The striking realization to emerge from watching the former hostages here in their first days back in the United States is that they are a classic kind of American hero -- victims of circumstance, people with very normal strenghts and weaknesses.

And that may be what's so appealing about them. They are so much like the rest of us.

"They are just normal guys. That was what surprised me most," said Steve Stahle, the maitre d' at the Hotel Thayer where they stayed the last two nights. "And to think what they've all been through."

He said one former hostage and his wife danced for hours every night in the dining room, "like that's all they had been doing for the last 444 nights." Two others sat for a full hour Monday morning in silence watching the sun rise over the Hudson River. Other complained they weren't comfortable in the candlelit dining room, because it reminded them of the darkness they had faced so long, so they asked that the lights be turned on.

The former hostages were anxious to talk to hotel employes, not only about their experiences, but about West Point and the surrounding area. It was as if they enjoyed the audience, enjoyed being together with people once again.

But were they heroes?

Definitely "no," William J. Daughtery, denounced by the Iranians as a suspected CIA agent, said at a press conference this morning. "I think it's almost unanimous among us. The real heroes have been our families."

There really wasn't that much special about being a hostage, he allowed. "It was pretty much sitting back, eating and reading, walking five steps and then turning around."

That's maybe what will make their re-entry into the real world hard. They have been treated like Very Important People the last few days. "My biggest problem in captivity was to decide what to eat with my rice. Then, 48 hours later, President Carter is embracing me with tears in his eyes," said Air Force Col. Thomas E. Schaefer, 49. "I've got problems coping with that. We all do."

The former hostages were subdued and worn-looking when they arrived at the Hotel Thayer late Sunday, said bell captain Wayne Steinke. "I thought they looked a lot worse than on TV. Their skin was white. They seemed uptight."

"They were thin," said Pat Keel, the hotel engineer. "They looked like they needed some home cooking."

Certain personality stereotypes emerged. The young Marines acted like young Marines. They drank a lot of beer and ordered banana splits late at night.

They were almost playful, repeatedly joking about drinking and chasing young women. When the West Point Cadet Corps hosted a special dinner for the returnees Monday night, the Marines marched in to the cadet Mess like stormtroopers, proud and cocky. The 4,300 cadets loved it.

Hotel employes labeled Moorhead Kennedy, the embassy economics officer, "the William Buckley type." He is an intellectual, who talked about Russian authors Dostoevski and Solzhenitsyn on television, an aloof man with three tall sons. He bought a huge salmon during a stopover at Shannon Field in Ireland, and had the hotel chef cook it. He then snacked on it all day Monday.

The State Department officials acted like diplomats. They were worried about their careers, they told their superiors. They were articulate and introspective. In the press conference today and dozens of interviews Monday, one couldn't help but be impressed with the quality of the Foreign Service officers.

But they are fundamentally cautious men by training, wordy, sometimes frustrated. They readily gave up the stage to their superior officer, L. Bruce Laingen. And he assumed it, the privilege of office.

When John W. Limbert Jr. was handed the question about whether his superiors in Washington should have known better than to admit the late shah of Iran to the United States, he dodged artfully.

"When you're in the embassy in Tehran, or wherever, it seems Washington should always know better," he said. "This is natural . . . among Foreign Service officers."

Charles Jones, the only black among the hostages, was unafraid to speak his piece. The clergyman who visited the hostages in Tehran, he suggested, had been duped. They ignored the obvious, he said -- that the hostages were prisoners of war and had been treated that way.

Given one moment in the spotlight at the press conference, William F. Keough, a school administrator who had been in the embassy picking up school records, sounded like the typical middle-aged educator. He was a little verbose, extremely low-key and careful not to say anything controversial.

The hours the former hostages and their families spent together for the last two days were very unusual. They were cheered, fawned over, and sheltered. They were allowed to eat or drink anything they wanted, from champagne brunches in the morning to filet mignon at night. At no cost, they made 24,600 phone calls in two days. They have been to the mountaintop and many of them liked the view.

"What do I think of West Point? I think it's great. I'd like to stay here forever," Marine Sgt. James Michael Lopez said late Monday night.

It was 12:15 a.m. and Lopez was standing outside the Hotel Thayer. Three television cameras and 20 reporters took down his every word. He was, after all, a former hostage, a new American hero.

Then, he turned and walked back up the hill to the hotel. In the dark, he looked like just another 22-year-old kid in a sweatshirt and blue jeans.