There once was a time when life was not so hedged in and our elected officials were infinitely more accessible. Recent headlines remind us that White House access is severely restricted — or was meant to be. Just over a hundred years ago, however, gatecrashing was a different matter.
In 1894 at age 16, my grandfather, Harry, found that his mother wanted him to follow in the footsteps of his late father into the Navy. In his earlier years, the family had traveled to Europe as his father, Chief Engineer Oscar Lackey, had served on the old USS New York as it visited the ports of the Mediterranean. His mother and young Harry settled into Ville-France, taking side trips to visit various relatives. His grandfather, Commodore Erastus Stone, had served in the Navy from before the Mexican War until well after the Civil War. The sea was in his blood.
It had not always been a happy time for his mother. So when she suggested a naval career, it came as something of a shock. It meant giving up farming in Clifton, disposing of his team of white oxen, and deserting his favorite workshop where he had repaired furniture for many of his neighbors. Worse, it meant leaving home for the Naval Preparatory School.
A year later, having completed the course of study, he had to secure an appointment to the Naval Academy. Then as now, these were usually awarded by members of Congress and were hard to come by. He had heard that the President also had the authority to appoint two to the Academy and two alternates should the primaries fail the tests.
It was worth a chance. Perhaps taking one of the ferries across the Potomac from Alexandria late on a Friday afternoon, Harry hoped that the guards might be a little more lax. He walked through the gates, up the drive and ducked into a doorway. Starting down a long hallway, he was suddenly spotted. “Hey, you can’t be in here! Back the way you came!” But the guard turned and walked away without checking. Harry dashed up the stairs and found President Grover Cleveland’s office.
In these days, it was customary for the President to leave some time to meet with regular citizens for any concerns they may have had. There was a small line of six or seven people, and seeing this young lad, and thinking his mission might be important, they each in turn offered their place until he was at the front of the line. “Let the lad go first,” they said.
Suddenly he was confronted with an opulent door which was just as suddenly opened by the secretary, who asked his name and ushered the shaken Harry into the presence of the President. “Mr. Henry Lackey, sir.” Flustered, a little tongue-tied and scared, he blurted out his request for an appointment to Annapolis, citing both his father’s and grandfather’s careers as officers.
President Cleveland leaned back in his chair. “I am sorry to tell you, Young Harry, that both the primary and one of the secondary positions have been promised. I shall give you the final secondary. If one of those primaries fail, the place will go to you for your chance. Good luck.”
As fate would have it, a primary did fail. Harry’s notification arrived, he took the tests, secured a berth and, in the fall of 1895, entered the Naval Academy as a plebe.
It was the start of a long career. Henry Ellis Lackey trained in sail; introduced a new and safer way to debunker coal; saw the introduction of diesel power for the fleet, and before he died read of the introduction of atomic power into the submarine fleet.
He rose through the ranks and commands until the late 1930s, when he took command of the forerunner of the Mediterranean Fleet, then called Squadron Forty-tare. In July 1942, he retired from the service as a two-star Rear Admiral . . . after 46 years of service.
There was a time in the 1930s when the Navy squired a big bash on both coasts: fleets in parade, dinners in full dress uniform, evening gowns. Admiral Lackey found himself seated next to former President Cleveland’s daughter. He told her of his encounter with her father 35 years earlier, and learned from her that the President had followed Lackey’s early career with some interest, all because of his defying the guard and crashing the President’s office.
“It was,” she said, “one of his favorite stories.”
Nol Putnam is an artist-blacksmith who lives in Huntly, and is working on a collection of family stories.