All this talk lately of the presidential inauguration brings me back to my youth and thoughts of a couple of encounters of my own with a U.S. president.
The president was Lyndon Baines Johnson and the first time I met him was in 1961, just months after he became our V.P. It was in the middle of a scorching hot summer and I, along with three of my buddies, was touring Washington. All four of us were Vermont legislative pages.
Thanks to the chaperonage of my grandpa, our parents deemed our trip “safe.” We were 11- and 12-year-old hellions, so the question might rather have been, “Was Washington safe with us?” My grandpa, Sen. George Aiken, met us at the bus station and took us back to his Washington home at the Carroll Arms Hotel.
Grandpa Aiken and his staff had our week all planned out: a tour of the U.S. Mint, the FBI, and many other quintessential Washington tourist stops. But we were particularly delighted to learn we would meet the vice president of the United States.
On the day of our visit, we were brought to the vice presidential suite in anticipation of LBJ’s arrival. As I remember, we were waiting in an outer office when suddenly a door burst open and in came a harried vice president.
“Whaddaya want, George?” LBJ asked with monumental impatience.
My grandfather, ever the diplomat, said “Lyndon, I thought you’d like to meet my grandson and his friends.”
Trapped, Johnson beckoned us into his office where he briskly made time enough to shake our hands and pose for a quick picture. I’ll never forget the feeling I got that day, though it was of total insignificance in the mind of a very “cold” and unfriendly man.
In less than three short years, the world would learn that President Kennedy had been assassinated and Lyndon Johnson would step up to the presidency.
Enter a weird “music” juxtaposition ... Everyone from my era remembers exactly what they were doing when they first heard of the assassination. I was a second-year high school trombone player attending a district music festival in Northfield when word came out.
Strangely, it would be music that would lead me to my second “meeting” with Lyndon Johnson.
The Montpelier High School Band was not only a good band but was my high school “piece de resistance.” You see, I was a poor student on the whole, but playing in the band brought me out of my shell and made me want to excel. I always looked forward to band practice, but one in particular brought an exciting announcement ... the MHS Band had been selected as Vermont’s delegate to play in the upcoming presidential inauguration parade!
Johnson had been officially elected president in November 1964 and sometime in December, we got our invitation. We immediately hit the cold December streets of Montpelier practicing our marching band techniques. When the January day finally arrived, sixty crazily excited adolescents, Mr. Mix, our band leader, and a handful of chaperones loaded onto two Vermont Transit buses for the 10-hour trip to Washington.
The song “Norman” was popular at the time and one of the bus drivers was named Norman. That poor guy suffered something terribly!
Two things stand out in my memory of our inauguration experience:
1) It was so cold that a striking combination of stuck and frozen valves, keys, and slides rendered our erstwhile average high school musical group into an out-of-tune, out-of-step mishmash!
2) Our team of hard-working chaperones was somehow able to keep the 60 of us out of trouble with the law and free of premature parenthood during our two-night stay in the nation’s capital!
Most of our contingent was excited about a distant glimpse of President Johnson, but not me... I already knew the scoop on him!
A lot of water’s gone over the dam since those two trips to Washington. Recently I’ve renewed my friendship with a couple of my page buddies from long ago and we’ve laughed about our vice presidential visit.
Johnson didn’t spoil us for life... we feel totally “significant” these days! And my musical connection has followed me almost to “geezerdom” thanks to that foundation I got in the Montpelier High School Band. I still go out and play my horn a lot. It’s something I’ll always have, along with a couple of “chilly” memories of America’s 36th president.
Burr Morse is a seventh-generation farmer in East Montpelier.MORE IN Commentary
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