A Different Kind of Visit

In August 1994, the last year the annual agricultural fair was held on the grounds of the old Grange Hall in West Tisbury, the fair was on, and I was crossing State Road by the town hall as two motorcycle escorts heralded the arrival of President Clinton’s motorcade.

I stood by a utility pole right on the corner of Music street across from the church and waited. A middle-aged man with a mustache, dressed in casual summer clothes, came up to me saying, “You can’t stand there.” He wasn’t rude or particularly demanding, and he was most likely Secret Service, although he didn’t identify himself. So I moved some distance away. He then said, this time with a slight smile, “You can’t stand there either.” At this point I smiled back, and said, “I think it would be simpler if you told me where I can stand rather than playing this silly game.” He laughed, slightly, and pointed to a place about 15 feet away from where I was.

From my new vantage point I saw four cream-colored Suburbans arrive, the doors open and a gaggle of people emerge, which included the President, who was in the second vehicle. He immediately waded into the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at the Grange, followed by several rather severe looking fellows with earpieces and sunglasses. You wouldn’t want to meet any of them, not even in daylight, and definitely not in a dark alley. They had emerged from the third vehicle, which had very tinted windows and more antennas than a porcupine has spines. No one emerged from the fourth vehicle, which turned out to be a Suburban outfitted as an ambulance. The first vehicle carried the media. That was the presidential motorcade in 1994.

Clinton circulated in the crowd and people shook his hand, talked to him, and he was, as usual, in his glory. A friend, born in the U.K., with whom I had dinner about an hour later, told me she had grabbed his arm and whispered something in his ear. I was astounded. “Didn’t anyone grab you?” I asked, disbelieving that could have happened. “No,” she said. “Do I look very menacing?” Of course she didn’t, and doesn’t to this day. “What did you say to him?” I asked. “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” she replied. “What did he say?” I queried. She said he laughed, and said, “Don’t worry, I won’t.”

I have often told that story, and am about to have dinner with this lovely friend, now in her late 80s, again this week. I think we’ll speculate on what would happen now if someone grabbed the President’s arm and whispered in his ear. Of course, one would have to be quite tall to begin with.

In our post-9/11 time, a presidential visit is very different. His motorcade, instead of two state police motorcycle escorts, is now a phalanx of mounted officers. Instead of four cream-colored Suburbans, there are nine or 10 shiny black SUVs with deeply tinted windows. Then there are all the restrictions on flights, and closing the Katama Airfield, plus endless security flights by fighter jets and low-flying helicopters. During Clinton’s visits I recall seeing Coast Guard cutters stationed off-shore near Oyster Pond, and some patrol flights over Long Point beach, but not much else.

President Obama’s contact with the public was very strictly controlled, and of course he wanted some well-deserved peace and quiet, which, at least historically, has always been granted to famous visitors as is the Island way. But even had he wanted to wade into an unscreened friendly crowd, as Bill Clinton so loved to do, I doubt the Secret Service would permit it any longer. That is a loss we should all feel.

Clearly we no longer live in a 1994 world, which in comparison seems almost innocent. The bitter opposition referenced by my friend’s words to Clinton, and the endless, vile political attacks on Clinton, seem subtle compared to the hazards and threats to personal safety a President, especially this President, faces today.

I hope the Obamas had a good week, despite the interruptions, and should they come again that their visit can be in an atmosphere more characteristic of our congenial Island.

Richard Knabel

West Tisbury


An Adventure Nonetheless

We live two miles from Cobbs Hill Road. Each time we drive past, we keep hope alive that he and the First Family will appear. We wave at the state trooper and theplainclothes Secret Service man, thinking our friendly gestures and warm smiles might getus somewhere, but no. Two days ago we drove by and Noah, my 10-year-old son, wore khaki pants anda blue knit Obama shir t with a Presidential seal and sunglasses for the occasion. He hoped that this look would get us some response from the security team, but still noresponse. Noah and I had campaigned for Barack, knocked on doors for him, and tried to persuade a voter or two to vote for change. We were looking for a little something in return. Selfishly, I wanted the President to schedule a time during his vacation to be with his daughters while they sold lemonade on State Road. We’d buy.

Abby, my 17-year-old daughter, and Noah, along with Lizzie, my mother in law’s dog, and I headed off to West Tisbury en route to the library. Suddenly, we saw the motorcade whiz by heading up-Island. I found the nearest driveway and turned around, trailing close behind. What a thrill! We hung a left at Beetlebung Corner heading toward Aquinnah. Approaching Quitsa Pond, Noah with a huge smile said thesame skunk we smelled the President must have gotten awhiff of too. We were together with the First Family, experiencing the same dipsand  curves of Thomas Hart Benton’s State Road. As we passed my mother in law’s home on Menemsha Pond I said to the kids, half-jokingly, that we should have invited Sasha and Malia tocome sailing. As we approached Moshup TrailI asked Abby whether weshould peel off to the left, and try to grab a parking spot at the Aquinnah Cliffs before theFirst Family arrived. Instead we followed the motorcade. It was the rightmove since the President turned onto Lobsterville Road, but we soon came toa full stop. Our roller coaster ride with the Obamas had ended. We couldn’t even get out of our car and walk down to the intersection of Lobstervilleand Lighthouse Roads to catch a glimpse. Was the First Family biking on Lobsterville Road? Were they swimming at RedBeach? 

We were told that we would have to wait 40 minutes before we could get through. Abby wasn’t happy. Noah’s excitement had vanished. I was feeling down too. I asked the state trooper permission to turn around. As we headed back, we moved only about 20 feet before we came to another stop. On the left, several cyclists were crowded around a woman who was down. Had the motorcade clipped her? Did the cyclist try to find her way into the motorcade? It was an unrelated accident, but I wanted it to be Obama-related somehow. When I inched slowly past the scene, I noticed it was Barbara, my friend, on the ground, bloodied, bothface and knee. Rina was standing next to Barbara, looked at me and called out “Jonathan!”

Rina and I had just met last Friday. She led a challah-baking workshop at a fundraiser. She told me then that she was Barbara’s friend. In a flurry, Rina instructed me to drive back to Barbara’s home in Chilmark, tell Adam, Barbara’s husband, who was working in his studio with no phone, that there was an accident and to meet them at the hospital. Also, Rina wanted me to place her bicycle along with Barbara’s on my bike rack while she accompanied Barbara in the ambulance. Was I going to say no to this noted food authority? I followed precisely what my challah instructor had asked. After all, it was Rina who taught me how to braid my challah so beautifully! But more importantly, I wanted to help Barbara.

Racing down-Island, motorcade-less, the world of Obama quickly receded and we returned to real life with all of its problems. Was Barbara all right? We all began to worry. When we arrived Adam said he had heard about the accident, mentioned that she may have broken a hip, and then drove away. I took the bikesoff the rack and placed them next to a tree. Catching my breath from all of the excitement I decided to take in the expansive view of the ocean from their home off of Middle Road.I invited Abby and Noah to join me. We all got out of the car. Noah told me thathe saw a dog on the property, and that I better put Lizzie on a leash. Leashless Lizzie turned a corner heading up to the house, and the dogfight began.

Two small dogs with piercing yaps were at each other’s necks. I grabbed Lizzie, cradled her in my arms and ran toward the car. Adam and Barbara’s dog kept trailing us, barking and nipping at my feet. My son cried out, “Let’s get out of here!” He opened the car door and got in, but before he had time to close it the other dog landed on Noah’s lap, jumping over him to get to the other side of the car where I was standing with Lizzie. The dog landed right on my heels, but I was able to shoo her away and get into the car with Lizzie,slamming the door behind. My son yelled, “The windows, put up the windows!” The little nipper was ready to leap. With windows and doors sealed tight we were safe.

Driving back to the West Tisbury library we realized that an hour and a half had passed, and that we should have just kept to our plans. After all, we weren’t part of the Presidential motorcade.

But the morning wasn’t all for naught. We had a ride up-Island that we’ll never forget, and Abby did say I was a nice guy that morning for telling Adam about Barbara, and delivering the bikes. I called Adam and Barbara later in the day, left amessage to see whether all was okay, but no word yet.

Lizzie has been sleeping all afternoon. We’re all recovering. When I told my nephew about what had happened, he said, “All of this happened in one day”?

Jonathan Lipnick