As he rode the service elevator in the backway of a convention hotel here, the snowy-haired African American operating it turned suddenly. He held out a black-and-gold bit of fabric embroidered with a screaming eagle.
“Senator Obama, I have something I want to give you,” the man said. “I’ve carried this military patch with me every day for 40 years, and I want you to carry it, and it will keep you safe in your journey.” Obama tried to refuse, but the older man persisted.
Big endeavors can find their meaning in small moments.
Later that day, Obama and his aides discussed the encounter. The future president pulled the patch from his pocket, along with about a dozen other items people had pressed upon him.
“This is why I do this,” he said. “Because people have their hopes and dreams about what we can do together.”
Two American stories intersected that morning in that elevator. The more famous, of course, is the one that begins its next chapter on Monday, as the nation’s first black president takes the oath of office for a second term.
But the other story also tells a lot about where this country has been and how far it has come.
No one in Obama’s small party that day noticed the man’s name tag or, if anyone did, the fact that it said Earl Smith was quickly forgotten.
No one knew how much of Smith’s life had been woven into a patch that, over four decades, found its way from the shoulder of an Army private to the pocket of a future commander-in-chief.
It was the only shred of cloth he had saved from the uniform of a nightmarish year in Vietnam. Smith fired artillery with a brigade that suffered 10,041 casualties during the course of the war. The brigade’s soldiers received 13 Medals of Honor.
The patch was waiting among his possessions when Smith was pardoned by the state of Georgia in 1977 after spending three years in prison for a crime he claimed was self-defense.
Smith kept it close as his lucky charm while he rebuilt his life and his reputation, starting with a job vacuuming hallways and changing sheets in an Atlanta Marriott. He carried it with him as he traveled halfway around the world again, to positions in hotels far from home, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Along the way, as he tended to travelers and made sure VIP gatherings went smoothly, he met three U.S. presidents.
His instincts told him Obama would make it four.
Like just about anyone else who was alive on Nov. 22, 1963, Smith can describe exactly where he was when he heard the horrific news: He was coming off a high school football practice field in his home town of San Benito, Tex.
Though not yet old enough to have voted for the man slain in Dallas, “I was devastated — a lot of us young people were — because John Kennedy was the young president,” recalled Smith, now 68.