Rachel Lettre, my wife, worked with President Barack Obama on an Earth Day tree-planting service project (C-SPAN 32-minute video) following the signing of a national service bill. She works for Student Conservation Association and this is part four - the finale - of her series on "friends in high places." Also see parts one, two and three.
President Obama, Michelle, Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and Jill Biden were greeted by Dale Penny, SCA’s CEO and Gayle Hazelwood, superintendent of National Park Service-National Capital Parks East. Two students were assigned to walk towards their "principal," greet them and bring them down to where Amtchat and I were waiting to do the introduction.
As they walked up the road toward the work area, a familiar voice was heard saying, “Brenda, Chris, where are you?” President Obama had been briefed and was looking for his students before they even got to him. He was so genuine and put everyone at ease. From where I waited, I watched them all walk down the road chatting, smiling, shaking hands, arms draped around each other like a group of old friends (some a little over dressed). Like any group on day one, it took a minute to get them into a circle. Then Obama walked around and shook everyone's hand (this was great because we could only pair two volunteers with each of them and, of course, the 10 who weren’t paired with Obama wanted to shake his hand).
Amtchat did a brief environmental education lesson and I gave a safety talk. Obama kept interrupting me [Editor's note: A particular pet peeve of my wife's]. I can’t even remember what he was saying other then "someone forgot my boots," but it made it that much more natural. It's funny; it was so natural talking to this group. I wasn't nervous at all considering I was telling the most powerful man in the world to wear his gloves and use good body mechanics when swinging a tool. I was more nervous standing in front of friends and family giving a toast at a wedding.
We were told to speed things up and that Bill had to leave early, so we got right to work. Bill planted the demo tree with Obama looking on and joking about needing to pay attention so as not to "screw it up." Bill responded, "Pay attention? I've got more experience then anyone out here." My favorite was when Amtchat told Bill, "You've got good body mechanics."
After this, the students paired with each of the principals got to work. This was genuine. They didn’t want anything done in advance, so it took some work. Some trees were in rocky soil, some in wet soil, and all required some serious digging. Bill had obviously dug some holes in his day and even commented to the students, "I'm a redneck from Arkansas. I've done this before" in between telling them all about shovel design. Joe Biden talked to his partners about putting fences up around his home in Delaware. Jill Biden worked hard in her pink boots that matched the flowers on the redbud tree she was planting. Barack and Michelle’s trees were next to each other and they kept up playful banter with each other throughout the project.
Barack picked up the pick mattock and started digging his hole. Had it not been the president, I probably would have stepped in and told him to put on a hard hat or that he shouldn’t be using that tool without boots! Michelle was working hard digging the biggest hole (which kept filling with water) while Barack teased her and offered to help (she responded by telling him "don't mess with girl power over here").
It was over fast. Before we knew it, we were moving everyone together for a photo and getting ready for them to depart. The students presented the principals with SCA vests and Obama put his on (the monogramming that SCA did and I thought was so cheesy may have worked in our benefit, since he said "it's got my name on it. I guess I have to try it on"). And before walking to the motorcade, Brenda and Michael, who will make great crew leaders one day, asked Obama to watch them do the boot dance (a goofy thing that we trailworkers do for fun or to warm up on a cool day). Obama watched with a smile on his face the whole time. This was genuine SCA!
As the motorcade pulled away and the staff and volunteers had a chance to talk to each other, the words that I heard and felt were “perfection” and “flawless” and that felt great.
Everything went as planned or better, and I can say that I played a big part in making that happen. Over beers that night, Amtchat, Leah, and I celebrated the success of the highest profile event we will probably ever be a part of and the work of a great team.