WASHINGTON — Two men, both held hostage in Lebanon. Two men, now free, dealing with their ordeal in different ways. Robert Polhill, released after three years, hasn't lost his sense of humor, despite his battle with throat cancer. Frank Reed, held 44 months in blindfolds and bonds, is trying to find his place in the world. For both men, life is starting over.
If ever a man has had his sense of humor put to the test, it's Robert Polhill.
First, he was held hostage more than three years by Lebanese extremists and, being diabetic, had to find a way to get daily insulin from captors who didn't speak his language.
Then, when the former Beirut University College lecturer was released, he learned that he had throat cancer and had to have his voice box removed.
Now Polhill, 56, is without a job. He breathes through a hole in his neck and tries to make himself understood via a tedious skill known as esophageal speech.
Still, he keeps the one-liners coming.
"I'll talk again," he wrote on a yellow pad. "But I'm a realist too. I'll never have another hit record."
Polhill was kidnaped Jan. 24, 1987, and freed last April 22. Three and a half weeks later, doctors at Walter Reed Hospital removed his larynx. A short time later, he and his wife, Ferial, moved into a hospital apartment near the speech clinic where he gets therapy twice a day.
"He's an A-plus student," said Prof. William T. Simpkins Jr. "He made a sound the first month after surgery. At four months, he's where many people are at six months."
Polhill said that for 39 years, including while he was a hostage, he smoked up to four packs of cigarettes a day. (More than 90% of those who require such surgery were heavy smokers, Simpkins said.)
"He was always smoking," said Polhill's wife, Ferial. "He got up in the middle of the night to smoke."
Polhill can't smoke anymore, because he no longer can breathe through his nose and mouth.
He talks by capturing air between his tongue and teeth and compressing it to create sounds.
A laryngectomy patient who perfects esophageal speech sounds like a normal person with a head cold, Simpkins said.
Polhill said he rejected the electronic device preferred by some throat-cancer patients because "you sound like you are trying out for 'Star Wars.' "
Tall and slim, Polhill is generally low-key, bantering playfully with his wife and cracking jokes with visitors. When he tires of talking, he reaches for his pencil and pad and keeps the conversation going in neat, precise printing.
He bristled only once, when he was asked if losing his voice was worse than being a hostage.
"To me there is no comparison to being chained to the floor," he said. "You couldn't even get up to go to the bathroom."
When Polhill was released, he was quoted as saying he had "strived to continue to be angry" to help himself survive.
Later, he said he was angry over being a captive, but not consumed by anger.
"The point was that anger is a great energizer," he said. "Then you use humor to tone it down and rechannel it more productively.
"I guess I've always been able to laugh at myself," said Polhill. "I didn't have the psychological problems I was expected to have."
He said a State Department psychiatrist was assigned to him in Damascus immediately after he was released, but by the time they reached Wiesbaden, Germany, the two men were friends, not doctor and patient.
"They warned me that he would go into a depression," Ferial Polhill said, "but I said, 'I don't think so.' "
Polhill's vision of the future is vague. A certified public accountant, he said he is too out of date to step right back into an accounting job.
"All of my energy to date has been devoted to the return to freedom, recovery from cancer and learning to talk," he said.
His medical bills and living expenses have been covered by the government since his release, but he knows that Uncle Sam's generosity won't go on forever.
"I'd like to write. I'd like to speak and teach again," he said. He also said he would like to help other diabetics, throat-cancer patients and hostages and their families.
Ferial Polhill, who is Palestinian and fluent in Arabic, English and French, is ready to go back to work. She and Robert met in Cyprus, where she was an office manager for the international accounting firm for which he worked. An openly affectionate couple, they've been married for 10 years.
They will move wherever there is a job opportunity, Polhill said, but he would like to stay in the United States.
Meanwhile, the couple has supported functions arranged by No Greater Love, a nonprofit organization that helps hostages and their families, and the American Diabetes Assn., which published Polhill's account of how he coped with his diabetes while a hostage.
In the association's Forecast magazine, he wrote about how he and another diabetic hostage took care of each other and communicated their needs to their captors. He refuses to give other details about his 1,182 days as a captive.