George H.W. (41) & Barbara Bush

A private moment with the President.

The story of how we met George H.W. & Barbara Bush describes a horrific set of circumstances, a concert played, and a few "being in the right place at the right time" instances. The following photographs and related stories seem to us now as to have come from a fairyland somehow. I will explain all this in the order it happened, plus the events that led up to it.

 Linda and I hope you enjoy this incredible chain of events the same as we did during the years we experienced it.  

Sept. 11, 2001:  War Comes to America

Two hijacked airplanes crash into the Twin Towers in Manhattan, New York.

People run for their lives from the choking smoke and dust filling the streets of Manhattan. 2606 people died. 

The Pentagon had also been targeted by the terrorists. 184 people died. 

A smoking hole in the ground is all that's left of Flight 93 when it went down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The phrase "let's roll" became a horrifying epithet, arising from when the passengers decided to overpower the terrorists. 40 people died.

On Sept. 13, two days later, I had a concert scheduled at the Elco Theatre, Elkhart, Indiana. I called up the director and told him I was too upset to play the performance so had to cancel. Instead, she told me,

"Bob, we're all upset. We need you down here both to take our minds off of this and to cheer us up. Please don't cancel."

Linda and I went to Elkhart the next day.

We arrived at the theatre to find it sold out. Inside we discovered they'd hung a huge American flag as the backdrop to the stage. It was an incredibly moving sight. 

I didn't feel like playing any spirited tunes, so told stories of the wars that our country had been in previously and played a few songs from those eras.

This picture was taken by our dear friend Rod Leichty. I'm standing on the stage of the Elco Theatre with their huge flag as a backdrop on September 13, 2001.

The following week I was scheduled to play at the Alexandria Bay Ragtime/Jasstime Festival in the 1000 Islands area of upper New York State. As I had done with Elco, I called the director and told him I couldn't be there. It was a seven hour drive through Canada and I was still trying to figure out what happened to our country and why. The Canadian festival director, Pelham Bell-Smith, told me,

"Bob, none of us feel like being here. But we are not giving up because of terrorists! No! And here's what I'd like you to do, Bob: I would like you to go up on the stage from 1:00 to 2:00 on Sunday before we all go home, and please play something for America."

For 400 miles through Canada, the bridges were lined with people waving the American flag as traffic passed underneath. Trucks honked their horns. We did likewise. The outpouring was overwhelming. 

At one bridge a woman was hanging over the rail with a sign that read...

"Go USA!"

Finally we arrived at the Edgewood Resort near Alexandria Bay, New York. 

We used Rod Leichty's photo from Elco and published the recording without any edits. I can be heard talking about playing on an aircraft carrier at the beginning because I had no idea this would become a recording.

 And, of course, added the slogan we'd seen in Canada -

"Go USA!"

On the last day of the festival I had no idea of  how to "play something for America" for an hour. Linda and I walked around in the woods for a while and came up with an idea: I would play every song about America I knew. I would start with songs of the Revolution era, move forward to those heart-jerking songs of the Civil War, continue on into WWI & WWII, all our military songs, and ... then what?

I went back and played 40 minutes straight of American songs. Some of them made the audience cry, and they made me cry as well. At the end I played The Star Spangled Banner.

Upon conclusion I was mobbed by people weeping on my shirt. It was likely the longest standing ovation I ever had in my life. And then, magic happened...

The audio man walked up and handed me a CD of the concert I just played. I was stunned. This recording became known as 

"The America Concert." 

The Edgewood Convention Center was packed for the performance. Nobody had any idea what to expect, including myself.

We estimate that I performed this concert possibly 1000 times over the next few years. People were sending requests for it before we even got into town.

Soon after the 1000 Islands performance I was scheduled to play at a private club near Boston. The mood of the land was still very glum, but a lot of people showed up. I told the audience that I'd recently created and played a concert for America, and they wanted to hear it. Afterwards a lady said to me,

"I think my uncle George would like to hear this."

We had no idea who "Uncle George" was, so we put it in the file of stuff we hear all the time.

Roughly One Year Later

I was running errands in town when Linda called me up saying,

"George Bush wants to hear the America Concert!" 

After the first few confusing moments and me bumbling around about going to Washington DC, Linda said,

"No! Not that George Bush! George Bush, Sr., just called here and wants to know if you'll come to Kennebunkport and play it for him and Barbara!"

"When?" I asked.

"Next Thursday!" she said.  

Now we knew who "Uncle George" was. 

Photos of shoes taken at our house, courtesy of our "serving toad."

Gold Cups at top, two pairs of Keds below.

Shoes, and a Dilemma

Dave, a friend of ours, happened to be the CEO of Stride Rite Shoes at the time. He frantically called up to say he heard we were going to Bush's place, and that he knew Barbara's favorite shoes were Keds (owned by Stride Rite.) Also, they'd just come out with a new boating shoe called the Gold Cup. Dave wanted to send both of them a pair of shoes, but had to know their shoe sizes. 

I called Jean, Mr. Bush's secretary, and explained the dilemma. She told me to keep quiet and look for a message. The message arrived soon. I forwarded it to Dave, but "touched it up" a little bit with an inclusion:

"Mr. Bush:  size (xx)

Mrs. Bush:  size (xx)

Bob:  size 12, M

At 6:00 the next morning a special courier from Stride Rite delivered the goods to our door, including two pairs for Barbara, the Gold Cups for Mr. Bush, and Gold Cups for Bob. I had scammed a pair of Gold Cup shoes for myself. 

It was game ON! We packed the van and took off for the 800 mile drive to the east coast of Maine!

On the crowded highways of Canada, Mr. Bush's secretary, Jean, called me to say that "the president" (a title all former presidents keep) wanted to get us hotel rooms in Kennebunkport. I replied we didn't need hotel rooms because we had a small motor home. Jean answered that she had no knowledge of RV parks in her area. I replied,

"Not to worry, ma'am. We park on Walmart parking lots. So, after the concert tomorrow night, if the president of the United States could direct us to the nearest Walmart, that would be just grand." 

After a moment's pause, she answered, 

"I'll tell him that."

A short time later, Jean called back to say we would be staying in their guest house on the property. 

Picture above: crossing the Welland Canal in eastern Ontario. 

We finally made it to Kennebunkport. 

This is the center-of-town turnoff to Walker Point, named after Mr. Bush's grandfather. 

We stopped under the "Absolutely No Parking in This Area!" sign and snapped this picture of Bush's house. 

We would later learn that the man in the orange shirt outside was Mr. Bush!

The secret service escorted us to the guest house. When I stepped out of the van, one of the most famous and most photographed ladies in the world came roaring up in back of me and said,

"Hello! I'm Barbara Bush!"

Although I was tempted to reply "You don't say," or something of the like, I refrained. 

Barbara expressed a real interest in our little motor home, so we opened it up and showed her everything inside. 

Barbara escorted us to the guest house, which was quite charming.

As she showed us around she explained the pictures on the wall: one of their sons was coming next week. Whenever someone was coming to stay here she always hung their favorite pictures on the walls. The pictures at the moment meant that "their son, George" would be here next week.

This picture, the view from their front window in the main house, had been painted by either George, Jr., or one of his brothers.

Linda and I sat there in utter amazement that we were actually here. 

After a few moments inside I heard voices on the porch. Someone was saying, 

"Where's Bob? I want to see Bob."

I asked Mrs. Bush who was asking about me. With a sly smirk she said,

"That is the President of the United States."

The door opened and Mr. Bush came in. With a friendly smile and greeting, he shook our hands and said,

"Bob and Linda - what a pleasure it is to meet you! Thank you for coming all this way for us!"

I marveled at the humility.

We have no pictures of Mr. Bush inside the guest house with us. Our brains were apparently not working right at the moment.

After staying in the guest house with us for a while, Mr. Bush said he'd noticed our little motor home outside. He was intrigued by it. 

I opened the door and he looked inside.

Then he decided to get inside. Barbara intervened, saying,

"No, George, you're not going to get one of these things. I've told you that before!"

Mr. Bush drove me back to the guest house, then gave me his golf cart for the duration or our stay.

Before they left, George & Barbara said to us, 

"Hey, you guys: we're having dinner before our guests arrive tonight. Would you like to join us for dinner inside before our guests get here?"

(I'm guessing that you know the answer to that one). 

Before dinner Jean showed me the piano. It was small but totally adequate for the performance.

[Note: a famous piano brand offered to send a concert grand to Bush's house for this concert. I declined the offer, thinking it would be an invasion of a small gathering.]

Mr. Bush dropped by wearing what he called "An outrageous jacket that the Oak Ridge Boys had made for him." He added that he wanted to horrify his guests when they arrived later.

 The jacket had lobsters and all kinds of other bizarre things sewed onto it.

Mr. & Mrs. Bush pose with us in front or their fireplace before the guests arrive. 

Mr. Bush gave me a very nice introduction. When I first heard he'd invited guests I thought maybe it was Helmut Kohl and world leaders of the like. I was wrong. His guests were the man & wife who'd been their garbage collectors for decades, local store owners, and their own personal friends. 

I told the guests I was going to play ragtime, but Mr. Bush interrupted me saying, 

"Go ahead and play a few rags, Bob. Then I want to hear the America concert, full version, beginning to end."

Mr. Bush's foot in bottom right of picture

I played for 45 minutes straight, going through all the songs of the different eras of America. When Mr. Bush stood up to thank me, tears were streaming down his face. 

Their daughter, Doro, behind Mr. Bush.

This is one of my favorite pictures of all time. 

The napkins at the reception were available for keepsakes. 

The napkins at the reception were available for keepsakes. 

Hors d'oeuvres were served afterwards. Linda and I had a chance to visit with everyone. 

While I was chatting with this lady, Mr. Bush (in lobby wearing white) had removed his colorful jacket. Right after this picture was taken we found out how parties at his place came to a timely end. The authoritative voice of George H.W. Bush came roaring through the room:


Then he whispered to me, 

"Not you & Linda, Bob, Stick around for a while. What do you like for breakfast?"

The next morning

We'd been invited to stroll around the grounds before breakfast the next day.

Mr. Bush had an exercise building. 

The charging station for golf carts.

Inside the exercise building were many family pictures. We'd been told to "go ahead and photograph them," so we took a few photos. This one looked unusual somehow, so we studied it closer. 

The Ranking Committee

(It ain't what it seems...)

After close examination and several guesses as to who all these people of the "Ranking Committee" were, we finally realized...

Mr. Bush's face had been superimposed on every one of them. 

We'd been had by the President of the United States. 

This cute little sign said a lot about the humor in this place. 

On our way back to the house for breakfast we noticed our van parked next to Bush's private vehicle. 

We thought of the contrast between this and the years when I used to drive frozen Volkswagens to gigs in Detroit.

At breakfast next morning, Barbara said to us,

"I think our son, George, should hear this concert..."

Following breakfast, Mr. Bush invited me to sit down with him in this little corner. He briefly excused himself, went into a closet, and emerged with an oil painting of broccoli. 

(We knew that he famously hated broccoli, so wondered what this was all about.) 

Mr. Bush said, 

"Bob, look what they've done to me. The whole world knows I hate broccoli, so one of my sons painted this thing and hung it on the wall here."

I asked what he wanted to do. He answered,

"You want it? Get it out of here?"

At that moment Barbara stormed around the corner:

"Oh, no you don't! That is going right back in the closet and staying here until ______ gets here!" 

She took it away from him and left. 

Afterwards, Mr. & Mrs. Bush invited us to their little porch on the edge of the ocean. 

And, of course, they were wearing the shoes we'd brought them. 

Before we left we were presented with this beautiful picture and inscription. 

As we were walking back to our van to leave we heard someone running up in back of us. It was Mr. Bush. He handed me this card and said, 

"Bob and Linda, anytime you are in Maine, please come and stay with us. Just call me and they'll let you in the gate."

We actually called him a few times on our way to the east coast and he invited us straight in. Linda and I continually marvel at how a piano took us to all these places and around the world. 

A few months later we received this from the White House. 

Until the end of his life Mr. Bush continued to send letters to veterans groups where I'd be scheduled to play the America concert. The letter below was for a Veterans Day performance in our hometown of Lapeer, Michigan. 

Picture credits:  Linda Milne, Richard Berry, Rod Liechty. API