"Oh my God! What is this? Who are they?" said a stunned woman bystander scrambling for cover at the Palmer House hotel in Chicago Thursday night.
Surging toward her was a stampede of men and women with travel bags over their shoulders, multicolored credentials flying from chains around their necks and deep purple circles under their eyes.
Bumping and jostling, sprinting and elbowing their way through each other or anyone who got in their way, they descended like famished predators on a table full of telephones in one of the hotel's meeting rooms -- the papal press.
After less than a week on the road with the first superstar pope, every one of them was a veteran and several looked like walking wounded.
The 270 journalists traveling on a trio of papal planes are the shock troops of the largest press corps ever assembled. Nationwide, for the pontiff's week-long, six-city tour, 14,000 people received credentials to cover Pope John Paul II.
The 270 should be in the best position of anyone to observe the papal travels -- particularly the 70 on the pope's own plane who have been with him since Rome. But, plagued by ever looming deadlines, constantly running behind schedule, worrying about lodging and logistics, few have had time to file thorough accounts, even of the superficial action that blurs before them, much less reflect on what it all means.
The trip was modeled on the campaign tour of an American political candidate, at least insofar as the handling of the press was concerned, but unlike a political campaign, in which the candidates are more than anxious to talk to the "boys on the bus" from time to time, the papal press corps has had only one opportunity to talk to the pontiff, and they blew it.
In a much discussed incident on the initial flight from Rome to Ireland, the pope agreed to walk to the rear of his plane to chat with the 70 seated there. But his appearance provided such a sense of frenzy -- with photographers diving over the backs of seats, pushing each other out of the way, and reporters shoving microphones in the pontiff's face -- that John Paul was nearly knocked to the floor.
"We drove him right out of the cabin," said one rueful reporter who witnessed the scene. "And the poor guy never came back again."
When photographers at the little parish church near Cumming, Iowa, started shouting at John Paul to attract his attention while he was talking to the residents of the area, he turned to them and said, scolding lightly, "You are also parishioners? Well, how did you come here?"
In their pursuit of the pontiff the press corps has been drenched in a Boston downpour, crushed in New York crowds, jostled by Philadelphia police, sealed in buses in Des Moines and stranded in Chicago traffic. Late to bed, and often so keyed up that they are unable to sleep, then rising early in the morning to keep up with the pope, many reporters have virtually given up on sleep.
A reporter for the London Sunday Times suffered a seizure in the New York press headquarters and was sent home. Another reporter, who is also a priest, was bashed in the head by a photographer's lens that fell from a 30-foot scaffolding in Des Moines. He stayed on the job, laughingly displaying his bandages and blood stained credentials to his colleagues on the flight from Des Moines to Chicago.
The simplest things become complicated by the elaborate security precautions surrounding the pontiff. A Washington-based reporter was briefly restrained from boarding the press plane in Boston when a German shepherd specially trained to sniff out explosives started furiously digging through his open bag. Only when the suspicious contents turned out to be well-ripened socks was the embarrassed reporter allowed to board the plane.
"I've got the Bible right here," shouted a reporter in the Philadelphia hotel as the press brigade was preparing to depart. "And the Bible says the luggage is supposed to be in the press room. Now somebody says it's supposed to be here in the lobby. What the hell's going on?"
"The Bible" for the press is not the Bible for the pope. It is the schedule handed out by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, telling in minute-by-minute details when and where the press should be and what is going to happen to them when they get there.
The Vatican-dictated schedule, since it first appeared, has been routinely described as "insane" by the reporters and many of the Catholic officials who shepherd them around. While it calls for the pope to move at a break-neck pace, it calls for the press to move even faster, often forcing them to leave important events almost as they begin or skip them entirely lest they be abandoned.
In the bus that followed the Chicago motorcade Thursday night, for instance, several people got off at Holy Name Cathederal to see what the pope had to say. But when two journalists came back to the bus a couple of minutes after "the Bible" said it was set to depart, they found the door closed and the bus beginning to move. They started beating on the door and screaming, but the Secret Service agent inside, who has lost most of his patience with the press, ordered the driver not to open up. "Just keep rolling," he shouted, and the two were left standing on the crowded street.
With logistical nightmares compounded by frequently inclement weather, some reporters gave up early on eye witness accounts of the papal visit.
As the pope celebrated mass at the Boston Common on Monday beneath a torrential rain, the press stands were almost empty. A handful of journalists wandered through the sodden crowds, but many of the rest could be found in the garage below, eating sandwiches and watching blurred images of the pope on television.
Photographers and their equipment have suffered disastrous casualties as a result of the rains in Boston and New York. One news magazine photographer in New York had four of his six cameras break down during the deluge at the pope's Battery Park address.
And there is a tendency, attributable to fatigue and constant pressure, to lose track of the events going on around you. After the pope arrived in Chicago, one reporter passed out next to his typewriter in the press room. Another, talking to his editor over the telephone, suddenly shouted, "Wait a minute, were we in Philadelphia today or yesterday? What is today?"
Today . . . is Washington.