• Otter Views: President Pro Tem

    by Tom Stevens

    January brings gusty rain, storm surf and football playoffs. I kept an ear on ESPN’s radio broadcasts over the weekend while dismantling Christmas décor, but the games were so one-sided they seemed fixed. Most “wild card games” were decided in the first quarter. Monday’s vaunted BCS title clash was over in five minutes.

    As the gridiron offered little enthrallment, I turned instead to the half-read New Yorkers, discarded flyers, stacked fundraising appeals and old utility bills that had turned the coffee table into an archaeological dig. Near the top of the pile, an inaugural notice from the Obama campaign recalled my own brief presidential foray.

    One year, a passing resemblance to Abe Lincoln in height, posture and eyebrows led to a telephone summons from the local Republican Party chairman. “We need you to play Lincoln for our President’s Day dinner,” he said.

    “I can’t go to a Republican dinner,” I replied. “I’m a union man.”

    “The union can spare you for one night,” he said reasonably. “It will probably be a more perfect union without you.”

    I couldn’t argue with that, and I was curious to see if I could pass for America’s 16th president. I’ve often been told I have the same world-weary, stoop-shouldered, melancholy aspect as the Great Emancipator, and the craggy facial features to match.

    “All right,” I agreed at length. “But I don’t have a beard.”

    “Oh, I’ll take care of that,” he said. We agreed to meet on President’s Day at the local country club. ”Wear black,” he instructed, “and use the service entrance.”

    Dressed in funereal hues, I walked up to the country club at the appointed hour like a peasant nearing the tsar’s palace. I half expected security guards to release a brace of borzois upon me, but the county chairman answered the service bell without incident.

    “Ah, there you are.” He motioned to a tall stool in one corner of the kitchen. “Sit on that, and I’ll fix you right up.” Soon he was pinning black crepe cloth onto the hem of my coat to lengthen it. Then he screwed a tall stovepipe hat down onto my head and clipped a string tie to my collar. “Now, close your eyes,” he directed. I felt something cool and gluey slurping onto my face.

    “Hey! Cut that out!” I yelled, un-presidentially.

    “Relax,” he said. “It’s just the rubber cement for your beard. Here, hold this.”

    He handed me a shrunken head. Not a real shrunken head, like that young Rockefeller who vanished in New Guinea, but a lurid plastic voodoo skull that looked like it might glow in the dark. Dangling the head from its ropy black hair, I regarded it tragically.

    “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him . . . .”

    “Lincoln,” the chairman prompted. “You’re supposed to be Lincoln, not Hamlet!”

    “Sorry, it must be all these black clothes.” I swung the shrunken head toward him. “So if I’m Lincoln, is this Douglas? Are we supposed to debate?”

    “That’s your beard, Abe. Now, hold the skull steady while I trim off its hair and stick it to your face. You can practice your speech while the cement dries.”

    A few minutes later, I strode off to the President’s Day dinner in my black frock coat and stovepipe hat, the voodoo skull’s hair glued to my cheeks with crusting slime. I tried to look as grim and sorrowful as Lincoln, which wasn’t hard to do at that point.

    “Hello, citizens!” I intoned, making my grand entrance into the country club dining room. I saw that the assembled Republicans were tanned, silver-haired and distinguished, though for the moment they were distinguishing themselves chiefly by devouring their dinners. One or two glanced my way.

    “Hello citizens! We cannot escape history!” I tried again, raising my reedy Lincolnesque voice to compete with the clash of cutlery and the sizzle of cherries jubilee. I remembered to thrust my arm out, but I forgot to duck. The doorframe knocked my stovepipe hat to the floor, where it risked compaction from my sturdy rail-splitter shoes.

    “The fiery trial through which we pass will write us down . . .” I continued, bending over to grope for the hat. As I did so, the gummy beard hairs flopped into my eyes with momentarily disabling effect. “Will write us down in honor and dishonor to the latest generation!” I stammered, blindly gaining my feet.

    I was grateful to feel a firm hand grip my elbow and pull me back into the kitchen. It was the precinct captain. “Nice job, Abe,” he said, adjusting my coat and hat. “Once you can see again, we’ll start the photo opps.”

    Other presidents have not sought my counsel. But if one ever did, I’d say “remember to duck.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on January 11, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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