In October of 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the border town of Del Rio, Texas, ostensibly to meet with Mexico’s President Lopez Mateo. His visit coincided with my ninth birthday. As far as I was concerned, he was coming for me.
Along with my classmates in Bessie Fricke’s fourth grade at North Heights Elementary, I went into overdrive, pulling out the encyclopedia and learning everything I could about the President. At an assembly the Friday before his visit, which included a Cub Scout color guard and the two fourth-grade classes singing patriotic songs, I presented an essay I’d written. Reading from a page of notebook paper backed by red construction paper, I detailed the highlights of his life—his middle name was David; he’d been a general in the Army; and, most important, although he grew up in Kansas, he’d been born in Texas and so was a Texan.
That last was important because, in 1960, it seemed that no one in New York, where the television networks lived, knew Texas was down here. At times, I was certain that no one in the rest of Texas knew Del Rio existed.
On the morning of the great day, my mother, who had developed a nasty cold, drove me and my ancient Kodak box camera downtown. I wore a black-and-white summer-weight gingham dress with red trim. I’d wanted to wear my Brownie uniform, but Mother had said that since the troop wasn’t assembling, wearing the uniform wouldn’t be appropriate. I nixed her suggestion of red corduroy slacks and navy blazer. Later, waiting in a cold drizzle, I regretted getting my own way.
I’d fretted that my father would miss seeing the President. He’d assured me that since he worked at Laughlin Air Force Base, missing any part of the festivities would be difficult.
All three of us were very excited.
My glimpse of the President was brief, of course, even though the motorcade crept down the middle of the narrow street. I have photographs of a black car surrounded by poker-faced men in suits, each of them with one hand on the car and one hand in a pocket. Because I was looking up at the motorcade rather than down at the viewfinder, I don’t have a photo of the President himself.
It doesn’t matter. I remember him vividly, standing in the back of that car, his arms raised, waving and smiling at the crowd.
It was an amazing day for a nine-year-old: a President for her birthday.
It was a more amazing day when I learned that neither of my parents had voted for President Eisenhower in the previous two elections. They hadn’t wanted him to be President. They hadn’t thought him the best choice. They’d voted for somebody I didn’t even know.
And all the time they were listening to me babble “the President the President the President,” they hadn’t said one negative word.
Putting aside any disagreement they had with President Eisenhower’s politics or personality or party, they’d endured my hero-worship, supported my scholarship, and listened to me practice reading my essay. They’d hauled me downtown and stood outdoors for two hours in miserable weather. They’d demonstrated respect for a man, for an office, and for their child. They’d let me feel intelligent and important and grown-up. They’d let me express my patriotism.
In fact, by allowing me the freedom to express my patriotism, my parents showed me what patriotism is. They showed me what it means to be an American.