How a White House visit turns into a touchstone moment

The first light of dawn was just breaking over the East River horizon when the Q train pulled above ground to traverse the two-decked Manhattan Bridge.

I had to quickly snatch a glimpse of the stunning New York City skyline and the stone archway portal of the bridge, styled after the Porte St. Denis in Paris, or lose both sights within a span of three minutes. That spectacular morning on November first fueled my excitement, as I envisioned the “floor flopping, door knocking, drapes sliding back and forth” ghost stories of The White House that I happened to read in a blog the night before.

Then  my  cell  phone rang.

“The  bus has  just  left  Manhattan and is now on its way to D.C.” It was all I could remember from the call.

I took the news almost with levity, as I whispered to my husband, “I did not get the latest memo. It turned out that the 6 a.m. departure time has been changed to 5 a.m.” To which, he responded with a knowing look. That first call would be followed by several other calls from my friends in the tour who said they would be waiting for me in D.C.

For a moment, my mind wandered back to that night of October 26, 2013 at the famous Carnegie Weil Hall where select individuals and organizations were honored for raising the profile of the Filipino American community in a unique way. For a brief instant, I shared the same square footage of the classy Weil Hall stage with the other recipients of The Outstanding Filipino Americans in New York (TOFA NY) Awards, in an awarding ceremony that can only be described as world-class. I was the awardee for the category of Education, Research and Technology.

The White House visit would have been an adventure off my bucket list. My thought was interrupted by my husband’s nudge, “We are going back to the Amtrak Station at the Madison Garden,” he whispered. What happened next could rival that of a James Bond movie plot, kind of.

As soon as the train door opened, I found myself urgently led onto the subway platform, into a cab, onto a Washington D.C-bound Acela Express, and then in yet another cab four hours later. Yes, I made it to the South gate of The White House in time for the first of three layers of security checks by the U.S. Secret Service.

Elton and the TOFA NY group converged at the south entrance gate where Jason Tengco, Senior Advisor to The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (APPI) and our White House contact, was waiting.

After being cleared by layers of security, our group entered the East Wing of the White House Complex, and the tour began at the Visitor Entrance Building. Lined at the corridors and the hallways are photographs and sketches of Presidents and their families. A walk along the East Colonnade afforded us a view of the well-manicured Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.

In such a historical place where cameras and smartphones are not allowed, one had to take in the magnificent displays and savor them one artifact at a time. U.S Secret Service agents, however, are present in various rooms to answer questions and provide tidbits of information.

Portraits of the First Ladies are prominently exhibited at the Gold Room or The Vermeil Room. Inside, a bright floral arrangement sits atop  a  circular  19th  century  and  Empire revival  style  mahogany center table. Displayed in the China Room are pieces of china glass used by the Presidents. Then there was this library, which boasts of an extensive collection of “volumes of history, biography, fiction, and the sciences, all by American authors.”

On the way to the State Floor, one easily notices the elaborately decorated ceiling where glass chandeliers that date from 1902 hang like diamonds. The East Room, the scene of many historic White House events that I only  get to see on TV,  is  used for receptions, press conferences, and other events. I was reminded of the “ghost stories” when someone mentioned that it was in the East Room where Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy had lain in state.

There are three reception parlors at the State Floor – The Green, Blue and Red Rooms. The Red Room is named after its red-schemed walls, carpets, window drapes, and upholsteries. The walls of the Green Room are covered with watered green silk with draperies of striped silk damask. Above the Blue Room is the Presidential Seal and on its walls hang the portraits of Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, among others. Looking out the windows from The Green and Blue Rooms presents a unique view of the White House’s well-landscaped lawn, the fountain, the famous Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial.

Adjoining the Red Room is the State Dining Room that can seat 130 guests at dinners and luncheons. Noticeable are what seemed to be carvings into the fireplace mantel, which was quickly confirmed by a quick peek at the tour brochure. Carved is a quotation from a letter by John Adams, which read: “I Pray Heaven to bestow the Best of Blessings on THIS HOUSE and All that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under this Roof.”

As the entourage exited the building through the Tennessee marble floor of the Entrance Hall, the TOFA group excitedly posed for individual and group photos at the steps of the North Portico with “The White House” as backdrop.

Then the tour that took maybe 40 minutes was officially over.

The TOFA group’s fun and emerging camaraderie, however, did not end there. As tour member, Cristina Pastor, aptly puts it, “It is nice to see this disparate group of people who are not really close friends but in several hours formed a bond that is warm and funny and refreshing and just different. They are now talking about a Christmas party… ”

Foremost, the White House tour experience serves as yet another reminder – an inflection point – of how greatly blessed I am to have been gifted with a husband, who has been my  touchstone all these years.

This was first published at filam.net under the title “Racing to the Whitehouse without losing my sanity… and lipstick purse.” 

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