President’s departure leaves Times reporter in the dust

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The First Family wrapped up their Vineyard vacation Sunday morning. I was the local reporter assigned to pool press duty that day. Their whirlwind departure from Martha’s Vineyard Airport left me spinning on the tarmac.

I arrived at the Tisbury School parking lot shortly before 8:30 am, to join other members of the White House press corps assigned to cover the president’s departure. Unlike me, they would board a companion ‘copter at the airport to accompany him on the rest of the trip.

As I walked toward the group of reporters, I heard one man complain, “I have never encountered such rude people as I’ve met on this Island.” He griped about the high cost of food, particularly in restaurants. Someone asked me who I was.

“I’m with The Martha’s Vineyard Times,” I said, feeling like the lone strand of E. coli bacteria discovered in a Vineyard beach water sample.

Awkward moment aside, I talked with others in the group who said they enjoyed their stay, until two large vans arrived to pick us up.

My colleague Steve Myrick, a veteran of two earlier pool assignments, had advised me to sit in the back of any vehicle so that photographers and cameramen could be the first out.

We arrived at Blue Heron Farm at 8:50 am, where a swarm of Secret Service agents awaited us. Everyone jumped out of the vans and spread their belongings, including laptops, on the ground for inspection. Steve sent me equipped with a plastic bag to put my laptop on. “Why didn’t I think of that?” one cameraman said to me.

We stepped aside as our gear was “swept.” And sniffed. While security agents went through every bag and turned on every laptop computer to make sure that’s what it was, a German shepherd gave everything the sniff test for explosive materials.

“I hope they don’t unpack my backpack, because I’ll never get everything back in again,” one woman groaned, gesturing at what looked like an overstuffed hassock.

She held her breath as an agent gingerly looked through it, and exhaled in relief as he managed to keep the contents from springing out like confetti.

As I looked around, I felt technologically disadvantaged with my five-year-old cell phone. It appeared as if everyone else had a Blackberry clutched in one hand like an appendage.

By 9:10 am the sweep was done. One reporter’s laptop bore distinctive evidence of its canine scrutiny: “I’ve got a perfect paw print on my screen,” he exclaimed.

We got back in the vans and waited. “Here he comes,” someone said. I looked through the trees at a nearby dirt road. The presidential motorcade sped by.

I think I caught a glimpse of the president through an SUV window just as it was closing. In a following SUV a man crouched in the back, the rear window open, a rifle cradled in his arms.

The press vans quickly joined the motorcade, as several Secret Service and State Police vehicles closed in behind us.

Startled looks gave way to smiles and waves as we passed by Vineyard Artisan’s Festival-goers at the Grange Hall and shoppers at Alley’s General Store. Other groups lined up to wave, cheer, and clap at the turn onto Edgartown-West Tisbury Road and along the route to the airport.

We bypassed the main entrance to the airport and entered through a gated area off Barnes Road at 9:45 am. Two large green and white Marine One helicopters and three smaller ones waited on the tarmac, blades spinning. Suddenly, the motorcade stopped. My van companions grabbed their gear and hit the tarmac running.

By the time I emerged from the back of the van, camera in hand, the president and family were already on a helicopter — no photo ops with Island dignitaries shaking the president’s hand and wishing him well on this departure.

Knowing the first question my editor would ask was, “Did you get any pictures?” I aimed my camera at a big helicopter and clicked.

I’m proud to say I got a shot of Bo, the First Dog, bounding out to a helicopter on a leash with his handler.

My moment of triumph was short lived because the entire motorcade drove away, very quickly. The helicopter blades whirred meaningfully, and I was left alone on the tarmac.

It only took seconds for a Secret Service agent to run up and yell, “Ma’am? Were you supposed to be on the press helicopter?”

“No,” I shouted in panic. “I live here!”

“Then you need to run over there, right now,” he barked, and pointed toward a row of State Police and Island first-responders and their vehicles lined up at the tarmac’s edge.

I haven’t run that fast since grade school. Perhaps the sand pelting my head from the helicopter prop wash spurred me on. As I tried to catch my breath and regain my dignity, the helicopters lifted off in two groups at 9:50 am, then split and took separate flight paths across a sunny, blue sky.

As the White House helicopters quickly faded out of sight, a grin spread over the face of the state trooper who stood next to me. In one word he summed up what many Islanders may have felt following the end of a busy summer and another sucessful presidential vacation: “Whew.”