Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Little Motorcade Story

Okay, I promise this isn't really and truly about politics. But watching yesterday's pomp and circumstance triggered a memory, and that memory has gotten stuck in my head as a story, and it's a story I have a hankering to write out today. Those of you closest to me may have heard me tell this one before; if so, feel free to enjoy the rest of your day and I guess I'll bore you again tomorrow.

As I was watching the inaugural parade, and watching the Obamas step into and out of the limo and walk as part of the always-impressive presidential motorcade (is it just me, or are secret service agents kinda sexy?), I found myself thinking,

"Wow. It would be really cool to see a presidential motorcade and a waving president someday."

And then it occurred to me: Duh, Cranky! You DID see a motorcade and a waving president once! How can you not remember that?!

As I grow older, I find that many of my childhood memories, even the most cherished ones, have taken on a dream-like quality. Like dreams, they are easily forgotten until something stirs up the memory, like someone taking a long stick and churning up a quiet creek until it grows murky. It had been years since I really thought about Reagan's motorcade; I didn't even write about it a while back when I did a blog post about close encounters with famous folk. How could I have forgotten such a cool event from my childhood?

Let me set the scene for you. As you could guess from what I've written about my dad, he was not so much an admirer of our 40th president. He used to be a registered Republican until around, oh, 1981 or so. The way Reagan handled the air traffic controllers' strike struck my UAW dad as a personal affront almost, and that as they say was that.

The interesting thing, though, was that my dad was still very respectful of Reagan. If he was home during a state of the union address, or a press conference, I wasn't allowed to talk if I was in the same room as the TV. If I wanted to be snarky or whip out a very amateurish Reagan impression after he was finished speaking, I was allowed and sometimes even encouraged. But when the President speaks, in my dad's world, you shut up and you listen. I always thought it a little odd that a man that drew so much ire in our house (though my mother always liked him as a person and thought he and Nancy brought class and elegance to the White House) wasn't always fair game and still had to be respected.

Now, I have researched Reagan visits to Cincinnati to try to get the date of this monumental moment from my childhood right and I have learned that Reagan visited the tri-state more than I thought during his tenure. I am pretty sure though that the following events took place on August 20, 1984. It fits with what I remember; I remember it being hot and sunny and I was not in school and we were picking up a nightstand and small chest of drawers.

That August was a pretty good one. Dad was working pretty steadily for a change, and Mom and I had moved back home from a few months spent in Barbourville with her mom where she and Dad toyed with the idea of calling it quits. I was happy to soon be starting 5th grade back with my friends. And since it looked like we were back in Erlanger for good, my mom had painted my married-and-moved-out older sister's room my favorite color, lavender, and pulled up the carpet to give me a sort-of remodelled room. On August 20, my dad took a vacation day to take us all to Mom's cousin's house to pick up some hand-me-down furniture to go into my new room.

To top it all off, my sister had just bought me a Luv Pet. We had spied these things at a mall kiosk shortly after Mom and I moved back home. They were these largish puppets with long arms and legs and velcro at the paws and feet. You put your hand into the puppet and it was big enough to cover that whole arm; then you wrapped the legs around your waist and arms around your neck and fastened the velcro and, if you cradled the thing just so with your free arm, it really looked like you were holding some sort of living creature from the ape family. Well, with most it did. The salesguy at the kiosk had practiced his puppeteering skills and gathered a large crowd. Most of the Pets were brownish and had something resembling ears and in the right hands were pretty convincing. The one I chose, which my sister told me later was the ugliest of the whole bunch, was made of wiggish gray and white "fur" with no ears and looked like a cross between Grover and and the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Oh, but I loved him. I named him "Monkey", which was really just wishful thinking on my part.

On that fateful Monday that we set out to get the furniture from mom's cousin on the north side of Cincinnati, I decided to take Monkey. When I took him on road trips, I could hide the worst of his ugliness and in my 10-year-old mind, make it look like I was caring for an exotic animal in the backseat of the car. People used to honk and wave, and well...I used to crave attention. (Thank goodness those days are over, right?)

Dad knew Reagan was coming downtown to speak and planned the trip accordingly. He decided we would take 275, which is the interstate loop around the city, to avoid traffic and road closures. He left at a time that he believed gave us the best chance to beating the worst of the brouhaha.

We weren't on 275 long before we noticed that things seemed, well, weird. As we got close to the exits for the airport, we saw that we pretty much had the busy interstate to ourselves.

"I wonder if they're shutting down the highway for when Air Force One leaves, and we somehow snuck through just at the right time," I remember Dad saying. Whatever the reason, it was downright eerie out there. It was a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky, the sunlight so bright and clear that it hurt even with sunglasses. And yet we hadn't passed a car in what seemed like ages; it was almost apocalyptic. Like the world had ended and we were all that was left. Monkey wasn't getting much love that day.

Then we started seeing cars pulled off to the side of the road. Whole families were out, some with signs.

"Well, I guess the motorcade is coming through here to get back to the airport," Dad said. And we just kept on driving.

Because it was such a clear day, I can remember how it looked when we first saw it almost like holding a picture in my hand. In the distance, on the other side of the highway coming toward us, was a long black line. At first the line looked unbroken; as it got closer, we could see the individual cars and motorcycles. As quiet and undisturbed as the empty highway was at that point, we started to be able to hear the flutter of flags on the vehicles. And they were coming so, so fast.

The next seconds were chaos. No words were spoken. Dad pulled our car over to the gravel emergency lane and before the car was fully stopped we were scrambling to get out of the car. The three of us stood in a line out by the car; me with my monkey-thing still wrapped around my body, my Mom with her hands above her eyes to block out some of the blinding sun, and my dad...

My dad's appearance stopped me in my tracks. As the motorcycles advanced ahead of the presidential limo, and the secret service vehicles came into view, my dad took a posture I had never seen before and never saw after. Dad was 6 feet tall when he stood up straight, but he was not a confident man and always stood or walked a little stooped. When that black line advanced, my father stood up to his full height with his shoulders back and his heels clicked together, his face suddenly serious and distant. He was my father, and yet not my father.

And then, as the thick black limo that seemed to be the center of the other vehicles' attention crossed our path, we saw a shadow lift up from the back seat. They were burning some serious rubber, but time seemed to slow just then. The signature silhouette of well-coiffed hair momentarily came into view, and the figure waved. I waved back in the rabid way of excited 10-year-olds, but Monkey was still covering my right arm so it probably looked like something was attacking me. My mom waved, too. And we looked at Dad, still ramrod straight, who gave the most sincere, beautiful salute I have ever seen.

"Huh," my mom said as we got back in the car, digging through her purse for tissues to wipe unexpected tears from her eyes.

"Huh," I said, but my attention wasn't on the passing president anymore. It was on my dad.

I had seen pictures of him in the military, including the formal portrait of him in his full dress uniform. But he had left the army long before I was born, and I had never known that side of him.

"Why did you salute him, Dad?" I remember asking. "You can't stand him. I really thought you would make a different hand gesture."

He smiled his crooked smile. "He's my commander-in-chief. He's my superior. I just did what I was trained to do."

Years later he would tell me that he surprised himself with that salute. He had not had reason to salute someone in over 15 years, but his knee-jerk reaction, ingrained from his years of service, was to acknowledge that an officer was on deck.

I've been thinking about my dad a lot lately, wondering if he were alive today which of his characteristics would have won out this year: his loyal support of the Democratic party, or that little bit of Archie Bunker-like prejudice that may have made it hard for him to push a button for Barack Obama. Dad often surprised me; my mom, sister, and I think we know the answer to what he would have done on election day, but like with his salute, I don't know if any of us could have predicted him.

One thing I do know: he certainly would have stood straight and raised his hand in a respectful salute had he been lucky enough to see that motorcade yesterday. Even if he didn't agree with a commander-in-chief, he did believe in respect.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Wow. Thank you for your description of the motorcade. I really felt like I was there. It was beautiful.