Aircraft—Falcon…7…7…Golf…Echo…10 miles to the west…inbound for landing…
Unicom—Winds calm…no other reported traffic…
My 15 minutes of fame
I had just finished cutting grass and checked Flightaware to make sure nothing was inbound, nothing was, so I grabbed my book to do some reading in the gazebo. I had just sat down when I heard a car door shut in the parking lot and saw a man in a suit walking toward my office. He hadn’t noticed me sitting in the gazebo so before he opened the door to the airport, I asked, “Can I help you with anything?”
“I’m looking for the airport manager.”
“That’s me, what can I do for you?”
“Would you mind stepping inside your office, I would like to talk to you about a few things.”
That got my attention, I had no idea what was going on but I knew this wasn’t someone here to pick someone up. I opened the door for him and invited him into my office, introduced myself and shook his hand.
He introduced himself as Mark (I’m not using his last name) and said that he worked for the Secret Service, he showed me his credentials and said he would like to talk to me about an upcoming visit to our area that would be using our airport. Mark said he worked from the field office in Lexington, Kentucky, and his responsibility was doing preliminary work for a VIP visit in a few days, if everything stayed on schedule.
I told Mark I wasn’t aware there was a Secret Service field office in Lexington.
Mark said, “The Secret Service is in every state, our primary duties are investigating federal crimes, such as counterfeiting among other things. When a VIP protection team is coming to our state, our job is to do the advance work for the VIP team. That’s what I’m doing today, you will be having a Secret Service protection team here next Tuesday, if everything stays on the schedule. I need to ask you some questions about our security needs around your airport.”
“Mark, let me first say that whatever you need to do your job, I will cooperate with you completely. You just let me know what you need, the airport is yours. But, my curiosity is killing me, are you allowed to tell me who is coming?”
“Former President Clinton will be flying into your airport Tuesday afternoon around 3:30. We will have a motorcade of about 10 cars, including Secret Service, local and state police and we would like ramp access. I would like to walk around and take some notes and if everything stays as planned, I will be back on Monday and stay in the area until the visit is over. Is that okay with you?”
“Yes sir, whatever you need, just let me know. Is this something I need to keep quiet?”
“It will be publicized by the weekend if it stays on the schedule. It might be easier on you to keep things under wraps until then, it’s up to you.”
“I’m excited about our visitor, you walk around all you want Mark, let me know if I can help and hopefully I’ll see you again on Monday.”
Early Monday morning Mark was back and started showing me where he wanted the jet parked and where the motorcade would park and line up after the jet was positioned. He wanted the hangar doors closed and the hangars in the back of the airport needed closed, too. He said it was okay for people to watch the jet arrive and President Clinton get into the motorcade but he wanted them all in one area. Mark said he would be in the Prestonsburg area checking on things and gave me his phone number and said he would be checking back with me Tuesday morning and for me to call if I needed anything from him.
The word was out about our special guest and people were calling wanting to get a glimpse of the former president. I also was taking care of my then, 7 year old grandson, Knox, that day and I was telling him about President Clinton and what a big deal it was to see a former president of the United States.
About 10 o’clock, Mark stopped in with state police and showed them the plan for the motorcade, the security checkpoints and ramp access. My only job was to park the jet in the middle of the ramp and get out of the way. I introduced Mark to Knox and said, “Mark, I would like to shake former President Clinton’s hand but if only one person could shake his hand I would like for my grandson Knox to get the opportunity. He will soon be studying about our presidents in school and I think it would be awesome if he had actually met one. Is there any way you could make that happen?”
Mark said, “Gary, my job is to work out all the ground details after the arrival. I really don’t have much input about what the former president’s schedule will include. The only way I could make that happen is if one of the guys on the VIP protection detail is someone I know, I can ask, but I really have no control on what will happen. I will be in touch with them during the day. I’ll see what I can do but I can’t guarantee anything.”
“I understand Mark, I would love it if you could make that happen.”
About three hours before the jet was to arrive, Mark called and said, “Gary, I’m on my way to the airport and we are in luck, one of my classmates from the academy is onboard with the president, he has already spoken with him and he will meet your grandson. Just have him out there with you when you park the jet and when the president gets off the jet he will shake hands with Knox before he gets into the Suburban. The president’s photographer will take the picture and email it to you. Everything is arranged, you just have to have him there with you and wait on him to exit the jet, I will be there with you, too.”
“Mark, thank you so much for doing this, it really means a lot to me and I’m sure that someday it will really mean a lot to Knox.”
Mark arrived and the motorcade started gathering on the ramp. All cars and personel were lined up and inspected by the secret service. The state police even had a bomb sniffing dog that checked all cars. About 20 guests were in the airport and told to remain inside until the jet was parked and the motorcade line formed, then they were allowed to gather outside in front of the office. I had Knox with me and stood in the center of the ramp, there were no other planes on the ramp. The Falcon 900 jet landed and started taxiing to the ramp. I told Knox that since he was on the ramp he should direct the plane to the designated parking spot. I showed him the proper hand signals for the pilots and he directed them where to park. I could see the pilots grinning as a 7 year old was marshaling them to park but what I didn’t know was the flight attendant onboard saw Knox directing the jet and told President Clinton to stand up and watch this little guy directing us to park.
When the jet stopped, I had Knox chock the front wheels and signal the pilots, they were chocked, then Mark got us and we stood by the steps after the door opened. I had told Knox what I wanted him to say, in a loud, clear, confident voice, “Welcome to Big Sandy Airport President Clinton, it’s an honor to have you here, sir!”
First the pilots came off the plane, they came over to Knox and thanked him for marshalling them in and stood next to us. Then one by one the passengers started walking down the steps. Knox kept looking up at me as they started down the steps and that’s when I realized that he had no idea what President Clinton looked like. As each passenger walked down the steps I would whisper to Knox, that’s not him, that’s not him, then President Clinton appeared at the top of the steps. I leaned over and whispered, “That’s President Clinton, don’t forget what I told you to say and don’t act shy about it either.”
The secret service guy onboard had already briefed President Clinton what Knox’s name was and he took us off guard when President Clinton walked over the Knox and said, “Thank you Knox Maynard for parking us safely on the ramp, I watched you marshaling this big jet in and you did an outstanding job.”
Knox looked President Clinton in the eye and said, “Welcome to Big Sandy Airport, President Clinton, it’s an honor to have you here, sir!”
He said it exactly the way I wanted him to, with a clear, confident voice, I was so proud of him.
President Clinton asked, “How old are you Knox?”
“I’m 7 sir.”
“Well, you are pretty tall for a 7 year old, do you play basketball?”
I said, “If you live in Kentucky, you play basketball, President Clinton.”
President Clinton shook my hand, too, patted Knox on the head and thanked us for having him at Big Sandy, got in the big black Suburban and the motorcade started to Prestonsburg. All that happened in about one minute, just like that we shook hands with 42nd president of the United States.
Earlier that morning I had no idea if Knox or I would get the opportunity to meet President Clinton, it all came together a couple of hours before his arrival. I started calling all the family, telling them about our encounter. I could tell there was a bit of jealousy that I hadn’t gotten everyone else to the airport to meet our famous guest, I told them to be here about 9:30, that’s when he was supposed to leave.
The flight crew and flight attendant ate at the Cloud 9 and sat and talked with me in the gazebo. They had been flying all over the country campaigning for Secretary Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. The flight crew was from New York and the flight attendant was from Georgia. Just before the Cloud 9 closed they ordered President Clinton fish, mashed potatoes and green beans. They said he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I joked with Brandie Moore, our chef, that she can now put it on her ‘resume’ that she has cooked for a president.
As departure time was getting close, all my family showed up to hopefully get a chance to meet President Clinton. As the motorcade left Prestonsburg, Mark, the secret service agent called to make sure the security gate was open and there wasn’t a crowd at the airport. I told Mark all was clear, the gate is open and the only people here were my family. “Mark, do you think there is a chance we could all meet him when he arrives?” I asked.
“Gary, I have no control what will happen when he gets there. Since they have been on the go all day, I expect they will fly directly back to New York, but it’s out of my hands, I won’t be speaking to anyone else unless there is an emergency.” Mark said.
The motorcade rolled through the gate and circled the plane, the Suburban with President Clinton stopped directly in front of the steps to the jet. My family walked out of the office and toward the line of cars, two secret service agents jumped out of their car and told us since it was dark, we would all have to go back inside the building and remain there until the jet departed. From inside the building we all gathered around the windows and watched President Clinton go up the steps and into the jet. The flight attendant saw the secret service run us back into the airport and she asked President Clinton if he could go back to the door and wave at us, she told him we were forced back inside the airport. I know this because the following day she called me and told me what had happened.
President Clinton waved at us while we were standing in the window and we all waved back, then he turned to the flight attendant, said something and started down the steps. I looked over at my son-in-law, Kyle Runyon, and said, “He’s coming in here, Kyle.” With state troopers standing beside their cars and Secret Service agents by theirs, President Clinton walked between two cars and started to my office. Two Secret Service agents followed him along with the lady that took Knox’s picture earlier in the day.
We all stood in the middle of the office and President Clinton, opened the door and walked directly over to Knox and said, “There’s the little man who got me out of the sky and on the ground safely today, Thank you, Knox.”
I couldn’t believe it but he actually remembered Knox’s name. He shook Knox’s hand again and I said, “Thank you President Clinton for coming in here and meeting my family, This is my wife, Rossalene, my daughters, grandchildren and son-in-laws. Thank you again, can we have a picture made with you?”
He said, “Of course.”
Rossalene handed her camera to his assistant and she took our group picture. After President Clinton shook everyone’s hand he reached to shake my hand again. I said, “President Clinton, you are probably not aware of this but you are not the first president to be in Martin County. This airport is actually located in Martin County and in 1964 when I was in the 4th grade, President Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ campaign visited Martin County. I was only 9 years old but I still remember government program after government program being brought into Martin County over the following 5 years and in my opinion nothing helped until a railroad was built up Wolf Creek and two thousand coal mining jobs came with it. People who had moved away for work, moved back to the mountains from all over the country to take those jobs. We went from the highest unemployment rate in the nation in 1964 to the lowest unenployment rate in the nation in the early 70’s and it wasn’t because of a government program, it was because of the opportunity the good paying coal mining jobs gave us. It wasn’t the government that got us out of poverty, it was the coal companies.
President Clinton never let go of my hand while I said that, he knew I was referring to the statement Secretary Clinton had made in West Virginia only a few days before, when she said, “We are going to put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business.”
While still holding my right hand in his hand, he said, “I understand what you are saying, I get it. I understand how important a job is, I do. Sir, I have attained everything with my life I have ever wanted to do, I have been elected President of the United States twice but there is one more thing I want to do with my life. I want to provide jobs in this country, especially in areas like this. I have contacts in several European countries and I want to get those people to bring jobs to areas like yours.”
I said, “President Clinton, jobs are much more important than the money they provide. Jobs give people pride in themselves, jobs give you a reason to get out of bed each morning and do something productive with your life, jobs give you the opportunity to show your children how to become a good citizen, jobs keep people off drugs. President Clinton, a job is much more important that just the payday you get each Friday evening.”
President Clinton said, “I couldn’t agree with you more, we all need jobs.”
He waved at us all and said goodbye, turned and walked out the door as his assistant and secret service followed. He wasn’t all the way back to the jet when Lauren said to me, “Dad, how did you have the nerve to say all that to him, weren’t you scared to talk to him that way?”
“Lauren, you have heard the expression that everyone gets 15 minutes of fame in their life, that was my 15 minutes. I will never, the rest of my life, get the oppourtunity to tell someone that important, someone who could actually make a difference, what I believe to be the truth. He’s not the president anymore but in a few months I believe he will be sleeping with the President of the United States and I hope he tells her about the conversation we had here tonight.”
Of course, the election didn’t come out the way he and Secratary Clinton had hoped it would. My conversation with him probably never made it any farther than the ramp of the airport but I was glad I said it. The following day the flight attendent called me and told me why he came back into the airport that night. She said that she saw the Secret Service run us back into the office and she asked him to wave at us. When he waved at us, he asked if he had time to go and speak with the people in the airport. She told him, “We are on your schedule Mr. President, we work for you,”
President Clinton said, “I’m going to speak to them a minute.” When he returned he told me he was glad he stopped in, we had an interesting conversation. He enjoyed his meal and asked why I didn’t get him some kind of dessert. Then he slept most of the way to New York.
I thanked the flight attendant and said, “When you run an airport you get to meet all the politicians, some are cordial and some are not all that interested in having a conversation. President Cliinton was the nicest politician I have ever met. He was not only nice to my family but he actually seemed interested in what I had to say. I really believed he was interested in my thoughts. I have always heard he was a great campaigner, I believe it now. If you get the opportunity to speak to him sometime, tell him how much I appreciate his kindness toward me and my family.”
Aircraft—Falcon…7…7…Golf…Echo…departing runway 3 to the north…thank you for your hospitality…
Unicom—Winds calm…enjoyed talking with you today…have a safe trip…
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager at Big Sandy Regional Airport owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties)