I was sixteen years old in the late summer of 1994. I’d left public high school that spring and spent the entire summer splitting my time between hanging out on in UVa’s empty computer labs (what better a place to play Doom?) and on the Downtown Mall some twenty blocks away. Each morning I’d get a ride into town with my father, sleeping through the lengthy trip, groggily assemble my bicycle when we’d arrived and head off for another day’s adventure.
Come fall I’d decided not to attend Murray High School, which had accepted me a couple of months previously, but instead to enroll in a new home schooling group turned private school, The Living Education Center for Ecology and the Arts. This courtesy of my friend Patrick — we’d met at a protest some months previous, and his parents owned the school.
His parents had also invited me to join the family of four to see Vice President Al Gore visiting town. I’d seen President Clinton speak at Monticello in 1992, on his pre-inaugural trip across the nation, and it seemed worthwhile to see what the veep had to say for himself. At the time I was deeply involved with a public internet access program housed at UVa named the Hopper Project (soon to be renamed the Monticello Avenue Virtual Village), and with Gore talking a lot about this “information superhighway,” I relished the chance to ask him what the hell he meant by that. So I went.
On the day itself I got a lift with Patrick’s family. We drove out to the city airport, clutching our tickets, where a couple hundred of us spent at least an hour milling about in a small hangar while men in black suits with earpieces did whatever they do. When the doors finally opened to the runway we found that folding chairs had been set up in front of a small stage. Steel light trees flanked the stage, trimmed with gelled fresnels, each light directed with barn doors. (Patrick and I were both lighting geeks at Live Arts, so such things fascinated us.) Air Force II landed before long. It taxied right up to the stage, where a casually-dressed Vice President Al Gore disembarked, strode up to the podium, and began to speak.
I couldn’t tell you what he talked about. As a relatively politically disengaged sixteen year old, I’m not sure that I followed him particularly closely. But I did have the good sense to realize that this was cool, and I’d want to remember it.
Al Gore works a ropeline in San Francisco last year. Photo by Jackson West.
When he was done speaking, after we’d all finished applauding, he came forward and began shaking hands. A waist-high metal barricade separated us from him, and the couple hundred of us in attendance all pushed forward in an effort to meet the vice president. I positioned myself such that he eventually made his way down to me. Upon shaking his hand I realized that I had nothing to say. Nothing interesting, nothing clever. So, stupidly, I asked him what this “information superhighway” was. He gave me a fluffy answer, having no idea that while I was not licensed to drive on the actual highway, I’d spent a fair bit of time on his metaphorical highway. I nodded sagely as he spoke to me for about thirty seconds and thanked him for his time before he moved down the rope line.
I continued to stand there post-encounter, figuring that standing there had paid off once, so why not remain a bit longer? The crowd swelled along with Gore’s movements, pushing forward and moving down the runway with him — I moved along with them, since it was easier than fighting the tide. When the vice president had moved perhaps ten feet from me, that was when Patrick and I noticed an alarming development.
The crush of the crowd had tilted the steel light tree immediately next to us. Bristling with hundreds of pounds of lights — to say nothing of the weight of the steel framework itself — it had begun its downward arc. Directly towards the head of the vice president.
Patrick and I dove for the rig, wedging our shoulders underneath it to prevent it from falling any farther. We weren’t nearly strong enough to right it, but we could temporarily arrest its descent. Fortunately some bystanders saw our predicament and jumped into action, helping to right the whole thing.
A few of us stood around afterwards, marveling how close Al Gore had come to being crushed, and how oblivious that his two Secret Service bodyguards had been to the entire affair.
We went home afterwards, and school and life went on normally. Patrick and I went on to publish a popular Charlottesville zine, titled “Distribution,” in one issue of which we described the incident. When a local weekly wrote about our zine sometime later they classified that article as fiction, which was understandable given how bizarre the whole affair was. (The final issue of Distribution is available as PDF. The publication subsequently morphed into cvillenews.com.) Fortunately we had enough witnesses, one of whom we know to this day, that we know the incident wasn’t merely the product of overactive teenaged imaginations.
Of course, nobody knows what would have happened if the thing had actually fallen. The story is much better, though, if labeled as a life-and-death moment. Like the time I was a roadie for the Rolling Stones.
And that, as I like to think of it, is the time I saved Al Gore’s life.