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Former hostage Thomas Sutherland: "I haven't remotely begun to catch up'

Former hostage Thomas Sutherland is still finding out how Rip Van Winkle felt.

In November 1991, Shiite Muslims released Sutherland in Beirut, Lebanon, where they had snatched him from his post at the American University six years earlier.

Now, home in Fort Collins, Colo., Sutherland must struggle to fill in those missing years.

"As hostages, we had a radio and television for the last two years," he said in an interview last week. "But the local news, and the news about your family and friends _ well, I haven't remotely begun to catch up."

Professionally, Sutherland said, he fell so far behind in his academic specialty _ animal genetics and breeding _ that he can no longer stand in front of a group of scientists and talk as an expert.

Instead, Sutherland now talks about his days as a hostage. His visit Feb.

22 to St. Louis was to promote a benefit appearance this spring. Sutherland said one of the hardest adjustments was to variety.

"When I first went into a supermarket after getting back," he said, "I looked at the rows and rows of food of all different kinds and was overwhelmed.

"And to make decisions _ well, for six years, I couldn't decide to go to the bathroom on my own. After that, making decisions takes some getting used to."

So did such simple acts as walking up and down stairs.

"My muscles had weakened badly," Sutherland said, "and it was almost worse going down stairs than it was going up."

A kindly examiner helped him get back his Colorado drivers license, he said, "but he told me that I had a lot of things to watch out for. If you haven't driven in six years, your reaction time and your sense of caution erode."

So does your resistance to alcohol, he said. The bourbon he once enjoyed before dinner must now be sampled carefully.

"It didn't take me long, though, to get accustomed again to good food," he said. "In fact, I've gained more than 20 pounds, up from 180.

"But none of it's from rice. After six years of rice, I don't care to eat it ever again."