When the first invitation came by email, I thought it was a joke. I mean, how often does one get an invitation to the White House? Then the formal invitation, printed on the finest paper I’ve ever held, arrived in the mail.
Still, I did a double take.
But a quick phone call to the White House Social Office confirmed it was true. I had been invited to the State Dinner in honor of French President Francois Hollande.
And when I say “I” was invited, that’s what I mean. The invitation read, “The President and Mrs. Obama request the pleasure of the company of Ms. Smiley at a dinner.” Not “Commander Smiley.” Not “Commander and Mrs. Smiley.” But “Ms. Smiley.” This is an important detail for someone who has been labeled a “military dependent” for 37 years. After countless times being my Navy husband’s “+1,” I was finally the principal invitee, and he was my date.
The next morning, I went out in search of a dress. And two weeks later, my three sons, my mother (who coincidentally was visiting us in Maine but lives in Virginia), and the dress were stuffed in my minivan like the Clampetts. We were headed to Washington, D.C. to meet Dustin, who was already there working at the Pentagon. Because I was also invited to the official arrival ceremony the morning before the State Dinner, I decided to take the boys out of school and bring them along for a front-row seat to history — our family’s personal history and the country’s. Of course, this meant another harried trip to buy the boys appropriate clothes for such an event.
It was frigid the morning of the French president’s arrival, and my boys’ “Les Miserables”-inspired caps and pea coats provided little warmth. But we live in Maine, so we smiled as we exited the cab at 15th and Pennsylvania streets and tried to look hardy.
Getting into the White House, even for an event that’s taking place on the lawn, is a complicated endeavor. It requires multiple checkpoints and scanners, most of which take place outside in the cold. Our toes would be frozen by the time we entered the famous Bookseller’s room in the White House.
But before that, still outside in the cold, our hearts were warmed when we saw our own congressman and previous Dinner with the Smileys dinner guest, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, walking down the path between the Treasury Department and the White House. My youngest son, Lindell, ran to him like a favorite uncle. And then the most amazing thing (if you’re a 7-year-old boy who loves dogs) happened: a White House staffer came through with the First Family’s Portuguese Water Dogs, Bo and Sunny. Forget the Congressman or the White House, Lindell was in the presence of dogs, and it was the highlight of his day. Sure, most kids don’t get to stand in the Bookseller’s room of the White House or have a front-row view of an official arrival ceremony, but all Lindell wanted to do was pet those dogs again.
Inside the White House, aides gave us French and American flags before we exited onto the South Lawn, and back out in the cold, for the official ceremony. It was a sea of flags, pageantry, uniforms, honor guards and the always impressive Marine Band, led by Drum Major Master Gunnery Sgt. William Browne. Despite our military family history, the boys had never seen such a display. They hardly noticed that we waited nearly 45 minutes in the bitter cold for the ceremony to begin.
And yes, the boys saw our president and the French president, as well as the First Lady and many other dignitaries, but what might have been the most educational of all for them was the young Marine standing in formation who fainted within 10 feet of us. This happens more often than people might expect if a soldier locks his knees. What is exceptional, however, is how much pride these men and women take in their duty to the president that almost nothing changes when a soldier goes down. The soldiers on either side still stand stiff as boards, and the downed soldier stays in place until help arrives. In this case, the Secret Service got to him first. When he stood up, there was blood on his face.
My boys turned to their dad, also in uniform, with eyes big as saucers. Later, he would talk to them about the duty, pride and honor those soldiers feel for their position; why no other soldier could move to help the downed man; and why the man who fainted would rather collapse and bust open his face than shirk his duty to the country and the president.
But for Lindell, still not as memorable as meeting Bo and Sunny.
Next week: Dustin and I arrive at the State Dinner.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.