Remembering a homecoming

SIX years ago, the 444 days of Iran ended. Americans held hostage by terrorists. Our nation's prestige was at a nadir. Humiliated. The flag of the United States of America was burned and kicked by a band of thugs who laughed at our impotency. Though I was never held hostage, I remember that special homecoming of January 1981 from a European perspective. My three-week journey to London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Belfast enabled me to have a unique perspective of the crisis.

I had traveled across the Atlantic to conduct research for a graduate paper on international health care. In various meetings and on street corners, people expressed sympathy for our country's plight, but there seemed to be little genuine anguish. Perhaps they were all glad it was America and not a nation closer to home. America was a big country and could tolerate some nose wiping.

As Inauguration Day approached, I became more involved with my project. My travels distanced me from events stateside. I lost track of time.

The last part of my research was conducted in Northern Ireland. Most of the talk focused on Bobby Sands's negotiation of the end of a hunger strike at Maze prison, the slowdown in the bombing campaign by the Provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army, the recently reopened Opera House, and the revitalization of Belfast.

It was a period in which life seemed to be looking up in the town that had become synonymous with terrorism, until Tehran and Beirut captured center stage. The assassinations, the bombings, the fear, the hell, had been a part of the daily ritual in Belfast for more than a decade. A new era seemed to be dawning. The Ulster town was reveling in a resurgence of peace. There was no reason to think about terrorism.

Before I left the States, I knew Ronald Reagan would take the oath of office. As for Iran, the numerous false hopes and signals caused me to become blas'e about rumors of a release. The peaceful atmosphere in Belfast provided a respite from the conflicts capturing the rest of the globe.

On the morning of Jan. 20, 1981, the guide provided by the Northern Ireland Ambulance Authority collected me at my lodgings. We made several stops as we journeyed to various parts in Northern Ireland. It was late afternoon when we pulled into an ambulance station near Antrim.

I was introduced to the man in charge. My distinctive accent obviously rang through the station. We were discussing ambulance procedures when someone entered the room.

``Are ye a Yank?'' questioned the interrupting ambulance man.

``Yes, I am.''

``Have ye heard?''

Before I could say no, he motioned for me and the other members of the ambulance crew to follow him into the TV room. He said, ``The BBC has interrupted programming.''

The ambulance man looked at me, smiled, urged me to sit down. ``Mate, this is for you. They're free. They're comin' home.''

And for the next half-hour, we watched live dispatches on the telly.

It was a rare experience. Even my hosts were captured by the spirit of the moment.

When I asked why they were so interested, one ambulance man replied, ``Today is a day for freedom. All over the world, people are celebrating the release of the hostages.''

A sense of pride swelled up inside him. ``Today, we are all Americans.''

It was a moment that everyone wanted to share.

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