John Hirko was a Marine and a buckaroo, and that combination led the Kelso native to the White House one day in 1992 to play horseshoes with President George H.W. Bush.
Memories of that hour-long encounter, rekindled by the 41st president’s death last week, are now helping comfort him through a time of personal trouble.
Hirko, the son of Mike and Edwina “Eddie” Hirko of Rose Valley, always wanted to be a Marine and enlisted after graduating from Kelso High School, launching a career that started in June 1981 and ended in August 2002.
He was a member of the Marine Corps Rodeo Team, riding bulls bareback and competing in the military national finals, then held in Yuma, Ariz.
“In rodeo you pitch horseshoes quite a bit. I got to be pretty decent,” Hirko, now 55, said in a phone interview Tuesday night from his home in Richland, N.C.
In 1991 he was assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station in Quantico, Va. He was a maintenance technician in unit HMX-1, which serviced and tested the new V-22 Osprey, the combination fixed-wing/helicopter aircraft.
“President Bush was an avid horseshoe player. We had a tournament (at Quantico) in January and July that year with the winning teams getting a chance to play at the White House,” said Hirko, then a sergeant.
Hirko and his horseshoe partner, a warrant officer whose name he could not remember, finished second in the January tournament and first in the July competition, earning the right to play the president.
“The day we were there was the day the president pardoned the turkey. So we were all standing around watching him, and then he comes over and smiles and says, ‘I’ll be right back.’ Five or 10 minutes later he is back in a sweat suit.’”
They played three games on the White House lawn, with the president’s youngest son, Marvin Bush, teaming up with this dad. After Hirko and his partner won the first two games, “the Secret Service guy leans over and says, ‘Don’t let that happen again.’”
Hirko said the president “made you feel like one of the family, like you were at a family barbecue. ... He wanted to know where you were from. How long you’d been in the service? Did you enjoy it? What were your hobbies? ... He was really jovial. It took me by surprise.”
He also remembers that the president had a strong handshake, firm but not crushing.
First Lady Barbara Bush stopped by briefly to watch the match.
“She was like your grandmother. She was so personable that she melted your heart like a stick of butter.”
Hirko said he received Christmas cards from the Bushes for several years after their visit. The president’s death brought back strong, comforting memories of the encounter and service in the Marines that came at a key time.
Hirko and his wife, Brenda, are trying to recover from September damage to their home caused by Hurricane Florence. She is living with their son and grandchildren in Colorado while the house awaits repairs.
Hirko, who spent 12 years working for the Transportation Safety Administration after his service in the Marines, hasn’t been able to work for about a year because of chronic lower back pain.
“I spent a lot of good years in the Marines. It was one of the best times of my life. I will cherish it forever,” he said, adding that the horseshoe encounter “uplifted my spirit.”