Of course, this was pre-9/11.
It was November of 1989. I was trying to graduate from the University of Memphis (then Memphis State University), and being a member of Sigma Chi wasn't helping me. Being immature and having too many social events.
I had a fraternity brother who was a member of the Young Republicans (I didn't understand politics at all). He says to me, "Hey! You have any interest in driving in the Bush motorcade later this year? He's coming to town and they're looking for drivers." I really had nothing else exciting happening, so I said sure.
We drove down to the Peabody hotel and were given directions to a suite of rooms. Inside was a table covered in papers and rows of chairs. A heavily muscled young Asian man walked in – I remember he had a wicked-looking Navy Seals watch and giant arms– and he didn't look happy. He also looked like he could (and wanted to) snap any of us in half. He asked for all of our drivers licenses, had us fill out some paperwork, and told us succinctly: "We'll be in touch." Then told us to leave.
Months went by. I didn't think a thing about it. And then I got a letter in the mail with the postmark "The White House".
Inside was a letter stating that I "had been chosen to participate in George Bush Sr's motorcade as he celebrated his ‘Thousand Points of Light' tour through Memphis Tennessee". Inside was a ocatagon-shaped lapel pin painted in black and white with a letter printed on it. I was instructed to wear this lapel pin and told to be at a car dealership in Millington on the morning of November 22nd.
I showed up at the dealership and was given the keys to a brand new town car vehicle. There were 3 or 4 other guys with me – and we hopped in, turned on our hazards (to let people know we were on official business) and then followed directions to go to a private entrance at the airport.
And this is where it got very, very cool.
As I drove slowly to the guarded gate, I noticed men in commando uniforms carrying automatic assault rifles stationed sporadically near and around the gate. As I was checked, cleared and waved through, I also spotted men with binoculars and high-powered rifles on every rooftop I passed.
I was directed across the wide, empty airplane tarmac to a giant hangar and told to park alongside it. I got out and noticed I was facing the end of the runway, which was about 75 feet away. As I closed my door, a team of men dressed in suits and wearing the classic sunglasses approached. One of them was holding the leash to a German Shepherd. I was asked to stand back as they swept my car, and I watched the dog crawl through the vehicle as another suited agent looked under the car. They checked it so well I found myself praying that there wasn't anything in there that I didn't know about – and I was oh so ready to say "The dealership gave me that car! It's not mine!". But it checked out safe, so they told me I could walk over to the hangar.
The hangar was enormous and almost empty – except for two things. One was an ominous looking black Suburban. It had solid black one way windows, and was covered in small domes and bristled with antennas. Standing around it were the toughest looking bunch of dudes I had ever seen.
They were built like the guys you saw in the movies. Short hair and stocky, they all wore solid black shirts, pants and bulletproof vests. They cradled short-barreled automatic machine guns, and also had pistols in holsters, crossed-x's of nylon webbing with all sorts of electronics and weapons, and more weapons strapped to their legs above their black boots. They were clearly amped up and on full awareness.
The OTHER thing in the hangar? It was the President's heavily armored limousine! And man, was it interesting.
I walked about 30 feet away just to look. It was solid black and interestingly didn't look new but a bit dated. It had a bubble-like compartment on the back for the President and whoever accompanied him. The glass was a smoky green and looked super thick (you could see into it, but not well).
I heard some commotion and went back out to the tarmac to see what was happening. All eyes turned to the skies. I noticed that all air traffic had been halted….the steady flow of planes taking off and landing had gone eerily still. And that was because the big bird – Air Force One – was about to land.
It was majestic. That plane – instantly recognizable the world over - is enormous. It landed, and taxied right in front of us and our parked cars. I couldn't believe what I was looking at...and it was just feet away. Minutes later, its sister plane (looking exactly the same) landed and parked right beside it. (I didn't even know there were two planes). Turns out, this "second" plane held all the accompanying media and staff that goes with the President on these types of trips.
The media came off first – and spilled all over the place. Paper note pads flying, they assembled near us and we all watched as Air Force One finally opened and President George Bush Sr. walked out the door, down the mobile stair-truck walkway, and greeted the local politicians.
Moments later he was ushered into the "President-mobile". I noticed the black Suburban was feet away from his vehicle, and was told that they will always be no further than 10 feet away from the President at all times. The windows were down, and those commandos were hanging out of every window as well as the back lowered glass - guns clearly seen and ready.
The press and all other dignitaries began piling into the cars – including mine – and secret service agents with earpieces and dark glasses began waving us to follow. In all , there were about 10 to 15 cars in the motorcade and added to that was a roving band of MPD & Shelby County officers on their motorcycles.
When I got in my car, I noticed someone had placed a cellphone (a rarity at this point in history) and a laptop (also – new & rare – and very big) for the reporters to use.
My car filled up and I had reporters from AP, Time magazine, and Newsweek with me. (I had NO idea at this point in my life that I would one day work in the news industry.) They were busy scribbling notes or talking to their editors on the cell phone as I fell into the speeding line. And man did that line speed.
I can now see why a city comes to a standstill when a President visits. Our route through the city had been a secret until the last minute – but we were in charge. Every single foot we traveled was cleared. Traffic was stopped in all directions to let us pass. Interstate? Closed. Traffic couldn't go in EITHER direction until our group passed. We did 100 mph on the interstate, and I noticed snipers on every underpass along the path. Once we hit city streets, we didn't stop. Red lights? Didn't matter – police everywhere had traffic stopped and we flew through.
I don't remember every stop we made. But I remember this one: we pulled up to (the now demolished) Baptist Hospital on Union. President Bush wanted to go upstairs and visit Chucky Mullins, the Ole Miss football player who had been critically injured and paralyzed because of a freak accident during a game against Vanderbilt. It was a class act on the President's part; sadly, Chucky would die less than two years later.)
We then ended up at the Commercial Appeal building on Union so that the President could make his speech. There was a large crowd, and I noticed that as a safety precaution, tractor trailers and other structures had been arranged in a protective circle. I was allowed through the protective levels to drop off my reporters. He finished, we loaded up, and we finally sped back at full throttle to the airport.
Everyone boarded their planes. We helpers stood next to the runway and watched Air Force One taxi, turn around, and gracefully lift into the sky. (I was amazed to see that the black Suburban followed the plane the entire time it taxied, staying just far enough away to not be affected by the jets engines…and it stayed faithful and close until the wheels lifted off the ground).
And my experience was over.
I walked around behind the scenes just to soak it in. I watched the President speak….saw all of the armed gunman prowl the top of the Commercial Appeal building…was amazed by the security protection for the most powerful man in the world.
And since then? I've lamented my stupidity.
I was an immature college kid who had no idea how rare that experience was. The official correspondence to me from the White House? I threw it away. (Why keep it? I thought.) The "Secret Service Lapel Pin" that got me through checkpoints? Also tossed. (Again: couldn't think I'd ever want to keep it.) In fact, I can still remember the day I told this story to my ABC24 colleague Brian Teigland. Brian kept EVERYTHING he ever came across. He was very sentimental. After telling him the story, Brian immediately asked: "Where did you put the letter and pin?" I looked at him quizzically and said "I threw them away" and watched Brian have a coughing/asthma attack and almost fall out of his chair. He was apoplectic. That was the first time I said to myself..."wait....should I have kept that?" Thanks, Brian.
As I stated at the beginning: this was all pre-terror attacks. When the world – while dangerous – was still much simpler. Looking back, there is NO WAY I'd ever experience anything like this ever again. Security concerns would never, ever allow it. It also boggles my mind as to how involved, complicated (and expensive) it has to be to clear cities, routes and plans – months in advance – for the hundreds of trips the President has to take. Overwhelming.
Since then, we've all seen the world rotate and change into something more complicated. Knowing that, it helps me appreciate the unique experience. And I'm glad I got to share it with you.