Obama's visit excites Fresnans, even if they don't actually see him

The Fresno BeeFebruary 14, 2014 

Playing the "Star-Spangled Banner" on his trumpet, one excited man outside Fresno Yosemite International Airport was eager to proclaim the arrival of President Barack Obama.

Nevermind that it was a little hard to guess what song he was trumpeting, or that he wasn't able to approach an off-limits, chain-link fence on the west side of the airport Friday afternoon.

Mario Rodriguez, 48, of Fresno was going to see Air Force One, along with at least 500 other spectators, and he was excited.

"It's a very special moment for everybody," Rodriguez said.

"I'm sorry but I'm going to make some noise -- Hail to the chief!" he said of his trumpet playing. "It comes from my heart."

Hundreds parked along Chestnut Avenue, between Dakota and Shields avenues, setting up lawn chairs or sitting on truck beds, craning to get a glimpse of the president's plane.

Rodriguez took the day off work to show his support and to honor his late farmworker father, who he said would have loved to see the president.

"I'm just happy," Rodriguez said, "even though I know he's not going to shake my hand."

RELATED STORY: Obama vows to give attention to drought in Valley visit

Few people were able to shake the President Barack Obama's hand during his quick trip to Fresno. It was a tightly controlled event, and not open to the public. But that fact didn't dim the enthusiasm of eager crowds, or keep away some demonstrators.

Sherry Allen, 65, of Clovis said waiting for the president's arrival made her a little giddy. "It's a great Valentine treat."

An 88-year-old former B-17 pilot who flew in World War II also waited -- ready to catch his first glimpse of Air Force One.

"I got to come out to the airport, see the boss," Ed James of Fresno said.

The allure of Air Force One was a big draw for Kyle Allen, 37, of Fresno.

"I've seen it in the movies, I've seen it on TV, but to see it up close and personal -- it's way better than that and I love it," Allen said. "It's an experience to see the president fly into our hometown for the first time."

Down the street, people also set up on lawns at Addicott Elementary Schools, residents peered into the sky from front yards, and closer to the terminal, dozens pressed their faces against fence lines, gazing across the runway.

Rodriguez, who grew up working in the fields as a farmworker in Fresno, said he's hopeful the president will be able to help California through its drought: "There are lots of people out there who need vegetables, fruits, to make it through life and that's what we are here for."

A small group of Central Valley Tea Party members also kept their focus on water, holding a large banner that read "Food grows where water flows" along the outskirts of the airport. They were ordered out of Fresno Yosemite's main terminal earlier in the afternoon by airport officials.

"We're not protesting the president," said Jared Gordon, coordinator for the group. "We want him to use his power to do everything he can to get water to people in California. Money doesn't grow crops or provide drinking water. Water provides life, jobs and food."

But the drought wasn't what all of the demonstrators were there for. About 30 people from Peace Fresno gathered in front of the airport's entrance with signs to protest war.

Teresa Castillo, president of Peace Fresno, talked about the high death toll in Iraq, along with her group's opposition to warfare waged by unmanned drones.

Others demonstrated away from the airport, like the Fresno Immigrant Youth in Action group. They stood on the Tulare Street overpass above Highway 41, and held a press conference in front of Rep. Jim Costa's office in Fresno.

"We ask President Obama to put an end to deportations," the group said in a written statement. "He has reached a record number of 2 million deportations, which is more than any other president during their term."

But back by the airport, the buzz was mostly good for President Obama.

"This is the first time I'm going to be this close to a president," said Linda Giron, 76, of Fresno. "It's really a thrill."

Staff writer Marc Benjamin contributed to this story. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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