The timely death of G. Gordon Liddy last week brought back memories of the time I espied the bungling burglar in the Palm Springs, California, airport.
It was circa 1979 and I was in Palm Springs for a meeting of the American Baptist General Staff Council, a mustering of the denomination’s national and regional staff leaders. In the winter this conscientious group favored warm venues with nearby golf courses and many of their decisions about how to spend the Lord’s money were hacked out on the links. I attended the meetings as director of communication for the Baptists. I was not a golfer so I spent most of my time hiking through the brush that surrounds Palm Springs. When the meeting was over most of the council members remained in town to golf and I took a cab to the airport.
At the airport I discovered my scheduled flight had been cancelled. I went to the airline desk to register for stand-by status on a later flight that would provide a connection to Philadelphia through Chicago.
“We already have your name,” the ground agent said.
“How?” I asked. “I just got here.”
The agent frowned and showed me my name scrawled on her pad.
I was puzzled but decided not to argue. “Okay,” I said.
But a nattily dressed man walked up to the desk.
“I believe I heard you dropping my name,” he said in a lilting Welsh accent.
“Pardon?” the agent and I said simultaneously.
“I am Philip Jenks,” he said.
“That makes two of us,” I said, and both of us reached for our IDs. I flashed my Pennsylvania driving license and Philip Jenks opened his red UK passport book.
“I say,” he said.
“Shit,” I said.
Philip Jenks and I stared at each other.
I began to explain that I traced my ancestry down 12 generations to Britain and Philip Jenks began to explain that the name is very common in Wales. But the ground agent was impatient.
“Listen,” she said. “It’s a full flight. But I’ll put both your names on the wait-list.” She scowled at me. “You,” she said, “are Philip number two.”
Philip number one nodded. “Perfectly fair,” he said. He returned to his seat in the gate area. I decided to walk outside to enjoy the warm Palm Springs sun and to fret about the possibility that Philip Jenks would make the flight and I would not.
Suddenly I recognized the man walking beside me. It was G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixon stalwart who planned the Watergate burglary so badly that it led to the arrest of the burglars, Nixon’s futile cover-up and, ultimately, Nixon’s resignation.
Liddy was shorter than I expected and his short strides and rapid gait were comically mechanical. His heavy black eyebrows knitted together as he stared straight ahead. The fierce expression on his face reminded me of a comment about Grant that was made by one of his contemporaries: “He always looked like he had resolved to ram his head into a stone wall and was about to do it.”
But Liddy passed by with a pitty-pat cadence. It did not appear he was eager to be recognized by anyone in the crowd.
I wandered around for several minutes before returning to the gate. I looked around for Philip Jenks One but didn’t see him. I thought it might be interesting to compare ancestral lines to see if we were distant cousins but he was nowhere to be found.
Soon the ground agent announced that the flight would be boarding soon and she asked everyone to remain seated. Three tall men stood – defiantly I thought, but with the obvious acquiescence of the agent – and walked through the door and down boarding ramp. The tallest of the three was former President Gerald Ford. I assumed the other two were secret service agents.
I was gob-smacked. Ford is on this flight! My first thought was to wonder what it must be like for an ex-president to fly on a small DC-9 after years of aeronautic luxury on Air Force One.
But wait, I said to myself. Was it coincidence that the 38th president of the United States was in the same airport as G. Gordon Liddy, whose ham-fisted scheming on behalf of Nixon led to the scandal that propelled Ford into the White House? Did the two men with such an involuntary historic connection notice each other in airport crowd? Did they divert their eyes, pretend not to notice each other?
Ford and the Secret Service agents disappeared down the boarding ramp.
Soon all other passengers boarded the aircraft and the stand-by passengers were called. Philip Jenks and Philip Jenks were the last names announced.
Philip Jenks One was seated in the tail of the aircraft and my seat was in the aisle immediately behind first class where Gerald Ford was sitting.
Ford, despite his long legs, was squeezed into a window seat. The Secret Service agents sat in the more comfortable aisle seats, one next to Ford and the other across the aisle. I could see how the arrangement made security sense. Ford sat reading some notes on a piece of bond paper. Occasionally a passenger in first class would stand to greet the former president and shake his hand. Ford would smile and nod. Throughout the flight passengers from the coach session would shyly slip through the curtains that led to first class to greet the president. The Secret Service agents would watch suspiciously. Ford would smile, nod, and reach across the agent’s face to shake each admirer’s hand.
The plane landed in Chicago late in the afternoon. The Secret Service agents stood up before the seatbelt sign was turned off to enable the president to deplane ahead of the crowd.
Ford stood up, hit his head on the overhead rack, and sat back down. He looked up at the rack, stood up more cautiously, and walked out of the plane.
Somehow Ford’s mishap with the rack made it a perfect flight. It was a Saturday Night Live anecdote I knew I would tell for years.
As I got off the plane I noticed the former president off to the side, talking with a small delegation of Chicago politicians. I began walking quickly to the gate where the flight to Philadelphia was waiting.
I looked around for Philip Jenks but he had disappeared into the crowd of O’Hare airport. I’m sorry I missed him. He was one of several coincidences that day: my namesake, G. Gordon Liddy, Gerald Ford. Out of the hundreds of flights I made as a Baptist bureaucrat, this is the one I remember the most vividly.
And I probably should be thankful for the late G. Gordon Liddy, for bringing this memory to the front of my mind.
Thanks, Gordo. I hope you are smiling up at us.