Friday, November 19, 2010

Mr Smith - I mean Conte - goes to Washington

In June of last year my Gal Friday (and every other day of the week) strapped me to my red chariot, tied me down in the blue van and chauffeured me to DC.  I wrote an account of what transpired and a reader asked me to post it.  Because my telling of the story is so long, I'm breaking it up into three parts that I'll post in sequence on future days.  The first involves our personal tour of The White House.  The second will tell our tale of Arlington Cemetery and the third the Viet Nam Wall.  I hope you enjoy my recollections.

Part 1 - June, 2009
This was the night - the night of our personal tour of the White House. Great expectations abounded as we pulled out of our driveway at 1 p.m. for the 3-hour drive to Arlington, VA where we booked a room for the night. The tour was scheduled for 8:30 PM.  As part of my birthday “package,” Gal Friday had asked Pauline,  her friend since graduate school and a powerful force inside and outside the Beltway, to arrange the tour. Pauline had alerted her White House contact that my confinement to a wheelchair might require some accommodations. His reply was “Not to worry.”

Because of the killing of a Holocaust Museum guard by an 88-year-old Nazi sympathizer earlier that afternoon, Gal Friday and I arrived into DC grid-locked on New York Avenue. Since I used to have an office in DC, I knew how much time could be consumed with traffic tie-ups, but I kept reminding myself not to worry; we had plenty of time. Unfortunately my nerves stopped listening to my brain. The longer we sat there, my anxiety level kept building and I became sick of British Karen, our GPS girl, correcting directions or telling us to turn around. By the time we reached our “destination,” I thought British Karen had given us directions via London, England. In no uncertain terms, I gave her a piece of my mind, but apparently she wasn’t listening, because for the first time since hitting the city, she fell silent. Then again maybe she was listening and had no retort to my verbal diatribe.

After this dizzying excursion, we arrived at the motel. Gal Friday headed for the room to unpack, but I detoured to the bar to regain equilibrium. Pauline had planned on meeting us for dinner and drinks, but because we were late arriving and had to meet the guide at 8:30 p.m., we cancelled out. At 7:30, we again placed our faith in Karen (by this time I felt so familiar with our GPS gal, I could be a little more casual so I dropped her regal title} and took off for The White House (WH).

Our tour guide, Michael, a member of the WH staff and President Obama’s transition team but not an official tour guide, was slated to take a new position in the Dept. of Energy on June 22. Mike is a lawyer with great credentials and a young lion in the political jungle of Beltway politics. He had meetings in the WH a couple days a week and was familiar with the West Wing, which we toured. The East Wing includes the President’s residence, staterooms, bedrooms, etc. Mr. President obviously didn’t realize we were visiting or I’m sure he would have invited us to stay over. I packed a toothbrush just in case. Mike had suggested a parking garage two blocks from the WH and we pulled in forty minutes early. Now things really got interesting.

We were to meet Mike on a corner so he could escort us to the WH - a very gracious offer. After being extremely diligent about remembering to bring the exact corner site when we left the house, we weren’t as careful about bringing the same information from our motel room. Accordingly I rode in my power chair up and down G Street looking on each corner for a guy I’d never seen before. I spotted a very attractive girl on a corner. She happened to be with a man dressed in a suit, so I rode up to her…er, excuse me, them.  Before I could speak, the gentleman asked if I was Ed Conte.  Because I recognized the name I nodded “yes.” I figured this guy must be clairvoyant or something and asked him how he knew I was me. He smiled at me with the look a teacher gives to an idiot student who asks the dumbest question possible and explained I was the only guy he could see riding in a red power chair. To save face, I started looking around for Gal Friday who by now was standing next to me. Gal Friday tried her best to politely excuse my stupidity, but he wasn’t buying. Breaking an embarrassing silence, Mike introduced us to his very attractive (oh, I think I mentioned that before) fiancĂ©e, Anna-Lisa. Now you have to understand, Gal Friday can somehow get a complete stranger to tell her their life story in under three minutes.  Consequently, six minutes later we began our trek to The WH.

We arrived at the security checkpoint outside the southwest entrance and I began to sweat. I knew they did a background check and I could envision, not only barred entrance, but one of those obscene body searches we see in the movies and possible jail time followed by deportment to some small desert country in Africa. Gal Friday was quickly allowed to pass through, but when I wheeled up in my red chariot, time, as well as my breathing, stood still. The guard, who acted like an amiable old grade school first love to Gal Friday, suddenly morphed into a testosterone-sated, pissed off military sentinel guarding the gates to Hades. As he looked at my name on his clipboard, his smile turned upside down and deep furrows gouged his forehead. He looked at me and back to his clipboard four times. Each time it appeared his facial reaction became angrier and my imagination began conjuring up various torture devices awaiting my arrival. Images of Mr. Poe’s pendulum and Wong’s Chinese water rick, er, I mean trick, came to mind. Then for the first time, I noticed a lot more of these military types hovering around me. Why was the riot squad here? I became very happy I wore plastic diapers.

After what seemed two months, they checked my little pouch on the back of my chair and waved me through. I set my chair speed as high as possible and scurried away from the frightening guard gate - only to run into the second security checkpoint. The only difference between the two was the guards. These were bigger and meaner and made the first group look like little 5-year-old girls dressed in pink tutus breathlessly awaiting their dancing debut. Denying I had any affiliation with Rush Limbaugh, they allowed me entrance to the world’s most famous residence.

Mike reached for the door, but I asked him to wait. This was the moment of truth and I wanted to savor every second. Looking at the Presidential Seal above the door, my whole sensory system transformed from panic to wonder. My parents embodied patriotic spirit and I grew up assimilating their feelings for our nation. Now here I sat, ready to enter the most cherished and revered house in our country - the home of the President of the United States of America. Some may say I’m a minor league history buff and to a degree, they are correct. Let me say I have the utmost respect for our national history and the men who stood to the challenges and molded our country into this wonderful place for us to live freely and pursue our right to be independent. I have traveled around the world and seen the alternatives. I understand and deeply appreciate what we have. After a moment’s reflection, I nodded to Mike; he opened the door, and in we went.

A security station! A guard checked our passes and we started down a long hallway. My first impression - the ceilings were low. Reflecting on this, I remembered construction of this residential house started in the late 1700’s so, of course, the ceilings were low.

We passed yet another checkpoint and Mike showed us the FDR room directly across from the Oval Office. A large oil portrait of the famous man dominated the room which is used for various meetings. I have read a great deal about FDR and consider him one of our finest leaders. He served longer than any president - over12 years. His leadership of our nation through dire times was only matched by his personal courage.

While Mike pointed out the Situation Room, I took note of all the security guards. They were uniformed, carried side weapons and always-in alert mode. Times have changed in the WH from the old smiling, accommodating guards.

Next came the Cabinet Room. It sat adjacent to the Oval Office. A very impressive room with a long polished mahogany or cherry conference table fronting beautiful flags with wooden staffs secured in gold stands. The history of this room smacks you in the face. You can’t help but be daunted by the significance of what it represents. Decisions, which changed the course of world events, were made here. This room was American History 101.

Now the big enchilada - “the” room - the Oval Office. First of all, it is beige in color. The desk is backed by an expansive view of the south lawn and lighting above a lower tray ledge completely circling the room uplights the high-domed ceiling. Various chairs are situated around, but one conversation pit area has a sofa, coffee table and two chairs. The furniture was eclectic, but each piece of historical significance. Many of the oil paintings in this area as well as the hallways, depicted Native Americans. Some portraits of previous Presidents also graced the walls. I noticed a Remington bronze sculpture of a cowboy on horseback sat atop a sidewall credenza. This credenza sat adjacent to the infamous alcove of a side room where Monica lit up Bill’s cigar. I tried not to think about that.

We were told Michelle Obama selected the Indian motif. I felt proud of her. If the Cabinet Room smacked you in the face, the Oval Office knocked you on your butt like an uppercut from Ali. I found myself whispering like I was attending a funeral and soon realized it came from total respect of what the room connoted. I sat there staring at the most important room in the world, thinking of the men who once occupied this office and important events enacted here. Gal Friday asked me a question, but I was speechless. Yes, me speechless. I bowed my head thanking God and Pauline for this wonderful privilege. I stared at the American flag and the Presidential flag standing like two proud sentries behind the desk ready to ward off enemies, foreign or domestic. Emotion overcame me as tears welled up and I lowered my head to avoid questioning glances. Wow, what a place to display my “weenieism.” But sometimes a man, even a weenie, has to do what he has to do. Sitting there, my sense of pride for being an American flourished and in some significant way, my appreciation of the true meaning of being President of the United States of America clarified and took on a greater respect than ever.

We took a small, casket-sized elevator down one floor and still enthralled with what I witnessed and felt in the Oval Office, I remained in a dazed state and banged my chair against the beautiful wooden walls. The harder I tried freeing my chair, the more I seemed to wedge myself in. My brain screamed, “Oh, God, please don’t let me get stuck in the White House elevator. I’ll do anything. I’ll even tithe again.” I had to concentrate on piloting my chair and not damaging anything, or worse case scenario, killing someone. I figured I’d get a bill if I marred the elevator wall and I forced myself not to think about its cost. Would this involve the IRS? IRS!!! - Panic mode rushed in as icy tentacles started collapsing my chest cavity and my brain shot out a red alert. Let’s face it - even thinking about the IRS can easily cause all kind of cardiovascular conditions.

Willing myself back to some semblance of sanity, I wheeled out of the elevator and Mike escorted us to the Press Room. On TV, this area looks rather large. Surprise, I’ve seen bigger bathrooms. The rows of chairs, which are like seats in a cinema, are about seven or eight wide and maybe eight to ten deep. They are squashed into an area of approximately 40 by 60 and the front platform could fit into the back of my van. I noticed each front row seat was designated with nametags for the major news networks. Front row center was saved for Helen Thomas, a woman who has covered the WH beat for 22 centuries. The Presidential Seal is hung from a blue backdrop behind the podium. There is camera equipment covering each sidewall and another area behind this room is for correspondents’ use.

Mike then took us past another checkpoint and out to the Rose Garden. Being I can’t see very well in daylight, much less night, I’m unable to report on its beauty. However Gal Friday has stood in a reception line there to meet President Nixon and she can fill you in. I did note the brick ramp from the door down to the garden and recalled reading in a Roosevelt biography how they built it so FDR could be wheeled to this area. It was the first ramp constructed in DC. Those WH guys beat the ADA by 50 years. As Mike took a picture of us in front of the Rose Garden entrance, I felt a few drops of rain, but in my surreal state, didn’t consider their implications.

Back through the checkpoint, I dreaded dealing with the wheelchair-eating elevator. But this time I readied myself for the challenge and made the ride without incident. The time had flown by and we were in danger of not getting back to the parking garage before closing, so we left. Remember the sprinkles I mentioned while in the Rose Garden? They had turned into hurricane-force sheets of water coming not down at you, but at an angle dangerously close to 90 degrees. Even before I reached the first outside security gate, I stopped to slide a plastic sleeve our newspaper comes in over the electronic controls on my chair. I’ve learned the hard way. I also fastened my seatbelt on my chair. Yes, power chairs do have seat belts. Considering the strength of these winds, I didn’t want to end up atop Mr. Washington’s obelisk flagging planes into Reagan International. I could see the Washington Post headlines the next day - “Man Apes King Kong on Washington Monument.”

By the time I reached the first guard gate, I was soaked. By the time I rolled up to the second one, I seriously considered asking if they had oars for rent. Mike, being the kindly host that he was, inquired about umbrellas. The security guard looked at all three of us drenched souls and responded, “What’s the use now?” He made his point and it’s the only time I saw a security man smile.

We tucked our heads in and started for the garage. Mike took the lead and looked like a mother duck with little ducklings waddling behind. I followed Gal Friday, who looked like someone pushed her into the pool at a wet T-shirt contest. When we turned the corner at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), a frigid Arctic blast hit us directly in the face. At that point I questioned my recall of American history. I remembered the site of the nation’s capitol was a victory for the South in Revolutionary negotiations, but now wondered if I missed the news story about the move to Nome, Alaska. If this was the South, I’m tall, dark and handsome.

We made the parking garage as it was closing. The attendant, who knew we were going to The WH, looked askew at us. I figured he was thinking we got into some kind of trouble and they hosed us down with high-powered water jet sprays trying to elicit information. He calmly, but firmly asked us to hurry our exit.
We dropped Mike off and as he slid out of the van, rivulets of water cascaded off his suit. I instinctively knew he was already plotting the wickedest revenge possible. Still the dignified and charming host, he thanked us for the ride. (This guy needs to work in the Diplomatic Corps.) We cancelled all future plans for the night, sloshed back to the motel to warm up and dry off. I flippantly say dry off and warm up. This was no easy task. After major league toweling, Gal Friday turned the heat to high, stood me under the heat lamp in the bathroom and defrosted me with her hair dryer. She then dismantled my chair (I never knew there were so many parts) and wiped it down. By the time she got to bed, I was dreaming about George Washington, in a driving rain, crossing the Delaware. But my rendition had him striking the famous pose painted by Emanuel Leutze not in the bow of a boat, but instead atop my van with everyone below bailing to beat the band. Then it turned into a nightmare because I couldn’t get the wipers to operate. Wow, what a night.


  1. I can somewhat understand, as my brother worked for ( not allowed to publish) in Washington. It must have been an adventure, especially for you. Good report - and I await for more with mouth wide open and eyes watery. Thanks

  2. Ed --

    Enjoyed the WH tour, and was wondering about your earlier DC experience. Also, what about the world tour? I did a couple of trips to London and Paris -- as well as the Herkimer tour -- but never got much farther.

    John K.