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Three Presidents (and a First Lady)

For most of my sixty years on the planet I have been a social recluse. Yet through no conscious intention on my part, I have come face-to-face with three presidents of the United States (and a First Lady).

In 1962 I was in the seventh grade in Menlo Park, California. I was a baseball fanatic and not much interested in politics, though I was fascinated by Fidel Castro and the possibility of nuclear war.

“Class,” said Mr. Arbanas, our perpetually befuddled teacher. “President Kennedy is coming to the University of California to give a speech. Each core class will elect two students, one boy and one girl, to attend. If you want to go, raise your hand.”

We all raised our hands. By secret ballot and the intercession of angels, I was the boy chosen to represent my class. On the morning of March 23, 1962, I boarded a school bus with several other students and a gang of teachers, and we rumbled across the San Mateo Bridge and up through Oakland to Berkeley. We had been advised to bring a sack lunch and binoculars. I was one of those unfortunate children whose mother had no interest in making my lunch. Ever. From the age of five I made my own lunch, the same lunch, every day: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, and a carrot. This is the lunch I brought and ate on that historic day.

I did not have a pair of binoculars, but everyone else had a pair, so my plan was to borrow. We most definitely needed binoculars since our seats were the very highest in the stadium, the podium on the stage at midfield barely visible to our naked eyes.

There came a great parade of men and women in caps and gowns representing their illustrious alma maters, the day being the 94th anniversary of the charter establishing the public universities of America, which is what Kennedy spoke about. To my twelve-year-old ears and mind, the speeches preceding Kennedy’s speech, and his speech, too, were numbingly boring. I certainly enjoyed my glimpses of Kennedy and his marvelous hair through borrowed binoculars, and I thrilled to his voice, but not nearly so much as I thrilled to the myriad alluring females filling the stands around us.

Near the end of Kennedy’s address, a lunatic classmate threw an orange that struck the back of my neck. The shock of this sudden and unexpected attack caused me to pick up the exploded orange, turn in my seat, and hurl the gucky missile back at my assailant. He ducked, and the mess struck Miss Imbach (destined to be my eighth grade teacher) in the face. For this heinous crime, I was immediately yanked from my seat and marched out of the stadium by someone (I can’t recall who) to wait in ignominy on the bus.

However, my ejection coincided precisely with Kennedy finishing his speech and exiting the stadium ahead of the ceremonial finale so he might escape the ensuing gridlock. In the tumult outside the stadium, I was separated from my escort and swept along in a crowd of people hoping for a glimpse of the president.

And lo and behold, I found myself walking beside President Kennedy. Right beside him. And he was smiling. And he had a big head and fabulous teeth. And here’s the thing, honestly, he seemed genuinely happy, even perhaps enthralled, as he strolled along in the excitement of Berkeley in early spring being President of the United States. Then he looked at me and said “Hello,” or “How are you?” though I might have imagined that. But I didn’t imagine what I said to him, which was, “Thank you.”

I’m not sure why I said “Thank you”, but it may have been because I was grateful he hadn’t started a nuclear war with Russia over Cuba.

Back on the bus, one teacher after another chewed me out for throwing the orange at Miss Imbach. I was threatened with expulsion for dishonoring our school, and told I would definitely not be allowed to go on the upcoming field trip to the beach. But all I could think about was how happy Kennedy had seemed, and how I wished I had said to him, “Can’t we be friends with Fidel?”

The text of the speech Kennedy gave that day, which is both sad and ironic in light of today’s economic and educational meltdowns, can be read at the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum web site.

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May 1969. I was nineteen and in my last few weeks of college (forever) at UC Santa Cruz. The People’s Park revolt was underway in Berkeley and I was involved in sympathetic protests at our new university in the redwoods. At the height of the carnage in Berkeley, the Regents of the University of California, including Governor Reagan, came to the Santa Cruz campus to hold their annual meeting. Perhaps they thought Santa Cruz was far enough away from bloody Berkeley for them to be safe, but it’s more likely they were just arrogant despots.

So the fat cats had their meeting in the new cafeteria at Crown College, and I went with a gang of demonstrators to mill around outside and voice our dismay at the university’s support for the war in Vietnam and to protest their violent response to unarmed people trying to create a park in Berkeley on vacant land. That’s what I was dismayed about. The more sophisticated demonstrators were dismayed about many other things, too, but I just wanted the stupid war and needless violence to end so I wouldn’t lose any more friends and we could have, you know, a cultural renaissance.

I suppose for the same reason Kennedy made an early exit from the stadium in 1962, Reagan was hustled out of the Crown cafeteria several minutes before the regents’ meeting officially adjourned. We saw the governor board one of the large snout-nosed yellow school buses used to ferry people around the bucolic campus, and we, the people, went chasing after him.

Crown College was a maze of buildings on a steep hillside with more dead ends than through streets, and it was up one of these dead ends that Reagan’s misguided driver turned. We followed en masse and effectively corked Ronald’s escape route with our bodies, and then several of the protestors began to rock the bus. There were some, perhaps, who hoped to roll the bus, but most of us just wanted to scare the crap out of our putrescent governor.

The cool thing was, before the police came and chased us away, we had several minutes of this good college fun, during which I was hoisted onto the shoulders of my fellows and brought face-to-face with Ronald Reagan. His nose and mine were no more than two feet apart, only the glass of the bus window separating us.

I suppose I might have shouted, “Off the pigs,” or “Get out of Vietnam,” or “Free People’s Park,” but I could only muster a hopeless, contemptuous, bewildered smile, because I really couldn’t think of anything to say that would mean anything to him. I could see by his face and demeanor and, if you will allow me, his aura, that he didn’t have the slightest understanding of why we were so upset. To Reagan, we were just hooligans, and to me Reagan was just a mean man of no great intelligence working for a bunch of other mean men and saying whatever they told him to say. He was a puppet. He was the guy who introduced Death Valley Days and sold Borax. He was nobody. He was a rich dupe and he was annoyed we had him temporarily bottled up, but he wasn’t afraid. He looked me in the eye and smiled a sneering smile, and then he slowly shook his head as if to say, “You’ll be sorry,” and he was right because my comrades dropped me like a hot potato when the cops converged on us, and I hit the ground hard before I ran off into the woods.

Okay. So Reagan wasn’t yet president, but he would be soon enough.

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My dear friends Bob and Patty were married in Sacramento on September 4, 1975. I took the train down from Eugene, Oregon to be in their wedding in an old brick cathedral. The processional was Stevie Wonder singing, “I believe when I fall in love this time it will be forever,” and the recessional was the overture from Camelot. Thirty-five years later I’m delighted to report that Bob and Patty are still happily married.

The morning after the wedding, I was strolling down L Street and nearing the capitol when my way was blocked by a barrier of police tape stretching across L Street and the sidewalk and up to the capitol building. Why? President Gerald Ford was staying at the Senator Hotel on L Street and was soon to cross over to the capitol. Had they not strung up this barrier, I am certain no one would have known or cared that Gerald Ford was planning to cross the street there; but that was only the prelude to a most peculiar presidential event.

I was no fan of Gerald Ford or the mass murderer he’d replaced, but I thought it might be fun to see the president and then tell Bob and Patty I had. There were only a few dozen people on hand to witness Ford’s transit, all of them “caught” as I had been and not there out of any abiding love for Gerald. As we stood behind the flimsy barricade in the growing heat, I noticed a woman dressed as Little Red Riding Hood on the wrong side of the barrier chatting with a state policeman. They spoke amicably for a moment, and then he gestured for her to get back on the spectator side of the tape, and she did so, standing a few feet away from me.

A moment later, Ford came out of the Senator Hotel flanked by several men in suits. They crossed L Street and started along the walkway that transects the lawn to the capitol building. I remember being struck by how big Ford and the Secret Servicemen were, as if they had armor on under their suits. I remember, too, there was nothing festive in this transit, and that when Ford was ten feet away from me, his face looked grim to the point of horror.

Then Gerald abruptly veered away from the tape until he was at least thirty feet away from the nearest spectator, at which moment one of the Secret Servicemen launched himself toward, I thought, me, but actually toward Little Red Riding Hood, who turned out to be Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson. The big guy wrestled the little woman to the ground as Gerald was literally picked up and carried into the capitol building by his huge henchmen.

Squeaky was sentenced to life in prison for what she allegedly did that day, attempting to assassinate Gerald Ford. She was released from prison in August of 2009 after serving nearly thirty-five years for pointing an unloaded gun in the direction of the president. At the time of Squeaky’s symbolic act, there was hope among Republicans that Squeaky’s and a similarly bizarre attempt on Ford’s life by another woman two weeks later, might improve Gerald’s chances of election, but that was not to be.

The odd thing from my point of view was that in the immediate aftermath of the incident, none of the authorities on hand were interested in speaking to me, though they eagerly recorded the testimony of people standing much farther away than I had been from the flying Secret Serviceman. Perhaps my unruly hair and raggedy clothes and overall counter culture appearance rendered me an undesirable witness. And, yes, whether it was or not, the entire event seemed so obviously staged as to be laughable.

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Three years after my brief encounter with Gerald Ford, I published my first novel Inside Moves (you can download my new reading of it from Audible.com) and the publisher was Doubleday.

My editor was a young woman named Sherry Knox. She and I had spoken on the phone while working on the rewrite, but we didn’t meet in-person until I flew back to New York for the publication party in the spring of 1978. Judging by her voice and her manner of speaking, I assumed Sherry was a highly educated white woman. As I sat in the foyer at Doubleday, I rose twice as white female editors came out to meet their authors, but neither woman was my editor. Then a beautiful black woman emerged from the editorial catacombs, recognized me from my author’s photo, and introduced herself as Sherry.

And I, thunderstruck by the realization that Sherry must have bought my book (about black and white people loving each other) at least in part because she was black, said without a care for political correctness, “Sherry, I never once thought you were black.”

To which she replied, “I’m glad.”

On our way to Sherry’s office, we stopped to pay obeisance to Betty Prashker, the powerful editor-in-chief who lent Sherry sufficient clout to purchase my unlikely novel, and then Sherry whispered, “Would you like to meet Jackie Kennedy? Her office is right next to mine.”

So we popped into Jackie’s office, and there was the former First Lady looking trim and slim in a crisp white blouse and a gray skirt, her eyes shielded by gray-tinted glasses. She was poring over proofs of an enormous glossy coffee table book, probably something to do with the lives of the super wealthy, of which she was an authority. Sherry introduced me. Jackie took off her glasses, smiled a crinkly smile, and shook my hand.

What I remember most about her was that she didn’t sound at all like the soft-spoken Jackie Kennedy I recalled from her days as First Lady. There was nothing soft or slow in her speech, but rather roughness, even harshness, as if she had taken on the accent of greater Manhattan.

“Sherry’s great. You’re in good hands,” said Jackie, her grip impressively strong. “Good luck to you.” And then for some reason she laughed, and I heard the same harshness in her laughter, and I laughed, too, though more out of nervousness than because anything was funny.

Then Sherry took me to lunch at a snazzy restaurant where we were joined by Sherry’s close friend, Olga Adderly, the widow of a great hero of mine, the tenor sax giant Julian “Cannonball” Adderly. And for the entire meal I marveled that both Jackie and Olga had been married to men who were now legends, both men dying at forty-six, which even at my tender age of twenty-eight seemed terribly young to me.

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)

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