THEY GOT THE IDEA last October, when it began to look like the hostages would soon be home. Emory Miller, a computer specialist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, made the first call, but he is careful to say he didn't really originate the idea. The others -- Barbara Shafer and Judy Rosenbaum, active as is Miller in the local elementary school PTA -- has been thinking the same thing: One of their neighbors was a hostage and they wanted to give him a neighborly welcome home.
"Our feeling was we didn't want him to go home to a dark house like it was the end of a day at the office," Miller said. "All of us who shared in the planning and celebration of this thing have the same common desire, which is to welcome home somebody who has had a very difficult experience over the past 14 months." They planned something simple, something to let their neighbor know they have shared this thing with him. And if welcoming him home was a way of ending it for him, it was a way of ending it for them as well.
So 3,000 flyers went out last week to all of the homes in the Lewinsville Elementary School district of McLean, telling the residents something few of them knew: Victor Tomseth, whose family lives on Mary Ellen Court, had been one of the hostages. Tomseth, the chief political officer and one of three hostages held at the foreign ministry, has been identified throughout the crisis as a resident of Oregon. "His family was living in Oregon at the time [the hostages were seized]," says Judy Rosenbaum, a nextdoor neighbor. "But his family felt so out of touch with what was going on in Washington that they came here and rented a house next to us. They have been a delightful addition to our neighborhood."
"We invite you and your family to join us in welcoming Mr. Tomseth home," read the flyer that a neighborhood child dropped off, "By lining the streets of our neighborhood waving flags, displaying signs etc. on the day he arrives. . . Bring smiles, enthusiasm, flags, homemade signs, flashlights if it's dark."
The McLean High School band would meet the family and precede the motorcade to the Tomseth home.And then, the flyer said clearly, "Please disperse and give his family the privacy they need and deserve." Throughout their planning, Miller, Shafer and Rosenbaum shared a concern for the family's privacy and for what would be appropriate. "We've tried not to let this get out of hand," Miller said. "People aren't coming to see a parade but to welcome home a former hostage."
And so they planned a simple celebration, knowing that they might have as little as an hour in which to turn out a community. An elaborate phone relay system was set up to alert the neighborhood. All along, their greatest difficulty was the uncertainty of the timing and they wondered if they could pull it off. "But, I think," said Miller, "we weren't willing to say no to the idea.
"I think it's significant that even though we don't know him we have a desire to express our feelings and our appreciation that he's back home," says Miller. "I guess the patriotism that the whole event has triggered in all of us has been something that we haven't seen in a number of years. Since prior to the Vietnam war. Even though we haven't seen these people, don't know these people, I think it's significant that we are rallying around them as a nation. I think they represent our feelings for our fellow Americans and for human beings and human rights in general.
"I think there is a lot of symbolism in this whole experience we're having and I guess we're all satisfying some personal desires to share our happiness with these people and to relieve ourselves of some of the suffering we've done in learning of their plight. I keep asking myself if we're doing this for ourselves or for him?"
In the end, of course, it was for everyone. Hundreds of people gathered at the intersection of two quiet suburban streets and waited last evening for Tomseth, his wife and their two children and his mother to come home. Some houses were decorated with Christmas lights. Flags, yellow ribbons, and welcoming signs were everywhere. Shortly before 8:30, the Tomseth family pulled up in a Buick Skylark and he emerged, smiling, to receive a bouquet of a dozen yellow roses. "We're your neighbors," Miller told him quietly. "And we're thrilled to death to have you home."
Tomseth decided to walk the next few blocks to his house, and at first he didn't get very far. People wanted his autograph. Miller finally got them moving and, preceded by the McLean High School band, Victor Tomseth walked through his neighborhood for the first time, surrounded by hundreds of well-wishers carrying flags, pushing strollers, holding hands. "It's great," he said as he walked quickly, holding his daughter in his arms. "I've just been overwhelmed during the past few days by the kind of reception we've had here."
He rounded the corner onto Mary Ellen Court and for the first time saw his house, bathed in the glare of television lights. As the band struck up "God Bless America," teenagers perched in a tree on his lawn unfurled an American flag and the crowd roared its approval. TV cameras gathered around him as he edged toward the carport door and neighbors swarmed onto his lawn hoping for a glimpse of him before he slipped inside the house.
Victor Tomseth did not come home to a dark house, and it was not the end of another day at the office, but as neighbors began to disperse shortly after 9:00 there were healthy signs that Americans may finally be getting back to normal concerns.
"Tomseth may be better," said one man to his wife, "but his lawn will never be the same."