It was the summer of 1998. Wildfires raged across the state of Florida. The Daytona 500 was postponed for the first time in race history. Ash rained down on Disneyworld. Interstate 75 was closed. Hundreds of homes burned to the ground, countless communities were evacuated. And the President came to town.
I was assigned to an engine most of that fire season. Up on the panhandle we'd been hard at it since Mother's Day (we had a "Mother's Day Fire"). Central Florida wasn't affected until late June when the summer monsoons came, bringing lightning and wind to an already drought-stricken landscape. The boss called three of us into the office and told us we would be driving an engine to Daytona Raceway to give out passes to people to see President Clinton speak. We were to wear our uniforms, be professional, and represent the US Forest Service.
This was at the height of the Monica Lewisnky scandal, but Clinton had yet to confess to his....transgressions. He was still denying "sexual relations with that woman" but the wolves were nipping at his heels. When the other guys found out I was going I took a a lot of good-natured shit. "Wanna borrow my knee pads?" "Take plenty of chap stick!" "Want one of my cigars?"
Off we went. Robbie the token black guy, me the token female, and Ken the token white guy. Robbie and I were Clinton supporters, very excited for the opportunity, but Ken was a devout fundamental, conservative Christian. He was just doing his duty. We showed up at Daytona and quickly found our contact. There was a table set up and a list of "invitees" who we would verify with proper ID and then to whom we wold issue a pass.
We were in the infield, and the place was buzzing with activity. It was being used as a large distribution center for the various fires. The National Guard had been activated and they were inventorying and distributing supplies. Pallets of water and gatorade were stacked and re-stacked by fork lifts. There were cases and cases of batteries. Tools, generators, hard hats, gloves.
People would come up and ask for their pass. A few tried to scam us, but if they weren't on the list, they didn't get one. There was a huge, white tent set up for the President's speech. It was air-conditioned against the sweltering heat and humidity. They were running shuttles with golf cart- like vehicles for everyone who had a pass.
A few minutes before the start time, the person for whom we were working came over and told us to go ahead and gather everything up and head over to the tent. "You mean we get to go?" I asked. We had no idea we also got to attend. Sweet. We hopped on a cart and there we were.
Now, this was pre 9/11, and looking back it's pretty amazing how kind of lax the security was. All we had to do was flash our pass, and boom, we're in. No metal detector, no pat down, no ID check, no profiling. The AC felt so good. We squeezed our way to the front with some other USFS folks. A metal rail ran across the width of the tent. This is what separated us from the President. They had set up a small bleacher/riser behind the microphone for the back-drop. Various people from various agencies stood on the risers -- wildland firefighters in their yellow Nomex shirts; Divison of Forestry personnel in their khaki green uniforms; paramedics and EMTs in white; structural firefighters in their navey blues. Women, blacks, Latinos, white guys.
We didn't have to wait too long before Bill came out, just about on time. He was much taller and slimmer than I expected. Now, I'd never really thought he was attractive, he just wasn't my type. But I liked him a lot as a president. He did his speech, and I don't remember a lot of the content. Typical stuff, I'm sure. Thanks to the firefighters, the importance of working together, emergency declarations, rebuilding, yada yada yada. When he finished we all clapped.
And then he did the damndest thing -- he started at the other end of the metal rail and began working his way down shaking hands, posing for photos. He didn't skip anyone. Everyone who stepped up got a handshake and a word or two. Holy shit, I was going to meet the President! All kinds of things ran through my mind on what I would say to him. That we need more funding to do more prescribed burning. That FL was a fire environment and the residents needed to do their part to make their homes safer. We were literally at the end of the rail so I had plenty of time to think.
I could see him stop and shake my friend Carrie's hand. She was talking to him and he looked like he was listening.
Then he was there, right in front of me. He turned to me and grasped my hand in his, and I swear to God, it was like one of those cheesy movies from the 60s. The whole place went dark, except a light shone upon Bill and me. Suddenly we were the only ones there. It was so quiet. He looked at me with those blue eyes and smiled and I forgot everything I had wanted to say. I was reduced to a giggling, inarticulate school girl. He thanked me for my service, let go of my hand, and the lights came back up. It was noisy. All those people were back. I stood there in shock. "What the fuck just happened," I think I muttered. I shook it off in time to pose for a photo with Robbie and Bill (of course we were on a first-name basis now). Ken agreed to take the photo since he did not want his picture taken with that adulterous Democrat.
When I tell people this story the main point I want to make is this: I was 34 years old, had had a brief starter marriage, was in love with the man who would become my husband, and was happy with my career and life. But I was ready to get down on my knees and blow the President after a brief handshake and smile. So why would anyone think a 26 year old female intern working with him every day, wide-eyed and impressionable, wouldn't?
On the front page of the "Jacksonvile News" the next day, Bill and me. It wasn't a dream afterall. Hey, where's his other hand and why am I smiling so broadly?