WALCOTT, IOWA - Clad in civilian Reeboks and Gem sweaters, clutching pink gift bags filled with hot Maid Rites and souvenir Herky the Hawkeye Beanie Babies, over three dozen smiling British Royal Marines waved for cameras and boarded a London-bound RAF bus this morning in the parking lot of Walcott's sprawling Iowa 80 Truck Stop.
The surprise morning release of the 38 sailors and marines ended a tense three-day standoff between the British government and a breakaway Lutheran militia group that controls large swaths of the notorious "Manure Triangle" region spanning Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Ian Rumpsworthy, the diminutive baby-faced former captive who won the hearts of millions as Britain's "Littlest Marine," embraced Pastor Duane Gunderson around the waist and emotionally thanked the insurgent Lutheran strongman for approving his release.
"I only hope I wasn't too much trouble for you sir," said Rumpsworthy, choking back tears. "If you are ever in Phlegmfordshire, I insist you do pop by for tea and scones."
As he skipped and cartwheeled off to the waiting double-decker, a beaming Rumpsworthy turned to BBC cameras and shouted, "Look mum! Weeee! I'm a hero!"
The unxepected release spurred speculation in some quarters of a backroom 'quid pro quo' deal, which British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett angrily denied.
"Her Majesty's Government has a strict policy never to negotiate with Midwestern extremists," she said. "We were as surprised as anyone by this turn of events, and the fact that Kum & Go has a new $1.99 12 pack weekend special on Bass is purely coincidental."
MISTAKE ON THE LAKE
The former captives' ordeal began Tuesday, when the British destroyer HMS Chamberlain was conducting joint training exercises with the US Navy at Great Lakes Naval Training Station on Lake Michigan, just north of Chicago. According to insurgent naval commander Chuck Sorenson, the vessel strayed into Lutheran territorial waters.
"Oh yah, dey were totally on the Wisconsin side," said Sorenson. "I was tossin' some empty driveway patch cans out dere in my storage shed and I could see 'em out dere on da lake, big as day."
Sorenson's account was disputed by British Minister of Defence John Reid, who pointed to GPS records locating the destroyer 20 miles southeast of Kenosha. Whether or not the ship was in technical violation of Wisconsin territorial waters, Cambridge University Midwesternologist Geoffrey Pickering said the Navy was ultimately at fault for failure to recognize local culture and customs.
"Straying anywhere near their waters would be seen as a provocative act," said Pickering, writing in London's Daily Mail. "These are a proud and fierce people, who jealously guard their walleye spots."
What is not in dispute is that the Chamberlain was quickly surrounded by a flotilla of up to a dozen blown Hemi bass boats and party pontoons. Captain Colin Puddeley radioed several frantic distress calls to the MoD Mobile Command Centre in Waukegan, but the staff was away at a mandatory diversity training seminar. Surrounded, the crew surrendered. The Chamberlain was scuttled, but not before insurgents ransacked its stores of weapons and porn DVDs.
"Fighting back was not an option," Puddeley explained after this morning's release. "These men were brandishing Leinenkugel and deer scent. Resistance would have ultimately led to anger, misunderstanding, and potential unpleasant confrontation."
By the time a British support armada arrived on the scene, the ship's captive crew was already headed west on Highway 18 in a convoy of insurgent Camaros and 4x4s that was cheered by bloodthirsty and beerthirsty Lutheranist sympathizers at supper clubs and convenience stores from Waukesha to Prairie du Chein. After crossing the Mississippi into the danger-fraught hills of the Northeast Iowa dairy kush, they were whisked away to the heavily-fortified split level headquarters of Gunderson near Decorah.
The capture of the Chamberlain crew at first sparked angry condemnation from the Blair government, who drafted a letter to Gunderson demanding release "immediately, or if you please, at your very earliest convenience." In response, Gunderson sent the Chancellor of the Exchequer a bill for 38 Weekend Getaway packages at the Decorah Super 8.
When the initial unilateral get-tough approach stalled, Blair took his case to the United Nations. A British-sponsored resolution seeking trade sanctions against Iowa was defeated 3-2 in subcommittee by a coalition of Russia, Zimbabwe and North Dakota.
With diplomatic efforts at a standstill, Gunderson's insurgents ratcheted up pressure on the British government by releasing a series of videos of the captives under harrowing conditions. Played on a near continuous loop by the BBC, the videos showed laughing Marines playing pinball and ingesting pickled eggs and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
"COLD LAGER? FIENDS!" roared the headlines in the Daily Mirror, whose editorial called on the Blair administration to "do everything in its power, sign any agreement, to spare these brave lads from a beer worse than death."
Similar sentiments came from other Fleet Street papers, and by midweek polls showed British public opinion solidly behind unconditional surrender. Public pressure was also stoked by sympathy for Rumpsworthy and his equally lacrimose shipmate Penelope Snatchrott. A 21-year old unwed mother of six and the only female captive, Snatchrott tearfully told of how she "desparately missed my wonderful cat Binky." While giving Gunderson a pedicure with a Hy-Vee bag on her head, she also confessed that she had only joined the Royal Navy "for the water skiing and beauty school tuition."
Despite mounting UK national opinion for a brokered deal, Blair heeded the wishes of the Bush administration which warned that "Midwestern appeasement will only lead to more abductions and Jagermeistering." A key breakthrough came Thursday when US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi broke ranks with the White House and traveled to the region to press Gunderson for a captive release.
The visit was not without controversy. As a condition for meeting with Gunderson, Pelosi agreed to go on a tour of several Lutheran holy sites. Several right wing websites criticized Pelosi for participating in what they termed stage-managed insurgent propaganda, and were especially critical of Pelosi's decision to wear native garb while doing so. At the Hawkeye Downs Flea Market and Swap Meet in Cedar Rapids, Pelosi was photographed wearing the traditional highwater pleated Momjeans and satin Disneyjacket. Playing the nickle slots at Diamond Jo's Casino in Dubuque, she sported a Pantsuit and Frizzperm while puffing on a Merit Menthol. Her most controversial appearance was at Knoxville Raceway, where she posed next to a sprint car in the traditional summer Tubetop.
When Pelosi finally delivered her peace proposal to Gunderson at his compound, she announced, "Pastor Gunderson, the road to Decorah is the road to peace."
"Naw, I tink dat's Highway 52," replied Gunderson, who ordered Pelosi to don Snatchrott's grocery sack and act his personal ottoman while he read the proposal.
"Yah, my damn La-Z-Boy's busted," he explained.
"I am the most powerful woman in the world," added Pelosi, straining under Gunderson's dirt-caked workboots.
It is unclear whether Pelosi's efforts sealed today's hostage release. Gunderson said only that "the Felco truck's here and I gotta go out and spread some anhydrous."
For the former captives London awaits, where they are expected to receive a hero's welcome. "The nation can be very proud of these fine seamen and marines," said MoD spokeman Hugh Wiltonshaft. "Under the most difficult circustances, after days of unrelenting pressure and a diet of microwave burritos, these lads only gave the enemy their names, ranks, serial numbers, troop deployment and positions, classified codes, and some spare change for scratch-off tickets. And, ummm... yes, I suppose there was the ship too."
Wiltonshaft said the former captives will undergo psychological evalution for signs of 'Sioux Falls Syndrome,' and would then be released for media appearances. Several of the 38 have already signed interview and book contracts, including Snatchrott, who will receive a reported £150,000 for her upcoming biography "Not Without My Binky." Most of the crew has signed on to appear as themselves in the upcoming 12-part BBC miniseries "Incident at Kenosha."
"I'm doing my own stunts!" said Rumpsworthy.
Some analysts believe the peaceful denoument to the crisis may signal a thaw in the icy relationship between the British government and Midwestern insurgents. To keep the peace momentum building, UK Schools Minister Clive Knobchester announced a new plan to integrate mandatory Midwest studies into the department's nationwide multicultural education program.
"This innovative curriculum will cover a wide spectrum of important Midwest-centric social and cultural issues," said Knobchester. Under the program, the Ministry will sponsor visiting scholars from Iowa and Indiana to tutor UK schoolchildren on various aspects of Midwestern culture, including pork tenderloins, Schnapps, and driving on the right side of the road.
Knobchester dismissed a critical editorial in the Telegraph, which called the program a "stealth infiltration by the worst aspects of violent and radical Lutheranism."
"We assure the public that the government will only employ those who can be fairly called moderates," said Knobchester. "And if your child doesn't want to listen to them, they can just lay back and think of England."