We settled into comfortable leather chairs, facing each other with more legroom than first-class accommodations on a commercial aircraft. My seat had its own window and on every armrest was a box of M&M’s with the presidential seal. Looking out my window, I noticed the president’s limo parked just under the wing of the aircraft. Brokaw was walking from it, stopping at the clipboard checkpoint Mike and I had cleared minutes earlier.
Tom arrived with a White House official, and we were ushered into an adjacent conference room to wait for the president. The interview, we were told, could last no more than six minutes. Mr. Bush was on a tight schedule. With nothing to do but wait, we sat, unsupervised, in a room on the most sophisticated airplane ever built, waiting for the most powerful man in the world.
Mike and I had brought very little equipment—a camera of course, audio gear, and a backpack, which contained a few extra batteries. I started making a mental checklist of the situation: A) I was on Air Force One; B) I had lots of room in my backpack; C) There were many cool things on the airplane; and D) No one was watching me. In some so-crazy-I-can’t-believe-I-even-thought-this moment, I decided that whatever could fit into my backpack was going home with me.
First, I eased my hand up to my head, pretending to scratch an itch I didn’t have ... then I swiped the headrest cover off the Velcro “securing” it place. Next up, the little boxes of M&M’s. Walking past the rows of seats I covertly snatched every box, propelling each one into my bag. Those things are never packed to the brim so, thinking the rattling candy might give me away I shoved tissue paper on top of the sweets to keep the noise at a minimum. Then snatched the entire box of Kleenex.
In a normal bathroom, there isn’t much to take notice of. But in the lavatories on Air Force One, a treasure chest of items goaded my thievery. A toothbrush with the presidential seal on the handle was an easy item to conceal. Harder to hide—but not impossible—was the water glass with a bald eagle etched into the base. Even the toilet paper was first-rate. It must have been thirty-ply because it felt thick enough to dry off after a shower. There wasn’t a seal to be found anywhere on it, so I left it hanging on the roller. I took Tic Tacs, a box of soap, hand sanitizer, and a white washcloth with a bright blue Air Force One logo stitched along the bottom. I plopped myself upon the toilet seat cover, thinking surely someone important had sat in the same spot at some point.
Just outside the bathroom, a beautiful, hand-carved coaster was strategically placed on the conference room table. Inscribed into its base was another presidential emblem. I tried in vain to free it, but it must have been super-glued in place. After a failed attempt at prying it off, I caught sight of a shiny, stainless steel, presidential seatbelt buckle. It was the most beautiful emblazoned buckle I’d ever seen. But it had apparently been crafted by the same individual who made the coaster, because that thing wasn’t going anywhere either.
More determined than ever to possess what I could not have, I came up with a foolproof plan. But, just as I was about to gnaw it off the strap, the President of the United States entered the room. I had to put my delinquent behavior on hold and get to work.
President Bush sat at the head of the table and, after a few moments of idle chitchat, the interview began. Brokaw asked the president about the political mapping of the country, why Florida was important, and if he felt his chances for a second term in the Oval Office looked good. President Bush answered in that oh-so-casual way he has of speaking and, six minutes later, we were done. Putting the camera on the floor then standing, as protocol would dictate, I waited for the president to make his exit. Mike stood as well. But President Bush didn’t move. Relaxed as could be, still sitting in his chair, he continued talking with Tom. It was mundane chatter, really. Celebrities that got under his skin, baseball teams he thought would have a good season the following year. A White House staffer motioned for me to sit down. It was pretty clear the president didn’t feel like leaving.
Mike and I found ourselves sitting at a table with one of the most respected and renowned TV journalists in history, and the President of the United States, not to mention a bagful of stolen Air Force One items at my feet.
Ten minutes later, a knock at the door and the First Lady stepped in. She’d decided to say “hello” to Tom. Instead of a quick meet-and-greet, Laura Bush took the open chair next to her husband. Not long after Mrs. Bush’s arrival, there was another knock. This time, Condoleeza Rice came in. The conversation switched to football.
The room was growing with people. Bush and Brokaw talked baseball, the first lady spoke about the poor conditions of public schools, and Condoleeza discussed the NFL. And, while I should have been kvelling at having reached such a moment in my career, all I could think about was how to get off the plane before being charged with a dozen federal crimes of theft and piracy. I stole one last thing: a look at Mike. In silent acknowledgement we decided to slink ever closer to the back wall, lest we be found out for even being in the room! Before anyone had time to slap handcuffs on my wrists, we landed in Miami and right on time. After a few campaign stops and a couple of motorcade drives through the city, the president and Air Force One flew back to D.C. But without me.
I was on my way to Miami International from where I would fly home ... in coach.
Looking out the window, my body pinned against the seat, I watched the shadow of the wing disappear from the runway as that floating sensation rolled in my stomach. It was a much bumpier takeoff than Air Force One. That’s when I thought of all the things I’d done. Not just that morning or the night before, but rather how I’d even gotten to this moment in the first place. How a kid like me, who grew up in one small city after another, ever managed to find himself flying on Air Force One with the President of the United States. No one back home would ever believe it. I’d just lived it and I couldn’t quite take it all in. But it happened. As had a number of other things. Remarkable things. Fantastic and wondrous things that, as a kid, I only dreamed possible.
Reaching into my backpack, I pulled out one of the M&M boxes. I opened it and popped a couple into my mouth. Dreaming of my next adventure, I realized each tasted like every other M&M I’d ever had.
But I was keeping the box. No question about that.
An Electronically Torn Portion From Chapter 1
And Why Am I Stealing M&M's From Air Force One?
HOW'D I GET HERE?