Harper’s Ferry is a quiet, quiet little town. It always has been. Not much of great import happens here. The days spin by lazily with a sense of southern genteelness (if that is indeed a word) that puts you at ease. It’s the kind of town that makes you want to sit on your front porch with a sweet tea, or mint julep if that’s more your speed, and watch the sun arc across the blue sky sparsely populated by wisps of cotton white clouds. Harper’s Ferry is the kind of town you would expect to find Norman Rockwell like scenes on a Sunday afternoon in the spring. And more often than not, you do. You can see Little Johnny playing with Spot out in the yard. there’s always the lovely young, or older couple, having a picturesque barbecue with friends. Family outings along the Shenandoah River complete with inner tubes and floating coolers. You can spot old men sitting outside Mena’s pizzeria having a discussion or occasionally playing cards or checkers. It’s the kind of town you think of when someone says “It’s so quaint and cute.” And I’m proud to say that it truly is that.
So when a luminary such as the President of these United States shows up, you can imagine it is a pretty big deal.
April 22nd 1998, Earth day.
Harpers Ferry was abuzz with activity. Large, black, Chevy suburbans cruised the streets and police from the town, county and state were on high alert and had eyes everywhere in town that day. Throngs f people flooded the streets all in an effort to get a glimpse of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore who were in town to celebrate Earth Day by volunteering and helping to plant trees in Harpers Ferry and along the Appalachian trail. This was the first Presidential visit to this town since President Taft stayed at the Old Hilltop House.
My mother, Carroll Easton was at her post that day. (at this time in 1998 I was living in Ocean City, MD, experiencing all the things a young man was meant to experience) It was a normal day at the hotel, the Presidential visit had thrown a bit of a stop-block on people coming to the hotel for lunch for the day, dinner was expected to be busy, but the afternoon was abnormally slow. there was only one waitress on staff for the afternoon and the morning waitress was about to leave for the day…
“That’s when 2 of those big black suburbans pulled up and 4 very large, very stern looking young men in all black suits got out.” My mother recounts to me. “They came into the hotel, went to the front desk and I saw Linda point me out to them from the lobby. They came over and one of them, a very nice man named Paul Cusak introduced himself. He was executive assistant to the vice president.”
“Ms. Easton, I have a bit of an unexpected reservation for you.” he said with the measured tone of someone who knew what he was doing. “The president and vice president would like to have a quiet lunch here, will that be a problem?”
“Not at all Mr. Cusak.” she said with her southern charm.
Mr. Cusak stood and smiled. “Excellent, The President will be here shortly, I will have to have one of our secret service agents make a security check of the hotel.”
Carroll nodded. “Of course sir.” She escorted the men through the hotel, introduced the agents to the minimal staff on duty that day, and the hotel was cleared for a Presidential visit. The second they left, my mother tells me, “it was a ‘all hands on deck’ situation. Chef went into a full-blown panic, the housekeepers cleaned the lobby and the small dining room overlooking the Potomac with a blur of fury and vigor. I’m sure its fair to say the place near to sparkled after the whirlwind of vacuums and feather dusters whipped through the lower levels of the hotel.
And just like that, a fleet of black suburbans with government plates pulled into the lane of the hotel. An army of men and women exited the vehicles and leading the group were President Clinton and Vice President Gore. The energy was palpable as the most powerful man in the country walked into the same hotel where countless others have walked. My mother grabbed the morning waitress (whose name escapes me) and told her “You really need to stay right now.” Thankfully, when she saw the wall of large black SUV’s that almost surrounded the hotel, she agreed. The officials entered followed by their entire entourage. The President and Vice President had a quiet lunch in the small dining room that afforded a wonderous view of the river valley below, while the presidential staff and officers of the secret service filled the large dining room almost to capacity. They ate, talked and had what everyone who ate at the hotel had…a very very pleasant lunch with a great view.
Afterwards, my mother was concerned that she wasn’t going to be able to meet the man who held the highest office in the land. But she wasn’t to be worried for long. Mr. Cusak came to her and said the president would like to meet the staff. So they all gathered out front in an orderly line and the President went down shaking every one of their hands and spending a few moments speaking to each of them. The vice President did the same thing. My mother told me, when I asked her about the experience, that he was very charismatic and extremely handsome. “Mr. Clinton was very suave and completely nice. he had a Robert Redford appeal to him. I immediately liked him. you knew he was confident and sure.”
it just goes to show, you never know who will show up at the Old Hilltop House.