The day Jay Rockefeller walked into the jewelry store where I worked during high school I was on a ladder taking Christmas decorations down. More specifically he came in to pick up a watch he’d been given for Christmas that needed to have links added. If Jay didn’t have custom tailored suits made, he would definitely need to shop at the Big & Tall section of Men’s Warehouse; many more links in the metal watch were in order.
He was the Governor of West Virginia at that time and I was a sixteen-year-old boy taking down boughs of pine branches hanging from the top of the seven-foot tall display cases. Obviously the Vietnamese watch repairman was not ready for him to walk into the store to claim his watch so soon after the holidays either.
Politicians are typically not found of silence and within a few minutes he asked if I knew any of his children. I had fantasies of dating one of them but this probably wasn’t the time to mention that. Noting that it was a slow process to move the ladder every few feet he volunteered to help. Together we had the Christmas decorations down in about five awkward minutes.
The jewelry store’s door had been propped open by a deliveryman unloading at the curb. We were both startled when a black starling flew in the store and started banging into the chandeliers. The watch repairman came out with Jay’s wristwatch and saw the bird’s path of destruction. While I was filling out the sales receipt for our larger-than-life customer he brought his Vietnamese slingshot out of the back room and nailed the bird on the first shot and tossed it into the garbage can with a thump. After an uncomfortable silence Mr. Rockefeller asked if I wanted to participate as an ‘extra’ in the T.V. commercials for his second run at being governor.
A few months later I was at Coonskin State Park and we were being filmed while loading our plates at a staged picnic buffet full of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He was on one side of the picnic table with several of us on the other side making small talk so the camera could see our lips moving. We had to shoot that scene several times because he was focused on talking while giving us eye contact and not looking at his plate. Whenever his fried chicken slid off of his flimsy paper plate into the baked beans or coleslaw someone yelled ‘cut’ and we started at the beginning of the buffet.
The American Legion sponsors a summer camp known as Boy’s State for two students in each high school to learn about politics between junior and senior year. My high school principal recommended me to the American Legian after he received a recommendation letter from Governor Rockefeller’s office. After one month of studying politics and setting up our Boy’s State government, Rockefeller came to speak at our commencement exercise. Our Calhoun County regiment had to march with hundreds of other students in front of his observer platform. As we turned to salute him I noticed a small smile on the governor’s face. That smile may have been from recognition. It could also have been because the rest of my company was marching on a LEFT-RIGHT-LEFT-RIGHT-LEFT command. I had unfortunately managed to start the march with my right foot instead of my left.
Several years after graduating from college I went back to my parent’s small company in West Virginia to computerize the estimating and accounting functions and market their cabinets to industrial clients like DuPont and Union Carbide. Our company was invited to take a marketing (lobbying) bus trip to Washington D.C. with the W.V. Chamber of Commerce that included a reception at Senator Rockefeller’s home and a behind the scenes tour of the Senate.
As our bus eased past the security gates and cameras up to his woodland mansion in the hills of suburbia D.C. at Rock Creek Park we were greeted by a row of men in tuxedos wearing white gloves and holding silver trays of champagne and cigars. Entering the vestibule-like foyer there were gigantic oil paintings of male ancestors flanking either side. Perhaps one was Uncle Nelson Rockefeller and the other the founder of his family’s Standard Oil Company and/or John D. Rockefeller. These reminded me of the paintings in Marriott Hotel lobbies of the two Marriot brothers or perhaps the aristocracy in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Most men were standing outside the house smoking the cigars so he and I had a few minutes in the luxurious parlor. I was ill equipped to discuss anything of substance related to West Virginia politics so I asked him where his favorite travel destination was. He said his family traveled a lot when he was a teenager and he enjoyed riding elephants in Cambodia and taking a camel caravan through a desert in Africa if I remember correctly. At his body size, one can only assume horseback riding was not an option but Asian or African wildlife could be a more appropriate size for recreational riding. Better him than me based on my luck with horses as noted in a prior blog post.
His backyard was reminiscent of a state park. There was more than a slight angle to the yard that sloped greatly toward a distant creek. Here I was talking to him again and he asked if there was anything he wanted me to do for him. I politely suggested that we switch places so that I was on the uphill side of the yard and he on the downhill side. Other lobbyists were really grilling him a bit harder than me. Two years after my visit to his home, he hosted Bill & Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy to lay the groundwork for the initial health care reform package.
He said that was a reasonable request so we switched places. Then said ‘I meet a lot of people but something tells me we met years ago’. I replied that in high school I worked at Galperin’s Jewelry Store. He said, ‘I was only there one time and I helped someone take Christmas decorations down and then someone killed a bird with a slingshot’. I said, ‘Yes Senator, that was me’. I mentioned we were in a few of his commercials together with KFC sliding off the plate. He said, ‘Am I correct in also assuming that you went to Boy’s State’? We both burst out laughing.
The next day our W.V. Chamber of Commerce delegation patiently waited in the antechamber to Senator Robert Byrd’s office for an extended period of time. Presumably the untouched buffet table of snacks and drinks would be consumed after the Senator’s arrival. Breaking all protocol I snagged a blueberry muffin and stood near a closed door in the corner to keep my blood sugar from plummeting any further. I have no idea how Senator Byrd entered the room unseen. Regardless, he stood next to me and started shaking my hand before I knew what was happening. It didn’t take long for our country’s main Parliamentarian to realize he was smashing the muffin into my palm. He quickly faced his hovering staff and they started wiping his hands off with a readily available towel. May the longest serving Congressman in U.S. history rest in peace.