frank Brenner felt otherwise.
"I think we have to give Reagan credit for this," Brenner said, "It's his and Alexander Haig's tough talk that's made the Iranians get in line. They figured it would only be worse -- not better -- once Carter was gone."
"Hell, it doesn't surprise, me," said J.E. Cloutier of Miami Beach. "I guess they [the Iranians] don't want to be glowing in the dark after Inauguration Day."
And, even after Day 442 of counting on what had come to seem like an endless modern-day replacement for the Gregorian calender, many Americans saw the developments as less a triumph than an end to a humiliation.
"It's 442 days late," said David Dunlap, a Pittsburgh engineer. "We should never have gotten into this situation. The hostages should have been brought out of there the day the embassy was attacked, or prior to it."
In Omaha, the University of Nebraska's Center for International Studies said negotiations during the 14-month hostage standoff set "a very bad precedent" and should lead to advocacy by the incoming Reagan administration of a clear policy against future negotiations "for American citizens taken under conditions that constitute no less than an act of war."
Meanwhile, at sundown in the rural Pennsylvania town of Hermitage, a 442nd flag was raised over a winter-brown cemetery where local townsfolk have been putting up a flag each day. "We're going to try to treat this flag as if it's the last Flag," said Tom Flynn, operator of Hillcrest Memorial Park. "But, of course, We'll raise the 443rd on Monday if necessary."
But former president Gerald R. Ford, attending the Bob Hope Desert Classic golf tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., said he "got gossebumps" when he heard on the radio that the hostage release was nearing reality. "I think 226 million Americans were thrilled and overjoyed," Ford said."This is a very emotional time."
But Ford bubbled more than most Americans.
"I'll believe it when I see it," said Jess Wilson in San Francisco. "The only thing that makes me think this may be the real thing is that Carter's time is running out."
It was as if Americans had had too much of the longest television docu-drama since Vietnam, too many nights of arm-waving Iranians in living color, too many election-eve and now inaugural-eve interruptions for "cautious optimism."
It was as if someone had tried to keep the serialized suspense of "Who Shot J.R.?" going for 14 months instead of a mere summer and now people were saying "who cares?"
Even on the sidewalks of Washington there seemed to be confusion over whether the hyperactivity -- the helicopters swooping around the Treasury Department, the camera, crews rushing pellmell in and out of the White House -- was part of the fireworks flare of the upcoming inaugural or the beginning of a new kind of celebration.
In front of the White House, the inauguration scaffolding stood like the ghostly skeleton of a new era. At the State Department the cafeteria was almost deserted, a sign saying simply that Edmund S. Muskie would be leaving, via the C Street exit, at 4:45 p.m. Monday and all were welcome "to bid the secretary farwell."
On diplomats' doors, tiny American flags, with the words "Free the Hostages," were beginning to fray at the edges. There were other signs of a different kind of fraying on some of the sticker flags -- graffi scratched in and then scratched out, State being that bastion of quiet diplomacy, about American weakness and a president who had failed.
On the Pennsylvania Avenue scaffolding, placards flashed their unkind signals about "A New Beginning" in toward the White House.
Hawkers peddled $2 buttons of Reagan in his white cowboy hat -- "collector's items, all of them" -- as Carter swooped in by chopper from Camp David shortly after noon.
After the street, Lafayette Square wad fenced off like a Florida trailer park, stuffed with huge vans whose aluminum sides blared NBC News, ABC Sports, Convention Catering -- all here for Tuesday's ceremony, bustling for a possible Sunday Special.
In front of the president's house, long black limos with red, white and blue inaugural plates stopped briefly during the cold afternoon and California girls, wrapped in furs that could send two kids through college, emerged for just a moment in the chill to gaze briefly through the gates at turmoil they thought surely was normal for the inaugural they had come to see.
It was Reagan Day minus two for their man, Day 1,457 for the Carter presidency. And Day 442, as Americans had come to tote them up, for the hostages. It was to have been The Day for Jimmy Carter, who has seen few good ones lately.
But as evening moved into night, it became clear that it would be at least one more day, Day 443 as we count them now.