President Obama came to town!
Well, almost. Kind of.
There was much hullabaloo surrounding President Obama’s recent visit to Binghamton. A lot of veteran pols were scratching their heads as to the last time a sitting president or a candidate came to town.
Some can remember when Sen. Robert Kennedy came and created quite a stir. And certainly Hillary Clinton stopped by for a chicken half at Brooks’ House of Bar-B-Q once. Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt both made appearances in Oneonta, but that was long ago.
Still, to meet any U.S. president of any party is cause for celebration and excitement. And I have seen my share.
Over my 25-year career at WDOS radio, I attended every major national political convention for four election cycles. So in those travels I got to meet Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, both Bushes, Bill Clinton and others. Of course when I say “met,” I mean that fleeting adrenaline kind of buzz you get when you are face-to-face with a president or presidential candidate at a public gathering, a rope line or a red carpet. No, I did not have a beer with these guys. But it was exciting shaking all of their hands.
But one occasion stands alone in my memory.
It was Friday, July 18, 1980, and I was living in Houston. I was working for a courier company and I got the call to go and deliver a package to the Galleria, Houston’s sprawling Oz-like enclosed shopping complex (with an ice skating rink inside it!). My usual parking space was blocked off. “EVENT. NO PARKING,” the signs said.
I parked several blocks away and hoofed it in. The mall was wall-to-wall people. A presidential candidate was coming to give a speech. Hundreds of red, white and blue balloons were strung up over the ice skating rink. Streamers waved and Loretta Lynn was singing from the podium to warm up the crowd. Funny, I didn’t even know who Loretta Lynn was in those days.
I wandered around trying to soak it all in. The colors, the lights, the cheering crowd, the Coal Miner’s Daughter … it was electrifying. Soon everything got kicked up a notch. The candidate must have arrived, I thought. I remember a policeman came up to me and told me to move along. Soon I found myself standing at the top of an escalator. No crowds, no police, no security. I just stood there watching the empty stairs come up and disappear into the floor in front of me.
And then it happened. I looked below and the floor was all of a sudden filled with people. All in dark suits and ties. And there, right in the middle of it all, was a giant man in a blazing white suit and a white cowboy hat. His wife, in a blue and white cowgirl dress with a black bolo tie, walked hand-in-hand with him. They stepped onto the escalator and slowly rose up, and up and up right to me.
The man was handsome and tanned and seemed to be huge. He and his wife were the only two on the escalator, sharing the same step, as I recall. I looked around and there was not a single person at the top of the escalator but me.
When the couple got to the top of the stairs, the giant man in the cowboy hat gently helped his wife get off and then he stepped off right in front of me. They paused, looked around and stretched their hands out in greeting to me. I was dumbfounded. The man’s white teeth gleamed like in toothpaste commercial. The tiny lady next to him seemed to disappear in his shadow. His hands were large with long, graceful fingers.
“Hi ya, Big Fella. I’m Ronald Reagan and I’m running for president. And this here is Nancy.”
Those were his exact words to me. I said something trite, nodded sheepishly and the couple, now surrounded by a huge entourage, walked over to the balcony and greeted the crowd below. The giant man took off his white cowboy hat and waved it above his head. “Helloo, Texas!” he shouted into the microphone. The balloons cascaded down from the roof. It was bedlam.
And I stood there, all by myself in my sweaty Data Rush T-shirt, watching it all from behind. And I thought, “So that is Ronald Reagan!’
Meeting him that day in 1980 was an unforgettable moment for me. Probably not so much for him.
I’ll catch you in two ...
“Big Chuck” Text ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/SolidText ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/Solid$ID/NothingText ColorText Color$ID/NothingText ColorText ColorD’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find him on Facebook by searching “Big Chuck.” He invites you to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.