Having survived the final grim gauntlet of Iranian terrorists, the 52 returning former hostages now enter the grip of hero worship, American style. Here, celebrity can turn sour in a wink as signs emerge that the chosen were just ordinary people all along.
First there is the adoration. Right off the bat, the "returnees," as they are now called, have been offered the options of a speedy return to the arms of their loved ones or a free trip to the Super Bowl on Sunday.And that's just one of the treasures being laid at their feet.
For some, the taste of celebrity has already gone ashy. Deborah Plotkin, wife of former hostage Jerry Plotkin, had hardly digested the news that her husband had been freed before she was crying and shaking with rage as she denied to reporters a published report that he is the target of an investigation on drug trafficking in Iran.
"The shock of this ridiculous story and the attention that it has caused today has overshadowed and interfered with the joy and relief that I shared publicly with all of you for the past three days," she said in a statement at her attorney's office in Los Angeles. Her attorney said she would sue.
As the media competition for the hearts and minds of the hostages and their families intensifies, some of the targets are slamming both shut.
Dorothy Hall of Little Falls, Minn., mother of former hostage Joseph Hall, wrote a plaintive "Dear John" letter of sorts to the occupation army of reporters who have shared her home throughout the ordeal. "Goodbye reporters, so long cameramen . . . I'm going to miss you -- like a cold."
In the note, which she "released" to the addresses, she said, "In the past 14 months, I've tripped over wires and been denied bathroom privileges in my house because you weren't through with the shots . . . I drank three cups of sugared coffee or one black and cold that I poured for myself in the confusion . . . You're nice enough guys. There have been Jacks, Jims, Jeffs, Johns, Joes and Steves and frankly, I'm getting so run down, you all look alike . . . I can't remember if you were here before or if you're new from Canada. I realize you're just trying to do your jobs, but I do have a breaking point. I'm only human."
In their hospital quarters in Wiesbaden, West Germany, yesterday, the freed hostages voted unanimously not to talk to the press for a while, the State Department announced.
In Columbia, md., a brother of former hostage Donald Cooke mused about whether the country has gone too far in its adulation of the hostages.
"I'm real interested in hearing my brother's reaction to all the hero worship stuff," said Ernie Cooke. "After all, the hostages didn't jump on any live grenades.
"If anybody is a hero in this thing, it should be the guys who tried to get the hostages out of there last April."
Cooke also said he was upset by a remark made by President Reagan after his inauguration. "Reagan said my brother was a prisoner of war. What war? This was nothing like the POWs in Vietnam . . . Maybe the Vietnam vets will get a little more consideration now. They sure deserve it. Maybe the public will become more aware of how bad things were for the guys in Nam when my brother and the other hostages tell their stories.
"And maybe now this yellow ribbon stuff will end. I never thought the song was very good, and never did think a yellow ribbon was a very good symbol for the hostages."
Some family members became polished on-camera performers as the crisis wore on. They cooperated with the press, they said, so that the hostages would not be forgotten. As hostage wife Barabara Rosen put it, "We made the hostages real for the public. The only way they could focus on the hostages was to see the families."
There was friction among some families over the issue. Some felt the publicity was ill-advised, and avoided the press.
Hostage wife Louisa Kennedy, who served for most of the 14 months as spokesman for the families organization, reflecting on the undertows of the American media yesterday, said, that both she and the families were encouraged to portray themselves in certain ways. "They would be egged on if there was a negative response . . . Let's hear it for being against the State Department, you know. I found this very unnerving. At the same time I think it got all my dander up and my adrenaline and it made me fight harder. And I think it's what pulled me through."
For the freed hostages, the Super Bowl of publicity is just beginning.
Not since the astronauts has there been a homecoming to inspire the sort of gesture committeed by Buddy Frankum, of Hartwell, Ga. He bashed in the windows of his 1973 yellow Oldsmobile, poured a costly pool of gasoline into it and tossed in a flaming paper bag. With volunteers from the hart County Fire Department looking on, Frankum watched a column of black smoke rise from the sacrificial heap and said, "Maybe this will show people around here there's still people who care about other people."
Not all the offerings are burnt. A Boston television station shipped 52 Maine lobsters to the hospital in Wiesbaden. A Chicago radio man arranged to send pizzas and champagne by private plane.
It was NBC, the network that will broadcast the Super Bowl, that offered the former hostages free tickets to that event. If they can't make that, the baseball commissioner's office in New York has offered lifetime passes to all regular season games starting with the 1981 season.
An Iranian-American rug merchant in Mill Valley, Calif., has offered a $1,000 Persian or oriental rug to each returning hostage, to show Americans, he said, "that all Iranians are not alike."
And the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association say they will provide experts in hostages' problems for counseling, free of charge.
The sole blotch in this outpouring from the heart of commercial America so far is the allegation against Plotkin, published Wednesday in the suburban San Fernando Daily News. Both the Los Angeles Police Department and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration denied the charges, according to the Los Angeles Times. Plotkin served two years during the 1960s on a federal marijuana smuggling conviction, according to the Times, and was placed on probation for possession of counterfeit currency in 1970.
Plotkin, 47, an unemployed civilian who happened to be at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when it was seized, was trying to start a new business, according to his family. His earlier jobs reportedly included drivng a catering truck, operating his own company which sold potency tablets other "sexual aids," and working for a gift company.
He and Deborah, his third wife, were married just two weeks before Plotkin was seized by the Iranians.
Attorney Steven M. Klein said that in a phone call Wednesday Plotkin "confirmed this story was totally false with respect to his legitimate reason for being in Iran."
Plotkin "has in no way gone out of his way to make himself a public figure," Klein said. "He is not a candidate for public office. All he is is a victim, as his wife."