Washington, D.C. in 1960s

Working and playing around the nation’s capitol in the early 1960s

JFK – 100th birthday today

John F. Kennedy

I can’t imagine comparing President John F. Kennedy with President Trump. Many of us still remember President Kennedy’s immortal words from his inaugural address in 1961 to the nation, “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” Richard Reeves, senior lecturer at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, commented in today’s LA Times: Kennedy was “not the greatest president but he was a hell of a politician–candid if not honest, a man who saw greatness and sometimes even touched it.

I was a freshman at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia that January and only saw news reports of the momentous event. Televising important  events was not as common then, but ironically, it was President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, in November 1963, which changed TV’s place in history. I was still at William and Mary during that tragedy and remember watching as much as possible as events unfolded on a small TV in my college dormitory lobby.

I was lucky enough to see JFK twice in person. In the summer of 1963, he had initiated a special program for college students working for the government, a sort of introduction to how government works. Kennedy gave an inspiring speech to us on the back lawn at the White House, emphasizing how valuable a career in government could be. “Jump in the stream, it isn’t so cold,” was a remark I wrote in my diary (I still have it!). After the speech, we college kids were tramping around the play area for Caroline and John-John, the Kennedy kids.

US Senate Chamber Pass for July 8, 1959

During the summer of 1959, before my senior year at Hammond High School in Alexandria, Virginia, I had had my first Kennedy sighting in the U.S. Senate. I had no idea at that time who he was.

My friend, Barbara, and I took the bus into Washington, D.C. and decided to see Congress in action. Since she had a boyfriend working as a U.S. Senate page, it was easy to get passes. Pages, who were at least 16 and high school juniors with a good grade average, worked for senators. Although they were mainly “gofers,” they got to witness history in the making. Her boyfriend had told her we could go to the Texas House of Representatives office and get passes for both the House and the Senate.

After getting the passes, we got seats in the Visitor’s Gallery of the Senate, which was in session that day. Lyndon Johnson, the imposing Texas Democrat who was the Senate Majority Leader at that time, was presiding over the Senate while lounging in a chair on the dais in front of the gathered senators.

The feisty senator from Oregon, Wayne Morse, was arguing with Paul Douglas, the soft-spoken senator from Illinois. I don’t believe I was paying attention to the issues because I was enchanted with just being there watching it all.

Both of us were intrigued with a scene on the Senate floor. We noticed an attractive, young-looking man with a nice head of chestnut hair at a table reading a newspaper. He didn’t appear to be paying attention to the discussion. Young pages were scurrying about bringing documents or coffee to this particular senator and others around him.

Next to us in the visitor’s gallery was a young man in a suit avidly studying the scene. “Who’s the cute guy reading the newspaper?” we asked him.

“That’s John Kennedy, haven’t you heard about him?”

CELEBRATING JULY 4th

Celebrating July 4th has always made me feel proud to be an American, no matter where I might have been living at the time. Fireworks are the capper: exciting and a bit ethereal.

Fireworks by Heidi Giraud

Fireworks painted by Heidi Giraud

The fireworks in Washington, D.C. are probably the most spectacular of any I’ve seen. I remember going with friends Ellen and Braxton, in the early ‘60s, to see them at the Washington Monument on the Mall. Since the crowds were dense and the parking sparse, we drove into D.C. early, way before it got dark.

With a blanket (no folding seats like today) and a few snacks, we explored the grassy area around the Monument for a likely spot. We were soon surrounded by hundreds of people. There was probably some entertainment, but I only remember the incredible variety of fireworks—all sorts of colors and types of explosions, including large frames standing on the ground that displayed patriotic graphics like the flag or faces of presidents in exploding fireworks.

Lying on my back watching the pyrotechnics explode above the white spire of the Washington Monument was an amazing experience.

Thanks to public television, PBS, I’ve watched the July 4th entertainment and fireworks from Washington D.C. for years. It’s presented on a stage across from the Capitol. In the summer of my college years, there were always concerts and plays to attend around that area. When I was in high school my church group put on a Christmas play there (I played a large toy rabbit in “The Little Match Girl”). It’s fun to reminisce about my connections to Washington, especially as I get older.

I'm the Rabbit in The Little Match Girl

I’m the Rabbit in The Little Match Girl at National Mall in D.C.

This week PBS presented a documentary about the National Mall, and it brought back many memories. One college summer I worked for the Navy Dept. in a WWII temp building, a short walk from the magnificent Lincoln Memorial. Over the years, I have visited the Smithsonian Institute Museum (the older “castle” with Lindberg’s plane, and the newer one), the wonderful Art Museum designed by I.M. Pei, visited Congress (both Senate and House of Representatives), seen the Air and Space Museum, enjoyed the cherry blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial, appreciated the summer Watergate Concerts on the Potomac close to Lincoln Memorial. I hiked up the Washington Monument twice! I also attended the marvelous Shakespeare plays during the summer on the Mall. Some day I’ll be back to enjoy some of the new museums.

In the 1950s I was living in North Africa. I no longer recall if there were fireworks in Tripoli on the 4th, but it was hard to beat the camel and donkey rides on Thirteen Kilometer Beach, not to mention the hot dogs and other goodies. The more recent Sex and the City movie featured the stars riding camels, which reminded me of my camel ride. The camels we rode on that Tripoli beach weren’t as well groomed or attractive; they looked a bit mangy, and were muzzled since camels do bite. I can still imagine the way it felt to be so high up, grasping the horn of the swaying saddle as the camel moved in a sandy circle while the owner held onto a rope.

There’s a German celebration in Heidelberg in the summer that uses fireworks quite effectively. The “Burning of the Castle” commemorates the few times the castle was actually burned, twice in the 17th century. My family joined my brother’s Cub Scout troop on a boat on the Neckar River and watched while all the lights in Heidelberg were turned off. The impressive fireworks, that looked like real fire, came from the Old Bridge across the Neckar and from the ruined Castle on a hill above the famous old city.

Here’s a toast to the Chinese invention of fireworks in the 12th century and to our Declaration of Independence in the 18th century!

MARCH ON WASHINGTON–1963

Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, Marlon Brando -- in D.C. March

Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, Marlon Brando — in D.C. March

Fifty years goes by in a flash. When you’re young, you don’t think that far ahead, or at least I didn’t. I lived my life day by day and was usually up for adventure. I’ve lived in California since 1965, and 50 years ago this state was only an exciting possibility because Disneyland was here. I had no idea when I was in the midst of very famous movie stars and other notables during the March on Washington that I would end up in California within two years. In the years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve realized how fortunate I was to be in the midst of this remarkable time in history.

The March was scheduled for Saturday, August 28, 1963, and several of my bosses from Washington National Airport’s Operations department would be on duty. Many celebrities involved in the March would be landing at Butler Aviation, the private terminal of the airport (which is now Reagan Airport). The fellows I worked for asked if I wanted to see movie stars, and I jumped at the chance to blend in with the celebrities, and I invited my good friend Harriet. In the early 60s, especially around Washington, women got dressed up for events and even shopping; it was a more formal time and T-shirts and jeans were not appropriate attire. Harriet and I knew exactly what to wear—high heels, stockings, and a dress. I don’t know if we wore hats; usually hats were for church.

California, where most of the famous folks were coming from, had been declared the home of “fruits and nuts.” As an Easterner, I was ignorant about almost everything but the term “Hollywood” and knowing somewhere out there was the magical Disneyland. Harriet and I probably took along our white gloves, which were the ultimate extra touch when dressed up. I recall my three-inch-high beige heels, but I don’t remember the dress I wore. It was probably a sheath of some kind that looked business-like.

Harriet and I were very excited about the day, but had no idea what to expect as we climbed the stairs to the second floor lounge at the Butler Aviation terminal. It was full of people milling around, most of them casually dressed. I gawked as I saw a fully bearded Paul Newman, fresh from filming the comedy, What a Way to Go; he played an obsessed painter married to Shirley MacLaine. In the middle of the room was the handsome Sidney Poitier talking to Dianne Carroll.

One wall of the lounge was almost entirely glass and looked out upon the airfield. I walked toward the window to see if any planes with more stars would be landing. As I stood there in my heels, I felt tall and imposing—about 5’10” in my “spikes.” Two diminutive black men walked over and stood on either side of me, neither of them taller than my breasts. On one side was the multi-talented actor-singer Sammy Davis, Jr.; on the other was renowned author James Baldwin. I tried to act nonchalant as they talked. I was probably too nervous to eavesdrop.

Not long afterward, someone announced a private plane from Southern California was landing and would soon be taxiing to the Butler Aviation gate. All of us were encouraged to go downstairs and outside to greet them. Harriet and I followed along and wondered who the new arrivals would be. While we were waiting, I overheard some cynic say, “Here come more of the fruits and nuts of Hollywood.”

Within minutes a small passenger plane taxied toward us, engine still roaring. I put my hands over my ears and looked up into the smiling face of Moses himself—Charlton Heston. “Loud, isn’t it?” he intoned with that unmistakable, powerful voice. I beamed at him and nodded my head.

As he turned away, Harriet leaned in. “Can you believe that was Charlton Heston?” She was grinning with excitement.

The plane’s engines quit and the door opened. Men and women began to descend the stairs and I noticed how differently they were dressed—tanned women were wearing loose clothing with flashy jewelry; men were in white shoes and colorful shirts. Out the airplane door sauntered someone I knew from television: handsome James Garner. Photographers and reporters were there to cover the story and the dark-haired Garner didn’t disappoint. Right away he waved and played to the crowd, starting some fascinating repartee I no longer remember. But I couldn’t forget his charming easy smile.

A few years later when I moved to California and became part of that laid-back lifestyle and sunny climate, I would remember my historical hint of things to come, courtesy of Dr. Martin Luther King. And I saw an older James Garner in person at a shopping center: he was asleep in an overstuffed chair, probably waiting for his wife.

WASHINGTON NATIONAL AIRPORT – 1963

“How’d you like to see some movie stars?” a retired Navy pilot asked me on a summer day in 1963, shortly before Martin Luther King’s March on Washington event. It was the summer before my senior year of college, and I was working for Operations at what was then Washington National Airport on the Potomac River in the District of Columbia.

I was the only female among six retired Navy and Air Force officers, all former pilots, and our offices were on the field level of the airport. Even though the men had done their twenty years in the service and were drawing their retirement pay, they were only in their forties. They had opted to keep working by getting a government job, which kept them in the same place for a change.

The fellows in Operations, who were all cocky and full of charm and humor, would make sure takeoffs and landings were going smoothly. They were in charge of monitoring aborted flight departures or problems with arrivals because of engine trouble or whatever else might go wrong and did. Potential mishaps, depending upon the severity, were labeled either “Standby at the station” if it was mild—as with a plane coming in with less than all engines operating—or “Standby on the field” if it looked more serious—faulty landing gear, for instance. These competent but seemingly relaxed men were privy to what was going on around the airport in general.

As a lowly clerk-typist, GS-3, I was responsible for answering phones and typing whatever documents needed typing—monthly reports of the flights in and out of the airport, for instance. Our oak-paneled offices were nicely appointed and were historic, having been used by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his long presidency, and on our wall there was a photo of him sitting in this office. I enjoyed the job because my flirtatious but well-mannered bosses were fun to work for; there was never a dull moment if they were around. I was their built-in audience and they let me in on their little jokes. One of the them, who resembled old-time movie actor Robert Taylor, would request that I bring him his coffee just like his women—“hot, dark and sweet.” A former Navy pilot, whose crewcut was getting sparse on top, claimed his hair was guilty of mutiny—they were all deserting the ship.

I was only dimly aware of the growing civil rights movement, which was beginning to heat up at that time. I attended William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and we had no African-American students. Although integration within Virginia schools was mandatory, it had yet to become widespread. In 1963 Viet Nam action consisted of American military “advisors” and was very much an unknown factor; it was August 1964 before the US began a substantial military build-up, which escalated into a war.

Washington National Airport was a hub of activity in those casual days before extensive security checks and terrorism. Getting on and off planes was easy; no one cared what a traveler had in his luggage. If my bosses, who seldom stayed around the office except to have coffee or tell me a joke, spotted anyone famous in the airport, they’d tell me, especially if there was time for me to go sneak a peek. Renowned Spanish painter, Salvador Dali, with his distinctive long curling mustache, was once spotted in time for me to look him over. One of my bosses was very excited when he caught sight of NBC television news anchor Chet Huntley, who had probably flown on the Eastern Airlines Shuttle—their gate was close to our office. I enjoyed my peek at the handsome, bushy brown-haired Huntley, who was based in New York City; his co-anchor, David Brinkley reported from Washington. Their famous Huntley-Brinkley Report was a highly popular news program of that day and broadcast from 1956 to 1970, when Huntley retired.

None of these celebrities compared to the mix of stars who were coming for the March on Washington, a massive protest for jobs and civil rights headed by Dr. Martin Luther King and his supporters. Since then I’ve learned much about that milestone and about King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. At that time, all I knew was that King’s celebrity supporters would all be gathering at the private aviation terminal, not far from the main terminal. My bosses didn’t know who would be there, but they’d be delighted to drive me and a friend to the Butler Aviation Terminal. We just had to act like we belonged there.

Me-WNA-'63Summer clerk-typist – Washington National Airport (now Reagan) Operations Office. Check out all the old office equipment–no computers!

MY BRIEF “THEATRICAL” CAREER

A bit part as a rabbit in a play on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

A bit part as a rabbit in a play on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

In the spirit of Easter and the Easter Bunny, I had to post this photo of me  in my bunny costume, which dates back to 1959.  It wasn’t Easter but December in Alexandria, Virginia, and our Trinity Methodist Church youth group was staging “The Little Match Girl” as part of the local entertainment at an outdoor theater on the Mall in Washington, D.C. I was playing a “toy” rabbit that had a little drum to beat while my head and upper body bobbed up and down. I had no lines, as I recall. What made it funny is that my legs were so long that I had to wear long white socks so that my pant legs wouldn’t reveal flesh! You can see my bare skin of my right leg in the photo.

A few years earlier, I had had a “starring” role as Louise on the Wheelus AFB TV station, just outside Tripoli, Libya. I had no lines; I just had to look pretty and desirable. Perhaps a few hundred people actually saw the program. I was portraying the fictional “Louise” while Joe, a talented pianist and airman played the song of that name. Maurice Chevalier, French actor and singer is known for singing the song at least 50 years ago. Two of the lines are:

Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise.

Birds in the trees seem to twitter Louise.

My starring role as Louise

My starring role as Louise

Joe (I can no longer remember his last name) had a half-hour TV program, which featured him playing piano. It was broadcast in the evening to every home with a TV set at Wheelus Air Base. I don’t remember if I even knew when or how often, but I did save the photos taken for the special occasion. My family had not brought a TV to Libya so Mom and Dad did not catch my debut.

Keeping his program unique was probably a challenge for Joe. One day he came up with the bright idea to play famous songs named for women: “Marie,” “Charmaine” and “Louise,” for instance, and have a girl in the background who represented the particular song.

He would play five songs. He already knew two Italian girls to feature, but he needed three more females to represent all the songs he had in mind. Apparently reasoning that the high school physical education program would provide him with the best choices, he came out to the Wheelus tennis courts one morning. The male mind is always intriguing! Maybe it was our grace hitting a tennis ball or perhaps what our legs looked like in shorts that influenced his choices?

Joe picked me, Judy Jones, and Vicki Scola and we all agreed to face the cameras. I was supposed to be a French Louise and had to find a beret and a scarf since my portrayal was a variation of the famous French Apache dance (based on Parisian gang culture and named for the US Indian tribe). I’ve still got the now tattered beret and the orange scarf.

I don’t recall that we did much if any rehearsing since we simply had to sit or stand, as the case may be, and look sexy. When Joe played each song, the camera panned from his playing to the appropriate girl and the painted background scene behind each of us.

No lingering fears of cameras linger; I don’t think I was nervous. Was that my “15 minutes of fame?” Fame is so ephemeral. I think I’ll stick to writing and editing.

 

JFK ASSASSINATION — 50 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK

On November 22, Americans will commemorate  the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. I’ve been  remembering my own experience of that overwhelming event recently because of all the television movies and documentaries about the  background and the occasion.  I was in my last year of college at William and Mary in Virginia when the President died. Some of my classmates attended the funeral since it was only about 150 miles north to Washington, D.C.

 

Eternal Flame & gravestones President John F. Kennedy & wife Jacqueline.

Eternal Flame & gravestones President John F. Kennedy & wife Jacqueline. Photo taken by Hans Giraud.

As a diary keeper, it was vitally important for me to write down my thoughts about that  heart-breaking time. I have to chuckle a bit at my serious tone, as if I were documenting this tragic event for history, which indeed I have since my blog does have readers all over the world. I have kept most of my diaries through countless moves (27 at last count)  and here is my contribution to the reactions on campus in Williamsburg, Virginia. It’s hard to believe that it was 50 years ago!

22 November. At 1:50 p.m. today the greatest political as well as human tragedy I have known in my 20 years occurred when President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas, by an assassin’s bullet. This was such a momentous and horrible tragedy that I must set it down.

It affects me as a human and as an American. One can hardly believe it happened—in fact I can still scarcely take it in, nor for that matter can anyone else on this campus or in these United States or, I doubt, in the world.

The tragedy occurred in Dallas (central time) at 12:30. Twenty minutes later the news came over the radio as I was calmly addressing a letter to Steve [my love interest at the time]. When the radio said a perhaps fatal wound, I couldn’t help hoping that he might live. But little chance with a gunshot wound through the right temple. It was utterly unbelievable.

I went to work this afternoon [I had a part-time job in the Law Library] but could only bear it for a half hour. At this time it wasn’t sure that he would die but then he did while I was there.

Horror & disbelief were the first reactions. About my first words were, “Oh, My God.” On my way to work I had passed Sandy’s room and told her. Her first words, “Oh, My God.” Peter Lawford’s comment: “Oh, My God,” and perhaps countless others said the same.

No one could do anything. No one could think of studying. What could one do? Little groups of students, stricken faces, people saying hi extremely somberly. It was as if the world had fallen on our shoulders and we didn’t know quite what to do with it—rail against it, scream, cry, be disgusted. What the hell was this world coming to when some lunatic shoots the President? What did this damn lunatic expect to accomplish? Kennedy was cut off in the prime of life—he was only 46. Younger even than any other President before him—and two young children.

All we could do was sit around and listen to the radio and discuss the ironies of it all. What would it do to the country, to the whole world? Condolences poured in; important men from everywhere spoke their two words about their grief. The WORLD was shocked—everyone feels a loss. The UN had a minute’s silence; Broadway closed all theaters; parties were canceled.

Coming back to the dorm from the Law Library, it was as if someone had slapped me in the face again. It wasn’t like Towney’s death [a friend who had died earlier that year]—it was more abstract, but I started crying a little. A great hero had died. It was a man I had seen in the Senate chamber during my high school junior year then later during one of my working summers, both in Constitution Hall and on the lawn of the White House. Thus he meant a great deal personally to me. I liked him as a President, despite all the criticism everyone else handed me about him. He stood up for what he believed and now he is a martyr.

Now we have President Lyndon Johnson, ironic throwback to Lincoln’s assassination. (I suppose I was referring to the fact that Lincoln’s Vice President was Andrew Johnson. History does seem to repeat itself!)

Johnson being sworn in as President, Jackie Kennedy by his side.

I wonder what my father thinks and my family. It is interesting to hear various views on his death. The consensus of opinion is much the same however—shock, grief, tragedy for the world, etc.

Dallas, Texas, thou will go down in ignominious history [I must have remembered my Shakespeare – I was an English major, after all].

Years later, I visited the Sixth Floor Museum in the Book Depository in Dallas, where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal bullet. My son drove me down the street where the event took place and the area still carries the emotional vibes of what happened there.

US CONGRESS — LOVE ‘EM OR OUST ‘EM

US Senate Chamber Pass for July 8, 1959

Congress…how exasperating! And infuriating…but that’s the government we’ve chosen so we must live with it and eventually vote out those we don’t want. Democracy isn’t all sweetness and perfection, but somehow it keeps working, one way or another. I had my first experience of actually seeing them in action back in 1959. My visit is something to remember, especially now.

When my family left Tripoli, Libya, my Army Corps of Engineers father  had orders for the Pentagon. He went on to work for the powerful Joint Chiefs of Staff, an honor for his career and a promotion to full Colonel. We lived in a small but homey stone house in Alexandria, Virginia, and I attended the last two years of high school at Francis C. Hammond, now a middle school.

My classmate, Barbara, and I enjoyed exploring the museums and other highlights in our nation’s capitol. We’d take the bus to the Washington Mall area and walk all over the place. On one of these excursions, in 1959, we decided to discover how government worked and visit the Senate.

Barbara had a boyfriend who was working as a US Senate Page. Pages, who were at least 16 and high school juniors with a good grade average, worked for senators. Although they were mainly “gofers,” they got to witness history in the making. He had told her we could go to the Texas House of Representatives office and get passes for both the House and the Senate.

Neither one of us had ever seen Congress in action, and we were excited about it. I still have the Senate pass, which was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson. Far too busy to do these menial tasks, the senator’s signature was a stamp.

We made our way to the visitor’s gallery of the Senate, which was in session that day. Lyndon Johnson, the imposing Texas Democrat who was the Senate Majority Leader at that time, was presiding over the Senate. He was lounging comfortably in a chair on the dais in front of the gathered senators.

The feisty senator from Oregon, Wayne Morse, was arguing with Paul Douglas, the soft-spoken senator from Illinois. I wasn’t listening to the issues because I was enchanted with just being there.

We took it all in and both of us were intrigued with a scene on the Senate floor. We noticed an attractive, younger looking man with a great head of hair  at a table reading a newspaper. He didn’t appear to be paying attention to the discussion going on. Young pages were scurrying about bringing documents or coffee to this particular senator and others around him.

Next to us in the visitor’s gallery was a young man in a suit avidly studying all if it. “Who’s the cute guy reading the newspaper?” we asked him.

“That’s John Kennedy, haven’t you heard about him?”

When he ran for president the next year, we all sat up and took notice.

John F. Kennedy

MARCH ON WASHINGTON – 50 YEARS AGO

Movie Stars Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier at March on Washington

Fifty years goes by in a flash. When you’re young, you don’t think that far ahead, or at least I didn’t. I lived my life day by day and was usually up for adventure. I’ve lived in California since 1965, and 50 years ago this state was only an exciting possibility because Disneyland was here. I had no idea when I was in the midst of very famous movie stars and other notables during the March on Washington that I would end up in California within two years. In the years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve realized how fortunate I was to be in the midst of this remarkable time in history.

The March was scheduled for Saturday, August 28, 1963, and several of my bosses from the airport’s Operations department would be on duty. Many celebrities involved in the March would be landing at Butler Aviation,  the private terminal of the airport. The fellows I worked for asked if I wanted to see movie stars, and I jumped at the chance to blend in with the celebrities, and I invited my good friend Harriet. In the early 60s, especially around Washington, women got dressed up for events and even shopping; it was a more formal time and T-shirts and jeans were not appropriate attire. Harriet and I knew exactly what to wear—high heels, stockings, and a dress. I don’t know if we wore hats; usually hats were for church.

California, where most of the famous folks were coming from, had been declared the home of “fruits and nuts.” As an Easterner, I was ignorant about almost everything but the term “Hollywood” and knowing somewhere out there was the magical Disneyland.  Harriet and I probably took along our white gloves, which were the ultimate extra touch when dressed up. I recall my three-inch-high beige heels, but I don’t remember the dress I wore. It was probably a sheath of some kind that looked business-like.

Harriet and I were very excited about the day, but had no idea what to expect as we climbed the stairs to the second floor lounge at the Butler Aviation terminal. It was full of people milling around, most of them casually dressed. I gawked as I saw a fully bearded Paul Newman, fresh from filming the comedy, What a Way to Go; he played an obsessed painter married to Shirley MacLaine. In the middle of the room was the handsome Sidney Poitier talking to Dianne Carroll.

One wall of the lounge was almost entirely glass and looked out upon the airfield. I walked toward the window to see if any planes with more stars would be landing. As I stood there in my heels, I felt tall and imposing—about 5’10” in my “spikes.”  Two diminutive black men walked over and stood on either side of me, neither of them taller than my breasts. On one side was the multi-talented actor-singer Sammy Davis, Jr.; on the other was renowned author James Baldwin. I tried to act nonchalant as they talked. I was probably too nervous to eavesdrop.

Not long afterward, someone announced a private plane from Southern California was landing and would soon be taxiing to the Butler Aviation gate. All of us were encouraged to go downstairs and outside to greet them. Harriet and I followed along and wondered who the new arrivals would be. While we were waiting, I overheard some cynic say, “Here come more of the fruits and nuts of Hollywood.”

Within minutes a small passenger plane taxied toward us, engine still roaring. I put my hands over my ears and looked up into the smiling face of Moses himself—Charlton Heston. “Loud, isn’t it?” he intoned with that unmistakable, powerful  voice. I beamed at him and nodded my head.

As he turned away, Harriet leaned in. “Can you believe that was Charlton Heston?” She was grinning with excitement.

The plane’s engines quit and the door opened. Men and women began to descend the stairs and I noticed how differently they were dressed—tanned women were wearing loose clothing with flashy jewelry; men were in white shoes and colorful shirts. Out the airplane door sauntered someone I knew from television: handsome James Garner. Photographers and reporters were there to cover the story and the dark-haired Garner didn’t disappoint. Right away he waved and played to the crowd, starting some fascinating repartee I no longer remember. But I couldn’t forget his charming easy smile.

A few years later when I moved to California and became part of that laid-back  lifestyle and sunny climate, I would remember my historical hint of things to come, courtesy of Dr. Martin Luther King. And I saw an older James Garner in person at a shopping center: he was asleep in an overstuffed chair, probably waiting for his wife.

WORKING AT WASHINGTON NATIONAL AIRPORT – 1963

“How’d you like to see some movie stars?” a retired Navy pilot asked me on a summer day in 1963, shortly before Martin Luther King’s March on Washington event. It was the summer before my senior year of college, and I was working for Operations at what was then Washington National Airport on the Potomac River in the District of Columbia.

I was the only female among six retired Navy and Air Force officers, all former pilots, and our offices were on the field level of the airport. Even though the men had done their twenty years in the service and were drawing their retirement pay, they were only in their forties. They had opted to keep working by getting a government job, which kept them in the same place for a change.

The fellows in Operations, who were all cocky and full of charm and humor, would make sure takeoffs and landings were going smoothly. They were in charge of monitoring aborted flight departures or problems with arrivals because of engine trouble or whatever else might go wrong and did. Potential mishaps, depending upon the severity, were labeled either “Standby at the station” if it was mild—as with a plane coming in with less than all engines operating—or “Standby on the field” if it looked more serious—faulty landing gear, for instance. These competent but seemingly relaxed men were privy to what was going on around the airport in general.

As a lowly clerk-typist, GS-3, I was responsible for answering phones and typing whatever documents needed typing—monthly reports of the flights in and out of the airport, for instance. Our oak-paneled offices were nicely appointed and were historic, having been used by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his long presidency, and on our wall there was a photo of him sitting in this office. I enjoyed the job because my flirtatious but well-mannered bosses were fun to work for; there was never a dull moment if they were around. I was their built-in audience and they let me in on their little jokes. One of the them, who resembled old-time movie actor Robert Taylor, would request that I bring him his coffee just like his women—“hot, dark and sweet.”  A former Navy pilot, whose crewcut was getting sparse on top, claimed his hair was guilty of mutiny—they were all deserting the ship.

I was only dimly aware of the growing civil rights movement, which was beginning to heat up at that time. I attended William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and we had no African-American students. Although integration within Virginia schools was mandatory, it had yet to become widespread.  In 1963 Viet Nam action consisted of American military “advisors” and was very much an unknown factor; it was August 1964 before the US began a substantial military build-up, which escalated into a war.

Washington National Airport was a hub of activity in those casual days before extensive security checks and terrorism. Getting on and off planes was easy; no one cared what a traveler had in his luggage. If my bosses, who seldom stayed around the office except to have coffee or tell me a joke, spotted anyone famous in the airport, they’d tell me, especially if there was time for me to go sneak a peek. Renowned Spanish painter, Salvador Dali, with his distinctive long curling mustache, was once spotted in time for me to look him over. One of my bosses was very excited when he caught sight of NBC  television news anchor Chet Huntley, who had probably flown on the Eastern Airlines Shuttle—their gate was close to our office. I enjoyed my peek at the handsome, bushy brown-haired Huntley, who was based in New York City; his co-anchor, David Brinkley reported from Washington. Their famous Huntley-Brinkley Report was a highly popular news program of that day and broadcast from 1956 to 1970, when Huntley retired.

None of these celebrities compared to the mix of stars who were coming for the March on Washington, a massive protest for jobs and civil rights headed by Dr. Martin Luther King and his supporters.  Since then I’ve learned much about that milestone and about King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. At that time, all I knew was that King’s celebrity supporters would all be gathering at the private aviation terminal, not far from the main terminal. My bosses didn’t know who would be there, but they’d be delighted to drive me and a friend to the Butler Aviation Terminal. We just had to act like we belonged there.

To be continued…

Summer clerk-typist Washington National Airport Operations Office

PRESIDENTS AND BUTLERS IN THE MOVIES

I’ve been around for more than fifty years and looking back into the 1960s is an intriguing exercise lately. I lived in the Northern Virginia-Washington D.C. area off and on for much of the early ‘60s, and when I saw the film “The Butler” this weekend, it reminded me of how much history I had witnessed and read about.

“The Butler” (directed by Lee Daniels) is based on the true story of an African-American who served as a butler in the White House from Presidents Eisenhower through Reagan. It encompasses the struggles of the Civil Rights movement, the protests against the Viet Nam war, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and ends about the time of the sanctions being proposed against South Africa’s own civil rights challenges with apartheid.

 

US White House

US White House

Although time constraints prevented any in-depth explanations of US battles with equal rights, the film hit the high points. It was very entertaining as well as emotionally enlightening. Forest Whitaker, an Oscar winner for his portrayal of Uganda’s dictator, Idi Amin, in “The Last King of Scotland,” magnificently played the butler in this film and Oprah Winfrey, the consummate actor, was his wife, Gloria.

I was fascinated with the choice of actors for the presidential roles and how the scenes captured some facets of  each president’s personality. I had come in contact with several of these presidents and had read a great deal about most of them. The multi-talented Robin Williams was the balding President Eisenhower in 1954 when the butler begins his White House service. He was portrayed as a commanding but very balanced and sympathetic  individual, and there’s also a scene with Vice President Richard Nixon (actor John Cusack) talking to the butlers about their low pay. There’s a hint of the kind of conniving, insecure president he became. I remembered shaking Nixon’s hand in 1956 during his visit to Libya while he was vice president.

President John Kennedy was played by the handsome James Marsden. Scenes portrayed him becoming a converted enthusiast for civil rights and included a scene of First Lady Jackie Kennedy in her pink suit splattered with blood after the assassination. I recalled the summer of 1963 when JFK arranged meetings with government officials for the education of college students working in Washington. I saw him in person when he greeted us students at the White House. I had also seen him in the Senate in 1959 before he even ran for office. I’ve written blogs about these events.

President Lyndon Johnson (Liev Shreiber) added a bit of “bathroom” humor to the film. LBJ was not a modest man and could be fairly crude (I was told by a former Secret Service agent who guarded LBJ that he would think nothing of squatting on the ground in front of newsmen on his Texas ranch when he had to do his “business”). There was a movie scene of Johnson sitting on the “throne” with the door open as he talked political strategy with his aides. I had seen LBJ in the Senate, when he was Majority Leader, the same time I saw Kennedy in 1959.

Nixon was portrayed again when he was President and fighting to keep from resigning. He was passionately telling the butler in this scene that he essentially would never give up.

The film skipped Presidents Ford and Carter, except for film clips, and ended with Ronald Reagan, played by British actor Alan Rickman. It’s difficult to duplicate Reagan’s distinctive accent, but Rickman got the self-assurance right. I kept thinking about my recent visit to the Reagan Library here in Southern California.

During my years around Washington, I had a couple of tours of the White House. They duplicated some areas in the film but nothing very distinctive. The detail that stood out in the movie was the portrait of President Abraham Lincoln, very appropriate for this movie. Of course that brought back strong memories of the wonderful Lincoln exhibit in the Reagan Library I visited just weeks ago.

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