In the early summer of 1992 I got a call from my boss. “Bob, I need you and your crew to meet me at the company plane in a couple of hours packed and ready to shoot on location for a few days.” This was not an unusual call. We lived and worked in a total “can do” environment in those days, more so with our little unit as we thrived on pulling off the impossible and exotic.
Me: “OK Boss. Um, anything you can tell me about what we’re shooting?
Me: “Exteriors or interiors? Film or video? Sound or MOS?”
Him: “Yes. All of that. Send me the name and social of everyone you are bringing. They have to be US citizens. Be there at noon. Click.”
I called the team, told everybody to get home, get packed, check out their gear and decide what we would need to rent on location and get to the FBO where Disney’s venerable G1, tail number 1234MM was parked. The crew and I loaded the gear. We had pounds of raw stock (remember, this is before digital) and I’m talking HEAVY loads of 35mm negative and cases of BetaCam tape, and every tricked-out road box we had full of strangely modified clips, clothespins and jury-rigged mounts, sticks, heads and whatever lighting we could carry along with video recorders, wave and vector scopes, mics and a Nagra, every piece of glass we could get for either camera, enough gaffers tape to repave an interstate and aspirin.
We got aboard the airplane and strapped in as it growled out to the runway. The Gulfstream 1 was Walt Disney’s airplane. It was a time machine, with an interior that looked like it was right out of 1955. “Walt’s seat” was really two seats facing each other with a small table between in the aft cabin and a set of instruments that were repeaters of the main ones from the flight deck-airspeed indicator, altimeter, horizon, compass. The airplane flew on Rolls Royce turboprop engines and at altitude cruised at a comfortable speed with a purr like a 6-ton cat. I have a hundred stories about this airplane but they’ll have to wait for another time.
We didn’t learn what our mission was until we were airborne. It seemed that we were flying to South Dakota to spend a couple of days walking the Mt. Rushmore National Monument, the Badlands and other notable public lands filming and videotaping President and Mrs. George H.W. Bush. Nobody spoke, I think I finally got over the shock enough to ask “What is the message? Is there a script?” “Not really”, said our boss. “The President wants to make this film so that the US Tourism board can use the footage in a film promoting visitation to the US. Just wing it. I’m sure you guys can work with his people to make it work.” We got it. Campaign footage. Only cokes were drunk on that flight.
South Dakota is pretty much as North of Florida as you can get in miles and still be in the US. Geographically, climatically and culturally, it’s another world. We landed and were met on the tarmac by some great Forest Service guys who were our liaisons. “Sorry for the hot weather” one of them said. We literally fell to our knees laughing. It was about 80 and 14% humidity which, to our tropical butts, felt like a fresh winter morning.
We loaded in to a hotel, got our briefing, ate, and hit the sack. Starting at 0600 the next morning, we were on location all over the state shooting B-roll. The Badlands look like Mars, there were herds of buffalo-not fenced, amazing mountain vistas, and of course the monument itself. The next day was the same. On day three, we went up into the national park-by then closed to all other traffic-and met face to face with the sitting President of the United States and his wife. We were pros and now we were in our element. Yes, we respected who these people were, but we had a job to do and were used to celebrities so we broke the ice and went to work. Semi-rugged terrain, pounds of improper gear, no place to charge a battery, an unknown production plan and no radios. No problem. We had gaffers and aspirin.
Essentially, we documented a long hike. We did cover shots, walky-talkies, hand held to get a visceral feel, and some semi-staged “rest stops” where the President and First Lady spoke eloquently about America’s abundant natural treasures. It was an amazing day, culminating at a picnic area on a beautiful mountain lake.
The surrealism amplifier just got turned up to 10. Burgers were being grilled and fishing poles were handed out, to me and the crew too! A half-dozen media freaks from Walt Disney World are now at a private barbecue in the middle of a closed National Park with the President of the United States, trout fishing and hanging out eating burgers and talking. Yep. That’s a full Alice In Wonderland rating.
I was raised in a fishing family. Bass, Catfish, deep-sea, it didn’t matter-we did it. It was how we practiced loving each other. We fished. Our years living in Colorado had engendered a special love of trout fishing in me. Because I knew we MIGHT be near some lakes and streams, I brought my small trout box with me. It had the usual, silver and gold Mepps and Rooster Tail spinners, salmon egg rigs and a bottle of Pautzkes Balls Of Fire, a few spoons and dry flies and the small hooks and swivels used in pursuit of trout on 4 Lb. test line that are almost like fine jewelry. It also contained one of only 2 existing Mike Deluxe Colorado Spinners. These were the real deal-handmade by the guy who had the pinball machine franchise at Celebrity Sports Center in Denver when my dad managed it for Disney back in the mid 60s. We pretty much figured Mike was somehow Mafia, but it only made him seem cooler. He was a gracious guy with a good sense of humor. He fished and he came to Thanksgiving at our house, so he was our bud.
I’m pretty sure that South Dakota Fish and Game had stocked this lake to the point where you could walk across it on the trout. Didn’t care. I was casting. First cast, nothing, Second cast, BAM. WHAM on the 5th. The 7th and 8th were back-to-back keepers! I was King of All Trout.
Finally, taking a breather of cool pine forest, I didn’t get much of at home, I looked around and, not 20 feet from me was The First Lady thrashing the water like a seasoned backwoods guide but not doing any good. I immediately saw the problem-some goofy-ass pink thing with a propeller on it was on the end of her line. Probably some guy in a suit who had never even ordered fish at a restaurant got it at the local K-Mart. Now I respect protocol and in retrospect I was probably an inch from getting shot by an unseen sniper in the trees, but this was about trout fishing dammit.
“Pardon me M’am”, I said as I walked down the mossy shoreline, “but I can’t stand to see you getting skunked out here. Let me trade poles with you. I think this is going to do much better for you.” I reached out to hand her the pole and she said “I appreciate the offer, and the name is Barbara.” I felt my face go bloodless and the words came out before I could intercept them. “Yes M’am, but I have to decide between potentially offending the First Lady of the United States or having my father’s long dead hand rise out of the grave and slap me wall-eyed so I think it’s going to have to be M’am or Mrs. Bush for my own safety.” Then I told her about Mike Deluxe and the famous Colorado Spinner.
The rest of the day was chock-full of stories. I learned a lot about how the government really works that afternoon. That it is made up of people, just people with frailties and limits and fears who love their kids and are trying to do as well as they can like the rest of us. Just sitting at a wooden picnic table eating burgers and listening, I got more insight that has stuck with me than I could have getting a Masters in Poly-Sci. When it was time for them to leave, the President’s limo magically appeared. He shook our hands and got in the car. I have the photo. I look like a dweeb. As it was doing a three-point turn to get back to the highway, I swear to you that the 41rd President of the United States got on the PA system and sang “Dancing Cheek To Cheek” from the car as they drove off. He later lost that year’s election.
What I recalled most today after the news of her passing, was the absolutely genuine smile, the transparent and uncompromised joy and quiet excitement about life I saw in her face as Mrs. Bush took that Zebco rod from my hands. Her twinkled “OK” at my ethical predicament was kind and wise but it was the true and honest gratitude of one fisherman to another that reduced the immeasurable distance in status and seniority between us to one navigable by a simple handshake and the no-words shared in nature.
There may be others like her. There have to be. I’m sure there are, but I haven’t met too many. Bless you Mrs. Bush. We’ll take care of things here. I hope they’re biting for you.