Thursday, July 21, 2011

His Name is "Mr. President"

Sometimes true life is so quirky and funny, no writer of fiction could ever do it justice.  This day from many years ago was one of those times.

My son, Troy, the adventurer, called me early one morning and said "Let's play hooky from work and go watch Air Force One land in Charlotte today."  Not only did he not have to twist my arm - but I suggested we go by and pick up my 88-year-old dad, the original adventurer in the family.  We didn't have to twist his arm, either. 

As soon as we arrived on the tarmac, I realized Dad had nowhere to sit.  The day promised to be hot.  I had just dispatched Troy to go over and ask the Secret Service if we could borrow one of their folding chairs when a very nice man walked up to us and introduced himself as Garland Denney.  He offered his extra chair to Dad and the two of them began a pleasant conversation while we all waited for the plane to land.  Mr. Denney was apparently one of the last great Democrats in the State of North Carolina and was proud to say so.  After having accepted his gracious offer of a chair, we didn't have the heart to tell him we were all registered Independents and didn't come to the airport so much to see the President as we did to see Air Force One.  It's a big plane.
Then, at one point during the conversation, Mr. Denney disappeared briefly and reappeared with "someone who wants to meet your dad".  It was the Governor of North Carolina, Jim Hunt - another of those famous Democrats.  A bit flabbergasted but maintaining his dignity and composure, Dad rose to his feet and extended his hand to the Governor.  They chatted briefly and the Governor congratulated him on coming out to see the President with two successive generations of his family in tow.  Again - we just didn't have the heart - so we all smiled and said "Thank you very much, we wouldn't have missed it for the world."

Mr. Denney was apparently a personal friend of the Governor's brother.  After our surprise meet-and-greet, he continued to entertain us with stories until at last we saw the President's plane land.  

The crowds were all being herded behind the standard barricade and were lining up for a chance to shake the President's hand.  We intended to watch him descend the stairs of the plane and then make an early exit to our car ahead of the rest of the crowds, but Mr. Denney had other ideas.  He insisted that we follow him off to the side - to stand just beyond the crowds inside a little roped-off area.  We hated to be rude and dutifully traipsed along after him like a flock of baby ducks - thinking that he had managed to find a spot where we could get a better view of the President.

Once there - we realized the truth.  We were in a specially restricted area where - after greeting the crowds on the "rope line" - the President of the United States apparently planned to saunter over and spend a few minutes chatting with us privately.

Now, allow yourself a brief visual.  Mr. Denney was standing there holding an American Flag and wearing a few prominent campaign buttons.  My dad looked perfectly fine, but had only changed out of his bedroom shoes at the last minute before leaving home.  I was clad in a canary yellow T-Shirt and slacks and a big pair of Jackie O sunglasses.  And Troy - if memory serves - was in a baggy polo shirt, cut-off khakis and flip flops.  Welcome to North Carolina, Mr. President.

The President worked the rope line with the Secret Service and a few news cameras, all the while inching closer to our little corral.  Then, just before he extended his hand to Mr. Denney - who began pumping it furiously - my dad (who was next up) turned to me - in all seriousness - and said "Now...his name is Bill isn't it?"

With a SPLIT SECOND to spare - literally - I managed to lean into his sweet, hard-of-hearing ear and say "His name is MR. PRESIDENT".  I had no idea if he heard me or not, but there was time for nothing else, because there stood the President of the United States being introduced to my dad.  Mr. Denney was saying "Mr. President, this is Fred Harrill and he is 88 years old and he came all the way down here with his daughter and her son - three generations of the same family!"

I held my breath but need not have worried.  My dad - every inch the gentleman he had been his whole life - extended his hand and looked Bill Clinton in the eye and said "God Bless You, Mr. President."

The President paused just briefly and then said, "God Bless you too, Fred."  After that, Troy and I were also introduced and had opportunity to shake his hand - me in my canary yellow and Troy in his flip flops.

A photo op followed (my dad is the tall man in the blue shirt with Clinton's hand on his shoulder) and then the entire party took two steps forward into the Presidential limo which was waiting to take them into Charlotte for the day.  As they pulled away, Governor Jim Hunt turned and looked through the back window at us with a wink and a wave.

No one believed us when we came home.  Not one person.  Had we not been in possession of the picture - which Mr. Denney had insisted on having developed before we left Charlotte to send home with us - I doubt that anyone would believe us to this day.

We have since stayed in touch with Mr. Denney - and every time we think of the day we decided to play hooky and watch a plane land - we shake our heads and laugh.  And, oddly enough - I learned something that day.  I don't look a thing like Jackie O - even in her sunglasses.

Tomorrow is Countdown Friday
THE COUNT WILL BE 72

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