Two questions that I am always asked when people see my photo of Air Force One and the Secret Service that I titled “Angels on the Tarmac” are: "Where were you?" and "how did you get to be there?" I like to answer with, the airport, and I drove. Just kidding. It was indeed at the airport, in fact, our local airport that many of the residents here still simply refer to as “Avoca”. It is in the town of Avoca, Pennsylvania after all, but now its official name is The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport, and I was in the V.I.P. pool awaiting the arrival of the President of the United States.“How did you get in the V.I.P. pool?” I smile and say “I know people,” which draws a look of suspicion, and usually a roll of the eyes. Then I tell them the rest of it... I met the President of the United States by playing Halo 2 on Xbox Live. True story. I’m not kidding.
For those of you who don’t know, Xbox Live is a system that lets you play video games with players from all over the world via the internet. You can wear a headset if you want to talk to other players, and you can become “friends” with other gamers, just like on Facebook, that you enjoy playing with so that you can game with them again. Sometimes these gamers may be your friends from school or work, and sometimes they are just complete strangers.
One random day after work about 10 years ago, I was playing a game (Halo 2) and was teamed up with a player named “Samurai Q” (I should point out that you need to make up a gamertag on Xbox LIVE, that serves as your unique ID.) It was a good game, and it ended. A new game started up, and I was again teamed up with Samurai Q. Again a good game, and afterward I sent Q a friend invite which he accepted. We played a few more games and each had to call it day and get back to real life.
Within a few days I was playing Halo 2 again and after few minutes of turning on the game, I received an invite to join a game from Samurai Q. Looking forward to more good games, I accepted and when I joined the game there were already many other people in the game and they all knew each other except for me. Pelicanasty, os2good4u, MrScarface, Redeemer, Mengler17, Johnny600, PITT66, Lunarskye, BruceLeroy, and WillsEV just to name a few. Colorful names for colorful characters. There were others who I played games with over the years, but these guys were some of the regulars. They all worked together in the military, and happened to work for the White House. Seemed like a cool gig, and I never thought much more about it than that. They were just the guys I would game with online.
Years drifted by. People’s lives move along, they get married, change careers, start families, move away, you know, real-world stuff gets in the way of fun and that’s just how life goes. Months would pass without playing any games, or without getting a chance to game with my friends, but whenever a new game came out that was up our alleys, I would find myself online playing games with these same guys. 3 years, 4 years, 6 years, 8 years go by.Jump to late November 2011. I get a text from one of the guys asking me “how far is Wilkes-Barre from Scranton?” 20 minutes. “I’m going to be in Scranton next week, want to grab a bite or something and finally meet up?” Absolutely. Omar was going to be in town working as President Obama was going to visit Scranton to talk about the economy, so we made plans to meet for lunch on a Sunday at Lucky’s. His buddy John came with him and Omar and I had the surreal experience of meeting someone you knew for 10 years and never met.
After a little while of just shooting the breeze, Omar asked: “What are you doing Wednesday morning?” “Working.” “Want to meet the President?” “I’m sorry, I’m not working, I am apparently meeting the President.”
Emails were sent, paperwork was filed, backgrounds were checked, and the next thing I knew it was Wednesday and I was standing in the old terminal at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International airport with my nephew and my soon to be step daughter waiting to meet the President.
When you go to meet the President, you don’t just walk in. You get funneled through security, and they are quite thorough, every bit as much as you would expect them to be I suppose.
Omar had sent me an official list of what we could bring with us, and what we could not. We could not bring a bag or any kind, so no camera bag for me. I had an Optech rainsleeve for my camera stuffed in one pocket with my hat, my SB900 flash in another pocket, and I think I commandeered my nephew’s pocket for my gloves. Once security was done taking apart my camera and gave it back to me, it was slung over my shoulder and I thought about what settings I would use.
It was cold, fairly windy, and threatening to rain so the nice men in black coats had us (about 30-40 people) wait inside the terminal. Now I’m not saying “nice” to be frivolous here, I mean it. Every person who we interacted with was professional and courteous.
To pass the time, I engaged in a thrilling and silent game of “you’re not getting ahead of me in line buddy” with some guy who told his young teenage daughter to punch or step on anyone to get to the front of the line. I was also getting a little anxious that they may not let us go outside until the President hand landed an I wanted to see Air Force One touch down.
“Okay folks, please ascend the stairs in an orderly fashion.”
Right. Everyone sprinted up the stairs and spilled out into a cordoned off area on the tarmac next to the terminal that was reserved for VIPs. The President had not yet arrived. I was relieved.
There we waited in the cold November wind, staring into the clouds. Secret Service agents moved about doing whatever secret stuff they do in making sure that everything is as it should be. There were at least a dozen of them, but every time you turned around, there were more. It was like they multiplied, but only if you weren’t looking. Turn your back on one, and then there was two. This is barely an exaggeration.
One mentioned the direction from which Air Force One would be approaching. We all turned in that direction like seagulls standing in the wind. There was nothing there to see but heavy clouds. Still, we stared.
“Ten minutes,” and authoritative voice announced.
“Okay folks, the they should be visible in just a few seconds.”