The Night I Met the President

American Heritage, May 2000 | Go to article overview

The Night I Met the President


I REMEMBER THE DARKNESS THAT EVENING AT THE TRAIN STATION. THE CROWD, which I could see because of a few dim streetlights, was very large. I heard my grandfather use the word thousands. People in the crowd were talking quietly among themselves. The large, dark throng was eerie, frightening to a six-year-old. My father was carrying me. I had a broken leg at the time, and it was in a cast from my toes up to my hip. He held me high so that I could see.

My grandfather worked for the railroad. He was the president of something called a union. And we were here to meet a president, except he was the President of our country.

Because Grandfather was an important man, he was able to get us closer to the track. He did this by taking us around behind the station and through the ticket agent's office. From the front door we went out onto the platform, only a few feet from Track 1.

I knew Track 1. Many times I had heard the deep hollow voice of the loudspeaker say, "Train 29 arriving from Anderson (and other places that always included Atlanta) now arriving on Track 1." I couldn't understand where Track 2 was. Later I would discover that there was no Track 2, and never had been.

"Scrapp, what's the schedule?" my father asked my grandfather.

"They're running way behind. There are large crowds at every crossroads. They're trying to keep the train moving, but people on the track are blocking it all along the route."

"Think we'll be here very long?"

My father was finding my weight a problem. He was using my cast like a flagpole to hold me high above his head.

"They were prepared to some extent, George," my grandfather went on. "The speed for the entire trip was set to take care of the crowds slowing the train, but there are so many...."

Grandfather's words trailed off. He had noticed the bouncing headlight come around the distant bend deep in the night. He watched it for a moment. Even in the dark, Grandfather somehow recognized that particular engine headlight.

"There it is now!" he announced.

And indeed it was. Those who had made it onto the platform leaned forward out over Track 1 to see better. I leaned back. My father almost lost his balance. I had been warned many times not to get too close to the edge.

The engine stopped alongside the water tower. Trains ran on tracks, but engines ran on steam. The snakelike water pipe was lowered. I saw the water splashing into the engine tender.

The main car jerked to a stop almost directly in front of us. Grandfather always knew where to stand on the platform. There was a big long window. Inside was a large Christmas package all wrapped in red and white paper. I marveled at the size of this package. I had never seen a Christmas present this big. But it wasn't Christmas; it was after my birthday, in the spring.

It wasn't until later that I understood. It was the flag-draped casket of the President, making that last, agonizing journey from Warm Springs, Georgia, to Washington, D.C. People in the crowd were beginning to cry.

In a soft, distinct voice my grandfather said to me, "Paul, that's Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I want you to remember this night. I want you to remember it for the rest of your life."

And I have.

--J. Paul Sagesse lives in Florida.

The Great Tri-State Tornado

On the afternoon of March 18, 1925, a warm day for mid-March, about sixty-five degrees, threatening clouds began to gather in southeastern Missouri, forming a vast dark, menacing super thunderstorm cell. From this blackness a funnel descended, touching down three miles north of the little Ozark town of Ellington. There it killed a farmer, the first of nearly seven hundred who would perish that day in America's most deadly tornado.

For the next three and a half hours, the tornado followed a remarkably straight northeastern course, never leaving the ground. …

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