Last Thursday and Friday, I had two days of fame, or at least faux fame. There is no doubt that I looked important as I traveled around Greensboro and Winston-Salem in a black SUV behind a highway patrol car and with an identical black SUV full of men in dark suits following.
I was part of a US State Department training exercise to teach law enforcement officers from North Carolina how to protect a dignitary visiting our state. Since there weren’t any dignitaries handy at the moment, I agreed to pretend to be someone important.
By Friday at lunch, all the attention was getting to me and I was beginning to believe that I must actually be important, and I now understand much better how dignitaries get a big head. I knew I was just a prop, but I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t go to your head if the US government thought you were vital enough to the country that it devoted the kind of resources that were being used to protect me.
It all started Thursday morning when I got on a VF jet in the private portion of Piedmont Triad International Airport, and when I got off I was surrounded by a security detail. When I mentioned I would like to use the restroom, one member of the “Hammer Detail” found out where the men’s room was and another checked it out to make sure no one was lurking inside. While one man in a dark suit held doors open for me, another would go through first, check and make sure it was safe and only then was I allowed through the door, followed by agents that were protecting me from behind.
It’s pretty heady stuff.
We walked around Old Salem and took an impromptu stroll through the visitor center where members of the Hammer Detail ushered all the other tourists to one side so I would have a clear lane to walk down. I could tell the folks who happened to be there were trying to figure out who in the world I was and why I needed such a large security detail.
I was tempted to walk over and explain but I didn’t want to step out of character. Later, in Greensboro, I spotted a friend across the street and saw the shocked look on his face when I stepped out of the black SUV. He later told me that the only reason he could think of that I would be surrounded by so much law enforcement was that I was being arrested. I don’t know why he didn’t assume I’d just been appointed US ambassador to the United Nations, but he said that hadn’t occurred to him.
Dave Monroe, the US State Department resident in charge who set up the training exercise and recruited me to participate was acting as my chief of staff for the two-day exercise. He kept telling me to do whatever I wanted and I tried, but when I decided to cross the street walking around Old Salem, I couldn’t help but notice that all these guys protecting me suddenly had to run across the street ahead of me, block traffic and usher people out of my way. It seemed like a lot of work for them because I had a sudden whim to take a closer look at a building.
At lunch, if I decided to use the restroom, a couple of guys had to jump up from their lunch and check everything out ahead of me and then wait outside the door.
I did decide to stop by my house on Thursday after lunch at Cugino Forno pizzeria at Revolution Mill, which caused another flurry of activity. Our next stop was supposed to be city hall and the advance detail had to scramble over to Princess Ann Street to check out my home out before I got there.
When I arrived, I was not surprised to discover that my constant companion did what all fierce guard dogs do and made friends with the guys on the Hammer Detail.
Leaving my house was one of my favorite parts of the whole exercise because the three-car caravan went through the intersection of Cornwallis, Lawndale and Battleground. Although it’s a couple of blocks from my house, I avoid this intersection whenever possible because it’s difficult for mere mortals to navigate. But I found out how it should be done. The lead highway patrol car turned on its lights and siren and we proceeded through without any problem at all. If I could do that every day I could get to work five minutes faster and with a tenth the aggravation.
What constantly amazed me is the amount of preparation it took to go anywhere. The place had to checked out in advance and then again when we arrived. Sitting in the car with the driver, the head of my detail and my chief of staff was unusual enough for me, but when we arrived at our first stop of the exercise, the Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem, one member of the detail stood with his back up against my door; when the rest of the team got into position he reached over and tapped on the door of the head of detail sitting in front of me in the passenger seat. The head of the detail said, “Sir, are you ready?” I had no idea who he was talking to. After a few quiet moments, Dave said, “John, he’s talking to you. He wants to know if you’re ready to exit the vehicle.”
I said, “Sure.” Then the head of the detail got out, the other guy moved far enough away from the door for it to open and I got out and, with two guys in front of me, one on either side and another behind, we proceeded to the door of the building. After two days of that I got better at realizing that I was supposed to answer when a question began with “Sir,” but I can’t say I ever got used to it.
I was only half of the training exercise. The other faux VIP was Matt Martin, the US attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina – so much closer to being a real VIP than me. To give you an idea of how the two details differed, on Thursday, Martin’s detail ended the day with a CrossFit workout; the Hammer Detail went on a tour of the Fainting Goat Spirits on Lewis Street, which ends with a whiskey tasting. I have to say that I was surprised at the high quality of all of their products.
But to back up a little bit, I had a meeting with City Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter at city hall after lunch on Thursday. Then she had a meeting and we were supposed to meet her back at city hall after I toured the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club on Freeman Mill Road. When we went back to city hall, Marikay wasn’t there, so we went back to police headquarters where she had been in a meeting and she wasn’t there either. We rode up to police headquarters, but the advance detail had run in order to beat us there. Just about the time we arrived out front, we got word that Marikay was in city hall, after all. So it was back to the underground parking garage and by this time the advance detail was starting to get weary, if not a little miffed.
Dave said it was great training because that kind of thing happens with dignitaries all the time, where they aren’t where they are supposed to be and you have to change your security plans on the fly.
Friday, both details toured the International Civil Rights Center and Museum between two tour groups of school kids. Getting the two dignitaries in and out among the school kids was a bit different.
And then all too soon it was over and I was back to driving my own car, completely unprotected by anyone. I had to stop for stoplights, and walking down the street nobody was ushering people out of my way. It must be quite a shock to folks like Attorney General Jeff Sessions who go to work in the morning with a full detail protecting them and then by afternoon are driving to the store because they’ve run out of milk.
Special thanks to Dave Monroe, who is the resident agent in charge, and Steve Strickland, the supervisory special agent of the Diplomatic Security Service of the US State Department, who put the training exercise together. And also to the guys on the Hammer Detail, you know who you are. I’ve never felt safer.