Day 444: Just after high noon, the families of the 52 American hostages got the cue that their final scene on the intermational stage -- the happy ending -- officially had begun. But, drained and numb after 14 months on an emotional rack, they responded with a mix of feelings that was not always what the dramatic script called for.
They had grown accustomed to living on an electronic umbilical cord -- in thrall to images bounced off a satellite -- at the mercy of distant strangers. After so much painful education in skepticism, even after the smiling faces of their loved ones flickered onto screens in their living rooms as they walked off their plane in Algiers, the prescribed response was easier for some than for others.
"Look at the smile on him!" yelled Susie Roeder when she spotted her husband, Air Force Lt. Col. David M. Roeder, on the small screen, as two dozen friends and relatives gathered at her Fairfax County home laughed and clapped. "He looks good, he looks really good."
When Theresa Lodeski, mother of hostage Bruce German, heard newly sworn President Reagan say on Television that the hostages had been flown out of the Iran, she dredged up a final burst of energy. The first thing she did was to run out the door of her cade on Main Street in Edwardsville, Pa. and ring a cowbell.
"My Bruce is free! My Bruce is free!" she shouted, as neighbors honked their horns and waved at her.
"Right now I can almost cry, but the tears just won't come," said Mary Jane Enguist, of Burke, Va., sister of hostage Kathryn Koob, soon after she heard about the release.
The Rev. Earl Lee, father of hostage Gary Lee, sat in a television studio watching the newly freed hostages emerge from the Algerian airplane last evening.
"There he is. Thank God. He's thinner, and he's let his hair grow. But he was smiling and that's what I was looking for," Lee said. Then he spoke of pride and patriotism and shook his finger at a reporter. "Patriotism is not corny."
"I have to see them off the plane and put my arms around him before I will believe it," said Sister Carmelita, of Mount Pleasant, Pa., sister of hostage Jerry Miele.
The eight members of the family of hostage Michael Moeller linked hands in a circle in Loup City, Neb., when they heard the news. They joined voices choked with joy in singing, "America the Beautiful," along with the inaugural crowd on their television screen.
Others finally released the anger they have choked down as the negotiations dragged on, calling the Iranians "bastards," and "revolting."
The families, along with the rest of the nation, got their first look at the freed captives last night at about 9:30 p.m. when the Americans ambled off their plane in Algiers, looking for all the world like the bedraggled but beloved hometown baseball team back from a tough game.
Richard Hermening, father of the youngest hostage, Kevin Hermening, said, when he saw his son: "I just wanted to reach out and grab him."
In Reston, Bonnie Graves had dismissed the first White House confirmation, delivered by a Reagan adviser on TV, that the hostages had in fact been released. "I just don't believe them," she said.
But as the afternoon wore on and reporters gathered in her family room, and another oficial bulletin flashed on the screen, suddenly she shrieked: "It's official! Let's get some pots and pans and go around the neighborhood."
The shrieks got even louder when the assembled Graves family finally spotted John Graves, a veteran U.S. Information and Communications Agency official, on their TV screen.
"He looks fine," concluded his weary but smiling wife. The couple, married 33 years, had never been apart for more than two months before Graves was captured.
"I think that what you are looking at is 15 months of holding one's emotions in check," said Katherine Keough, wife of hostage William F. Keough, referring to the families' sometimes halting responses. "We have all stood for 15 months of trying to cope, trying to handle, trying to keep ourselves together in a variety of ways.
"And to shed all of that magically, with a snap of the fingers, and say, "It's over,' is a very difficult thing to do."
Not long after 12:35 p.m. when the 727s had lifted off from Tehran, Keough, president of FLAG (Family Liaison Actin Group), joined another FLAG representative and met with reporters in the main lobby of the State Department.
The two women thanked the American public for supporting the hostages over the months, and paid a "tribute to the families of the eight servicemen who will not be coming home" -- a reference to last April's aborted rescue raid. But they showed little relief and less jubilation at the news of the release.
"There are really very mixed emotions here," said Keough, whose hostage husband is a school teacher who had dropped by the embassy in Tehran to pick up some records at the time of the seizure. "We are experiencing a decompression -- almost exactly the same type of decompression the hostage must be going through."
Louisa Kennedy, who as the spokesman for the organization has become to many Americans one of the most familiar of the hostages" relatives, appeared dazed. Looking back over the the ordeal, she said that, "there were times when we all faltered because it was the most incredibly complicated, immense, awful inhumane, unimaginable problem. . . ."
A little later, with a wry smile, Kennedy described her efforts to reach her youngest son, Duncan, 15, at his boarding school in Connecticut. When she reached the headmaster, he told her that a school holiday had been declared to celebrate the hostages' release.
"'You can't speak to your son,'" Kennedy said she was told. "'He's gone skiing.'"
Dorothea Morefield of San Diego, Calif., wife of hostage Richard Morefield, also has become a familiar face in many living rooms because of her willingness to talk to reporters. Dozens of them surrounded her as she got the official State Department confirmation by phone. She let it sink in slowly. Then she started to repeat the news over and over, stuttering, her voice breaking occasionally.
"I am absolutely . . . it's offical . . both planes are in the air," she stammered. "They're on their way out. . . . They're coming home. . . Yes, I believe it now. . . . They're coming home."
She was taken aback by the flaming pink sweatshirts her husband and several of the other hostages were wearing, when she caught her first glimpse of them on television, arriving in Algiers. But she added with a grin, "He had a book in his hands, so I know he's all right.
"That's how he left, and that's how he's coming back," said her son, Dan, chucking at his father's reading habits.
Like several other members of the hostages' families, Morefield earlier had expressed anger over the Iranians' handing of the release negotiations, particularly in the final days.
"They proved very effectively that they're a bunch of bastards," she said.
As they grappled with the emotions engendered by the release of their relengendered by the release of their relatives, many family members spoke out -- some for the first time -- about the decisions that were made by the American government over the past 14 months and about President Carter, the man ultimately responsible for those decisions.
"As far as I'm concerned, those planes took off while Mr. Carter was president," said Engquist. "He worked hard. What the Iranians tried to do, holding the planes until Reagan was president, didn't work in my view."
Graves was far more critical, although she said she felt "no bitterness" toward the former president.
"I really feel sorry for the man," she said. "I'm sure he meant well, but he was mediocre and he wasn't up to the job."
Kathryn Barnes, the 74-year-old mother of hostage Clair Cortlandt Barnes, also expressed pity for Carter.
"I feel sorry for him now," she said. "I'm glad he's going to Germany, but I'm happier that he's going as an ex-president."
Barnes, who said she thought that Reagan's inaugural speech was wonderful, added: "I don't see where Carter did too much; he was late on everything."
While there was criticism of Carter, most relatives seemed content with the bargain that had led to their relatives' release.
"We feel the agreement was equitable," said Joseph Subic Sr., father of hostage Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Subic Jr. "We feel that the money is theirs and that we are giving back to them that which is theirs."
Thoughts tended to leap over emotions into the future.
In Redford Township, Mich., the hometown of hostage Sgt. Subic, his parents think they may have to fight the community to get any time alone with him.
"The general euphoria of him getting out has got all of them wanting to do something," said a spokesman for the Subics. "If [the community organizations] do all the things they say they want to do for the young fellow, he's going to be tied up for years."
But Mrs. Subic indicated that she foresees no psychological problems for her son, explaining: "We feel he'll be fine when he's restored to a family situation. . . . We're very family oriented."
Margarite German, wife of hostage Bruce German of Rockville, said she anticipates that she and her husband and children, "probably will have adjustments to make. We've always been a very close family. . . . He said in a letter recently that his mind was just reeling with things he wants to do when he gets home."
German is among the relatives who have discussed possible adjustment problems with psychiartrists.
"Most of them have said the sooner we get together and start living our lives again the better off we'll be," she said.
John L. (Jack) Limbert, father of hostage John L. Limbert Jr., summed up the feelings of many late yesterday at his apartment near the State Department, shortly after he got official word that all 52 hostages had been accounted for on board the plane after it landed in Athens:
"I'm beginning to breathe again, although it all has a certain aura of unreality about it. It's like coming out of a dark, hard-to-breathe space and into the sunlight."