It was cold and rainy on Dec. 6, 1969, when Air Force One emerged from the clouds to land at the Fort Smith, Ark., airport. I was there, along with about 2,000 of my closest friends to welcome President Richard M. Nixon to Arkansas.
Nixon was on his way to Fayetteville to witness the Texas-Arkansas football game, but had to land about 60 miles south in Fort Smith because the Fayetteville airport runway wasn’t long enough to accommodate his aircraft.
Anyway, I was a sophomore in high school and begged my mom to let me take her car to the airport to see Nixon. I actually arrived before they opened the gates to the Air National Guard section of the airport about 9 a.m. Nixon’s plane didn’t arrive until about 11, so we had plenty of standing around to do.
A press plane landed about 20 minutes ahead of Nixon’s plane. Reporters came out and struck up some conversation with some of those around me along the rope barriers set up for the occassion. The Southside High School band was there to play “Hail to the Chief.”
I don’t recall Nixon making any kind of formal speech, but he came down the rope barrier shaking hands during the brief time he was there. When he got to within about six feet of my spot in line, Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller whispered something to him, which I assumed was about the need to head up to Fayetteville in time for kick-off of the game.
Nixon turned away and started to walk to the waiting helicopter, but several hundred disappointed well wishers let out a collective “awwwww.” Nixon turned around and came back and shook hands all the way down the line, including mine. I have pictures! He even took time to shake a few hands of the high school band members.
A couple of things happened that morning that I still clearly recall:
First, a reporter who stepped off the press plane complained of the cold weather and one of the folks waiting with me offered to sell him the stocking cap he was wearing. The reporter took him up on the deal and paid about $10 for the cap. I was impressed with his walking-around money.
Second, a man armed with a Kodak Instamatic climbed up on one of the barrels that held the rope barrier just as Nixon’s plane was pulling onto the tarmac. A sheriff’s deputy came running over and shouted for the man to get down. I’ll never forget the guy’s reply after he jumped off. He said “come the revolution, you are going to get yours.” (Although, I believe the deputy was already out of earshot) We had a counter-culture wannabe in the crowd!
Finally, when I got home my mom told me that a friend of mine called minutes after I left to go to the airport. His family had tickets to the big game, but his mother decided it was too cold and wet to sit in the stands. So he was calling to offer me the extra ticket.
RICHARD NIXON COST ME THE OPPORTUNITY TO WATCH THE GAME OF THE CENTURY IN PERSON.
I didn’t hold it against him.Almost 40 years later, that day remains one of my fondest memories.
I took this photo of Air Force One sitting on the tarmac in Fort Smith and had not seen the picture for decades. It showed up in my e-mail box Monday morning courtesy of my dad, who obviously ran across it while looking through some old photos.
His only comment: “Do you remember this?”
I certainly do.
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