Around Thursday, June
9th, news broke that President Obama would be
visiting Yosemite. A neighbor in Fish Camp quipped to me something about
entertaining the president, which got me to thinking, so on Monday I
emailed Scott Gediman (YNP Public Affairs Officer) and, after thinking
it over, YNP Superintendent Don Neubacher on Tuesday the 14th:
Looking for Yosemite music for the big visit? I played for v.p. Cheney
in 2006 (at a private party)…
"Not sure anyone is looking for music.
But, will pass on. Thanks for sending a note."
I’d mentioned Cheney in order to possibly
assure those considering me that I was somehow qualified, or at least
had previously been background checked and vetted to entertain a v.p.
On Thursday, Scott emails “can you call me
right away” – then I learned that I was being considered by White
House staff to perform. I told Scott that I’d have to cancel my
long-awaited once-a-year opportunity to drop off hazardous waste (paint,
batteries, etc.) in Oakhurst, but decided it was worth it. It was
confirmed the next morning that I’d be performing for the event, so,
sworn to secrecy, I pack up my electric piano, amp, and microphone in
the back of the truck, and lay out hat and clothes for an early morning
and a long day.
I also pack up the Volvo with the hazardous
waste – Diane won’t be able to attend the event (due to limited
seating for invitees), so she got the dubious task.
Saturday, June 18 – get up around 4 a.m.,
leave the house about a quarter to five, encountering a little traffic
coming into Yosemite already. I stop at the restroom at the Swinging
Bridge parking lot, silently monitored by an official-looking police
car, and then head to my destination at the Sentinel Bridge.
is blocked off, but I’m allowed in after identifying myself and
flashing my official-looking parking pass. Wending my way between news vans I park just
north of Sentinel Bridge across from the covered Shuttle Bus stop, which
is being used for sound equipment. A tad before 6 a.m., I check in with
a young lady who’s the White House event coordinator; she introduces
me to Brian, the sound-guy, and we figure out where I should set up.
Amps, mixing boards, and floodlights are
already partially set up, and a slew of news cameras on tripods, and
rows of desks for reporters, all facing Yosemite Falls which is in fine
form this morning. There’s a
temporary metal-fence to hold back the press – I’m set up just in
front of that, and between my vantage point and the President’s podium
are a couple hundred white plastic chairs.
Circling the seating area, the NPS has somehow
trucked in a perimeter of huge incense cedar logs, maybe three feet in
diameter, still decorated with bark and yellow-green staghorn lichen.
These would make a decent security barrier, if needed. I snap a few
pictures of the scene, and then about 6:30 head to the parking lot west
of Yosemite Lodge, now temporarily designated parking for the
presidential guest list.
Milling about and chatting with ranger friends
and early arrivers, I see Ahwahnee manager Brett Archer show up with
Food & Beverage manager Brian Hammill and Executive Chef Percy
Whatley setting up coffee and cookies and such for the guests. I visit
with former Yosemite Chief Ranger Steve
Shackleton, noted climber and motivational speaker Mark
Wellman, actor Lee Stetson (or is it John Muir, himself?!), and
see others with connection to the park or county and state government.
Finally about 8:15 we line up to empty our
pocket contents for examination, body scanning, and the scrutiny of a
serenely competent dog before boarding a Shuttle Bus in the company of a
Secret Service agent to head back to the Sentinel Bridge parking lot.
Riding along is Ranger Kara Stella, silently practicing her
sign-language interpretation for the upcoming speech. I hear her say
“Oh! I’ve never signed the Star Spangled Banner before – I’d
better look that up!” as she hurriedly taps on her smart-phone
Jeffrey Trust photo
Off the bus – to the piano…check the sound,
snap a few more pictures, and it’s nine o’clock, time to start
playing. There are lots more people yet to arrive, so I run through some
songs that I’ll repeat later when everybody’s present: (Here
In) Yosemite by Harry Mabry, The
Bridge By Yosemite Falls by Mac McMillen, mixed with a few
atmospheric pieces like Ashoken
Farwell by Jay Ungar, some Robert Burns songs, and the like. The
morning sun is starting to light Yosemite Falls.
Gary Wuchner photo
Gary Wuchner photo
An occasional reporter stops by the piano
(actually just behind me, on the other side of the barricade), and asks
me a couple questions. More busses drop off more of the vetted and
screened attendees as I adapt my selections to fit (or mildly guide) the
mood of the scene. Guests stake out their seats but most remain
standing, visiting with one another and looking around to see who else
is in the select crowd. A goodly sized group of school children are
here, and representatives of various interests associated with Yosemite.
I gradually begin announcing song titles before
I play them – giving their context as relating to former presidential
Yosemite visits, or to John Muir, or to Yosemite itself, with brief
tidbits about Kennedy, FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Taft, Theodore Roosevelt,
Rutherford Hayes and Grant. The White House event coordinator asks me to
try a sing-along – possibly to encourage guests to start settling into
their chairs, or maybe to engage the somewhat fidgety kids. So I launch
into Down By The Old Merced River
(“where campers are thicker than fleas…”), and The
Big Yosemite Mountains (which later ends up in the White
House Video redux of the event), and a bunch of others including
cowboy songs and On Top Of
Jeffrey Trust photo
About 10:30 the NPS Mounted Color Guard comes
in; the kids lead the Pledge of Allegiance, and a talented young lady
sings the National Anthem. More waiting – I play a few of the Yosemite
songs I’d played an hour and a half earlier and a bunch more that
I’d kept in reserve.
Another fifty minutes pass, then craning necks
and uplifted cameras note the arrival of the presidential motorcade.
While I’m playing a Sousa march, The Fairest Of The Fair, President Obama steps out of his car just
at the north end of Sentinel Bridge. I wonder if he’s seen the picture
of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback traversing an earlier iteration of
that bridge, in the very same location! The White House staffer directs
me to stop playing. I wish I’d been a little more instant earlier when
I asked if I could play Hail To
The Chief upon his arrival – but I’ll never know if they would
have allowed it.
Around 11:20 President Obama strides in along
the south-western perimeter of the parking lot (behind the logs) with
secret service agents in front and behind, and up to the podium with a
cordial “Hello everybody!
(Applause.) Well, everybody have a seat, have a seat. How
gorgeous is this day?” (Applause.)
After the speech, many in the audience approach
the log barrier and shake hands with the president. Recordings of Sousa
marches serenade us – I move to the left (south) part of the parking
lot and wave with the rest – striding back to the motorcade the
president flashes that famous smile and waves back.
After some milling around, and missing the one
shuttle bus back to Yosemite Lodge, I leave my piano and walk back to
retrieve my truck, return, pack up and head home.
It feels somehow different, now, reading the old
accounts of past presidents’ visits to Yosemite; there’s nothing
like being there!