As he sat in the living room of his daughter’s Chatsworth townhouse stuffing Christmas cards into envelopes, Bill Nelson reflected on how special even such a mundane task seems to him these days.
Not only can he mail joyful Christmas cards with reasonable assurance that they will arrive at their destinations, he also can head over to the shopping mall to pick up last-minute gifts, take a walk, go out to dinner, hug his wife.
A few weeks ago, as one of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s human shields, the high points of Nelson’s days were trudging 22 laps around a walled-in patch of dirt and listening to Voice of America radio broadcasts, with the sound of artillery shells being stamped out ringing in the background.
From Sept. 5 until Dec. 8, Nelson was one of the thousands of hostages held by Hussein to ward off a U.S. attack. He spent much of that time in a two-room trailer on the grounds of an Iraqi munitions plant.
“God bless America, there’s nothing like it,” Nelson, a 56-year-old construction project manager, said last week.
Nelson flew out of Iraq Dec. 8 with 20 other hostages on a plane sponsored by former Texas Gov. John B. Connally. The next day, Hussein released 1,000 more foreigners.
Reminders of the hard times he experienced abound: An American flag flown in honor of Nelson’s Dec. 9 homecoming still catches the breeze in front of his daughter’s house; the yellow flowers that were always kept fresh on the coffee table during his absence now wither in a corner; the Nelsons’ Christmas cards are adorned with a yellow satin bow to commemorate the hostages’ return.
His voice breaks with emotion when he describes what he felt when his captors first allowed him to telephone his wife, Jackie, on Nov. 3; when the airplane wheels lifted as he left Baghdad on Dec. 8; when he heard children caroling last week at the Woodland Hills Promenade Mall.
“I just couldn’t take it, it was too touching, I had to get away from them,” Nelson said of the carolers. “There were times when we didn’t know if we’d ever see another mall, see another child sing Christmas carols.”
Nelson and his wife arrived in Kuwait in February, 1990, intending to stay five years. He was project manager for an expansion of Kuwait University, designed by Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, a Wilshire Boulevard engineering and architecture firm.
For the first six months, Kuwait was like a Garden of Eden, Jackie Nelson said, especially in comparison with Saudi Arabia, where they had lived and worked in the early 1980s. But on Aug. 2 any such idyllic notions disintegrated when the Nelsons awoke to the boom of artillery and the buzz of helicopters.
For a month they hid in their comfortable apartment, depending on Kuwaiti and Palestinian friends to bring them food and other staples, rarely venturing out. They joined with other foreigners from the apartment house--many of them fellow employees on the university project--in cooking communal meals, celebrating birthdays, walking daily in the basement for exercise. They kept their cars in working order in case an opportunity to escape arose.
But they said they knew it was just a matter of time before the Iraqis came for them. They were an obvious target, Nelson said, because their apartment was a modern western-style building, across the street from the American Embassy.
Early on the morning of Sept. 5, six Iraqi paratroopers brandishing AK-47s broke down the Nelsons’ apartment door. Jackie Nelson left a few days later, when Hussein released women and children, but Bill Nelson was taken by bus from hostage camp to hostage camp for days that dragged into weeks that dragged into months.
Although he became “Mr. Billy” to his young Iraqi guards and was never mistreated, Nelson said the boredom and hopelessness were difficult trials. At first, he said, he and many other hostages prepared for escape in the event of the American attack they were sure would come. Later, they were uncertain of their fate.
“I would guess that there were six days out of the 90 that I was very depressed and thought I would never get home,” he said. “The rest I was confident I would, it just wouldn’t be soon enough for me.”
Keeping busy and sane became paramount. At the first camp he was taken to--inside a poison gas factory, he said--Nelson was joined by nine other foreigners: some British and Japanese, another American and a Frenchman. They used chalk given them by their guards to mark off a baseball diamond outside their quarters, where they played ball twice a day.
But the diamond had a more important purpose than recreation, Nelson said.
“We did it so that the satellites would pick it up and know we were there,” he said. “Baseball is not an Iraqi sport and we knew that U.S. intelligence would pick that up.”
As a further clue, the scoreboard chalked into the dirt listed two teams: the Texans and the Tokyos.
They prepared in other ways, too. Nelson found metal scraps from construction projects and hid them for use as weapons. They readied bags packed with food and clothing for escape. They asked their guards for rat pellets to control a mouse infestation, then saved some to poison the guards if necessary.
Each day the hostages tuned their shortwave radios into the “messages from home” broadcast of Voice of America. Nelson said some days he would have four messages from family and friends during the half-hour program, which he said was a great consolation.
They played cards and traded books. They washed laundry, usually by hand. They wrote letters home not knowing whether the Iraqi soldiers who took them would mail them--three of Nelson’s letters written in October arrived in Chatsworth last week.
When they were allowed to watch television, they watched news and “Charlie’s Angels,” virtually the only English-language programming.
Nelson was moved twice more, finally ending up at a much smaller camp for his last 40 days in captivity. This one was on the grounds of a munitions plant, which the Iraqi soldiers told them was a bicycle factory.
During the last three weeks or so, Nelson was housed with just one other hostage, a British man named Roger Hampton. While in custody, Nelson designed a house to be built on land he owns in Northern California and Hampton wrote a journal about his experiences as a hostage.
They played gin rummy every night. They wore ruts in the small dirt yard walking every morning. They worried. They had trouble sleeping.
“It got harder every day,” Nelson said.
When word came Dec. 7 that all hostages would be released, they broke open bottles of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Scotch that each had saved during their months in captivity for a special occasion.
The next day, as Nelson settled back into his seat on the Boeing 707 that carried him and about 30 other hostages home, he realized he was relaxing fully for the first time in months--so fully that he slept through a refueling stop in Ireland.
“You know what I did when we landed in Houston?” he asked, tears in his eyes.
“I kneeled down and kissed the ground.”