COLLEGE STATION, TEX. -- For a president who stressed his links with the common folk by eating pork rinds and pitching horseshoes, this seems like a fitting beginning for his presidential library.
The documents, photographs and memorabilia of George Bush's years as leader of the Free World now rest in a converted bowling alley, part of a strip shopping center in small-town Texas.
"I've had inquiries from former White House staffers saying, 'I just want to know which lane my papers are on,' " said David Alsobrook, acting director of the Bush Presidential Materials Project. "We really can't tell them that."
There aren't any lanes anymore. No gutters, no pins, no beer. Thanks to a rush remodeling job after last November's election, there are a few simple offices, a massive, fire-resistant vault and row after row of steel shelves filled with cardboard boxes and wooden crates.
"I don't want to say we're pack rats," said Alsobrook, a veteran archivist with the National Archives. "But we like to save things. Our job here is to preserve this stuff forever."
Across town, in a modest one-story building next to a huge football stadium, is a private foundation that has set out to raise money to fund the center honoring the 41st president.
The impact on Aggieland is still small. But together, the two projects are gearing up to put College Station and, of course, Texas A&M University, on the presidential library map -- one that stretches from John F. Kennedy's library in Boston to Ronald Reagan's in Simi Valley, Calif. When the Bush Center opens in late 1996 or early 1997, A&M will match arch-rival University of Texas at Austin, home of the LBJ Library and Museum.
"We're not just taking a presidential library and saying, 'Gee, isn't this pretty and prestigious,' " said George Edwards, director of the Center of Presidential Studies at Texas A&M. "We want to integrate the library into the intellectual life of the campus."
About 36 million pages of documents, a million photographs, thousands of videotapes and a mainframe computer have been brought from Washington for the scholarly and the curious who want to know about the George Bush era.
There are uncounted thousands of other items and artifacts, from fancy gifts from foreign potentates to a sled with a seat belt given to Barbara Bush. There is film of World War II fighter pilot George Bush being fished out of the Pacific Ocean after crashing and a tape of Dana Carvey of "Saturday Night Live" lampooning President Bush's gestures and manner.
All of this was filed away by archivists during the Bush vice presidency and presidency, packed aboard four C-5 cargo planes shortly after Bush left office, flown to Fort Hood and loaded on 20 trailer trucks to complete the trip.
Eventually, everything will reside on a 90-acre site on the West Campus of Texas A&M, now predominantly woods and pasture. Architectural planning is underway, and groundbreaking for a three-building complex is slated for next year.
The site will house the library, a museum, conference center and three academic entities: the Center for Presidential Studies, the Center for Public Leadership Studies and the George Bush School of Government and Public Service.
Although still in the planning stages, the library already has run into controversy. Just a few hours before Bill Clinton's inauguration, Donald Wilson, then archivist of the United States, who is now executive director of the Bush Presidential Library Center, signed an agreement giving Bush control over several thousand computer tapes that hold millions of electronic messages sent by White House staff members.
Critics charged that the deal violates the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which ensures government control of presidential records and obligates the National Archives to make them public "as rapidly and completely as possible." That law was passed partly to ensure that Richard M. Nixon would not destroy the Watergate tapes.
Less than one month later, Wilson was hired to run the Bush Center, prompting conflict-of-interest charges from Democrats. The Justice Department is still investigating the case.
In College Station, meanwhile, sorting continues. "It's our job to get the research materials ready," said Alsobrook, who has a staff of seven.
For now that means going through files to remove staples that could rust, replacing regular folders with acid-free binders and cataloguing lists of file subjects.
It means processing donations from Iraqi license plates grabbed on the Desert Storm battlefield to personal papers of other White House officials. It means spotting holes in a future museum collection and trying to fill them.
Eventually it will mean reading every single sheet of paper here -- every speech, press release, policy paper, resume, thank-you note, daily schedule and feeding instruction for former first dog Millie, if that ever was written down.