The pressure and excitement in the room was nearly palpable; the thrill of the experience danced through the audience. A hush filled the area as the those gathered waited for the announcement that would start it all.
“Madam Speaker, the President of the United States,” said the U.S. House Sergeant at Arms, Terrance W. Gainer.
At the same time, all across the country, people sat down in front of their televisions Tuesday night and watched the president speak. According to Nielsen Media, approximately 4.5 million people tuned in to hear the president's annual address. They listened intently to what he had to say about the last year, and what he would like to focus on for the coming year.
One local man, Chief Gregory E. Pyle of the Choctaw Nation, got a chance to witness that event up close and personal.
“It was such a thrill to be there,” said Pyle, who was seated in the balcony section of the Chamber for the House of Representatives, as a guest of Congressman Dan Boren.
Pyle left his office on Tuesday, and flew by private plane to DFW airport. From there he took a commercial plane to Washington, D.C. He booked a hotel in the D.C. area, and took a cab around the city.
Pyle has been traveling to D.C. for more than 20 years, spending a substantial part of his 14 years as assistant chief, in Washington, D.C. working on legislation that affects Native Americans. Pyle has continued to closely monitor and ensure that the tribe has input into all legislative acts that affect Choctaws.
“The first time I flew into the old airport, 25 years ago as an assistant chief, I walked under the entry way, and then had to go back and stare at it,” said Pyle, who was awed by the granite-carved stone archway that reads ‘You are now entering the most important city in the world.'
“There are so many cities in the world: Paris, Moscow and Beijing. But Washington D.C. is really the center of it. They are right, it is the ‘Most important city in the world,” said Pyle.
Before the speech, Pyle and Boren went out to eat and decided to arrive at the speech early. That decision was made, according to Pyle, both for security reasons and so that they could watch everyone else arrive.
The pair arrived at the House of Representatives and made it through the amazing amount of security.
“There were five check points, like at the airport,” said Pyle, who said that four or five blocks were closed down around the venue. Due to their early arrival time, the chief was able to watch others come in, though not who one might expect.
“I was standing by the elevators, talking to the security guard, and watched six to eight guys at a time getting off,” said Pyle, adding that they were dressed all in black, with large fully-encased cases strapped to their back.
“I finally realized that they were snipers,” said Pyle, who was sitting at what he thought was the top floor. “They must have been going somewhere, because they got off the elevator, one after another. They must have practiced it,”
After that sight, sobering as it must have been, Pyle headed to his seat in the balcony. “I was seated by a gentleman who must have been in his 60s. His wife was newly elected to congress. She had ran before, with the help of the party, and had only gotten 17 percent of the votes. Then, she went door-to-door and went out to Rotary clubs, and talked. You could tell that he was just so proud of her for doing it on her own,” said Pyle who said that the people surrounding him “couldn't have been nicer.”
“The speech was so good,” said Pyle, adding that for him it was about “the things we care about: health care, education and, of course, jobs. It was encouraging to hear the president talk about those.”
From his vantage point, Pyle was able to look down on the members of congress gathered below. He commented on the fact that there is an aisle that runs down the chamber, splitting the delegates along party lines, so it was clear to see who was applauding for what.
“Everyone stood, united, for the first lady. Regardless of the party, everyone has a great deal of respect for her,” said Pyle, who was able to see Laura Bush and her special guests, from his seat.
“One of those guys was seven feet tall,” said Pyle, telling the story of Dikembe Mutombo, a Congo native who is now a citizen of the United States. Mutombo came to Duke to study medicine, and was put on the basketball team; as a star in the NBA, he built a hospital in his hometown.
“Another of them was the man that risked his life to save someone on the subway, and a silver cross recipient,” said Pyle, who is impressed by the actions of Wesley Autrey and Sergeant Tommy Rieman.
All together the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and an overwhelming honor for the Chief, who was proud to represent the people.
“Not only the nation, but the entire Southeastern Oklahoma area,” said Pyle, who graduated from Hugo High School, and attended Murray State College, before going on to Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
With a twinkle in his eye, and a grin on his face Chief Pyle said, “I still have the ticket.”
And probably always will.