Following a three hour drive across the Keystone State, my friend Nikko and I arrive at the Lycoming Mall near the Williamsport Regional Airport, where President Trump will speak in T-minus eight hours. His appearance is purposeful — a special election is scheduled for the next day. The goal is clear: Elect Fred Keller to the U.S. House.
Vendors dot the lot and offer assorted Trump gear: flags, caps, visors, pins, t-shirts, etc. We are far from early, despite rising at 6:00 a.m. A fellow volunteer informs me that shuttles have been running since 9:00 am, each full from the onset.
These early-birds, who flock toward the shuttles, have flown in from afar. “I’m here from Louisiana!” one woman says. “I came up all the way from Florida!” a younger man boasts. I discount my self-pity, having ventured a mere 180 miles from suburban Philadelphia.
We are funneled onto an airport-bound bus. The excitement is palpable, as people chatter in anticipation. The shuttle approaches Montoursville, a town of some 5,000 transformed into Trump Mecca -- a veritable pilgrimage site. More vendors line the sidewalks. Blond bobbleheads nod yes: They are for sale.
We arrive at the parking lot, three hours before doors open. Suddenly, it’s no shock that this area is already full. Families are tailgating. Rings of folding chairs encircle drink-filled coolers This resembles pre-game at nearby Beaver Stadium rather than a political event. An old couple dances to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” A few hundred yards behind, a colossal American flag waves before a regal Appalachian mountainside. Despite 80-degree heat and thick humidity, attitudes remain cheerful.
The lot soon overflows, as shuttles steadily unload. The line beyond the lot soon stretches a half mile. Famished, my friend and I line up at a local food truck and wait about 35 minutes for burgers and fries. Our orders reach the chef via Post-It note — a rustic touch of central PA.
After a late lunch, the doors finally open at 3:30.
As volunteers, we gain early entry. Following a Secret Service metal-detector check, we proceed to the hangar.
Along with several other volunteers, we beeline toward the podium and eventually reach a metal barricade. The hangar fills quickly, forming a red sea of biblical proportions. I pity those who arrived after 2:00 PM, and mourn the many who were turned away.
Despite worsening sweat and sunburn, the time flies. The opening speakers appear: State GOP leader Val DiGiorgio, and former congressmen Tom Marino and Lou Barletta. Feeding on the crowd’s energy, they vouch for President Trump and candidate Fred Keller.
Their impassioned speeches yield to a musical interlude featuring the work of Frank Sinatra, Neil Young, and Pavarotti. Eventually the songs fade, and Donald Trump, Jr. surprises the crowd, accompanied by Kimberly Guilfoyle. He ascends the platform to cheers. Guilfoyle stands directly in front of me and snaps photos of her significant other. “We miss you on The Five, Kimmy!” one Fox fan shouts.
As Trump’s eldest son speaks, the sun takes its toll. Two guests faint beneath its rays. “Perhaps Secret Service’s water confiscation policy wasn’t the best idea,” I tell those nearby. Thankfully, medics swiftly hydrate the fallen.
After Don Jr. wraps up, he and Guilfoyle autograph souvenirs and take selfies with attendees. They greet us volunteers with firm handshakes and sign our badges.
Suddenly, Air Force One’s cockpit echoes through the sound system. The president is near! Anticipation swells along with the volume of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” It booms with ear-numbing, chest thumping intensity.
Air Force One lands a few hundred yards from the hangar. Heads turn and phones rise to record the grand entrance. Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to be an American” fills the speakers as Donald Trump exits the presidential jet. The energy reaches full boil.
The president of the United States takes his time approaching the podium, greeting us with waves, thumbs-up, pointed fingers, clapped hands, and other endearing gestures. He gleefully tosses a MAGA hat into the crowd. Ten minutes after landing, he starts his long-awaited address.
As usual, the president delivers a half-Teleprompted, half-improvised speech. He stresses a strong economy, foreign policy successes, and the importance of electing Fred Keller. About 15 minutes in, he grants the House hopeful a chance to present himself onstage. Keller pledges to advance Trump’s vision for America and promises to serve Pennsylvania. “The stakes couldn’t be higher. We are going to elect Donald Trump president again in 2020, but that begins tomorrow,” Keller declares. The audience applauds as Trump reclaims the microphone.
After reminding the crowd to “get Fred in there tomorrow”, the President continues for another 40 minutes. His rhetorical roller coaster climbs peaks of positivity and crosses valleys of derision. One minute he chastises the media, and the next he declares the U.S. economy “the hottest in the world.” The crowd often swings from cheers to boos and back.
Three more Trump fans collapse in the heat. By the end, even I feel lightheaded and dizzy.
The speech just exceeds one hour, concluding with Trump’s powerful reiteration of his mantra: “We are gonna make America strong again. We are gonna make America safe again. And we will make America great again. Thank you!”
As the sun sets, the scarlet tide recedes. A frantic hunt for water ensues, and we re-board the shuttle eager to head home. With a sweat-stained shirt and brand-new crimson complexion, I reflect:
A humble town was brought to life that day. People came from near and far -- countless regions of Pennsylvania, Florida, Louisiana, and beyond. Some waited 12 hours, endured harsh sunshine, and found a sense of community in a packed parking lot. Orthodox Jewish and black Americans exhibited the same excitement as people of Asian heritage and white folks. People of different colors and creeds conversed in a snail-paced line as the afternoon crept by. People young and old, healthy and disabled, pledged allegiance to one flag.
Once again, the supposedly divisive Donald J. Trump addressed thousands of Americans from different walks of life and unified them.