Editor’s note: On April 24, 1980, the United States mounted a risky rescue attempt of American diplomats being held hostage by Iran—Operation Eagle Claw. It failed horribly, leaving eight U.S. servicemen and one Iranian civilian dead. It also helped kill the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who lost his 1980 reelection bid to Ronald Reagan. Minutes after Reagan’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, the hostages were released. Jimmy Breslin spent that day with the widow of one of the American engineers who died in the Iranian desert, watching the news of the hostages’ new freedom.
Know that the day belongs to Pamela Mayo, whose husband, an air force sergeant, died in the desert in Iran last April. In the recording of the 444 days of the hostages in Iran, in tales of spies and clerks, of political fakery and national will, of honor and dishonor, the purity of her husband’s act places him above all. He died trying to rescue other human beings.
On morning television yesterday, each mention of the hostages would cause one of Pam Mayo’s kids to call out and the others in the family of four boys and a mother to run through the house to the set.
“The reason that it’s so important to us is that maybe it won’t be over for us until it’s over for them,” Pam Mayo, who is thirty-one, was saying. Her husband, Joel Mayo, who was known as Buck, was an in-flight engineer on C-130 transports. In Iran, age thirty-four, he died in the darkness when a helicopter crashed into a C-130.
She lives as a stranger in the town where she was born, Harrisville, Michigan. In the morning, as she heard discussions on television about the difficulties the hostages could have in becoming used to having families around them again, she thought of the day in 1966 when she met her husband. She was eighteen and in high school and a girlfriend brought him into her mother’s kitchen in Harrisville. He was an airman, assigned to the base fire department at Wurtsmith Air Force Base at Oscoda, Michigan. He was Irish and Indian from Florida and she was Yugoslavian from the forest land of upper Michigan. They were married and began thirteen and a half years of living on air bases.
And she remembered the last time she saw him. It was a spring night at Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and he was leaving for temporary duty that he would not talk about. Many weeks before that, FBI agents suddenly starting interviewing his family and friends because, they said, Buck was being given a “top secret” security clearance. Once that happened, his wife never asked him about his military work.
Usually, when Buck was going away, he spent the last hours teasing his wife or working on something around the house. Varnish a table, fix a bike, tighten a doorknob. This time, last April, Buck Mayo was listless and said nothing. It was the first time, his wife said to herself, that he ever had seemed reluctant to go anyplace with his squadron.
They had his favorite dinner, pork chops. During it, he said nothing. After dinner, she had the young kids in the tub and he came in and said good-bye to them. She walked him out to the carport, and he stood by their 1969 station wagon.
“No sense you coming,” he said. “I’ll drive over to the squadron and leave the car locked in the parking lot. Get somebody to drive you over in the morning and pick it up.”
“Well, I don’t want to haul the kids out of the bathtub,” she said.
“That’s what I mean,” he said.
There was no reason to ask him where he was going. She was a military wife and she knew that she was supposed to say nothing. At the same time, it was plain that it was Iran. The only way to snatch the hostages was by air.
Buck kissed her good-bye. During the kiss, the notion ran through her that he would die. The kiss in front of the 1969 car became one of the horrible moments of her life.
And then he was gone, and she changed her life. Television news was not allowed in the house. The kids put on cartoons, or old horror movies, but she wanted no news reports as she walked about her house.
On April 25, she and her children slept through the night while the ones who determined her life sat by phones in the White House.
That there were hostages in the first place was President Carter’s fault. He had allowed people with personal interests—John McCloy, Henry Kissinger, and David Rockefeller—to cause him to place his caution aside and allow the Shah of Iran to enter a hospital in New York. Tehran erupted, and the hostages were taken. At first, in his reelection campaign, Carter found that the country’s willingness to support a president in time of trouble was an asset in Democratic primaries. But then Carter lost five of seven primaries and caucuses and the issue of the hostages became an ominous one.
At the same time, it was intolerable that they were being held, and people of the nation, particularly those who were older, increasingly called for America to stand up to these screaming Iranians they watched each night on television.
“This country needs a win,” one of Carter’s people said one day. And now, on April 25, cynical politics and patriotism were mingled, and as the Mayo family slept in Florida, the father landed in the desert in Iran on the raid that was designed to get back hostages, bring America to its feet, as if for a great football touchdown, and insure a president’s reelection.
When Pam Mayo woke up in the morning, one of the kids called from the bedroom, “They tried to rescue the hostages last night. It didn’t work.”
Now, Pam Mayo told herself, we’ll see if you know how to keep yourself under control. She said nothing and got the kids off for school and then went to her job as lunchroom cashier at the grammar school. When she came in, the woman in charge, Brunelle, said, “Have you heard the news?”
“Yes,” Pam said.
“Are you going to be all right?” Brunelle asked.
“As long as the other girls can forget trying to be television news announcers and talk about the weather,” Pam said.
Brunelle laughed and went to her office. Pam sat in the cafeteria kitchen and had coffee. Her husband, she told herself, was dead.
A few minutes later, Brunelle came into the cafeteria. “Pam, could you come with me for a minute?” she said.
Pam put down the coffee and followed the woman into the office. Inside were a doctor, a priest, the base commander, and a sergeant and his wife.
“You didn’t have to come,” Pam Mayo told the doctor.
Then they told her what she had known from the moment Buck Mayo kissed her good-bye.
And today, the nation celebrates its hostages; it examines them and pampers them and exults, and President Carter leaves office with his engineer’s determination intact; he had taken this problem and finally solved it. And Pam Mayo and her children, who gave the most, sit in front of a television set in Michigan and cheer.
“When I came back here, people didn’t know how to take me,” she was saying. “I was alone. I wasn’t divorced or embittered by my husband. And they had seen me on television. This is a small town up here. It’s just like a Southern town without an accent. I’ve been away for over thirteen years. Everything is taking a lot of time. Now it might be a little different. It’s over for the hostages and now it’s over for me. I can begin the rest of my life.”
She never understood the politics of Iran. Last fall in Michigan, she forgot to register and did not vote in the November election. She doesn’t want anybody tormenting her with the idea that her husband might have died because of a political campaign. All she knows is that he died as a hero of his country and today, the day that belongs to her, we celebrate his heroism.