Thursday, August 26, 2010

44. XLIV. 8-9-10. 2,430.5: My mad dash to the Saints' White House reception with President Obama

The first call arrived at about 3:30 p.m. on Friday, July 31.

I was at the CC's on Johnston Street in Lafayette awaiting the arrival of a friend and was on hold awaiting my banker (credit union-er?) to return to the line. It was essential business, so I did not put the held call on hold, but let the incoming call ring through to voice mail.

A couple of minutes later, while still on the phone with the credit union, the second call arrived.

After completing the business call, I listened to the voice two voice messages on my phone. The first message said that a second call was coming from New Orleans state senator Karen Carter Peterson. The second message was from the senator.

"I have a friend who is interested in some of the things you've been writing about. I'd like to talk with you about that and to invite you to attend the Saints reception at the White House on August 9. Give me a call."

I sat stunned for a second before returning the second call. My call to Senator Carter Peterson went to voice mail. My message was "I'd like to talk to your friend — and Yes! I'd love to go to the White House for the Saints reception. Please let me know how to proceed. Thank you!"

My friend arrived and I told him what had just happened.

A bit later, a call came in from area code 202 — Washington. I took that call.

It was a woman who said she was from Homeland Security and was calling about the August 9th event at the White House. Did I think I was going to attend? I laughed.

"Why are you laughing?"

"Well, this is kind of an unusual call," I replied.

"Oh, I guess you're right," she replied. If I was interested in attending, I needed to give her my basic information so that they could run a security check on me. A lot of things ran through my mind: Is this for real? Is there anything I might have done that would prevent them from clearing me? Is this a prank?

After hesitating a second, I gave her the information.

Later that evening, the person who was interested in the topics I'd been covering — particularly involving the BP Gulf Gusher and the deep water drilling moratorium — played a bit of phone tag.

Several days passed with no contact from anyone regarding my status to attend. I couldn't make travel arrangements until I had confirmation that I was going. It finally came on Thursday evening, August 5. I was told to be at the southeast gate at the White House on Monday at around 8 a.m.

The challenge of getting up there remained. Flights at that close to the departure date (Sunday) were expensive. I'd have to get a hotel room for at least one night.

Money was tight. I wasn't missing this opportunity. So, I decided to drive to DC.

Four Cylinders And Adrenaline

It mapped out to about a 20-hour drive. I'd made similar drives before, but that was long ago in a galaxy for away. Still, this was doable.

I had work to do on Saturday, the 7th, before I left. Got an edition of Democratic Louisiana out. Edited some video for a campaign I'm working on. Then went to bed, trying to get about four hours of sleep before hitting the road shortly after midnight on Sunday morning. I was too keyed up to get much sleep.

But, the alarm clock went off at midnight. I showered, grabbed some coffee and jumped into the car. I pulled out of the drive way at 12:41 a.m. on the 8th.

My wife Sally had arranged for me to stay with friends of hers — Joe and Victoria Popp — who live in Alexandria, VA. I figured I would arrive there around 8 p.m. or so. And that was about right. Essentially, I just stopped for gas. Although, I had to stop a couple of times to relieve the pressure off my sciatic nerve down my right leg (no cruise control on this new car proved to be a pain in the leg).

After dinner with my hosts, I fell asleep on top of the bed just as soon as I hit it.

At 5 a.m. on Monday, my alarm went off and I sprang out of bed. I followed Joe to the nearby Metro station where we rode into DC together.

I was at the southeast gate of the White House (which is now on the east side of the Treasury Building) for 7:30 a.m. There was no one there. At another gate, a guard told me someone would arrive there at 8 a.m., that I'd have to wait until then.

I crossed the street to a park across from a hotel and checked email and listened to music while awaiting the arrival of others. At this point, I still was not sure what the actual event was. I knew the Saints reception was that morning, but also knew that it was not until about 9:30. It turns out, that it takes about 90 minutes to make it through security. There were probably about 100 people at the gate for the reception by the time security started letting us in beyond the gate.

There were three checkpoints where we had to produce a photo ID and that was checked against the list they had at that checkpoint. I spent most of the 90 minutes talking with Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans who now heads the National Urban League. He had his 8-year-old son Mason with him. The mayor and I know each other a bit from our days in New Orleans. It was a great conversation. His insights into Louisiana politics and the strategies of community change were strikingly clear and concise. Louisiana really does not have the luxury of allowing such leaders get away from us. He was already working for the NUL when Katrina hit. He gave up his home then, saying he didn't have the time to commit to a rebuilding effort with his duties with the league.

The final stop before we got into the White House was a room full of metal detectors similar to those at airports. We did not have to remove our shoes, but we had to empty our pockets and any bags we had were run through an x-ray machine. I had my computer bag, with a camera and other things in it. Thankfully, I had found (and removed) a wine bottle opener before I left Lafayette.

In the East Wing

Suddenly, we were in the East Wing of the White House. The first thing I noticed were the official portraits on the walls. I'd seen many of them before — rather, images of them — and it struck me. These are the originals! There was Jacqueline Kennedy's portrait. William McKinley. Andrew Johnson.

There really wasn't time to gawk as we were moving towards the reception area, which was up a flight of stairs. There was a large reception room (formally called Entrance Hall) where the Marine Jazz Ensemble was playing Dixieland Jazz. Clean cut white guys in Marine red jackets playing jazz. The music was great, but the whole thing was kind of surreal.

At the back of Entrance Hall, away from the front of the White House, was a set of double doors. On either side of the doors were large marble busts. On the left was Abraham Lincoln. On the right, George Washington.

Doors all the way to the left opened and there was the immediately recognizable setting of the East Room: gold drapes bracketed by flags. That's where the reception was going to be and we were directed that way.

As we were preparing to enter the room, there were three people to my left. One gentleman was pushing a man in a wheel chair. The person closest to me, turned to face them and told the man pushing the chair to "stop right there." He raised his camera and took a photo of the man. Directly over his shoulder was the official portrait of Lyndon Johnson.

"Great framing," I said.

"Thanks, I thought so, too," came the reply. It was Wendell Pierce — New Orleans native and one of the stars of the HBO series Treme.

We made our way into the room. I made my way to the left (instinct?), to the side of the stage. I found a seat in the second to last row and whipped out my Saints cap. The camera I brought with me had died. So, I had to use my iPhone camera. The lighting was great (bright lighting for the benefit of the media).

After the rest of the guests had found their seats, someone announced over the sound system, "The Super Bowl 44 Champion New Orleans Saints." The team began entering the room. There was applause, but it died out before all of them had made it into the room. This being pre-season, there were a lot of players. The risers behind the stage were packed. They were followed by coaches and team staff. Then, Coach Sean Peyton and owner Tom Benson entered.

Benson flashed his Super Bowl ring to the crowd.

After a few minutes, "The President of the United States" was announced.

President Obama entered the room. It was electric. It was real.

He delivered a few prepared remarks. The team gave him a jersey with #44 and his name on it. Drew Brees of the Saints noted that this will be the only time that in history that the number of the president and the Super Bowl Champion will be shared.

The President proceeded to work the room, starting with the Saints players lined up behind him. He worked the rest of the room, too, but I was a row or two too far back to shake his hand.

After completing that, he left the room. The announcer told us to stay in our seats until the President had left. Then, the Saints made their way out. Then, we were allowed to leave.

In the larger room where the jazz band had been, I thanked Senator Carter Peterson for arranging the opportunity for me to attend. I told Senator Mary Landrieu hello before heading out to the streets of nation's capital. As the group I was walking with made its way out of a security gate, I spotted two people who were there for the event just making it into the 'metal detector' building. It turned out that they did not get in because of some kind of breakdown in the process of getting their names onto the event list.

Before we made it off the White House grounds, the President's helicopter took off from the White House for what I read later was a trip to Air Force One which would take him to Austin, TX, for a speech on education.

After leaving the White House grounds, I went to a Starbucks I had walked by on my way from the Metro station earlier in the morning. Bought a venti Americano and a cinnamon roll and grabbed some WiFi. After hearing from the folks who didn't get in to the event, I headed to the Metro station to head back out to Alexandria and my car around noon.

On The Road Again

I wanted to beat the rush out of the area and figured I would have a good jump on traffic. And I would have — if I'd have been able to find my car! I had not paid close enough attention when I followed Joe Popp to the station. And, after walking to the area where I thought my car was, I was quickly reminded that all floors of parking garages look remarkably alike. I know because I walked several floors of one garage. After calling Victoria Popp, seeking any possible leads as to where Joe might have parked us, I crossed over into an adjacent garage. I walked a couple of floors there, when Joe called and said we had parked on the fourth level of the first garaged I had searched. As I turned to look at that building, I saw the distinctive roof line of my Honda Fit.

By this time I had done quite a bit of walking in the garage. It was hot. I was sweaty. The air conditioning was welcome. Google Maps wanted me to drive back towards DC to get out of the area the same way I'd come in. I wanted no part of that route.

I knew enough about the area to know that if I could hit I-95, I could head down towards Richmond immediately and eventually cut over towards Atlanta at some point.

My Crocs provided the solution to the sciatic nerve problem that had bothered me on the way up. The padded sole lifted my heel just high enough off the floorboard to lift the back of my right thigh off the edge of the seat.

I resolved to drive as far as my tank of gas would carry me, then call it a day.

It was about 95 miles to Richmond. Approaching there, I saw signs indicating that I-85 heading southwest to Atlanta intersected I-95 a little south of Richmond. I relaxed and enjoyed the drive.

As I approached Lexington, North Carolina, my gas light came on. At the third exit, there was a Comfort Suite motel on one side of the Interstate and an Applebee's Restaurant on the other. I had found where I would spend the night. I gassed up, checked into the hotel and grabbed dinner. Went back to the hotel, grabbed some computer time. I was a little less than 900 miles from Lafayette.

On Tuesday morning, I hit the free breakfast bar for some orange juice, a muffin and some barely drinkable coffee. I was back in the car by 6:45 a.m. I was in NASCAR country. I-85 skirts Kannapolis (home of the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr.) and Charlotte, but I didn't have time to stop. I had work and other business to take care of in Lafayette on Wednesday.

Driving through straight Atlanta on I-85 was a breeze, as I got there at mid-morning, after rush hour traffic had ebbed. I made a stop for gas just before leaving Georgia, then did not stop again until I got to Mobile, AL. By this time, I needed real coffee. So, I found a Starbucks on Spring Hill Avenue via Google Maps and dove in. It felt good to stand up.

I checked the distance to Lafayette from there and it was 254 miles. I could make that without stopping. So, I tanked up in down the street and hit the road again.

I reached Lafayette at about 6:45 p.m. on Tuesday, almost exactly 13 hours after leaving Lexington (allowing for the change of time zone).

The trip odometer registered 2,340.5 miles for the round trip. I'd averaged 800 miles a day and had been gone for about 66 hours.

A Long Strange Trip For A Long Strange Trip

It was a whirlwind trip that I would not have missed for the world. I went for a long swim that night and drank a little wine after that. And reflected on my long personal relationship with what had for so long seemed an ill-fated franchise.

I'd seen the President I helped elect recognize the team that I had supported since their inception all those 40-plus years ago.

I watched John Gilliam return the opening kickoff in the franchise's history at home with my dad in 1967.

I was listening to the radio when the Saints played the Detroit Lions in Tulane Stadium in 1970. Bees knocked out the radio transmitter just as Tom Dempsey kicked his 63-yard field goal, but my Biever Hall windows at Loyola were open and we could tell by the roar that the kick had been good and Dempsey had won the game.

I was in a motel room in Chama, New Mexico, in 1977 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the first game in their franchise history, beating the Saints in New Orleans. It was the era of The 'Aints.

I was at a telecommunication conference in Aspen, CO, when the Danny Weurfel era began. The first highlight in the open segment of Sports Center was a picture of Weurfel on the field, during a play, with his helmet spun around backwards on his head.

I watched in disgust as Tom Benson tried mightily to move the team to San Antonio in the wake of the devastation of Katrina and the failure of the federal levee system.

Somehow, I had allowed my hopes to be raised when Sean Peyton's 2006 team made it to the NFC championship game where they lost to the Chicago Bears.

And, like just about everyone else in south Louisiana, I relished the amazing 2009 season that culminated with the Super Bowl win in Miami.

No, dammit. I was going to Washington. I am damned grateful that the opportunity presented itself. As a Saints fan, I felt both obligated and due.

1 comment:

John said...

Great piece of writing and fun read. Thanks!

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