My Meeting with Leon Panetta

by Debbie Harris — The light had a layer of dusk that gave the world a smoky glow on that mild Central Coast summer day. At the time of our meeting, I was young—well, we both were. I wasn’t very politically attuned then. At least I thought I wasn’t. But I guess I was more in tune than I thought. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known.

I had no idea at the time that I’d be talking to someone who would be so crucially important to United States politics for so many years. I didn’t know he would ever be anything more than my congressman, that he would become Chair of the House Budget Committee, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, White House Chief of Staff, Director of the CIA, US Secretary of Defense, or the Chairman of The Panetta Institute for Public Policy at what would become my alma mater. If I had known . . . oh, if only I had known! I could have made our interaction more meaningful, more alive. I could have contributed more to our exchange. Alas, hindsight. But . . . maybe I contributed what was needed at the time. Maybe I had a small place in history.

It seemed late for them to be arriving—him and her, a bit late for that kind of activity. But what did I know. Public figures often have odd hours. They grab what they can when they can. But it was good that the bustle had slowed down so I could focus on the experience.

At the prompting of the tone, I did my thing, the thing I had done thousands of times over the prior months. “Welcome to Jack-in-the-Box,” I said through the speaker. “May I take your order?”
That’s when I heard his voice. I didn’t know it was him—how could I? “I’ll have a Jumbo Jack,” the voice said. “Would you like something to drink with that?” I asked, doing the mandatory JITB marketing that I hated. The response was no. I gave a total for the order and told the voice to drive to the window.

As I opened the window and reached out to take the money, I saw from the passenger seat, Sylvia’s (his wife’s) face looking at me with anticipation. Her eyes asked, “Do you recognize him?” I saw his full face as he finished gathering his money and handing it to me. Our eyes met. And I knew immediately.
Not one to go berserk over notable people, my 17 year-old hands took his money and closed the window. I breathed deeply and immediately turned to my co-workers and announced that Congressman Panetta was sitting at our drive-thru window. My co-workers had no such restraints on berserk. Two young women hurried to the window, opened it, and asked for Mr. Panetta’s autograph. I had to reach over them to give him his change. They showed the excitement I felt. But I had to be cool.

Autographs given, I closed the window and waited for the Jumbo Jack to land in the bin under the heat lamp. The air was thick with anticipation as we waited. At last it arrived and I served it to Mr. Panetta and thanked him. Sylvia gave me a knowing glance of approval and they drove away. Ah, I touched the hand of the US political scene; I’d made my place in history in this, my meeting with Leon Panetta.

Last year, Leon and Sylvia’s youngest son, Jimmy, was elected congressman for our district, his father’s old district. I follow him on Facebook, but I haven’t had a chance to meet him yet. Maybe I ought to get a job at In-N-Out Burger.

Happy Independence Day!

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