Captivity Pageant

December 1979: Christmas comes for the Great Satan

The hostages were brought to the three clergymen in small groups for a series of services throughout Christmas Day. In session after session, wearing a flowing maroon robe, Coffin warned against the vice of "self-pity" and encouraged the captives to sing along with him as he played carols on the piano. The ceremonies were held in various rooms that had been decked with an Islamic approximation of Christmas trimmings. The students had decorated with help from one of the hostages, Army Sergeant Joe Subic, who was so accommodating to his captors that they nicknamed him "Brother Subic." Alongside the holiday decorations were the usual anti-American posters and revolutionary slogans. Cameras recorded the event for Iranian TV.

Many of the hostages were appalled by the event, by being made part of what they saw as a propaganda stunt, but Rick Kupke, a State Department communications technician, set aside his resentment when he spotted the treats laid out on a table—brownies, nuts, apples, and oranges. There was even a roasted turkey on a platter. Paul Lewis, a young Marine, was impressed enough by the goodies to go through the motions during his ceremony, though he ignored Coffin's exhortation to hold hands with his captors and sing. Many of the Marines refused to join in, and a good number of the other hostages showed little emotion or enthusiasm. Coffin hugged each one at the end of the ceremonies, and when he came to Lewis the young man whispered to him, "It's all bullshit." In a brief conversation with Bill Keough, the former head of the American High School in Tehran, who had come to Tehran to retrieve school records and found himself trapped by the takeover, Coffin remarked jokingly that he had often longed for an extended period of quiet in which to read and think and contemplate. Keough smiled grimly. It was the remark of a free man who was not being threatened daily with trial and execution. Al Golacinski, the embassy security chief, leaned over to William Howard at the ceremony he attended and whispered, "Don't believe what you are seeing; we're being treated like animals."

"So I gathered," Howard said.

The Baptist pastor managed to convey to each group that all of America—not just their families and friends—was intensely concerned with their fate. At each of the sessions the hostages were allowed to write brief notes to their families, which for many was their first communication since the takeover.

Forbidden to talk about politics or the hostages' situation, Colonel Chuck Scott, the embassy's military liaison, a ramrod career Army officer with a square jaw and a defiant demeanor, asked Howard intently, "What's the price of gas in America today?" Scott had thought long and hard about what question to ask if he got the chance, and had decided that the current price of oil would help him gauge how events in Iran were playing around the world. Howard looked at the gallery of armed guards and asked them, "I don't suppose I should answer that question, do you?" Scott was annoyed. Why couldn't he just have blurted out an answer? Why was he bending over so far to be helpful to these bastards?

Seeing Scott's anger, Howard tried to change the subject. He said he had noticed in looking over the lists of hostages that Scott was from Georgia, and he began a story about the difficulties he had faced as a young African-American traveling in that state. This further angered Scott, who felt that he was being blamed for the racism the preacher mentioned having encountered.

For some of the hostages, however, the ceremonies were rich with feeling and gave them a fleeting sense of connection with home. Kathryn Koob fought to hold back tears during her ceremony. A friendly, once corpulent woman who had been in charge of the Iran-America Society, a cultural-exchange program, she had lost a striking amount of weight already and would in the coming months become reed-thin. Koob was profoundly sad to be cut off from her world, isolated from her family and any community of Christians; from familiar Christmas music, the swirl of shopping, cards, parties, and gift-giving. And yet somehow the holiday became, if anything, more meaningful to her as a prisoner. As she stood before Bishop Gumbleton, reunited for the first time in a month with the only other remaining female hostage—the embassy first secretary, Ann Swift—she felt herself trembling so violently that it took all her strength not to break down. She was afraid if she didn't control herself in front of the bishop, word would get back to her family that she wasn't doing well. So she balled her hands into fists so tight that the nails cut into her skin.

Something else happened that Christmas Day. Early in the morning Marine Guard Kevin Hermening was given a clean turtleneck sweater, and he; Joe Subic; Steve Lauterbach, an embassy administrator from Ohio; and Jerry Plotkin, a California businessman, were taken to an office at the motor pool, where TV cameras were waiting.

The men were asked to make a statement on camera during the Christmas party to be held later that day. Over in the Mushroom Inn, unbeknownst to Hermening, most of his fellow Marines had refused the same request. Hermening, who at nineteen was the youngest of the hostages, agreed to say some things, but said he didn't want anything to do with anything "controversial." He loved America and was proud to be a Marine. He would sacrifice his life, if need be, to defend his country. But as he talked more with his captors, they got him to agree that he was not prepared to sacrifice his life to defend the deposed shah. He felt okay about saying that. He was ready to accept that the shah and SAVAK, the shah's secret police, had done terrible things to the Iranian people. He did not think those things gave the students the right to take over the embassy and hold him and his colleagues against their will, and he even wrote that down in one of the statements. He tried to get the students to promise not to edit his comments, but when they said no he agreed to go ahead anyway.

Hermening was excited about being on TV. Maybe his family back in Wisconsin would see him. This ordeal was making him famous, he was sure, and with that fame would come opportunity. At the motor pool he met Nilufar Ebtekar, the young Iranian woman whose fluent, American-accented English had elevated her to the role of international spokesperson for the students (and who today is one of Iran's vice-presidents and the minister of the environment), and fell into easy conversation with her. Hermening told her he was surprised that a woman held a position of such importance. He said if she was so successful already, maybe someday she would be a big leader in Iran.

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Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. This article is drawn from his book Guests of the Ayatollah, to be published in April by Grove/Atlantic. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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