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SQUEAKY’S FLEETING FAME
3/13/2010 8:23:34 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]


Nelson Rockefeller was the 2nd eldest of John D. Rockefeller’s six grandchildren, and as an heir to the Standard Oil fortune, his wealth was greater than most of us mere mortals can imagine. Suppose for a moment you could win the Powerball lottery once a month-—for a lifetime. Suppose your share of John D.’s estate was outlined over 12 full pages of his 436-page will.

The younger Rockefeller graduated cum laude from Dartmouth and was equally as comfortable in Spanish as in English. His love affair with Latin America brought him to service under seven U.S. presidents in some chairmanship or other as head of numerous South American departments.

He was elected four times to the governorship of New York State, holding that office for fifteen years before becoming Vice President of the United States in the Gerald Ford administration. In all his dozens of elective and appointed positions, his salary was donated to various and sundry philanthropies, along with countless millions from his vast wealth.

Although the vice president is supposed to live at the Naval Observatory in Washington, Rockefeller maintained his own stately mansion in the Capital, while paying for the upkeep and furnishings at One Observatory Circle where he never lived but occasionally entertained. He eschewed Air Force Two in favor of his personal Gulfstream. “The American taxpayers,” he said, “have enough to worry about.”

What most people do not know (or remember) is that Nelson Rockefeller was a millisecond from becoming President of the United States on September 5, 1975.

Toward the end of my broadcasting career, I was often assigned to “cover” Rocky whenever he was in Western New York. It was a brilliant fall day that the Governor was to deliver a speech at some Republican lunch soiree at the Chamber of Commerce, and of course I was on hand to jot notes and record comments for the news film being shot by our staff photographer, Leigh Smith.

After the obligatory tough veal cutlets and cold peas-—before he was to speak—-I followed the VP to an adjacent men’s room. By now on a first-name basis with the Secret Service, I was waved on in as Agent Lester Almstead spoke into his wrist: “TV reporter Mills is in the john with ‘Sandstorm.’ I’m right behind them.”

I recall that Rocky as usual was very friendly and talkative. While washing his hands, he observed, “Good heavens, that veal was crap. How do you survive these god-awful lunches?” I watched the agent hand him some paper towels. “Better question,” I countered, “how do you?”

“Ain’t easy,” the VP confided, and with that he scored a two-pointer from nine feet with the soggy wad.

Just then Almstead’s earpiece cackled furiously and he told his wrist, “Please repeat, say again. . . . Jesus! Who shot him? . . . No. I’m with ‘Sandstorm’ right now. . . . I’ll tell him.” He took my arm and began pulling me toward the door. “I’m sorry, Bob. You’ll have to leave us.”

“What’s going on?” Rocky asked.

“President Ford’s been shot!”

“What?”

“What?”

“I’ve got to secure the area, Mr. President.”

I said, “I’m not leaving!” Rocky said, “He’s okay, he can stay!” The agent said, “We’ve got to get back to Washington!” Rocky said, “Call William at the airport!” I said, “I’m going, also!” My first instinct was an exclusive interview with the new president.

It was several minutes before it was all straightened out, and in mass turmoil and confusion we left the men’s room. Almstead had much dialogue with his wrist, amidst frantic static from his earpiece, and it was confirmed that President Ford had indeed been shot in California-—well, sort of.

I was finally able to get the full story, as it was then constructed, in the car with Almstead and Vice President Rockefeller en route to the airport. It seems a woman named Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, a member of the notorious Charles Manson gang, had stalked President Ford from the State Capitol building in Sacramento to his waiting limo across the street.

She came out of the crowd with a Colt .45, thrust it into Ford’s belly and pulled the trigger. Secret Service agent Larry Buendorf grabbed for the weapon and wedged the fleshy part of his palm and thumb between the firing hammer and the body of the gun, preventing the bullet from being discharged (it was later learned Ms Fromme had manually expelled the cartridge from the chamber before leaving home, and of the four bullets in the gun, none could have been fired at that crucial moment, anyway; this information was used in her defense, but she was still eventually sentenced to life in prison* for attempting to assassinate a president.)

By the time we arrived at the airport, it was confirmed that President Ford was unhurt, nervous but in robust health; and ‘Squeaky’ Fromme was in custody. Rockefeller thanked me profusely for my concern and solicitude, we said our goodbyes, and I returned to the TV studio in the news truck with which Leigh Smith had followed us. In a few moments, heading southeast, the VP disappeared in the clouds.

I did not get my exclusive interview with the new president (it was my destiny to never interview any of the twelve presidents available so far during my life,) and a Pulitzer Prize waiting for me as a result of the September 5, 1975 adventure was never in the cards. Being in the right place at the right time is not always the key to success.

* ‘Squeaky’ Fromme was paroled recently after 34 years in prison. She was about 26 in 1975.

TO BE CONTINUED

Copyright©2010 by Robert A. Mills







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