The Day President Richard Nixon Came to Town
The year was 1970. It was in the fall. This is another one of those events for which I can't quite pin down the exact date. I recall that I was a Freshman in high school, though, so, I'm pretty sure that's when it was. If I had to guess, I would say Nixon came to Springfield to drum up support for the Illinois Republican Party. Yes, that would be a reasonable guess.
What was going on in the world at the time?
Well, I pretty much spent the summer before my Freshman year of high school babysitting and dialing in for updates to a little thing called Con Con -- short for the Constitutional Convention. Illinois changed its constitution that year. Each day of the convention they posted a recording that you could call to get updates on what changes were being made to the Illinois Constitution. Not that I was really all that interested in the Constitutional Convention. It was just something to do. And, I spent most evenings that summer before high school with my friends in a garage on Myrtle Street listening to Credence Clearwater Revival and Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes and trying to figure out our own politics.
The war in Vietnam was in full throttle
And, in an unusual turn of events, Illinois politics was dominated by the Democrats, or, as Spiro T. Agnew referred to them, troglodytic leftists. Of course, in retrospect, we all now know that Spiro was the real troglodyte. But, I digress.
Nixon was supposed to give a speech at noon on the east steps of the Illinois Capitol Building.
My friends, Sue, Rick, Mike, and I arrived a few minutes after noon. Sue and I were Freshman at Southeast High School. Rick and Mike were Juniors at Springfield High School. Rick and Sue were boyfriend and girlfriend. And, Mike and I pretty much went wherever Sue and Rick went. None of us qualified to be hippies, and as much as we wanted to consider ourselves "heads," we really weren't. We did, however, find a lot of comfort in owning the title, "freaks."
This was no field trip for us. We went of our own accord. Springfield public high schools were on a split shift then. Probably due to overcrowding. Juniors and Seniors went to school from 7:00 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and Freshman and Sophomores went to school from 12:15 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. As a matter of fact, Sue and I had to miss part of our first hour to attend the Nixon event. I'm not sure about Sue, but I previously told my first hour teacher that I would be late to school and why. I guess it wasn't a problem.
I wish I could tell you that I was a socially or politically conscious teenager at the time. But, I really wasn't. Every night I watched footage from Vietnam on television. But, there was a large disconnect for me. For as much as I was frightened and in awe of what I saw on the nightly news, and for as much as I was aware of and appalled by the reasons why Americans were in Vietnam, it all seemed so far removed from Springfield, Illinois. For me, as a teenager, it was like the whole world was Springfield, Illinois, and everything else was another planet -- another dimension.
It was a warm sunny day and the crowd was massive and buzzing. Every inch of the lawn was covered with people. The sidewalks were filled and people were spilling out into the street. Having arrived a little late, the four of us were milling about on the outer edge of the crowd trying to get a glimpse of what was going on.
Most everyone in the crowd was dressed in business attire. The four of us were dressed in our school clothes, which meant jeans and shirts.
I was wearing a pair of striped hip-hugger boys Lee Jean bellbottoms with a suede belt that was so well-worn, it was almost a smooth leather. I remember that because I wore those almost everyday. The other three were wearing faded blue bluejean hip-hugger bellbottoms. And the hems of all four of our jeans were totally frayed. The more frayed, the better. Rick had long straight hair, halfway down his back. Mike's hair would have been longer than it actually was except for the fact that it was extremely frizzy. The four of us definitely didn't fit in with the business crowd.
The noise level of the crowd was quite high, and it was apparent the president was no where near. We tried to make our way through the crowd, but it was impossible. There were just too many people -- all shoulder to shoulder -- waiting for a glimpse of their president. So, the four of us just stood there, in the middle of Second Street.
We were trying to appear to be militant, but the effort was wasted. We probably ended up looking more like a bunch of pushy hotheads, and less than peaceful.
Suddenly, before we could see it coming, Mike was pushed facedown on the street, his arms yanked behind his back, by a man in a dark suit and sunglasses. In the blink of an eye, he had his knee in Mike's back, holding him down. Mike was silent -- probably because the air was being pushed out of his lungs by that knee. As Rick moved to intercede on Mike's behalf, his arms were pulled behind his back by another man in a dark suit and sunglasses. Rick struggled and yelled to be let go, but his struggle was futile. The man with his knee in Mike's back, grabbed a paper bag Mike had been carrying and tossed it to a third man in a dark suit and dark glasses. Sue demanded, "hey, what's going on here?" One of the three men, I'm not sure which, evenly stated, "Secret Service. Stay put, young lady."
A small crowd had formed a circle around this spectacle that I was suddenly a part of.
As the third agent ripped open the now confiscated paper bag, Mike's dirty stinky gym socks spilled out onto the agent's shoes. At this point, I just started laughing uncontrollably. I attempted to explain our innocence to the Secret Service agents between gulps of laughter. I finally got out that we were just high school students hoping to see the president.
The agent with his knee in Mike's back seemed to push his knee in deeper as he arose. But he didn't help Mike to his feet, so I reached down to give Mike a hand. The agent still holding the shredded paper bag said, "you kids better get to school now."
I think the whole thing happened in the span of about ten seconds.
The crowd parted, and us four freaks got the hell out of there, our heads held high. We had been confronted by the establishment and we survived. It was like a badge of honor.
Later that day we learned that Nixon did indeed come to Springfield. However, he was secreted inside the State Capitol Building, apparently by the Secret Service. I'm guessing they brought him in from the tunnel that connects that Stratton Office Building with the State Capitol. He didn't give a speech to the hundreds, possibly thousands, of people waiting to see him on that lawn on that sunny fall afternoon.
Within the next four years, Illinois politics returned to a Republican stranglehold, I graduated from high school, Nixon pulled the Americans out of the war in Vietnam, and in the process got himself re-elected as president, and by August 8, 1974, he resigned in shame from the presidency.
© L.M. Carnes 2002.
All content herein owned by L.M. Carnes unless otherwise noted.