I can still feel that sun.
Hot, from high up at the Veteran’s Memorial Stadium, Erie PA. Hotter still, because of the reason the seats were packed 10,000 strong. Incumbent President George W. Bush was headed down the State Street Boulevard, on his bus. This was his Presidential rally, and I had agreed to attend.
This would also be my first encounter with high security, perhaps since that flight to and from Scotland via Toronto back in 1984. But – this time – I’d be outside, passing under a tent on 26th Street to be checked for weapons by a lithe, young, lean, muscular agent with sandy curls. He was a tad cocky, smiling amusedly at my full on confident air – and, the straw hat on my head, which he eyed specifically.
I’d decided to accompany my friend, an ardent Republican from Minneapolis, just to witness the spectacle. My political leanings were already soundly Independent, not because I’d planned to skew the election results with my vote but because the two party system had already proved ripe for cell division and I could not see myself, either then or later, at either end of its fragile membrane.
We had seats, however, at the south end of the stadium, just near the descending aisle already canopied for grand, if obscured, entrance of the distinguished guests. Those behind and all around us smelled like active military, plenty of brawn and boister, leaning forward on their haunches in eager anticipation of the one man who assured them job security, a solid pension, and multiple Middle Eastern tours – possibly one to the Pacific Rim, notwithstanding.
As with all intentional congregations of such massive size, commencement delays only heightened the tension and collective imagination. Was he still in the bus? Was it idling, or parked? When would we see him disembark, from our choice position? The stage was set, about fifteen yards ahead of our section, microphones and seating facing north toward the lake; once he, his wife, and the rest of his contingent would appear on the erected boardwalk just beyond the canopy, we’d be watching and listening from behind his back.
But, well before that moment, there was much to occupy my attention. I soaked the sight from every visual angle. Secret Service agents, heads shaved, ubiquitous black shades, rotating from their own axes on the stadium turf. Wooden platforms, the entire storehouse I recognized from the school district garage, those I’d likely walked upon myself herding hundreds of students into seasonal performance. Stage and sound crew, all on autopilot, totally unaware of the locale or its unique surroundings, the stadium staff at their earnest beck and call. And, the ever burgeoning crowd, so many unfamiliar faces from all points further south, east, west, rural farmers, entire families of soldiers with their spouses and children from our Commonwealth, plus Ohio and New York and maybe even West Virginia. Our long-standing Democratic local leadership nowhere to be found on this day, nor so many of my fellow public school educators. None of our urban poor. I was momentarily aware of being out of my element, about to turn inward for reflection.
Then, I spied them. Off to the right, around the bend of the track and up about as high as our row was the small, uniformed “pep” band, organized and led by my very able colleague and friend in the music biz, Dave Stevens. They sat, in the grey pants with the red side stripes I’d ordered for the same high school during my maiden years as their music teacher, playing the occasional military march, waiting like the rest of the throng for the next cue produced by the unseen Oz in charge.
I, however, was emboldened.
Raising my long, thin, uncovered arms high over my head, I waved them back and forth in grandiose attempt to catch Dave’s attention. Calling out, hollering some shout of affirmation in the direction of the band. No matter that my piercing soprano would land about seven feet shy of the quarter mile between us; I was getting my mojo on, ready to conquer the power of this whole event and all those determined to re-elect the man half of America had labeled “George Dubyah.”
Perhaps it was a reaction from directly behind us. Perhaps my friend’s doleful, straight ahead stare of disapproval, her Swedish reserve and poise decidedly set to counter my “ethnic” brashness. Perhaps some signal, of dog whistle proportions. But, something provoked me to turn around and look, upward, toward the concrete bannisters at the very top of my old high school.
There he was. Black head of curls, arms the size of my entire torso, automatic assault weapon cocked, ready — and, aimed right at me.
My straw hat had likely already been marked by the smaller, more wiry reception agent. Not nearly as brown as it had been in childhood, my dark complexion also part of a deftly registered profile, locked and loaded and transmitted via walkie talkie to the snipers positioned at intervals covering the entire periphery. No matter that I’d chosen my all-American cherry printed denim blue sunsuit with the midriff ruffle; in the city of my birth, at the stadium where I’d marched my own students in competition, on the bleachers where I’d sat to see the Zem Zem Shrine Circus perform every summer, at the Presidential rally of George W. Bush I was a suspect, for having covered my raven hair with a straw hat and waved my arms above everyone else’s.
I can’t tell you what the incumbent President said, that day. I watched him talk, with the eyes of a creative director of [ childrens’ ] drama, the ears of a musician, the mind of a constantly evaluating sometimes critical and always diverging thinker. He was taller than expected. His wife was trim and perfect. His stance was assured, his tone and inflection all too familiar. And, from where I sat, if there were teleprompters they were not visible to the audience seated behind him.
As he closed his speech and moved toward the boardwalk and its canopied ascent, my friend and I could see him clearly. As in all such breaks with fantasy and imagination, the moment was surreal. Just as he might have reached the level of our row, unseen beneath the canopy, I called out to him. “Save the MUSIC teachers, Mr. President!!!”
To this day, I return to that moment, for a whole host of reasons. Was I temporarily insane? Would he have heard me? Would his wife, Laura Bush, have made note of my plea? Was it all for naught, one life and its specific concerns rendered completely void, subsumed by the mob effect and a political system intended to serve the people in theory but lost in increasingly corrupt practice?
So many of us, myself included, had already decided who The Decider was that year. He was, to us, an entitled elite, the next in line to the Bush dynasty, fully buoyed by the monied and mercenary, a figurehead for those aligned with a mentality determined to maintain notions of a brand of conservatism tested mightily by time and circumstance.
It wouldn’t be until his administration had run its course, the next two following, that the harsh, blinding, burning light of realization that is our present would mark us all. Now, each of us lands in the sights of the automatic weapon poised by the true village idiot of Nostradamus prophecy. We only thought we knew who that was; but, we were all soundly mistaken.
The Jefferson Educational Society, our local moderator of all things frontal lobe, has secured our former President’s attention. This time, he will speak in both retrospect and reflection, date yet to be announced, at the Bayfront Convention Center as part of the Jefferson’s annual Global Summit. The sun, instead of beating down, will illuminate our path to the front door and, while likely positioned outside, there will be no need for snipers in the room.
Perhaps now it might be time to lean forward and really hear what George W. Bush has to say. Here’s hoping he’s prepared to tell us what we should be willing to know.
I’m feeling ready.
© 8/14/2020 Ruth Ann Scanzillo.