Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Tour of the White House Kitchen
(for Noreen)

by Pa Rock

The tale of my visit to the White House kitchen begins during August of 1814. The War of 1812 was still going on and the British were intent on winning the war, or at least leaving their Yankee cousins some payback for twisting the British lion’s tail. President James Madison was away from the White House helping to wage the war, and he had left his First Lady, Dolley, back in the capital with orders to save as much of the country’s valuable papers as she could in the event that the British advanced on Washington D.C. Word came to Dolley on August 23 that the British would soon be in the city – she had to flee. Saving several trunks of government papers and the large Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, Dolley Madison hopped into her carriage and barely escaped capture by the approaching British soldiers. When the British reached the White House, they executed their payback on their uncouth American cousins by torching the President’s house and burning it almost to the ground.

(Necessary Digression: Recounting that bit of actual history begs these questions: How long would the Iraq War have lasted if Dear Leader had been required to help lead our brave troops into battle? Indeed, would that war have even been initiated if the Commander in Chief had to actually put on a uniform and engage in the fighting? Enquiring minds want to know!)

Pitch forward to May of 1999. Our social work graduate group from the University of Missouri went to Washington D.C. for several days to lobby Missouri’s members of Congress on issues that we had been researching, and to also attend some workshops with the Child Welfare League of America where one of our members was serving an internship. Pat Tyler, one of my best friends and a classmate, had a cousin who was an Air Force pilot and was assigned to Air Force Two – making him Al Gore’s pilot. Pat’s cousin arranged for our group to take an evening tour of the White House.

Our tour guides that evening were two young Air Force enlisted men whose regular duty involved working at the White House. We were somewhat of a rowdy crew, and most of us were old enough to be the parents of our guides. Upon reflection, I believe that we were probably somewhat intimidating, and they were struggling for ways to keep us entertained and under control.

Evening tours get to go places that are off limits to the day tours. We got to step up to the door of the Oval Office and look in. We were taken to the small theatre-type room where press conferences were normally held. While in that room most took a turn stepping up to the podium and making some smart-ass remark. Mine was “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” We quickly became right at home in the President’s house, pulling books off of shelves, sitting on the antiques, and generally keeping our guides on edge.

They eventually made a decision to get us to a more controllable location. One of the young men suggested that we might be interested in seeing part of the original White House – the one that John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James and Dolley Madison had occupied. He said that a section of an original outer wall had survived the fire and was now part of the White House kitchen. So off we marched into what was the equivalent of a very nice basement. The kitchen was active with several people involved in preparing food for the following day. Toward the rear of the work area was an old block and mortar wall that had seen many coats of paint over the years. Everyone got to rub their hands on the wall and issue appropriate ooh’s and aah’s. Soon thereafter we were shown the door!

Later that night our guides met most of us at a bar downtown where they thought that they would finally be able to relax. But that wasn’t going to happen because we were having too much fun! One of the young men inadvertently let it slip that one of his functions was to announce the President when he stepped into the room for a press conference. He was the voice that boomed, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.” It took several drinks to get him primed, but he finally stood and made his announcement in the packed bar! (I’m sure that the next morning he wished that they had never let us out of the kitchen!)

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