Last Friday, the President of the United States visited Austin, my town that is struggling to stay “weird.” He made a presentation to the assorted techies in town for the SXSW extravaganza at the Long Center. I’m back from a lengthy winter visit to D.C. and within walking distance of the Long Center. The weather was great and I was curious to see something that is commonplace in D.C. happen in the middle of my little city.
The President in Austin, for those of us of a certain age, is not so unusual. Lyndon Johnson popped up everywhere when he was Vice-President. As President he was still visible albeit mostly at a distance. For a year I served breakfast to President Johnson’s daughter, Linda. Before you get any crazy ideas, understand that I was a lowly server on the food line at Kinsolving Dormitory on the University of Texas campus. Our fleeting visits continued after I left the food service industry to become a librarian in University’s Newspaper Collection in a tiny corner of the basement of the Tower. Each day there were newspapers from all over the world to be sorted and placed in display racks. It was the only place on campus that a wide array of daily newspapers, usually a day old before they reached us could be accessed by students and faculty members. Fortunately for my studies few people even knew it was there. Normally I spent an hour working and three hours in blissful isolation studying my law books.
You can imagine my shock when one afternoon a serious looking man in a suit proceeded through the door with a young woman whom I immediately recognized. Suddenly I was talking to a Secret Service Agent and then to the President’s daughter. “Yes, I can get you copies of the Washington Post, yes the N.Y Times too, Chicago Tribune, yes, Dallas Morning News, check. Please have a seat an I will bring them right to you.” I said with what was probably a slightly trembling voice. After her initial visit it became a much more relaxed setting. I was often amused to hear Ms. Johnson hurling a forceful invective toward some reporter in a distance place who had said something nasty about her father. Age and perspective has given me a better sense of what it was like for her. It was her dad for God’s sake.
Those memories receded and once again I found myself standing behind the rope line along Riverside Drive across from the Long Center. I remembered an amazing coincidence. Before Lady Bird Johnson did wonders to beautify the downtown lake front in Austin there was a large open field behind where I stood. One Sunday morning in 1964 I traveled to the 7-11 to buy a Sunday paper. On the way down Riverside Drive I was surprised as a single black Lincoln Continental roared up from behind and passed me. The solid looking vehicle veered off the road, jumped the curb and raced across the the vacant field where a large helicopter was prepared to take off. Lyndon Johnson jumped out of the Lincoln, climbed in the helicopter and was gone so quickly I was scarcely sure I believed my eyes. My memory of that day was interrupted by a cacophony of police motorcycles roaring to life behind me. Vehicles from across the street at the Long Center were moving. The crowd that included a black man with a microphone decrying the murder of black men and the woman and her companion carrying a huge white cross, whom a moment before had been shouting to “do God’s will” were drown out by the crowd’s shouts and applause. The twin Presidential cars made it hard to make out which car held the President. It did not matter. For a moment we had been part of the pomp and circumstance of the Presidency. I never tire of seeing history unfold. Get out an take a look. It will amaze you.