Tin soldiers and Nixon coming

Air Force One sits on the tarmac at the Fort Smith Municipal Airport on December 6, 1969; Winthrop Rockefeller (white hat in left photo), and Richard Nixon shook hands with the crowd before departing for Fayetteville.

On December 6, 1969, President Richard Nixon flew into Fort Smith, Ark., on Air Force One as he traveled to Fayetteville and the “Game of the Century” between the Arkansas Razorback and Texas Longhorns.

That makes today a huge personal anniversary for me.

I was among the approximately 2,000 people who greeted Nixon at the airport 50 years ago today. I was 16 and living in Fort Smith with my mom and sister while my dad served a tour of duty in Vietnam.

But I wasn’t there to protest the war. I was there to see history in the person of a sitting President arrive in Fort Smith, no matter how brief the visit.

I borrowed my mom’s car and drove out to the airport a full two hours before Air Force One arrived and snagged a great spot by the rope barrier that had been set up. Security was pretty light. No one frisked us or questioned us as we ran onto the tarmac area in an attempt to beat the crowd to the best viewing spot.

When Nixon finally arrived, I don’t remember any actual remarks, although there was a podium set up. But I do remember that he came down the line of people along the rope to shake our hands. He was accompanied by Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller (white cowboy hat in left photo above).

When the President got about two people from me, someone apparently suggested that it was time to board the helicopter that would complete the trip to Fayetteville. Nixon turned away and took a step toward the waiting helicopter. The crowd let out a collective groan, and the President immediately turned back and resumed shaking our hands (mine, too!). He continued shaking hands down to the high school bands that were playing, where he shook hands with some of the young musicians.

It was a highlight of my youth, despite the fact that Nixon turned out to be, well, Richard Nixon. Watergate and the corruption of his administration surfaced years later.

Two memories stand out from that day.

One was shaking the President’s hand.

The second memory occurred before Nixon arrived. A guy holding a small Instamatic-type camera climbed on top of one of the barrels set up to hold the rope barricade and immediately drew sharp reprimands from the security detail. The camera guy was incensed as he climbed down, and yelled “come the revolution, you’re going to get yours!”

It was a sign of the times, even in a small Southern city like Fort Smith.