Sunday, March 25, 2012 / 8:25 am

Obama in Oklahoma: Part II

My adventure in meeting the President of the United States of America.

by Donna Schoenkopf

President Obama and me
President Obama and me

I sit down at my computer and scroll along reading emails or deleting them on sight.

For some strange reason I don’t delete the OK Democrat email. It looks like a solicitation and I’m tapped out so there’s no reason to click on it.

But I do. And there before me is this:

President Obama to Travel to Oklahoma

WASHINGTON, DC – On Wednesday, the President will travel to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. On Thursday, he will visit the Cushing, Oklahoma area to discuss blah, blah, blah, etc.

The President’s remarks are open to pre-credentialed members of the press but closed to the public.

My eyes reread the last sentence.

I don’t have a press credential.

Do I?

I continue reading. It says if I want to be part of the press I have to respond by 5:00 pm this very night. Just click here, here, and here.

Uhhh.

I have no idea what to do.

So I call my daughter. She’ll know. She’s a longtime member of the press. And she loves her mama.

“Click all three places, Mom.“

“But I don’t have press credentials, Becca.”

“You can get them, Mom.”

“Where?”

“Hmmm. Try the Tecumseh Police Department. You have to contact a governmental agency. They might not be able to get you the credentials in time. Call now!”

So I call the Tecumseh Police Department. A man answers.

“Tecumseh Police Department.”

“Hello, can I speak to someone about getting press credentials?”

“Uh. What do you mean press credentials?”

After being put on hold so he can find out what to do, he comes back to tell me that they had never done that before and sorry but no can do.

So I call the Shawnee Police Department.

A nice lady answers and when I ask her about press credentials she says, “I have worked here for many, many, many years and we have never gotten a request like that. Try the News-Star.”

So I call the editor at the News-Star and he says, “Sorry. We’ve never done that. Can’t help you.”

Now I am desperate. Time is marching along.

Then I think of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Hey. I wrote a couple of stories for them! Maybe that will work.

So I call Michael Dodson and YES! He’ll set me up with credentials, but, he reminds me, he already gave me a press pass for the story I wrote last May.

Ooops. I had thrown that away, thinking it was a one-time thing.

No matter, he’ll print up another one and he wants to go too!

So everything is hunky dory.

I click on all the tabs with a big, fat smile on my face.

The next morning I zip over to my computer and see that I HAVE BEEN APPROVED TO COVER PRESIDENT OBAMA’S VISIT TO OKLAHOMA. All three events.

Zowie.

I zoom over to Michael’s office and pick up the credential and go home.

I reread the instructions on when and where to go.

Okay. I can do this.

I check the weather. It’s pretty hairy. Lots of rain in the last couple of days, and we’re talkin’ floods. Thunder and lightning abound. I begin to worry about the President’s flight.

I decide to leave earlier than I need to because the traffic reports say there are a bunch of accidents, two along my route.

I drive through the downpour, windshield wipers flashing. The radio is telling me that another accident has occurred. Jeez.

I get to my destination, find the parking lot, pull in and see … two cars. Both with big men in them.

I park. I get out. I go up to one car. He gets out.

Yes, I’m in the right place. The other guy gets out. He’s wearing cammies. It turns out he’s some kind of higher up soldier. They are both very friendly and smile and we all joke around.

The first guy is Brian, a big, gregarious African American. I look up at his face and he looks just like my dearly departed brother, Billy. I tell him this.

For an instant a puzzled look comes over his face (he is black, I am white) and he cocks his head. But just as quickly he smiles a great big smile and we are bonded.

We talk about the weather. Turns out that just a little while before I got there a twister had poked it head out of the clouds and snaked down out of the sky, “just over there, if you look between those light poles,” Brian says.

It was a cold funnel twister and they never reach the ground, he tells me. This makes me nervous about the safety of the President.

Cars start arriving, filled with press folks. Some of them ask me who I represent. When I tell them the Potawatomi tribe, they smile, and are happy to have me. I am like their kid sister. Their 68-year-old kid sister.

I find out that Governor Mary Fallin, Republican, won’t be there to greet the President. She’s too busy in Puerto Rico. Nor will her Lieutenant Governor be there. He’s too busy, too. And the mayor of Oklahoma City? He’s out of town, will be going to the Thunder’s basketball game and maybe we’ll see him.

Jeez. Sometimes I just … never mind.

Eventually, another Brian arrives with the shuttle.

Brian gives us a lot of info about the base. When it was built (before WWII), how long the two runways are (2 miles long,) and other such tidbits.

We wait out in the parking lot while the inspectors get their act together giving us time to bond more closely. The rain has ceased. The sun is beginning to go down. Someone says, “Look a rainbow!”

And there it is, arching through the gray, cloudy sky, over the whole Air Force Base. Tornado gone. Rainbow here. Just in time for Obama.

Perfect.

Eventually we are shuffled inside, checked out, and walk in single file down long corridors to a holding room which is dark and bare except for one chair.

We hang out.

Not too much time goes by when we are told to line up we’re heading outside.

As we step out into the cold, damp air, we see that it’s dark now. Most of the press has already put up their tripods on risers facing the tarmac. I have my little Sony still camera that my dear son has given me and my video camera FourStory has given me. I am worried about my technological abilities. I’m pretty lame with any kind of machine.

We hang out some more.

Then Samantha, White House coordinator, walks up and tells us the the President will be early! About twenty minutes early.

There is a rustle of excitement.

A few minutes later a whole bunch-o-soldiers come out and stand along the tarmac.

I talk to Tuscany, a handsome soldier with a beret who is officially guarding us. He smiles now and then when I joke with him. He’s very cool.

Two female soldiers are there, too, in the same capacity. I talk to the first one, Campbell. I ask her how to spell her name and say, “Like the soup?” She kinda smiles and says, “They call me Soup here on the base.”

So I call her Soup, too. Cute. I ask her how she got this particular job. She must have been very, very good, I say. She kinda smiles and says, “I don’t get in trouble.”

Then someone says, “Here comes the plane!” I search the sky. I see lots of lights but they are low. “There! Two o’clock.”

Nothing.

No matter how hard I try I cannot see that plane.

But then I do. And no wonder I didn’t see it.

It is very, very, very low, just feet above the ground. And it’s flying so slowly that I can’t believe it’s still airborne. It’s moving like silk through the air. It is the single most beautiful landing I have ever seen in my life.

(I have to take a moment here to just savor that picture in my mind… Sigh… Okay, I’m done.)

The plane gently lands, not a ripple in the air, and taxis slowly around so that the doorway and stairs are RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. Boy. Do I have a good position. And I’m ready with my still camera and my video camera. Sorta.

But then the Presidential limosine pulls in front of the stairs as I watch in horror. Oh no! The whole lower half of the staircase is now blocked from sight.

Damn!

Various folks come down out of the plane from the back. A couple of people come out of the front door. And then the President steps out.

Whooping and hollering by everybody, including the press. Including me!

Then Obama does something wild. When he gets to the bottom of the stairs he sprints across the tarmac! Cheers go up! I yell as loud as I can, “ALOHA!” and his head snaps around and he looks directly at me and smiles and waves.

Heh.

He goes up to the soldiers. I can’t see a thing. I am craning and finagling around trying to see …anything.

Obama spends a long time with the soldiers. Eventually he turns to get into the limo and runs around the back to climb in and again I yell, “ALOHA!” and again he instantly turns my way, smiles and waves.

Yep. It’s true.

I get home late after a long, dark drive through the night. The dogs are hippity hopping around me. We all crowd into the house. I climb into my pajamas, then into bed, set my alarm for 5:00 am and head to Dreamland.

Thursday, March 22, 2012. 5:00 am.

I dress, coffee up, climb into my car and head toward Cushing.

It’s raining. It’s really, really dark. I am driving down Killer Highway 177, a long, skinny road in total blackness. People are driving to work so their headlights are constantly smacking me in the face. The rain pours. My hands grip the wheel. The radio cheerily talks on.

On and on I drive. For 56.6 miles. The sun starts to come up. The land is glorious. Because of the rain, there is new green everywhere. The countryside rolls gently to the horizon. The air is luminescent with green. The ponds are full. Little new leaves are covering all the trees. It is a beautiful morning.

I turn right on Highway 33, head east to Highway 108, turn north and a few minutes later arrive in Ripley, Oklahoma, a pretty little town. It has curving streets and beautiful mature trees everywhere. There are little hills and valleys and modest homes. I lose my way. I’m supposed to turn on 1st Street but the street signs are all rusted out and illegible. A nice lady at the gas station directs me.

I arrive at Ripley High School where we are supposed to be transported by shuttle to the pipeline site which is down the road a piece. The parking lot is full of media and Oklahoma Democratic dignitaries. Everybody is happy. Lots of joking and stories. All the reporters and cameramen are buddies of mine by now. No sign of Michael. It turns out he has already been transported to the site of the President’s speech because he got there really, really early. He wants to cover the protesters after the President’s speech for the Potawatomi’s radio station. He is as big an admirer of the President as I am. We are on the same wavelength. I am filled with gratitude thinking about how he came through for me.

Eventually the shuttle bus arrives. We clamber on board and drive the six or so miles to the site. Our credentials are checked, we are wanded by security, and we move on. There are large sheets of something like plywood lying on the ground as a make shift sidewalk because the ground is sodden and I don’t need to tell you what happens when you step into wet clay. Okay. I’ll tell you. The clay sucks the shoes off your feet.. But if you do manage to keep your shoes on, you will end up with 3 to 4 inches of mud caked to your soles.

On we walk until we reach the site. The risers are already set up. Tripods in place. Podium stands in front of the semicircle of dignitaries’ seats. We are surrounded by thousands of huge, green oil pipes, laid neatly in symmetrical piles all around us. It’s like a modern art painting. Very geometrical. Circles and lines. Circles and lines.

We hang out.

Talking, messing around, being kid-like. I ask how the President is going to arrive. Is he coming all that way by car? Someone tells me he’s coming by helicopter. A special helicopter carried by cargo plane, that follows his plane.

I look up at the sky. It sure is full of clouds. Gray ones. Billowing gray ones. Beautiful, but worrisome.

We hang out some more.

And then everyone’s chattering. He’s coming!

Around those giant piles of green pipes come some Secret Service guys and then the PRESIDENT!

He’s tall and skinny. And smiling that great big smile. And waving. He’s wearing a dark casual zip up jacket, some casual pants, some weird two-tone tennis shoes. He looks fabulous.

I look around and every single person has a smile on their face.

He walks directly to the podium and begins speaking.

Now here’s the part that amazes me.

I have heard Republicans talk about how President Obama can’t do a speech without a teleprompter. I am expecting teleprompters. But there aren’t any. There is just a written paper speech anchored on the podium.

???

He looks down at his speech and begins reading it, gracefully. Conversationally. (He really is a great reader. His mom made him get up early in the morning when they lived in Indonesia when he was a little kid. Four o’clock in the morning. So he wouldn’t lose his English.)

But then he stops reading. And speaks from his heart. He don’t need no stinking speech.

The President tells us that we don’t have to choose between energy sources. That actually we have to choose them all as long as they’re safe. It’s a great speech. It makes everyone happy.

I realize that at the end of the speech he has done easily half of it extemporaneously. It just flows out of him. It’s magic.

He steps away from the podium and starts walking toward the line of folks who are eagerly waiting to shake his hand and tell him something special. He’s coming closer to the press side. I am the last person on the fence and I am part of the press. Michael is standing beside me, taking the most exquisite pictures of everything. I am a complete failure at recording anything at this point.

The President gets closer. As he shakes the hand of the woman next to me and looks my way, I say, “I was born in Kapiolani Hospital where you were born!”

He smiles a huge smile and says, “Really? You Hawaiian? You and me?” and I say, “Yes!” and he says, “You have your birth certificate?” and the place erupts with laughter.

He turns and waves good-bye to us and walks back around that giant pile of pipes.

separator

After I get home that afternoon I begin to hear about the little encounter between President Obama and me. One person after another calls or emails to tell me they had seen me with the President. Our little conversation about Hawaii and birth certificates was the quotable moment of his visit to Oklahoma.

Even the Drudge Report mentioned it.

Heh.

Donna Schoenkopf recently retired from teaching at 61st Street School in South Central Los Angeles, and has moved back to Oklahoma, where she spent her teens.
donna@fourstory.org

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