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Best part of DC trip: A Cardinal's handshake

March 11, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
Last Wednesday I was boarding a jetliner for a quick flight back to Pittsburgh from Washington, D.C.

I use the term “jetliner” loosely here. A Canadair regional jet hardly qualifies as much more than a large bizjet. I think The Home Office In Wichita actually has planes in the Cessna fleet that come close in size.

Also, it amazed me that the flight was all of 40 minutes in the air. As I wrote last week, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation trip was my first trip to Washington. It seemed in my head like it should have been further. I slept through the predawn flight we ended up with after two attempts to take off on March 3 were thwarted by weather in Washington. Of course, the flight we could get that actually did take off required us to be in the airport at 4 a.m., so I didn’t realize just how short the flights were until the flight back.

Anyway, I did see three more amazing sites on the way back -- well, amazing to me, anyway.

First was the Ronald Reagan statue in front of Reagan National Airport. Seems a shame that he’s in the middle of the road up to the departures unloading area. There’s no chance to go get a pic with the Big Ronnie Out Front.

And, no offense to the folks at the Home Office in Aurora, Colo., but the Big Ronnie Out Front surely trumps the Big Bronco Out Front That Is Not An NFL Emblem Even Though It’s A Blue and Orange Bronco at Denver International Airport.

Denver does trump the Big Ronnie Out Front with a statue next to the terminal transit trains of astronaut Jack Swigert, one of the three heroic spacemen who triumphed over disaster aboard Apollo 13.

Second, it felt like I was standing in a TV soundstage set for a brief moment while getting boarding passes on the upper level of Reagan. It just looked very familiar though I’d never been there.

Then the lightbulb went on.

NBC’s Tom Costello does a gaggle of his stand-up aviation reports on that level, with the gold-trimmed steel supports stretching off into the distance.

Reagan National has that quaint airport-from-another-era feel that the old Greater Pitt had. And, it had this cool way of shuttling passengers out to the regional jets aboard these low-floor, modern shuttle buses. You wait at the gate lounge, then go downstairs, out the door and onto a bus. Eventually, somebody gets into the driver’s seat and you are driven out to the field, past the other jets that aren’t yours. I felt vaguely like the flight crew of a B-17 heading out along the English grass strip on the way to my plane, ready for a mission over Europe.

And, the coolest part of the return trip, maybe of the whole trip to DC for me was when an unassuming priest in his black suit boarded the shuttle bus for the ride out to the Pittsburgh-bound plane. It was Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

Now, I’ve met a cardinal or two at Franciscan University of Steubenville, but it’s usually a scripted press-conference event or a speech, never a chance for one-on-one banter. Though once Cardinal Francis Arinze told me that I had the right name for this job. “Paul would be out there on the Internet if he were around today, spreading the word,” he said with his marvelous accent.

Much like Cardinal Arinze’s words bolster me from years ago when I get to feeling down about what I do and how I do it here, I think my chance handshake and Pittsburgh banter with Cardinal Wuerl will stick with me forever. First off, he is so unassuming, just Father Donald from Pittsburgh going back home for a day is how he seemed to me. I think he might have gotten away without attracting any attention had there not been a Catholic or two from the Burgh, and me, on the shuttle bus. He conversed with several of us, didn’t have an entourage and seemed just so down to Earth, more than many of the politicians I listened to for the previous day or so.

His smile and warmth will stick with me forever.

And third, I saw The Watergate complex. From the night bus ride around Washington, I knew it was next to the JFK Center for the Performing Arts, but it was dark and far down the street and I didn't really see the building. As we climbed out of Reagan, there it was, in all its Nixon-era scandalous splendor. The building that launched a thousand reporters' careers in the 1970s and into the 1980s as we became adults. Did for me, anyway.


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