George and Dan's Excellent Adventure
For a brief time, when I was about twelve years old, I was friendly with a rich kid whose family lived in ultra-modern 1950's luxury. They had a revolving driveway. TV sets lowered automatically from the ceiling. There were suction slots in every wall so you could plug in a hose and vacuum anywhere. It was like the house in Jacques Tati's "Mon Oncle" modern to the point of absurdity. But, for a twelve year old, it was like the World's Fair. I remember being there when they showed off their new "color" TV a novelty at the time and, best of all, making my own milkshakes at their fully-stocked soda fountain.
All this came back to me while I made my own milkshake at the White House the other day. Without giving away the particulars and to protect my sources let's just say I was able to secure an invitation to a private screening of a movie at George and Barbara's place. Bush loves movies, and he loves screening the latest from Hollywood for whatever group or individual that happens to be owed an invitation.
About a hundred people were there that night, including the President, the First Lady, the Quayles, family members, Cabinet members, and the oddest guest list this side of Joe Franklin, including: The National Merit Scholars in mathematics; Rich Little; Cellist Yo-Yo Ma; country singer Charlie Pride; Some Hopi Indians from Arizona; eminence gris of the right, Barry Goldwater; Dr. Arkady Levitov, a Soviet scientist and arms negotiator; and me.
There were tables filled with every kind of candy, cookie, cake, and treat. Giant popcorn poppers popped continuously. I went directly to the "Make-Your-Own-Sundae" soda fountain, of course, but quickly decided not to spend my one visit to this place just drinking milkshakes.
Walking around the White House, strolling past the portraits of previous prexies, I tried to focus in on Bush, the current kingpin. Who is he? Do I like him? Why should I like him? What about the CIA? Noriega? Honduras?
George Bush's career Senator's son, war hero, Yalie, oil magnate, President is the stuff of bad novels and dumb TV movies. He's worked hard, taking what he inherited and making a little more on his own. He really is a true-blue, red-blooded American blue-blood. And gung ho to boot. As I was saying to Barry Goldwater, "Bush has had a charmed life. Now what?"
Goldwater didn't answer I think his hearing aid was turned off. But, drink in hand, he did have an occasionally pointed comment. When a group of Merit scholars passed by he whispered, "Jesus Christ they're all nips." Goldwater must have wet dreams about fighting the Japanese again, even though his hearing aid is made there.
Over at the giant taffy-making "shoppe" I listened to George Bush, Jr. the one who bought the baseball team talk about the finances of professional sports with a few cronies and a Hopi Indian, who was staring at the taffy. George, Jr. said that to make any money as an owner in professional sports you had to be prepared to "live like a pauper" for the first five years. His pals nodded in commiseration. I said I'd rather be poor and own a ball club than be rich and not own one. They nodded at that, too. Bravely, the Hopi warrior refused to smile.
Bush himself stood up on a chair to announce that the movie would begin in five minutes. "Seating will be according to party affiliation," he wisecracked to a mostly non-political and thus oblivious crowd.
We were herded together, lined up in order of wealth, and led into a darkened, wood-grained theater. Several of the Bush grandchildren (including one of the "brown ones"), dressed as ushers and, wielding long red flashlights, pointed the VIPs to their seats. I don't know what possessed me, but I gave one of the kids a five dollar bill. "It's under the gift limit," I assured him.
Maybe it was because of all the children or the presence of the Vice President but the feature that night was "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." Just as well. This was not a "Rashomon" or "Jules and Jim" crowd. Oddly, the Bushes, the Quayles, and the Mr. and Mrs. Cabinet Members all chose to sit in front, leaving the best seats for us nobodies and ethnic types.
From my corner of the back row it was hard to see the movie, but I'd seen it already on the plane. Besides, I was more interested in the audience. My vantage point allowed me to observe our beloved blue-haired First Lady and her husband of forty-four of the longest years of her life. Between them was an oversized box of popcorn, from which they alternately scooped handfuls in perfect syncopation. Sitting right behind them, with a befuddled look on his face, was my Hopi friend. I don't know which confused him more the movie or the popcorn.
There was a lot of laughter throughout although this isn't meant as a review. Vice President Quayle laughed particularly hard at one joke I think it's where Bill or Ted says "Narly!" to Shakespeare. He spilled some soda on Mrs. Quayle, who looked like she'd been awakened from a sound sleep.
At one point Dr. Levitov got up to go to the bathroom and, right after he did, one of the Bush kids took his seat. When he came back he seemed disoriented. It was dark. There was no place to sit. All of a sudden there was a loud scream. We looked Levitov was perched on top of Shirley Temple, the new ambassador to Czechoslovakia. For the next two minutes, instead of watching Bill and Ted fight the Crusades, everyone kept their eyes on Shirley Temple trying to remove a candy apple from the seat of Dr. Arkady Levitov's pants.
After a while things quieted down. My mind began to wander, drift...I imagined we were all inside a jumbo jet, cruising silently at 39,000 feet. At the controls up front was the President, with the First Lady serving as co-pilot. There was no cockpit. It was more like those "flying wing" planes that were tested back in the Fifties.
And, there was a strange sense of urgency on this plane. The passengers and crew were so quiet; it was clear we were in some kind of danger. But what? Then came an announcement over the plane's P.A. It was Bush, our captain, speaking.
"We'll be crashing in five minutes," he said good-naturedly. "Please get in the crash position, will ya?"
Everyone put their heads between their knees. I started to do so, but there was something unusual about this plane. First of all, it was very wide. I mean, how many planes seat thirty across? And how many planes fly without any discernible engine noise? Then it hit me. Of course! This was the Stealth Bomber!
I looked across the aisle. Stewardess Marilyn Quayle was handing a tray of food to Barry Goldwater.
"Here's the special meal you ordered."
Goldwater removed the foil, revealing a bowl of raw eel sections and a bowl of steamed rice. He poured the eel over the rice and, using chopsticks like a master, started to dig in. Then, with a hunk of eel dangling out of his mouth he turned to Yo-Yo Ma and offered him a taste.
"You like eel, little fella?"
"No," said Ma. "And that's not eel."
I looked around the cabin. Some people were still in the crash position. But then, Rich Little stood up, waving a woman's earring.
"I found it!" he shouted, in his own voice. "It was under my seat."
I think I was awake when I saw Little hand the earring to a grateful Shirley Temple.
By now the movie was over. The President and his co-pilot had gone to the door and were saying goodnight to a line of guests. Here, it suddenly occurred to me, was my chance my one great opportunity to say something to this man this Bush. But what do I say? And why hadn't I thought about it before?
I went to the end of the "goodnight" line and tried to think of something. A question. Preferably something witty, or clever and/or subversive, or cleverly anarchic and/or annoyingly ironic. And/or anything! I'm about three people down the line from Barbara Bush whom I hadn't even considered yet and I'm starting to panic. All I'd come up with so far was, "Nice to meet you." I'm desperate for my muse to kick in. Why hadn't I thought about this?
Okay, I can say "Nice to meet you" to Mrs. Bush it won't make any difference, it won't change history. But the President, that's different. I could say "Call off your dogs in Central America!" or "Slash the defense budget!" or "Give the poor a break!" but none of these frontal assaults would have any effect on what we read fifty years from now. I know that Bush hates hypothetical questions, so I'll stay away from those. What is needed is a riddle, a conundrum, a spider's web. But it must be direct, to the point, and something he'll respond to.
Now I'm shaking hands with Barbara Bush, the First Lady. She smiles at me and says, "That's a lovely chocolate milkshake you're wearing, young man. Where do you buy your clothes? Hδagen-Dazs?"
Well, that took me by surprise. At least she didn't say "Ben and Jerry of Beverly Hills." But it was a damn snappy remark for such a patrician grandma. Who writes her stuff? I wondered at the time.
"I just hope you Scotchguarded the carpet," I fired back, pitifully. Was this the best I could do? Oh well, it was only Barbara Bush, I kept reminding myself. My big moment was coming. Just as soon as Bush finished saying goodnight to Charlie Pride he would say goodnight to me, and I would be saying what? I didn't know yet! I'm still smiling at Mrs. Bush while I'm thinking, thinking, thinking...
I tried to remember the stories of Nasrudin, the Sufi teacher of nonsensical logic. Or rhymes by Lear or Carroll. Or questions from ethics discussions in college. But all these were too vague and there's that word again hypothetical, and besides, I only had another one or two milliseconds.
"Thanks for coming goodnight," the President said, almost in earnest, as he shook my cold, sweaty hand. The time had come. And my mind was as blank as Reagan's. But wait, he wasn't finished.
"Say where do you buy your clothes? Hδagen-Dazs?"
Whoa. That threw me. I panicked. I was tongue-tied. And headed out the door. Was that it? Was that the best I could do? I was moving along, near the door, almost gone. It was now or never.
"Good luck throwing your weight around in Central America!" I blurted out.
"Thanks!" he shouted back, just as I passed through the doors of the screening room and out of history.
(This originally appeared in The Realist.)
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