Friday, June 5, 2020

My favorite President Reagan story

On the Sunday after we return from our Memorial Day trip to Santa Barbara, James J (Jack) Kilpatrick, the newspaper columnist, invited Nancy and me to his home in Virginia for lunch. The security people gave their okay, and that Sunday afternoon I discovered another of the more enjoyable perquisites of being president.

We lifted off from the South Lawn aboard a Marine helicopter at about noon on a bright, beautiful spring day, and twenty minutes later were landing a couple hundred yards from Jack’s home in rural Virginia. He was waiting to meet us, and on the way to the house he pointed out several men who were busily working in a tent.

“Your fellows have been here all week installing your phones,” he said.

“What do you mean, my fellows?” I asked.

“They told me they work for the White House and wherever you go, you have to be able to talk to anyone in the world—in case there’s an emergency.”

It was the first time I’d heard that. Later, I discovered that even a dinner invitation to a friends home in Washington meant White House phones would have to be installed and operating there when we arrived. But that Sunday morning, it was news to me.

As we walked toward the house, Jack told me more about his conversation with the people from “Signal,” the White House communications agency.

He said he had questioned their boast of being able to reach anyone in the world from the temporary phone set up.

According to Jack, they said: “Okay, name someone.”

Jack named his son, a marine who was on guard duty at an embassy in Africa. In less than five minutes, he said, they had his son on the line and Jack and his wife got to talk to him.

Then the man from Signal, possibly with a little sense of pride, said: “Anyone else?”

“Yes, I have a son who is a quartermaster of the USS Pratt,” a destroyer in the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, Jack said.

A few minutes later, however, the Signal people told him that they were unable to reach Jack’s other son, and Jack said, “But you said you could reach anyone anywhere in the world.”

Yes, normally that was true, they said, but the USS Pratt was on maneuvers, and as long as the maneuvers were going on, only the president could reach them.

By the time Jack had finished his story, we were inside the big farmhouse and starting to meet the other luncheon guests; among them was the young wife of the quartermaster who was on a destroyer participating in maneuvers somewhere in Mediterranean. She was a lovely young woman and she mentioned that she hadn’t seen her husband in months.

I slipped away and went out to the Signal tent and said: “Is it really true that you can call anybody in the world from here, including Quartermaster Kilpatrick on the USS Pratt?”

“Oh, yes sir,” one said.

“Get him,” I said.

I went back to the house and told the young lady she was going to get to talk to her husband. Understandably, she was ecstatic. Although the call didn’t come through until after Nancy and I had left the farm, we'd only been back in the White House ten or fifteen minutes when Jack and his daughter-in-law phoned to say she had spoken to her husband and was overjoyed.

A couple of weeks later I received a letter from Quartermaster Kilpatrick. He thanked me for arranging the chance to speak to his wife, and went on to describe what it had been like that day in the Mediterranean.

Because of the maneuvers, he said, the air had been full of radio traffic, ships talking to ships, admirals talking to admirals.

Suddenly, a voice came over the air and said, “White House calling.”

Another voice said, “What code is that?”

Then a third voice spoke up: “Maybe that’s no code, maybe it’s the White House calling.”

“Not even Hollywood could have silenced the airwaves as quickly as they were silenced,” Patrick wrote. “Then they came down and found a lowly quartermaster on a tin can and told him he was wanted on the phone.”

The young sailor closed his letter by saying, “It was as if God had called the Vatican and asked for an altar boy by name.” He signed his letter, “Your altar boy.”

There were more letters from him in the years that followed, always with the same sign-off. When Jack told me his son was going to reenlist and was about to be promoted, I arranged for both events to take place in the Oval Office in the presence of his family.

On the Sunday evening after I had arranged for a young wife to speak to her husband in the middle of the Mediterranean, I told Nancy, “You know, some days, this job is more fun than others.”
Source: An American Life, by Ronald Reagan, pp. 277-278.

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