Tuesday, January 6, 2009
(Above: Reds when he was serving in the Navy during World War II)
And now, in honor of the presidential inauguration, an interview with an honest-to-goodness White House plumber.
No, not one of Richard Nixon's burglars. I mean the man who actually fixed the White House plumbing.
His name was Howard "Reds" Arrington, and I met him in 1993, when I was in Washington covering the first Clinton inauguration.
Reds died last spring, but before he retired in 1979 he served every president from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter.
He's the guy who fished John-John's diapers out of the john after Jackie's nanny inadvertently flushed them.
He's the guy who retrieved Julie Nixon's contact lens from a sink trap when she lost it right before a big party.
He's the guy who rescued Bess Truman's mother's false teeth from the toilet. (Don't even ask how they got there.)
But the president he remembered most vividly was Lyndon Johnson.
"The first day President Johnson moved in he called me and said he wanted a few changes made to his shower. He wanted six nozzles installed: two overhead - one for the front and one for the back - three at waist level, and one about two feet off the ground pointing upward, so it would send water up his backside.
"But the most unusual thing about that shower was the pressure. I put in a special pump, but he wanted it stronger. I added a second pump, but he still wasn't satisfied. I added a third pump, but that still wasn't strong enough for him.
"By the time I finished, I had four pumps going at the same time, putting out more than 100 lbs. of nozzle pressure. To give you an idea how strong that is, the average shower puts out only 10 to 15 lbs.
"But before the Secret Service let the president use it, they insisted on giving it a trial run. An agent put on a bathing suit and stepped inside. It pinned him to the wall."
Five years later, when Richard Nixon moved in, the first thing he said to Reds was, "Take that thing out of here!"
President Kennedy, on the other hand, never took showers.
"He took baths," said Reds. "I think they helped his bad back. He had his valet run the water the night before so in the morning, all he had to do was run a little hot water to heat it up. He hated waiting for anything.
"He also liked to shave sitting in the tub. I made a little tray that fit over the sides of the tub for him, to hold his razor and things. And we put mirrors on all the walls around the tub so he could see what he was doing."
President Eisenhower put Reds to some unorthodox uses, too.
"We built a full-sized putting green for him in the Oval Office. And he liked to go out on the porch and hit golf balls into the south fountain, and it was my job to fish them out for him. So he bought me a pair of waders to wear. They came up to right under my armpits."
But they aren't all pleasant memories. On Nov. 22, 1963, Reds was working in the Oval Office, helping the carpenters lay a new carpet that Jackie Kennedy had ordered as a surprise for her husband.
"All of a sudden, all hell broke out, and we were ordered to stop what we were doing and haul out all the furniture right away so the new president, President Johnson, could move in. I was OK until the time came to haul out President Kennedy's rocking chair. That's when I really lost it."
Jackie didn't forget him, either. She invited him to the funeral. You can see him in the photographs, sitting right behind Charles De Gaulle.