An Emotional Holiday Reunion: Dad Comes Home
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
The holiday season is a time for reunions. For James Wagner, Christmas 1996 was the year he got his best present ever. His father was being held hostage in Peru, and two days before Christmas, his father came home. Wagner is a member of the editorial staff of the Los Angeles Times.
And we want to know on this Christmas Day, what's your most memorable holiday reunion? Tell us at 1-800-989-8255, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site npr.org. And James Wagner joins us now from him home in California. Happy Holidays and welcome to Talk of the Nation.
Mr. JAMES WAGNER (Writer, Los Angeles Times): And to you as well, Ari.
SHAPIRO: How did your father come to be taken hostage back in 1996?
Mr. WAGNER: Well, my parents - my dad worked at the U.S. Embassy. He was a political councilor. So it's sort of normal to go to, you know, political events. And there, the 17th of December, they were having a party at the Japanese ambassador's residence in honor of the Japanese emperor. And so my parents were reluctant to go at first, and, you know, it was their anniversary, they were a little sick. And my mom who didn't want my dad to get in trouble at work for missing a political event, managed to convince him to go, and they ended up going that night. And so 15, I think 14, 15 rebels took over the party which had about 700 people, and held people hostage that night.
SHAPIRO: Is this what you learned after the fact, or are you were aware of what was happening as it was going on?
Mr. WAGNER: Well, it's weird because I was 10 at the time, and my sister and I were home with the maid that took care of us whenever my parents are gone. And we're watching TV. And this is, obviously things I've learned later, but she heard a faint noise in the background, something that I still to this day I honestly don't remember hearing. My sister did, and she put us right to bed.
And I woke up the next morning, and my mom was gone, and my mom - my dad - my mom was there and my dad wasn't home. And so these are things that started to gradually trickle in, and my mom told us the entire story about what happened the next morning. And sort of - it - the story that I wrote, the things I tell people are just a combination of sort of the things I've learned along the way, and things I've heard now, and so very little at the time honestly.
SHAPIRO: Well, if your mother told you everything that happened the next morning, as a 10-year-old, how much of it did you understand?
Mr. WAGNER: To be honest, very little I bet. And I think I would say probably the best way to describe my feelings were shock. I mean, I know - I could understand as a 10-year-old that my dad was being held hostage, and I knew what terrorists were. I might - our experiences overseas, I was sort of, you know, I'd learned what violence was.
And at the time, I knew Peru had problems with terrorism. Those are all things that I'd been briefed on, you know they - security meeting on what to do with things happens. I understood that, but shock was probably the best to describe. I mean the next five days, I spent most of time with friends. My - they didn't want me to be reminded about those things, they didn't want me to be around it. So I mean, I can't tell you - it's only probably till now I've been able to process all those things that I remember learning and hearing.
SHAPIRO: Well, we haven't gone through exactly what did happen. So tell us how it came to pass that your mother was home the next morning, your father was not. What exactly went on at the embassy?
Mr. WAGNER: Well, they let all the women go late that night. I'd say around midnight or...
SHAPIRO: You said they. Who exactly was it?
Mr. WAGNER: Well, there was the 15 hostages(ph) they had taken over. They've planted a bomb next to the resident and that's how they got inside the complex in the first place. And then there was a gun battle between the police. They managed to corral everyone inside the home where people had run to hide anyway during the gunfight. And they let all the women go, the 15 terrorists, the rebels, let the women go.
All that night, my mom refused, didn't really want to go. And she was forced out and so she came home that next night, around midnight. And then they held men - groups of men, I think there's about - I'm going to say, about four to 500 people, men, that first night stay at the residence. And little by little, they were letting groups out. And deeming who they thought was important, there were planning to hold on to. They would send them in a certain room. And my dad was sent to a room with foreign diplomats. And I think they were deciding that they wanted to hold on to these guys for a certain amount of time, and they held on my dad for five days, but I figured that this wasn't part of the move to hold them any longer. So they let him out.
SHAPIRO: I want to remind emails, we're talking this segment of the show about reunions at the holidays. So we want to hear your story of the best reunion ever, whether it was with family, friends, classmates, give us a call at 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-talk. You can also email us, email@example.com.
And James Wagner, the morning when you woke up and your father was not home and your mother was, what was your emotional state and what was your mother's emotional state?
Mr. WAGNER: Well, I can remember it clearly. I walked in the room, it was a bright morning, my mom was sitting on the bed. The bed was made. So I can't - to this day I don't remember if my mom even slept that night. I bet she didn't so she was sitting on the bed with her arms in her head and, you know, crossed over and just sitting there, and I walked in.
And I remember just hearing everything in - somehow because we lived in Peru, you know, because of the violence and I sort of made it - it made sense. But I think I just couldn't really process everything that was going on. I just didn't understand and it's scary obviously to see my mom so, I mean so scared. And I mean, my mom had been through things. And obviously, we prayed a lot and that's what she was doing, and telling us to do.
SHAPIRO: Did she obsess over the fact that they almost didn't go to this event?
Mr. WAGNER: No, that's something my sis - at least I did and my sister did later. I mean, you see we talked about it and I remember almost feeling a little guilty because I always, until recently, I always thought it was because my sister and I wanted the house to ourselves. And we wanted them to go celebrate their wedding anniversary, that we sort of wanted them to go and pushed them out door, because we wanted to hang out and watch TV without our parents.
But it didn't turn out till later, you know, talking to my mom and finding out she just didn't want my dad to get in trouble for missing of an event so - so that made me feel a lot better knowing that it wasn't me that pushed them out the door and made them go. But in the end, I know it's not really my fault that this happened.
SHAPIRO: Of course. So your father was taken hostage December 17th.
Mr. WAGNER: Mm hmm.
SHAPIRO: This is about a week before Christmas. What happened in the intervening week?
Mr. WAGNER: So the next time, you know, they sent me to friend's house. Like I said, my mom, and especially with her friends deciding that it's probably not best for me to be home and to be reminded of those things. So, you know, I'd go to school every day and I remember going - spending time and ended up sleeping and staying over with friends. And, you know, just trying to keep my - do everything, having fun with them. You know, trying to live a normal life without, you know, trying to stay from the reminders of my father. Because one never - at that moment, one did not know if he was going to be killed or what was going to happen or they were going to kill the hostages or not - never let them out. So, I mean, it was sort of a blur. I mean, I remember…
SHAPIRO: I understand, you wrote him a letter. Is that right?
Mr. WAGNER: Yes, that's true. The Red Cross had provided us stationery. They let every family send a package. My mom put together some clothes because the day - he had been sleeping in the same clothes, and been in the same five days worth of clothes. So we sent him a package of clothes, and I wrote on a note - the Red Cross had written, I can't remember exactly what I wrote, but I know I told him I loved him and I was having fun with some friends because I remember playing soccer with them.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. But that - the letter never made it to him.
Mr. WAGNER: As far as my mom said, he never - my mom says he never got it and my dad said he never read anything I wrote for him. That's kind of sad.
SHAPIRO: And I understand that your mother received matzah ball soup everyday from the American ambassador, is that right?
Mr. WAGNER: Right, yes, the ambassador's wife...
SHAPIRO: The ambassador's wife.
Mr. WAGNER: Asked my mom what she needed. And I think what sort of food, what sort of comfort food that will, you know, make her feel better. And so the driver would stop by everyday and drop off a bowl, at least a pot of matzah ball soup, which is - always has chicken so....
SHAPIRO: When did you find out your father was going to be released?
Mr. WAGNER: So, I think there had been rumor - since they were letting out groups of people, you know, every time I heard that there was a new group coming out, you know, we - my mom would either tell us, call and tell us, or, you know, we'd always have our attentive ear if they were going to let out a group of Americans.
And I remember that day, the 23rd, I think it was a Sunday, they had announced early in the day that some - a group of hostages were going to be let out. And I think it - not until the end of the day that it was really concrete. And we were all huddled around the TV, and because that's when we heard the hostage were coming out. And as there was lines of them getting into the bus, I remember my mom and sister seeing my dad. And I, once again, obviously I missed - I seemed to be missing things in my life. I do not see his face and they were - we were excited once they found out it was him, so I think it was late that night.
SHAPIRO: We're talking about family reunions, holiday reunions here on Talk of the Nation from NRP News. So when you first saw him after he was released, describe that moment for me. When you were reunited with him in person, that is.
Ms. WAGNER: That was the 24th, it was the next day. He was asleep in bed. And I remember waking up very early and popping my head in the room that adjacent where they were sleeping and seeing him in the bed. I mean he had a beard, something he didn't have when he first left, and I mean, I can tell it's him. And he was sleeping right there quietly next to my mom. And it was probably one of the most amazing feelings, at least knowing that my dad was home and that nothing happened to him.
SHAPIRO: And have holidays been different for you ever since?
Mr. WAGNER: I just - I mean, as a 10 year old, and I know that maybe the message and, you know, the lesson I didn't really learn that until later in life. I didn't really understand it. But that, their family and having, you know, spending time with them and know that there's safe is way more important than anything I can ever have. So yes, I mean I'd - I don't really want anything for Christmas. I just - I don't really need anything just as long as I know that everyone is safe.
SHAPIRO: Well, James Wagner, best wishes and happy holidays to you and your family.
Mr. WAGNER: You, too. Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Thanks for your time.
Mr. WAGNER: Sure.
SHAPIRO: James Wagner is a member of the editorial staff of the Los Angeles Times, and his op-ed on his father being released appeared in Tuesday's paper. Let's go to a caller now. We have Norma in Blackville, South Carolina. Hi, Norma.
NORMA (Caller): Hi. How are you?
SHAPIRO: Fine, thanks. Tell me your reunion story.
NORMA: Well, I need to preface it with - as we are sending my son off to Iraq for his second deployment, I think about when I was 12 years old and my father returned from Vietnam, and he was scheduled to come home in October and came home a few days, a week before Christmas. And that was the best Christmas we ever had. And like…
SHAPIRO: Was it a surprise or did you know that he was coming back that day?
NORMA: Well, it's - you know with the military, every day we expect, and he was on an aircraft carrier. The night before he came home, I heard the airplanes landing at the naval air station in San Diego. And I knew then he was coming home.
SHAPIRO: What did that feel like?
NORMA: How can you explain that? It was wonderful. My father got to come home.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. And so what's it like for you now sending your son to another war, a generation later?
NORMA: Well, I'm truly a military brat. And I believe in our country and what we stand for. And if he needs to go, he needs to go. And we just pray that he and his fellow soldiers come home safely.
SHAPIRO: Another Christmas reunion in the future.
NORMA: Yes. Absolutely.
SHAPIRO: Or any time of the year, I suppose. Well, Norma, thank you for your call and happy holidays.
NORMA: And thank you.
SHAPIRO: We're going to go to another caller now. This is Jim in St. Louis, Missouri. Hi, Jim.
JIM (Caller): Hello. Merry Christmas.
SHAPIRO: And to you. Tell me your reunion story.
JIM: Well, it actually started six months earlier when I terminated in the Peace Corps. In 1979, in the Ivory Coast, my brother came…
SHAPIRO: In Africa, yeah.
JIM: And visited us. And we did what a lot of volunteers were, maybe not a lot, but some volunteers had done, which was head north across the desert on land - by land. Something that we can't really do anymore, we traversed Algeria, ended up in Europe, spent through the fall, and then came back to the States after two years. And it was a wonderful getting to New York, and then saying, OK, well, let's head to Saint Louis. But instead of going by air, we went by train, and so got reconnected with the Unites States.
SHAPIRO: That's great. Well, thanks for your call, and happy holidays to you.
JIM: You, too.
SHAPIRO: Well, next week, it's going to be our annual obituary show. And we would like you to send in your picks for overlooked obituaries of 2008. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Tomorrow, it's Science Friday. Neal Conan will be back on Monday. Merry Christmas. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington.
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