Allow me to set the scene. I was wearing my best business suit and heels, carrying a crummy cheap briefcase and wearing a huge black trenchcoat, like something out of The Matrix only not leather, not at all cool, and it was only 1997 so The Matrix wasn’t out yet. I was 22 years old and an earnest little newspaper reporter at a huge event: The re-dedication of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I was a reporter with the Grand Haven Tribune, which was my first real job. The briefcase was in lieu of a purse and only there for window dressing. It was my attempt to look professional, along with the trenchcoat. I was getting ready for a press conference with three former presidents: Gerald Ford (rest his soul), George Bush (elder, obviously) and Jimmy Carter. My goal was to get President Ford to say something nice about Ottawa County to give the folks at home a thrill. (What can I say? It was a small-town local paper. We left the Marshall Plan discussions to C-SPAN.)
I have to pause in my story for a moment to point out that although my next actions seem epic-stupid in the post 9/11 world, and with the benefit of hindsight, you have to remember I was twenty-two and my previous reporting experience largely involved tracking down the Michigan State University president when he didn’t want to be quoted and shoving a tape recorder at him. And our press packets for this event talked more about where to park than about security protocol. OK, moving on…
I was first to arrive at the press conference room, which was very, very small. I looked at my superfluous briefcase and decided maybe the Secret Service wouldn’t want me bringing in a briefcase into the room if it wasn’t necessary, so I left it on a chair in the hallway, draped my giant coat over it, and went inside, parking myself front and center.
Seeing President Bush stride in nearly stopped my heart, because he was the only one of the group I could actually remember during his presidency. I was close enough to have a game of ping pong any of the former presidents. I raised my hand fastest for the microphone, so I got to ask the first question. President Ford replied, “What?” (Bless his heart, he was eighty-three years old.) So I asked again, louder. He said something nice and I exhaled. Mission accomplished. The press conference carried on and the media corps peppered them with questions of suitable gravitas.
I left the room and picked up my coat. My briefcase was gone. I thought, “How could someone steal my briefcase with all these Secret Service guys around?” (It’s OK to start laughing, now.) So I see this guy the size of a toolshed with a curly wire coming out of his ear and I tap his shoulder, at least, whatever part of his back I could reach. I explain about my missing briefcase. Looking totally placid, he gets on his walkie-talkie and directs me to a police officer outside.
Said officer immediately starts thundering at me, complete with flying spittle, outside the museum in the presence of thousands of spectators. He’s bellowing something about “bomb scare” and “unattended suitcase” and “blowing it up over the Grand River.” He points to the riverbank.
Another moment of scene-setting: we were just outside the museum and from the museum porch to the riverbank is a long, grassy slope. I looked down to see three cops and my suitcase and apparently they were getting ready to explode it over the river. So I flew down the hill, terrified of the angry cop, terrified about the possibly-angry cops below and terrified they’d blow up my briefcase with my car keys and wallet in it. My Matrix trenchcoat was flapping in the cold April wind (yes, in Michigan we have cold April wind). So much for the briefcase helping me look professional.
The cops at the river were more circumspect than their boss. They chuckled in fact, which was embarassing but all things considered, I preferred that. I started apologizing effusively and they just asked me to open it for them (I’d locked it with the combination) to demonstrate I wasn’t trying to blow up any presidents. Then they admonished me not to leave it unattended anywhere. If’d had time to get back to my car before the big speech I would have put it away, but I didn’t. So it was in my hand, between my feet, or serving as my ersatz chair the rest of the day.
I wasn’t out of the woods yet, though. I watched the news that night and for the next nights holding my breath for fear of an item like so: “Police at the Gerald R. Ford Musem re-dedication reported an inadvertant bomb scare caused by a reporter leaving a suitcase just outside the room where the presidents were having a press conference…” I was sure I’d be humiliated and probably fired, and in any case I’d never live it down. Luckily, no one seemed to find it newsworthy, if any members of the media happened to witness my blunder.
Can you imagine if this kind of thing were to happen now? I’d have ended up in Gitmo.*
It took years before the humiliation wore off enough for me to tell this story, and now it’s one of the favorites in my repertoire. Even so, I almost didn’t write about it here (it’s so long, for one thing) but frankly, it’s a much better story than the one time I touched Ted Nugent’s knee.
* If any Homeland Security people are reading this, I’m kidding. Seriously, totally kidding. God Bless the USA.