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.”
The man in black was right on; there it was, Air Force One, a small black dot descending out of the clouds quickly changing into the shape of a large jet. Avoca isn’t a large airport, and one of our runways ends in a drop off off a cliff... I’m pretty sure the pilot was standing on the brakes before he even landed! I had never been on the tarmac before when a jet landed and cruised by, so even something that simple was pretty neat to experience. Typically we’re all in an airport.
With my shutter clicking away, Air Force One landed and turned at the far end of the runway before pulling up right in front of us. First a door at the rear plane opened, maybe it was a ramp, I can’t really recall, and a small army of various uniforms and suits and dresses walked from the plane to the terminal area. Then the stairs rolled in to the side of the jet. It was about this time that the Secret Service team pretty much multiplied exponentially. They were everywhere out of nowhere. It was impressive.
Finally the moment everyone was waiting for, the door at the front of the jet opened and President Obama quickly descended the stairs.
Now, I should point out that I am not by any stretch of the imagination someone who has strong feelings towards politicians or political parties. When asked about the topic, my response is an honest “I sit on the fence.” So to me, this wasn’t particularly about this man named Barack Obama. This wasn’t a longing for it to be George Bush, or McCain or anyone else. This was having the opportunity to meet the President of the United States of America. I was awestruck. It wasn’t the same thing as star stuck. It was beyond that. I get star struck when I have a chance to talk to Joe McNally. Between the stairs from that jet, to the VIP pen, a wave of something just washed over you. Patriotism maybe? I don’t know. I can’t explain it. Getting to see the leader of our country jog, with Secret Service jogging right with him, toward you is just... Sublime. At one point, the President looked right at me as he was making his way to the VIP pen, and it looked like he was going to take the time to shake hands with us (this was always a hope, but never promised). Most importantly to me, my nephew, and my future stepdaughter were going to get a chance to shake the hand of a United States President.
I put the kids to my right, I wanted them to shake his hand before me and I would hopefully get what I came for, a photo of them with the President. That was about when a member of the Secret Service stopped me and politely, but firmly asked that I do not ask the President to pose for any pictures, only because he is running behind schedule already. What do you say to that other then, “Yes, ma’am?” I managed to get several photos of the President as he made his way down the line toward us. Someone brought two baseballs for him to sign. I don’t know if the President was an avid baseball player or something, why baseballs? It was just weird to me, but whatever makes people happy I suppose. He signed them. I’m sure they were thrilled.
Then he made his way to us. He shook Gabrielle’s hand first. Then Tyler’s. I should point out that Tyler had a cast on his left arm that just stuck out slightly from his sleeve. The President wanted to know all about how my neph broke his arm. Yep, the President of the United States had a conversation with my nephew about his broken arm. This, of course, embarrassed Tyler (who at the time was on the shy side). But I did it, I got what I came for, I had photos of the kids shaking the President’s hand.
The he was standing directly in front of me, extending his hand. I let my camera drop to my side and I shook hands with the President of the United States of America. We talked. Our conversation was pretty brief. It mostly involved me stammering asking him how he was, and thanking him for coming, and him doing the same without the stammering part. Yep, I was cool as a cucumber. Like I said, awestruck.
The President made his way to the end of the VIP pen walked to an SUV that pulled up with a motorcade of what had to be a hundred vehicles, and hopped in and off he went to give his speech.
I didn’t get to see Omar that day. He was in Scranton, where the President was speaking, so I could only thank my friend with a text, and later sent him a print of “Angels on the Tarmac”, the photo at the opening of this post, for being so kind as to getting a VIP pass for the kids and I. It was really an amazing experience that I will always remember. Thank you again, my friend.
The photo itself was titled “Angels on the Tarmac” because of the Secret Service agents standing on the tarmac in front of the President’s plane. To me, they were his guardian angels. It also evoked memories of a movie I never saw, “City of Angels” with Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage... but I saw the Goo Goo Dolls video of the song from the movie about a bazillion times.
The photo won a first place award for photography at the Wyoming Valley Art League Spring Juried Show in 2012, and was a top 12 finalist (out of over 2000 entries) in a "Your Best Shot of 2011" contest sponsored by Adoramapix, a photo lab affiliated with my favorite camera store, Adorama in New York City. The prize for first place was a new DSLR camera. I only made a twelve way tie for second, but they printed up a handsome hardcover album for all of us in the top 12. “Angels on the Tarmac” got a two page spread. Nice...
“Angels on the Tarmac” will also be published in the April issue of Photoshop User magazine. I’ve been a member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (now called KelbyOne) for several years, so it is really great to see one of my photos in their magazine. Or any magazine. This is a first for me. (Judy Host, if you’re reading, I am working on it!)
As for Omar, Andy, Quinzey, Meng, Robert, Carl, Will, Erik, Gil, and Johnny, the real great guys behind the gamertags above (not their real current gamertags btw), I had a chance to meet and hang out with a few when I attended PhotoshopWorld in Washington DC in 2012 and I stay in touch with them to this day. Andy even made a trip to up Northeast PA to watch his hometown play in the Little League World Series. One of my friends is currently serving in Afghanistan, and another is happily training in the Carolinas, jumping out of various aircraft. The rest are still in the military and still stateside, or out, and scattered around the country pursuing their lives and careers. I still get to game with them from time-to-time. Sadly, I just learned that one of the guys was home from deployment and was killed by someone driving under the influence during one of those winter storms that pounded the Carolinas early this year. I never met him, only gamed with him for 10 years.
PITT66, this blog post is dedicated to you.
Thanks for reading!