Colin Powell died on Oct. 18 at the age of 84. He was a retired four-star General, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State and, from 1987 to 1989, our United States National Security Advisor. Everyone admired him and if it wasn’t for a disastrous speech he made to the United Nations showing that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction when there weren’t any, it was thought he might run for president of the United States.
Many journalists have written rapturous accounts of their time with him and as he was a frequent visitor to the Hamptons, I hereby do that, too.
But these occasions are not what you think. These are my two encounters.
One sunny day, driving through the farmland of Sagaponack, I saw, off to my right, an Army tank driving through a potato field. I pulled over. It was not a current-day tank. It was an antique 90-year-old World War I Army tank that puffed black smoke, and bounced and struggled noisily along through the rows of plants. Tanks from that era were small and odd-looking. This one was the size of a garbage truck with a gun in the front. Who drives antique tanks in the Hamptons? It got stuck on a rock at one point. The top opened and Powell got out. He saw me and smiled.
Later, I made inquiries. Powell had ordered it flat-bedded down from an Army base upstate so he could drive it around here.
Could I write about this? I knew the farmer, but he asked that since he was a friend of Powell’s, would I please not write anything that might embarrass him. OK, I said. So I never did.
Two years later, I saw Powell at a rock concert in Montauk. Powell was wearing civilian clothes. And he was dancing and singing while wearing a big hat with a colorful embroidered parrot on his head.
Six annual rock concerts took place in a pasture at Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk during those years. They raised millions for charity. One starred Paul Simon. Another starred Ray Charles. Thousands of people attended and for cheap seats you sat on hay bales far back from this enormous 30-foot-tall metal rock star stage, or by paying more you could sit up close on hay bales in a VIP area.
The music was very loud. I was in the VIP area amidst several hundred others and it was there I saw Powell. He was maybe 20 yards away. We were all standing. Onstage, female dancers in spangled, skin-tight costumes featuring ostrich feathers sang and swayed this way and that in unison. Behind them, at the bottom of the rear curtain of the stage, a small, two-dimensional volcano poster appeared, and while puffing white smoke and jerking to the beat, it rose upward foot by foot until, at 20 feet high and as wide as the stage, it loomed over everything. With that, out jumped Jimmy Buffett, joining the girls and the smoke to sing the last chorus of “Fruitcakes” with them. Everybody cheered. Those with parrot-head hats waved their fists.
Soon, the feathered singers pranced off and Buffett launched into “Margaritaville,” his signature hit song. And Powell and 3,000 other parrotheads in that pasture, including me, screamed, cheered and danced along.
And for a moment, Colin Powell saw me looking at him and again, he smiled.