It was raining, and I was all alone.
Well, not all alone. Though the rest of the NASCAR contingent visiting the White House had breezed through the Secret Service checkpoints and the security hut, I was left behind due to a discrepancy between the date of birth printed on the official entry list and the one on my driver's license.
As such, I had to stay back and step into a makeshift penalty box (walls of bicycle fencing) while the Secret Service and White House staffers stood nearby.
They were polite and apologetic, but explained that all the information had to match up. I was to remain in the time-out area until another background check had cleared.
I looked at my watch. It was 4:05 p.m., and I had woken up at 5 a.m. to drive through torrential rains and reach Washington in time to see the President of the United States greet NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson and seven other Chase drivers.
But as the minutes ticked past the event's scheduled 4 p.m. start time, I began to prepare myself for disappointment.
"That's OK," I thought. "Maybe I'll get to come next year. Or maybe not. But at least it'll be a funny story someday."
Just then, a Secret Service officer looked in my direction.
"Is there a Jeffrey here?" he asked.
Since I was the only person in the penalty box, I nodded. He asked me to confirm my date of birth again, and this time it was like saying, "Open sesame!"
With the magic words, I was set free and proceeded on a solo walk to the next security checkpoint – where I again confirmed my identity – then went through a place similar to airport security, then onto the White House.
The security checkpoints are so far away from the actual White House that the president's home isn't even visible through the trees and surrounding buildings. But once I cleared the final security area, I turned left into a semicircular driveway and walked up to a portico where Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 car was parked outside.
Yep, this was the place.
The door was opened by members of a military honor guard – I think they were Marines – and I was surprised at how many of them stood in the hallways as greeters. They all smiled and offered welcome greetings and pointed in the direction I was supposed to go, and I quickly walked past the portraits and side rooms with only time for a passing glance at each of them.
I wasn't sure what to expect – having only been in the White House once, on a tour when I was maybe 10 years old – but it reminded me of a palace or one of those old estates where you can tour through the rooms (like the Biltmore Estate in the North Carolina mountains).
I followed the sounds of a jazz band – up a marble staircase and down another hall – and entered into a foyer just in time to see people shuffling into the East Room, where the event was to be held.
Phew. I hadn't missed anything yet.
The East Room is a small ballroom filled with three ornate chandeliers – emphasis on small. There was seating for perhaps 150 people, and it was recognizable in name only. I had heard of the East Room, but couldn't recall the context.
There was a long, red-carpeted hallway attached to it, though, and that looked familiar. Finally, someone solved the mystery for me and noted it was the hallway where presidents make televised addresses to the nation. They turn a corner, walk down the hall and stop at a microphone where the camera is set up.
The most memorable speech from that spot recently was Obama's comments on the death of Osama bin Laden. You'd never know it from TV, but during those speeches, the president is basically speaking in a doorway.
Anyway, about 10 minutes after everyone was seated and the White House press corps had poured in – mostly photographers who turned on their bright TV lights that altered the look of the room – the Chase drivers were introduced to applause.
And then, the words everyone came to hear: "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States."
Obama walked in – accompanied by Johnson – and the crowd rose as if it was in a courtroom and a judge had just entered. Except there was sustained applause until the president put a stop to it.
I had never seen a president with my own eyes before – even a former president. And I know half the people in our polarized country aren't Obama fans at all, but it was still the President of the United States. And that was damn cool.
A funny thing, though: Sometimes when I see a celebrity, I'll think, 'Wow, they look different in person.' Shorter, taller, smaller, bigger.
Not Obama, though. He looked exactly like he does on TV. So as I sat there listening to his speech from about 50 feet away, I had to remind myself that this was live and in person and not something I was watching on a screen.
Obama had met with the drivers beforehand for maybe five or 10 minutes, and his speech was just under seven minutes. Overall, his total time commitment to the event couldn't have been more than 15 or 20 minutes. Which makes sense, because he's probably kind of busy with other stuff.
Anyway, he made some nice comments about the drivers and about NASCAR, cracked some jokes to an audience that was eager to laugh at them, posed for some pictures, shook some hands and left.
The drivers mingled with some of the audience members – the vast majority of whom I had never seen before and had no idea who they were – and then, after about 10 minutes, the friendly military honor guard politely asked people to leave the room so it could be cleared for whatever was next.
Before I left, I snuck over to the podium Obama had just used to take a picture. But the official presidential seal was gone from the front of it; apparently, the seal moves where the president goes.
I walked back out of the White House the way I came – this time stopping in a couple of the side rooms and admiring the portraits – and a Secret Service officer buzzed the security door at the exit.
It was a lot easier to get out of the White House than it was to get in. And though the visit was short and sweet, it was surely worth the trip.
No matter what your politics, those hallways hold reminders of our history and the greatness of our country. I was proud to be there.