In the spring of 1980 a mother of a hostage traveled to Tehran to visit her son at the embassy. This is her story. A mother’s story. It is a fiction based on fact, what I’m calling a faux history. I am writing a book on the hostage crisis and the October Surprise [The Complete and ExtraOrdinary History of the October Surprise], the supposed deal between Khomeini’s inner circle and the Reagan Republicans to delay the release of the hostages until after the American presidential elections of 1980. [Another excerpt]
“Jimmy Carter seemed so unsure,” Barbara Timm, the mother of hostage Kevin Hermening, began her story. “Who knows what was going on behind the scenes, but to the country he just kind of waffled about. The media once asked Richard, my ex-husband and Kevin’s father, about Carter. He responded that Carter said one thing and never followed through. I think, as Americans, we wanted Carter to get tough with the Iranians. Talk tough, act tough, you know? Not this perception of hesitancy, the do nothing president.”
Barbara Timm, or BT as she prefers, shook her head in disgust. “I didn’t like Jimmy Carter from the very beginning,” she said. “I didn’t vote for him. I voted for Ford. Jerry was a Michigan man and I lived then in Milwaukee. It seemed right to vote for a Midwesterner, one of our own.”
President Gerald Ford, it should be noted, died on December 26, 2006 at the age of 93. Four months later, I interviewed Barbara Timm, along with her son Kevin Hermening. The interview took place at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix, Arizona, BT’s city of residence since the late 1980s. Timm, Hermening and I – and some fifty thousand baseball fans – attended Opening Day of the baseball season, the Milwaukee Brewers versus the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“I felt betrayed by our government,” Barbara Timm continued. “I think most of the families [of the hostages] did. The government played a game with us. We were always kept in the dark. We were never given real information. On occasion, the State Department would invite us to Washington and put on a fancy party. I called them ‘Appeasement Parties’ and ‘Parties of Pacification.’ My ex-husband Richard called them ‘Parties of Piss Off.’”
At that moment BT removed the Milwaukee Brewers baseball cap from her head and gently combed her hair with her fingers. Her hair was cut into a short bob. BT began wearing the hairstyle in the 1970s, as many women did, in imitation of the figure skater Dorothy Hamill.
“At one of these State Department parties, I met a lawyer,” Timm continued, fingers brushing hair. “I admit he was a little greasy. An ambulance chaser, you know. He was going around telling the families that he could get us to Tehran. That’s how the whole idea started. Believe me, I would never have considered making the trip otherwise. It never would have dawned on me.”
Barbara Timm’s son, Kevin Hermening, was the youngest hostage held at the embassy. His age however, twenty-one in 1979, didn’t worry his mother. “He was older than his age,” BT said. She attributed his maturity to “life circumstances. Kevin’s father and I divorced when he was young. That aged him right there. I went to work full-time. He had to be very independent, very self-reliant. Then I remarried and started a second family. Again, that aged him. He was no longer an only child. Now he had stepbrothers.”
The fingers of Barbara Timm encountered a tangle in her otherwise fine hair. She didn’t plow through the way a man might. Rather, she removed her fingers from her hair, put her baseball cap back on her head, and placed both hands in her lap. They wouldn’t stay there long. BT used her hands as a means of communication.
“Kevin joined the Marines,” Timm continued. “He was assigned to Tehran. It wasn’t his first choice but he went without an argument – again, that was his way, very responsible, following the chain of command. I didn’t even know where Tehran was.”
Barbara Timm, and America, learned the exact location on November 4, 1979. “We were watching the Packers game, as we did every Sunday,” Timm recalled. “A newsman suddenly came on and reported that the American embassy in Tehran had been seized by Khomeini loyalists.”
BT suddenly paused. She squinted into the bright sunlight of an Arizona afternoon while simultaneously reaching out for her son’s hand. Kevin Hermening sat to his mother’s left and Barbara Timm placed her left hand on his right. For a moment, BT watched the sunshine while Kevin Hermening watched his mother’s hand. What was he thinking at that moment? Was he considering the choices of sons and how they directly impact the behaviors of mothers?
“Do you know how ignorant I was?” BT suddenly continued. “I thought there were many American embassies in Tehran. I didn’t know if Kevin was at the embassy being overrun.” She laughed at herself. “What country has many embassies in the same city?” she said.
None, of course. In Barbara Timm’s defense, there were American consulates in a few Iranian cities, but only one embassy in Tehran.
Barbara Timm visited that embassy on the 23rd of April, the day before the rescue operation. She explained her reason for going: “I didn’t know if Kevin would ever come home. I thought they would kill him. I had to see him one more time. I was totally desperate.”
As she spoke, BT’s left hand covered her son’s right.
A mother traveled more than 12,000 miles to a strange land to see her son who had been in captivity for six months. The trip took her from Milwaukee to New York to Paris to Damascus to Tehran. These are the journeys people take in desperation.
On the morning of the visit, an Iranian guard handed Kevin Hermening a clean shirt. “You better get cleaned up,” the guard said in broken English. Ten minutes later, the guard walked Hermening down a hallway to the front entrance. “I was blindfolded,” Hermening recalled, “pushed into a car. They drove me around for an hour. I had no idea where we were.”
Back where the journey began, at the chancery building on embassy grounds. Guards escorted the still blindfolded Hermening to a room on the first floor. A pool table, from an earlier age, filled a good portion of the room. A couch filled a smaller portion. A guard removed Hermening’s blindfold. His mother sat on the couch. She combed her Dorothy Hamill-style haircut with her fingers.
That didn’t last long. “I jumped off the couch,” BT remembered. “I rushed to him. I held him. I couldn’t say a word. My God, I couldn’t breathe. Why were they doing this to my son? That’s what I was thinking. Why are they fucking doing this?”
BT immediately apologized for using the f-word.
There were Iranian guards with rifles in the room. There were anti-American slogans written in black magic marker on the walls. “Marg bar Amreeka.” “Death to Carter.” “Death to the Shah.” Massoumeh Ebtekar, the Iranian translator known as “Tehran Mary,” was present too.
“What was your initial impression of Kevin?” I asked Barbara Timm.
“I thought… I never thought they would actually let me see him,” she answered. “I thought, at the last minute, they’d deny me. I expected to go all that way for nothing. Let me tell you, when I was in Syria [as part of the connecting flight to Tehran], I saw all the normal people getting off the plane and all these covered women getting on. I wanted to get off myself. I wanted to turn right around. If you think making that trip was easy, you are sadly mistaken.”
My attention at that moment went to her son. He intently studied the Brewers’ starting pitcher, Ben Sheets, warming up on the mound. He watched the leg kick, the arm motion, the follow through. He seemed pleased with the result. He didn’t seem to be listening to his mother but this, I assumed, was a function of the male psyche. We prefer to listen to bursts of emotion by diverting our attentions elsewhere.
“When Kevin walked into that room,” Barbara Timm continued, “he was blindfolded. Do you know how hard it is for a mother to see her son blindfolded? Do you realize how powerless you feel?”
BT’s left hand remained in position, covering her son’s right. “He was so tall, much taller than I remembered, and so skinny,” she continued. “He’d never had acne before but his face was all broken out. And I just… I just couldn’t get enough of him. I stood there holding him, hugging him, and I asked God to let the moment last forever.”
At that moment in BT’s testimony, the umpire on the field shouted, “Play ball!”
Barbara Timm and Kevin Hermening hold to a tradition. They attend every Opening Day of their beloved Milwaukee Brewers. If the game’s in San Francisco, they fly out west. If the game’s in Atlanta, they fly east. If the game’s in Milwaukee, BT flies back to her hometown, where Kevin still resides. In 2007, with the game played in Phoenix, Kevin Hermening flew to his mother. And when Hermening suggested that our interview take place on Opening Day in Arizona, I jumped at the chance. Like Kevin, I flew west.
Kevin Hermening owns a lifetime pass to all Milwaukee Brewers baseball games. In the immediate aftermath of the hostage crisis the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, Bud Selig, presented the pass to Hermening. The pass allows Hermening to attend any Milwaukee Brewers baseball game played anywhere on the planet. According to Hermening, he’d go anywhere “except Tehran. I think I’d miss that game.”
Barbara Timm and Kevin Hermening were not the only parent/child couple with an Opening Day tradition. One row behind us on that day in April 2007 the father/daughter couple of Bud and Wendy Selig enjoyed the game. When Bud Selig officially became commissioner of Major League Baseball in July 1998, he passed the running of the Milwaukee Brewers to his daughter, Wendy. During my conversation with Barbara Timm and Kevin Hermening, I took a moment to interview Commissioner Selig. I asked him about the lifetime pass awarded to Kevin Hermening.
“It was my pleasure,” he responded. “After what Kevin had been through, it was the least he deserved. And besides, he had a pretty good arm. He threw out the first pitch on Opening Day in 1981. Kevin, I think you threw a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball.”
Kevin Hermening smiled at Selig’s hyperbole.
When Barbara Timm returned to her recollection of her visit to the embassy, she returned to the initial hug. “We stood there for I don’t know how long,” she recalled. “I was in heaven. Hugging Kevin that day was, I think, my best moment as a mom. But then Kevin whispered, ‘Be careful, there are bugs everywhere.’ And that sort of jolted me back to reality.”
“Bugs meaning spies?” I asked.
“Yes, particularly with that Ebtekar woman in the room,” BT responded. “I hated her from the moment I saw her.”
There was good reason for Barbara Timm’s hatred. According to both mother and son, Massoumeh Ebtekar censured their conversation. Kevin Hermening explained, “Every time I asked my mom a question – for example, what America thought of the hostage crisis – Tehran Mary would say, ‘You cannot answer that.’ She must have repeated that line ten times.”
Barbara Timm added, “Kevin asked about my trip – I mean, the nuts and bolts of how I traveled to Iran – and he asked about Tehran and what I’d seen and that little bitch kept saying, ‘You cannot answer that. You cannot answer that.’ I wanted to ring her fucking neck.”
Again, BT immediately apologized for using the f-word.
“After Kevin left the room,” Timm continued, “I broke down. I sat on the couch and I cried and cried and cried. There was so much emotion and it was so intense and I just couldn’t… I lost it. Anyway, that Ebtekar woman came over and put her arm around me. I thought then, ‘This woman isn’t real. She isn’t human. She’s like a robot, a robot of the revolution.’ You know, in that room there were guards with rifles and they were more human than she was. When she put her arm around me, I shoved her away. I told her to fuck off.”
BT did not apologize for using the f-word.
When I interviewed Massoumeh Ebtekar in 2006, I asked her about Barbara Timm’s visit. “She was a mother who loved her son,” Ebtekar answered. “Why wouldn’t we let them unite? You see us as monsters. You see us as terrorists. Let me ask you: How many sons and mothers weren’t allowed to unite because of the Shah and what he perpetrated? And who was behind the Shah, who kept the Shah in power all those years? The American government. I am sorry for the suffering of the hostages. I am sorry for the suffering of the hostages’ families. But in comparison, their suffering doesn’t compare.”
Barbara Timm might not agree. In her testimony, she offered her impressions of her son from that day in April 1980. “Honestly,” she said, “I didn’t say it. I couldn’t say it. But I was shocked. Kevin looked awful. Here was a healthy, strong kid. Here was a kid never sick a day in his life. And when I saw him at the embassy, he was covered with a rash and his clothes were hanging off his body and he just looked so depressed. I tried to keep up a pleasant front but I was dying inside.” BT repeated the word, “Dying.”
Kevin Hermening’s impressions of his mother were a little different. “I was thrilled to see my mom but I wished she hadn’t come,” he admitted. “I had to ask myself: Why did they allow my mother to come? What was their purpose? How would her visit be manipulated? I admit, I felt a little panicky. Would I be seen as a collaborator, particularly among my fellow hostages? I was very worried about that. Listen, I participated in the militant’s Christmas propaganda film before I’d really thought things out. In no way was I a collaborator. I want to make that perfectly clear. I was young and I didn’t quite know how to react but I never, ever assisted the Iranian cause, nor did I once approve of their tactics.”
Nobody ever accused the young Kevin Hermening of collaborating. Like every other serviceman, except for Joseph Subic, Hermening deservedly received the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, given for non-combat achievement or meritorious service.
As the baseball game went through its ebb and flow, I surreptitiously glanced at mother and son. There was a fascinating byplay between them. They subtly protected one another, in words, in behavior patterns. Both mother and son expected Kevin to die during the hostage crisis and that terror remodeled their relationship. Whatever their relationship was before the hostage crisis, Barbara Timm’s trip to Tehran, the hug at the embassy, their conversation and Ebtekar shouting “You cannot answer that,” these events gave birth to a new relationship. An urgent relationship. A desperate relationship.
When you watch these two in their urgency, even at a relaxed baseball game in April, you cannot help but wonder if your mother would make the trip to Tehran if you were held hostage. And you cannot help but wonder what your reaction would be. And in the aftermath of your hostage crisis, if indeed you survived, you cannot help but wonder how your relationship with your mother would change. There are histories between people and then there are histories between people and the difference from normal to italics is vast.
When Kevin Hermening returned to his recollection of his mother’s visit to the embassy, he returned to his feelings of panic. “I really feared for the safety of my mother,” he said. “Would they let her leave Iran? They weren’t letting me leave – why would they let her?”
Hermening’s question held a double meaning. For as mother and son spoke at the American embassy, the American assault force, led by Colonel Charlie Beckwith, waited for the cover of darkness to enter Iranian airspace. As mother and son sipped tea and talked about permissible topics, President Jimmy Carter paced through the White House. A day later, when Operation Eagle Claw ended in failure and tragedy, Barbara Timm was still in Tehran.
“What was your reaction when you heard about the American rescue effort?” I asked Barbara Timm.
“Well,” she responded, “I found out about the rescue attempt like all Iranians – through television. Of course I didn’t understand a word. But you didn’t really need to understand Farsi to understand the images. There was that terrible wreckage and those bodies, the dead American soldiers, and that judge out there on site pronouncing judgment. It was gruesome.”
“That judge” was Ayatollah Sadeqh Khalkhali. In the immediate aftermath of Khomeini’s return to Iran (February 1979), Khalkhali convened a roving revolutionary tribunal and held mock trials and actual executions of as many pro-Shah officials as possible. For instance, he murdered Amir Abbas Hoveyda, the Shah’s prime minister of twelve years. He held a one-day trial and murdered Hoveyda the next day, before the official government could react. This was justice in Khomeini’s Iran.
Again, BT removed her Brewers baseball cap and combed through her hair with her fingers. She spoke as she combed, “When the news of the failed rescue attempt hit Tehran, it was afternoon, the day after I visited Kevin. I was waiting in the hotel room for the next flight home. I was desperate to leave. Iran was so bleak. All the women covered in black. All the men with their eyes of condemnation. All the anti-American taunting. And when the news came, the Iranian media gathered at my hotel and demanded an interview. I went down to the lobby. They threw accusations at me: ‘Are you CIA?’ ‘Are you an American spy?’ ‘What are you really doing here?’ And all I could think about was Kevin and the other hostages. ‘My God,’ I wondered, ‘what will happen to them now?’”
A voice behind our row added to BT’s commentary. Commissioner Bud Selig said, “In America, we wondered the same thing. I think we started to prepare for the hostages to come back in body bags.”
While America started to prepare for body bags, the historical record shows that the hostages were not physically harmed in the immediate aftermath of the failed rescue attempt. However, to discourage further rescue efforts, the militants separated the hostages into small groups and scattered them throughout the country. Kevin Hermening, along with Bill Belk and Joe Subic, was moved to a villa in the town of Isfahan, some one hundred miles south of Tehran.
“You must have been thrilled when your plane finally left Tehran,” I said to Barbara Timm.
“Thrilled and sad,” BT responded. “Thrilled to get away, to go home, but sad because seeing Kevin gave me hope that he might survive. But after the failed rescue attempt, I again feared his death. As I left Tehran, Brian, I was leaving behind my child. That plane took off but my heart stayed behind.”
Barbara Timm began to sob, as she must have nearly thirty years ago. Around her, there was silence. I noticed the silence of the Seligs, the silence of surrounding baseball fans, the silence of her son. He couldn’t protect her then and he didn’t console her now. He let her sob.
“I hated Jimmy Carter,” Barbara Timm said, bringing the conversation full circle. “I hated the failure of the rescue attempt. I hated the fact that my son’s life was put in the hands of an incompetent. As was mine. I voted for Ronald Reagan.”
“There is a possibility,” I responded, choosing my words carefully, “that Reagan and his campaign made a deal with Khomeini and his cronies to release the hostages after the election of 1980, in order to insure his victory. What are your thoughts on that?”
“What are my thoughts on that?” BT instantly replied. “I don’t know what’s worse, Carter’s incompetence or Reagan’s treason. At least Carter had America’s interests in mind.”