I never really believed that old saw about journalists being unable to resist following a fire engine's siren, but now I'm not so sure. I heard a siren a couple of weeks ago in the midst of my navel-examining trip to my Midwestern roots--and followed it.
The decision was complicated by the temporary acquisition of three traveling companions: my youngest daughter and my two grandsons, ages 5 and 8. I picked them up at the end of a family vacation in South Dakota, and for one delightful week they explored the Midwest with me. My daughter shares my affection for this part of the country, and I wanted very much for my grandsons to feel it, too.
We were staying in a motel in Columbia City, Ind., when it was announced that George Bush and J. Danforth Quayle would launch their campaign in Quayle's hometown of Huntington, just 20 miles away. What better Americana for these kids to see, I thought. Their mother was a little dubious--for good reasons, it turned out--but we went.
Although we arrived 2 1/2 hours before the candidates, the Court House Square was already jammed, and we couldn't get within 100 yards of the podium. So we worked the fringes in intermittent rain showers--along with bored reporters who were out interviewing the natives because there wasn't much else to do.
A desultory effort was being made to keep the crowd engaged. There was a band and a series of speakers who kept railing at Ted Kennedy and Dan Rather--apparently the two principal villains to the Republicans of Huntington. The crowd would boo on cue when these names were mentioned, but eventually they tired of that and a kind of expectant torpor took over.
There was more interesting action on the fringes of the crowd. My grandsons were rating political rallies with a flat zero until they discovered that the local Bush people were supplying free hot dogs, pizza and soft drinks. That mollified them while we struck up conversations around us.
One of the more evocative was with a balding, laconic senior citizen named Hayden Schenkel, who identified himself as the Huntington County Democratic chairman and was holding forth in a store front in the middle of the proceedings with a sign over the door that read: "Democratic Headquarters." I watched him turn down a number of requests for Dukakis banners and buttons, and finally asked him why.
"We got orders from the state and national committees," he said, "to let Quayle have his day. This is his hometown. But we'll be back out there working tomorrow."
Every few feet, vendors were selling Bush-Quale T-shirts. The price at the center of action was $10; a few blocks away, they were being sold for half that price. When I told one of the $10 vendors he was being undercut up the street, he growled, "Probably some damn Democrat."
A well-dressed youngish woman was telling a reporter, "It's terrible the way the media has picked our Dan apart. This whole National Guard thing is ridiculous." The reporter was writing furiously.
A helicopter appeared in the near distance then, dipping and pirouetting a few hundred feet off the ground. The word spread rapidly through the crowd, "They're coming." And so they were.
I ran with my family to the intersection where the motorcade--which originated at the Fort Wayne airport, 25 miles away--would enter the downtown area. It was like visiting royalty. A dozen motorcycle police, headed by the sheriff. Four state police cars, sirens wailing. Then a limousine and a van carrying the candidates and their families. And, finally, four buses carrying the press. We were virtually alone at the intersection and got our only glimpse of the candidates. Bush waved at my oldest grandson, which joined the hot dog and pizza as the only trophies of a long day.
We could neither see nor hear the speakers when we got back to the square, so we walked back to our car to try and beat the exodus from Huntington. The following day, I put them all on a plane back to their home in Boulder, Colo., where I'm sure the kids will be the only ones in their block to have seen a live presidential candidate--for awhile, at least. That's got to be worth a point or two when they think back over their trip with Grandpa.