IF SOMEONE were to try and tell me a story like this one, I would undoubtedly snort: Oh, come on -- where were the Secret Service?
It was June, 1973. Richard Nixon was president. The Watergate scandal was shoving the Vietnam War off the front pages. I was 21 years old and had spent the previous several months driving an enormous white 1960 Chevrolet Step-van -- formerly a bread delivery truck, now my post-college home -- around the country: Florida, Texas, Colorado…
In Missouri, just as I was dipping into my last couple hundred dollars, I discovered that all four tires would need replacing in another 1,000 miles or so. I hadn’t seen Mom and Dad since Christmas, and now a quasi-primal force -- part economic, part familial -- drew me toward their home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., 800 miles away.
In Ohio I picked up two hitchhikers bound for New York City. But they’d never been to the nation’s capital, and when they learned my destination they offered to buy a tank of gas if they could come along.
Late on a warm, drippy, decidely D.C. summer night, I dropped my passengers at the Jefferson Memorial (their plan was to camp under the cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin, gorge on cherries in the morning, and then see what happened next). In Alexandria, Virginia, I bought two dollars worth of gas, and fifteen minutes later lumbered into my parents’ driveway.
“Good God!” said my father when he opened the door. I hadn’t had a haircut since Christmas, I’d added a full beard, and my jeans were a collection of gaudy patches. Behind me, the bread truck dwarfed Dad’s canary yellow Buick La Sabre.
Mom had my old favorite midnight snack waiting -- chocolate glazed donuts and milk -- and the three of us sat around the kitchen table talking. Dad was in the last few months of a 33-year career as a CIA cartographer, and he and Mom were both badly upset over how the liberal press and those phony Democrats were treating their man Nixon. Watergate was nothing, they said, compared to Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s stealing the 1960 election from Nixon and handing it to John Kennedy.
Still, despite our polarized politics, despite my appearance, I knew that Mom and Dad were glad to see me. That night I crawled into my old bed in my old room with my old baseball trophies lined up on the dresser, and I, too, was happy I was home.
THE NEXT MORNING, with Dad already gone to work, I was sitting at the kitchen table, eating Mom’s bacon and eggs and about ten English muffins dripping with butter, when I saw a flatbed truck stop next door and unload a stack of cut lumber. The lot adjacent to ours had always been an overgrown blackberry patch/kids’ paradise, but recently it had been bulldozed and the foundation for a three-story house had been poured. “We hear they’re Democrats,” Mom said.In Texas I had worked on an asphalt paving crew for several months, long enough to gain some confidence around construction sites, and after breakfast I walked over and introduced myself to the contractor. A few minutes later I walked back home, pulled Dad’s hammer out of his tool chest, turned around again and reported to my new job: pounding nails. Eight bucks an hour cash -- 1973 money, which would be like $35-40/hr today. A miracle.
The next few weeks were very good ones. I worked during the day, ate dinner with Mom and Dad in the evening (we all tried to keep our opinions to ourselves), and at night I played basketball or visited friends. I resuscitated my bank account, bought new tires for the bread truck, and plotted a route to California.
ONE EVENING toward the end of my stay, Dad and Mom invited me to join them for a play at the Kennedy Center. For the occasion I gave up my blue jeans, and pulled on brown corduroy jeans and a polo shirt. Sandals, no socks. My parents declined my offer of a chauffered bread truck ride into town. When we convened at the La Sabre at the appointed time, Mom and Dad, who were both wearing sharp-looking summer suits, studied my attire and rolled their eyes at each other. They kept quiet, but I could hear their thoughts: Aggh, can you really dress up an orangutan, anyway?
We parked in the garage beneath the Kennedy Center, rode an elevator up, and began walking through a long, narrow, dimly lit hallway leading toward the lobby. Halfway along we came upon a half-dozen people queued up at a water fountain. I’d spent the entire day swinging a hammer in the July heat, and now I told my parents, “Go on ahead -- I’ll find you in the lobby.”
“Foyer,” Dad corrected.
Some minutes later I emerged from the hallway into the Grand Foyer, an opulent anteroom as long as two football fields: glass and mirrors and stupendous crystal chandeliers hanging from 60-foot ceilings. The Kennedy Center’s three full-sized theaters operate on staggered showtimes, and now I was stopped short by a crowd that had spilled from one theater for intermission. It was a loud, happy group, mostly people my parents’ age or older, shoulder-to-shoulder, drinking and chatting, all of them wearing tuxedoes or formal evening gowns.
On the far side of the foyer, over by the 60-foot tall windows that framed elegant views of the Potomac and Georgetown, Dad raised a hand and caught my eye. It was the magical sunset hour, and he and Mom were backlit by an evening sky of molten gold. They looked both radiant and excited, although, in contrast to the glittering crowd separating us, perhaps a touch under-dressed.
But not nearly as under-dressed as me. Davy Crockett in a coonskin cap and with a buck knife clamped between his teeth might have felt less conspicuous than I felt as I began improvising a path across the room. I skirted one boisterous cluster of revelers; did a slow spin move to dodge another; turned sideways and went up on tiptoes to squeeze between two men standing almost butt-to-butt; offered up an “Excuse me” and wedged myself between two others clinking glasses…
I’d neared the halfway point when a man directly in front of me suddenly peeled away from a foursome and started working his way over toward the bar. His departure created a small opening, into which I instinctively stepped. Aware that both shoulders of my polo shirt were brushing against black tuxedoes, I paused and scanned possible routes toward Mom and Dad. Their radiant expressions had disappeared, I noticed, and now both of them seemed to have adopted tentative, open-mouthed expressions of alarm. Odd, I thought.
I was just about to head onward when I sensed… something -- a noiseless vibration, a buzz if you will. I wasn’t imagining this -- I felt it physically, a sudden jangling in my chest and throat area, and it drew my attention to the center of my new foursome.
My eyes alit first upon Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. I’d seen pictures of the Shah in the news that week, and now here he was, directly opposite me, no more than three feet away, eyes locked onto my own…
I don’t know why I had expected Mr. Palavi to be a shorter man -- maybe the dainty sound of his title. But even though I was three or four inches taller than the Shah, I still had the impression that he was peering down, sighting over the top of his nose and trying to get a read on me. In the papers, he had appeared variously happy, confident, reserved, aloof -- but now, meeting his gaze, I saw a small, many-layered smile flicker across his face. I read the Shah’s thoughts: How embarrassing for my hosts… this wild Afghani-looking fellow… how did he get anywhere near me?
But quickly the Shah’s smile morphed into an expression of confusion, confusion tinted with fear, as another line of thought took hold: They’ve been planning my visit for months… every second so far has been carefully staged… this can not be some innocent, random security slipup… These Americans -- they killed their Lincoln, even their Kennedy…they’ve forever been trying to murder Castro… is it now my turn…? The Shah broke our eye contact and -- seeking information or protection or maybe just a bit of comfort -- darted his gaze over toward the face of the man on my right, a man whose elbow I could easily have bumped with my own…
Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, had achieved a hard-assed reputation by ridiculing the anti-war crowd: “effete snobs”… “pusillanimous pussyfooters”… “nattering nabobs of negativism.” But when I turned toward him -- My God -- it’s Agnew! -- he was silent. Fuming, but silent. His jaw was clamped tight and he was pointedly refusing to look at me. His squinty, smoldering death stare was locked on a trajectory that shot right past the Shah’s face and was now burning a hole in the wall on the far side of the room. I was close enough to inspect the individual pores on Agnew’s near cheek, and I couldn’t help but notice that his chin was twitching, as though he were muttering or maybe counting -- One, one thousand… two, one thousand… -- and waiting for the inevitable something to happen...
I knew of course that my time in this circle was going to be brief, and that a wiser person might have already moved himself along… But I fought the impulse, and somehow summoned the presence of mind to look and see just who in the world the third guy might be.
A twitch of my left elbow would have nudged Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, the recent recipient of a half-share of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize. But I needn’t have nudged him to get his attention. Kissinger was already turned away, searching over his shoulder -- I can wiretap anyone in the country… right this minute my secret air force is aloft over Cambodia… so you’d think I could get someone to secure the goddam foyer of the goddam Kennedy Center! -- but he saw only a rocking sea of expensive tuxedoes and priceless dresses. He spun back, glared at me -- How dare you exist! -- and then shot a look over his other shoulder… Where IS the damned Secret Service!
As I turned to flee, I swept the group with my eyes (Kissinger-Shah-Agnew -- eye contact with each of them now, even Agnew) and without stutter or stammer I croaked, “Whoa!” That’s it -- the transcript of our entire caucus: Whoa! I scanned their faces a final time, turned, and danced my way toward my flummoxed parents, who shared everything in life and who at that moment seemed to be sharing a double coronary event…
I’M FIFTY-THREE years old now. In this era of semi-routine space travel and instant world-wide communication, I don’t know why anyone would bother trying to convince me that there is something in this world that is not possible. Still, sometimes people try. I pay them little mind. For at least three decades I’ve known that absolutely anything can happen.
Even when you least expect it.
Even when you’re not expecting it at all.