The moment America's ex-hostages have been waiting for -- the return to their homeland and their loved ones -- will take place at an airport just north of here Sunday afternoon amid extraordinary government efforts to exclude media coverage and ensure privacy for the family reunions.
Here at the nation's oldest and most honored military landmark, the U.S. Military Academy, officials are scrambling to prepare the way for the "returnees," as they are formally called, and their families, who will spend a private weekend at the grand old Hotel Thayer on the post here. Then they will fly to Andrews Air Force Base Tuesday morning for a motorcade through Washington and a reception at the White House.
The returnees are due at Stewart Airport 15 miles northwest of here at 3 p.m. Sunday on their flight from West Germany, where they have been in a U.S. military hospital recuperating and being examined by doctors. Their families are to arrive on separate aircraft from Washington about 30 minutes earlier and will greet them on the tarmac.
The reunited families then will go into the airport terminal, a brightly painted converted hangar, for about 30 minutes. The terminal area is to be closed off to the public and the press, and no outsiders will be able to come within three city blocks of the reunion.
This caused cries of desperation Saturday among the hordes of journalists, particularly the national network television crews who have descended on the area. "Nothing, we're shut out of the airport," complained one NBC correspondent.
The atmosphere is frenetic and joyous today both here at the academy, located on a rolling wooded campus splendidly high on bluffs above the Hudson River, and in the little village of Highland Falls just outside the front gate.
At West Point, the vast Eisenhower Hall -- an auditorium where the National Symphony Orchestra will play tonight in a long-scheduled engagement -- is being readied as a press center. Telephone trucks, loudspeaker trucks and mobile command trailers are hastily being moved around the campus.
In Highland Falls, the residents have decked out Main Street with thousands of yellow ribbons and American flags to honor the returnees. Children clutching ribbons and flags run about the crowded streets. Everybody is excited.
"It's very exciting, very emotional," said the mayor's wife, June Eazzetta, as she watched her husband, Ben, put out a big "Welcome Home Free Americans" banner atop the entrance to the village hall. "They're ours, they're our people, they're us," she said. "We just want them to know that we're very happy for them."
The weekend home for the 52 returnees will be the 170-room Hotel Thayer, named like so many things at the academy, after Sylvanus Thayer, its first superintendent. Tranquil and understated, the hotel is an almost ideal spot for such a reunion.
The hotel, built in 1926, is a throwback to a time when the spirit of national unity and patriotism now being evoked by the hostage situation was more routinely a part of American life than it is today.
The hotel sits majestically on a hill at the edge of the academy grounds with a panoramic view of the ice-caked Hudson River and the surrounding snow-covered bluffs. The lobby, bedecked in flags from the American Revolution, is marble and wood. The rooms are spartan, small and functional. But what the place has is atmosphere.
"It's tranquil, you might say sleepy," said hotel manager Steve Adams. "When someone walks in, it has a calming effect. Something takes over."
Adams was quietly told about two weeks ago that the government-owned hotel might be the first home for the returned hostages, and the hotel staff has worked frantically in the last few days getting ready.
A new, more expensive menu has been printed, the carpets vacuumed, and hundreds of pounds of lobster, turkey and steak stockpiled. Nine electronic games and a jukebox have been installed in a basement game room. A wide-screen television has been set up adjacent to the Hudson Lounge ("No Cadets Allowed" says a plaque at the entrance) so the returnees can watch the Super Bowl football game Sunday evening.
Bartenders, waiters and kitchen help have been informed that the bar and dining room will be open 24 hours a day. A retired chef has been brought back to cook New England clam chowder, his specialty. All food and drink will be supplied free of charge.
All guests were ordered out of the Thayer at noon Saturday. Not everyone was happy about it. "I'm disappointed, very disappointed," complained Dan Sheehy of Pittsburgh, who was here to watch his son play for Army in a hockey game. "I think this is going to backfire on the U.S. -- and every POW will ask for special privileges for his family."
During the next two days, there is no formal schedule for the ex-hostages and their families, although special movies and tours have been planned and all of West Point's impressive facilities, including swimming pools, a bowling alley and a ski run will be available for their use.
"There's no program except to arrive and depart," said hotel manager Adams.
"They can sit in their rooms and let their hair grow if they want, or they can whoop it up.
"This can be a very quiet, peaceful time, or it can be one gigantic party."
The ex-hostages and their families will be free to roam the shops of Highland Falls and the academy grounds, past the long gray line of cadets, and the massive gray granite fortresses where they live and attend classes. Their only public event is to be a Tuesday press conference.
The academy apparently was picked as a stopoff point because of the security, setting, facilities and relative privacy it offers.
West Point always has held a special place in the history of the nation, first as a revolutionary garrison and then, since 1802, as a training ground for the Army's officer corps. Because of its strategic location on the Hudson, George Washington first ordered troops stationed here on Jan. 20, 1778. They strung a massive iron chain across the Hudson to prevent British troops and artillery from moving south.
It has been in almost continuous service ever since, graduating more that 30,000 cadets. The names of the most legendary of their number -- Grant, Lee, MacArthur, Pershing and Eisenhower -- now grace the walls of its major halls.
But the academy, like much of the military, has been in an uncertain state of transition ever since the Vietnam War. It has endured scandal, the entrance of women, and getting beat, year after year, in major sports by the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Cadets and officers here watched the Iranian hostage situation with unusual intensity, and cheered wildly last Thursday when Lt. Gen. Andrew J. Goodpastor announced at cadet mess the hostages had finally left Iran. They greeted the expected arrival of the ex-hostages here with unrestrained enthusiasm.
"It is with great expectation and pride that the entire West Point community is looking forward to serving the nation and these American patriots," said academy spokesman Al Konecny.
Highland Falls is a village of 5,000people who live mostly in white clapboard houses and who work in shops and stores along Main Street or at West Point. Today the residents feelthey have been chosen for a special role in greeting the returnees.
John Bosch, who runs a Mobile Service Station just outside the West Point gate, said, "No matter what we do, it still isn't enough because of the treatment they had to put up with in the interests of our country."
"It's great to have them back, the whole country feels the way we do," said Art Silveri, a 28-year-old general contractor here.
This is a village where, each school day for the past 14 months, the children at Sacred Heart Elementary School paused at noon to say the Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary's for the hostages. "I've never seen so many people enthralled and doing So much on their own," said Mayor Eazzetta, 51, who has lived here all his life. "It's not a chore, it's an honor to do it. We feel they've been through quite a lot and it's our way of showing we care, and we hope nothing like this will happen again."
The mayor said he plans to have a village choir at the West Point gate to sing patriotic songs for the returnees. The village's three church bells will ring for them, and the village fire engines may be positioned near the gate to make a colorful show.
At the village fire house this morning, the Ladies Auxiliary set up tables where workers were cutting big bundles of yellow cloth into ribbions. Children lined up to pick up bundles of ribbons and went off to put them on storefronts and elsewhere.
"I think it's marvelous, I can't believe the excitment in this little town," said Rita Bough as she put ribbons and flags up in front of her Fashions & Fabrics shop on Main Street. "We'll probably [never] lay eyes on any of them but it doesn't matter."
Inside the firehouse, Anna Mae Rose, vice president of the Ladies Auxiliary, served coffee to the ribbon workers. "I have one son in the service now," she said. "I think it was wonderful the way the hostage crisis was handled. We were worried there would be a big explosion."
Another woman nearby, Joan Cronin, said, "Boy, I'll tell you, with all the prayers that have been offered . . . " She paused and restarted, "Well, I lost a brother in the SecondWorld War in the Battle of the Bulge, I was one of nine children and had four brothers in that war, and one did not return. To have those 52 returned, for their families to be so fortunate, I say thank God."
"I was scared it could have got us in a nuclear war," put in Rose. "a big nuclear war."
In Ed's barber shop a couple of blocks away, barber Edward Prah worked on a West Point lieutenant colonel's hair. "Biggest thing to hit this town in a long time, right, Eddie?" said Prah.
"Right," said his friend, Eddie Rafferty, who was waiting for a haircut. Rafferty, a savings and loan bookkeeper, said he had been a Kennedy man, hadn't liked Carter's handling of the hostage crisis, and doesn't think much of Reagan either.
"I'm not a big conservative," said Rafferty. "My brother Tom is a cadet and thinks Reagan is the greatest thingsince sliced bread."
"Well, things gotta get better," responded Ed, the Barber. "I voted for Reagan, sure did. I'm a Democrat but I voted for Reagan because things weren't getting done."
On the corner at Moglia's Liquor Store, proprietress Maria Moglia was beside herself with excitement. "I can't wait," she exclaimed. "Everybody happy."
"So tomorrow we meet the hostages, eh?" said an elderly man, Andrea Fornicola, who was visiting in the store. Fornicola is retired after 30 years as a tailor at West Point. "Carter and Reagan are on the same team now," he said. "People have to feel like Americans today. For America, this is a victory, to get the hostages freedom. We consider them heroes. They showed courage."
With that, he left the shop to go down to the firehouse to see if he could get a ribbon.
Maria Moglia, who came to America 21 years ago from Italy, watched him leave and then said, "We want peace. Work, a job and peace. That's all we want."