Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How I Freaked the Secret Service and Lived to Tell About It

This story, like many stories, is at the confluence of many streams. The story itself is a simple one, but to appreciate the simplicity you need to know something about the contributing streams. So that’s where I’ll start. Forgive me if it takes awhile for even the hint of drama to show up.

* * * * *

The story takes place in Baltimore, Maryland, during the Summer or Fall of 1972 during the run-up to the Presidential election that year. I was working as an assistant in the Chaplain’s Office at The Johns Hopkins University. One stream is about the chaplain, Chester Wickwire, and his role in the Civil Rights movement. This stream explains how the chaplain happened to be at the event in question.

The event in question was a stop on the campaign trail – another stream. That explains the existence of the freaked out Secret Servicemen: they were accompanying Sargent Shriver, Democratic candidate for Vice President, who had a reputation as fine speaker. He was speaking before Baltimore’s Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, an organization of black ministers who had been central to the Civil Rights movement in Baltimore. That made them central to getting out the black vote, which is why Shriver was speaking to them.

Wickwire had been deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement as well. In consequence, he was a member of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. That gets him to the meeting.

* * * * *

Now we’ve got to get me hooked up with Wickwire and give me something that would freak out a handful of Secret Serviceman. That’ll take some ‘splainin’.

Oh, the freak-out is easy enough. I stood up and blew a fanfare on my trumpet. It was loud, they weren’t expecting it, and they jerked to full tactical alert. As they should. That’s what you do when you’re a Secret Serviceman on detail, you get ready for action when you hear an unexpected loud noise.

The fact that it was only a fanfare also explains why I’ve lived to tell the story despite the fact that those Secret Servicemen experienced a moment of, shall we say, heightened awareness. As soon as they saw what was going on, they relaxed. Things were cool. The ministers smiled, laughed. Shriver shook my hand, as did Parren Mitchell, one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Things were cool. We ate lunch. And then Shriver had his head handed to him by Homer Favor. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

* * * * *

But, I forgot. I was going to tell you how I got hooked up with Wickwire and what the bleep I was doing with a trumpet at a luncheon where Baltimore’s Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance was being wooed by the man who would later become Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brother-in-law.

OK, me and Wickwire – another stream. He was chaplain at Johns Hopkins. I was a student there, first undergraduate, then graduate. When I drew number 12 in the Selective Service draft lottery I was obvious I was going to be drafted. So I became a conscientious objector and Wickwire helped me with that, first hooking me up with counseling, then calling in favors to get Congressman to write on my behalf (such as Parren Mitchell and another one whose name escapes me at the moment), and then offering a me a job I could perform as my alternative service.

So, I was doing this and that in the Chaplain’s Office. What about that trumpet? Sure, I was a trumpet player, had been one for years, but what was I doing with a trumpet at a meeting where the black ministers were being serenaded with the founder of the Peace Corps?

And it wasn’t even my trumpet. I belonged to the Chaplain’s Office. But Wickwire bought it on my suggestion. He liked stagecraft as much as the next fellow, and that’s what the trumpet was about.

* * * * *

You need to understand that, while he was Chaplain at Johns Hopkins, he was also somewhat at odds with Hopkins – yet another stream. Hopkins was a top-shelf University and for many on staff that meant that it was had to be above the political fray, and certainly above the Civil Rights movement, which had inspired the Ku Klux Klan to burn a cross on the campus in the Spring of 1966. The KKK burned that cross because Wickwire had invited Bayard Rustin to speak on campus. He also ran a tutoring program that brought black students on campus where Hopkins students helped them with their studies.

This was not consistent with a certain vision of the University as a bastion of the search for truth. Mind you, though, at one time Milton Eisenhower, brother to Ike, had been President of the University. That’s hardly above it all.

One day the clock in the Gilman Hall tower went silent. Gilman Hall was the University’s oldest building and was symbolic of the university as a whole. The clock in the tower atop Gilman Hall rang the hours, and perhaps the quarter hours too. I don’t rightly remember. In particular it rang the noon hour.

When the Gilman Hall clock sounded noon, everyone on campus knew about it. When the clock went silent, well, how the bleep did you know where you were in the day when noon wasn’t being sounded.

I took that as an opportunity for a little fun and merriment, a little showmanship, and Wickwire agreed. I went down to Ted’s Music – a wonderful little hole in a basement off Calvert Street that sold use instruments – and purchased post-horn for the Chaplain’s Office. Post-horns are those long slender trumpets used for trumpeting the start of a horse race.

The idea is that each noon I would go out on a small balcony on the second story of Levering Hall – where the Chaplain’s Office was located and next to Gilman Hall – and sound the noon hour. Thus the Chaplain’s Office was now picking up where the official university had failed. It got us story in the campus newspaper and was, of course, lots of fun.

Now that the Chaplain’s Office had this post-horn we used it on other occasions as well. One of my colleagues in the office made a nice felt banner which we hung from the horn. It was a red peace symbol on a white background with yellow tassels. When Wickwire gave a speech, I’d precede him with the post horn. I blew the post horn at the beginning of Sunday morning services.

And I decided that it would be fun to blow a fanfare to welcome Sargent Shriver to Baltimore. Wickwire loved the idea.

* * * * *

Now the streams are coming together – the one about Wickwire and the Civil Right movement, the one about the 1972 Presidential campaign, the one about me and Johns Hopkins and the chaplain and I suppose we really ought to have a separate stream about me and trumpets, but we won’t, because this story is getting too damn long.

There we are sitting in the basement of the church – just which one I don’t recall – me in my hippie clothes and long electrostatic hair and with the post horn. Oh, those ministers loved that post horn. They knew what I was going to do.

We got the word that Shriver had entered the building. I stood up, put the post horn to my mouth, and blew a mighty Joshua blast on the trumpet as Shriver’s party entered the room. Those Secret Servicemen jumped a foot into the air and a good time was had by all.

We finished lunch and it was time for the speaking. Shriver, of course, was the headliner. But Homer Favor preceded him on the bill.

Favor taught political science at Morgan State (“Teacher’s College” it was back then, now it’s “University”), a Baltimore HBCU known for its ferocious gospel choir. No more than 10 seconds or a half-minute in and I knew I was in the presence of a master orator. Favor may not have been a preacher, but he spoke like one. His speech had the cadence, the rhythm, the music, and the fire of a speech by Martin Luther King. He was that good.

I forget just what phrase he used as a refrain, but the burden was simple: When you’re in office, what’re you going to do for black people? I haven’t got the foggiest idea what Shriver was thinking during that speech. But I wouldn’t be surprised if sweat was rolling down his legs and pooling in his shoes. He had a reputation as a fine speaker, but as he soon showed, he wasn’t in Favor’s class.

When Favor was done speaking the show was, for all practical purposes, over. I remember nothing of Shriver’s speech. And George McGovern, who headed the Democratic ticker, lost the election.

Tricky Dick won.

Those were the days.

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