14 Secrets of Secret Service Agents

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Getty

On the day he was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln approved the formation of the United States Secret Service, a government agency tasked with protecting the integrity of the nation’s currency. In 1901, after the assassination of President William McKinley, Congress extended their duties to involve the protection of the president.

As the name implies, the organization is extremely guarded when it comes to discussing details of their methods, but that doesn’t mean we’re completely in the dark. We spoke with former agent Tim Wood, along with journalists Ronald Kessler and Jeffrey Robinson (all authors of books about the Secret Service), to learn more about how the agency insulates the leader of the free world from harm, the sometimes surprisingly low-tech anti-threat tactics they use, and how the Oval Office can safely order a pizza.

1. THEY TRAVEL WITH BAGS OF THE PRESIDENT’S BLOOD.

Although thousands of agents are employed by the Secret Service, only a small number are assigned to the Presidential Protection Division (PPD), the branch of the agency responsible for guarding the lives of the commander in chief and their family. According to Jeffrey Robinson, co-author of former agent Joseph Petro’s autobiography Standing Next to History, the division is methodical about making sure agents are trained in “ten-minute medicine,” or doing everything possible to keep the president alive until he or she can receive specialized medical attention in the event of an emergency.

“When they travel, they’re never more than 10 minutes away from a trauma center,” Robinson says. “They’ll have an agent posted at the hospital who knows the operating room staff.” Additionally, the travel group will have bags of blood in the president’s motorcade in the event a transfusion is needed.

The focus on emergency medicine training helped save Ronald Reagan's life during a 1981 assassination attempt. After being shot, Reagan thought he had suffered only a minor rib injury, and the plan was to take him to the White House, considered the safest place in the capital. But in the president's limo, Agent Jerry Parr noticed frothy red blood coming from Reagan's mouth—a sign he had been bleeding from the lungs. The decision was quickly made to reroute Reagan to the hospital, where doctors discovered Reagan had been shot in the lung. The president endured several hours of surgery and post-operative complications before making a complete recovery.

2. THEY MAKE SURE THE PRESIDENT IS NEVER ALONE. EVEN IN THE BATHROOM.

Being on protective detail means following the president wherever he or she might go. This includes the bathroom, the doctor’s office, or anywhere that might benefit from a little privacy. “The president is never alone,” Robinson says. “When Reagan was in office, Joe was there for his prostate exams and colonoscopies. He was always in the room with a gun. And if he thought the doctor was any kind of threat, he would’ve shot him.”

3. THEY INTERVIEW POTENTIAL ASSASSINS.

While making a threat against the president’s life is never a good idea, it’s up to agents to determine whether you should be warned, committed for psychiatric evaluation, or charged with a Class E felony. According to 23-year Secret Service veteran Tim Wood, author of Criminals and Presidents: The Adventures of a Secret Service Agent, this is called “protective intelligence.” Any time someone makes a suggestion of wanting to cause the president harm, every aspect of their lives will be investigated. “We interview friends, neighbors, associates, employees,” Wood says. “The question is, ‘Is this person serious?’” When Wood interviewed a man who had made repeated calls threatening Reagan’s life, he determined the subject had an alcohol problem and possible mental illness, sparing him serious prosecution.

4. THEY CAN BE ORDERED TO PROTECT ANYONE.

Presidents and vice-presidents don’t have the ability to refuse Secret Service supervision once they take office, although some can switch to private security detail once they’ve served their term.

However, they do have a say in whether someone else can be assigned Secret Service protection. According to Ronald Kessler, author of In the President’s Secret Service, agents started to escort some White House staff members following the September 11 attacks at the behest of George W. Bush. “It’s a fairly recent development,” Kessler says. Among other duties, agents can accompany children to school, standing outside classrooms until the lesson is over.

5. THEY FILM THE PRESIDENT IN CASE SOMETHING HAPPENS.

For all of the controversy it created, the Zapruder film of the 1963 John F. Kennedy assassination was invaluable in helping the Secret Service understand how quickly a situation can spin out of control. To this day, agents still screen the footage as part of their training. According to Kessler, they also film current presidential motorcades in the event they need to review an attack. “Recently, someone threw something at Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago,” Kessler says. “They were able to locate the person thanks to video.”

6. THE FOOD IS UNDER CONSTANT SURVEILLANCE.

“If you send the president a Christmas ham, it’ll never get to him,” Robinson says. Every bite of food presented to the president is prepared under the watchful eye of the Secret Service, who stare down White House chefs to make sure no one is flavoring with arsenic or rat poison. When the president travels, Navy stewards come along to prepare food. And when the president has a photo-op at a diner and orders food, it’s not likely he’s going to eat it.

Surprisingly, it’s still possible to just order a pizza. “If the president wants a pizza, they’ll have it delivered to the Naval Observatory or another address nearby,” Robinson says. “Since the [pizzeria] doesn’t know who it’s for, it reduces the danger.”

7. HOTELS HATE THEM.

When the president travels, the Secret Service kicks into overdrive, scouting hotel destinations in an attempt to control a foreign environment. Hotel employees who will be in contact with the government entourage are subject to background checks. “If anyone has a criminal history, the hotel manager will ask them not to come in that day,” Kessler says. The Secret Service will also take over entire floors above and below the president and commandeer elevators for their own private use, which can disrupt a hotel’s business. They’ll even keep an elevator repairman on standby in the event the POTUS gets stuck.

8. THEY HAVE A WAY OF TRACKING YOU, AND IT’S IN YOUR DESK DRAWER RIGHT NOW.

When the White House receives troubling or threatening hand-written correspondence, agents have a way of narrowing down their search for subjects. Kessler says that the Secret Service, working in tandem with ink manufacturers, maintains a vast database of distinctive “tags” in the ink that can be identified and narrowed to the brand and where in the country it’s sold. “It’s similar to the way explosives manufacturers identify material,” he says.

9. “WORKING THE ROPE” IS THE MOST NERVE-WRACKING PART OF THE JOB.

According to Wood, no other detail duty is quite as stressful as dealing with impromptu presidential greetings with private citizens standing behind a roped-off area. “That’s where agents earn their money,” he says. “You have no idea what an uncontrolled crowd might do.” To minimize threats, agents are constantly scanning for hands stuffed in pockets or other signs of suspicious activity. Their omnipresent sunglasses? Those are for crowd-scanning without tipping off potential suspects, and to ward off any liquids or other projectiles thrown in their direction.

10. THEY TEND TO PICK UP NEW HOBBIES.

Because the president is never without an escort, Secret Service agents are often forced to learn new hobbies. Wood didn’t have any experience riding horses when he accompanied Bill Clinton for rides during his two terms. “Fortunately, Clinton was not a master horseman like Reagan, so it was just a simple trail ride,” Wood says. But Clinton was a well-conditioned jogger, which forced agents to be in great shape in order to be able to keep up. “You’re doing your job while running for five miles,” Wood says.

11. THERE’S NO SWORN OATH TO DIE FOR THE PRESIDENT.

Despite Hollywood’s depictions of life in the Service, agents never have to explicitly “swear” to give up their life in order to protect the president. “They never utter that sentence,” Kessler says. “It’s understood that something like that could happen, but they take every possible step to avoid it.”

12. THEIR LIMO IS STRAIGHT OUT OF A JAMES BOND MOVIE.

When the president is on the road, he’s typically in a very heavily armored limousine that’s flat-tire-proof, bulletproof, and driven by agents with extensive experience in defensive driving. According to Wood, agents are trained to perform a 180-degree turn in the event of a road block or explosion. Both the limo and other vehicles used by the president are serviced by a Secret Service garage, which makes modifications to commercial vehicles to make them more attack-resistant.

13. THEY GET SHOT WITH FAKE BULLETS.

In order to prepare for any eventuality, agents undergo regular and rigorous scenario training, with an agent acting as a stand-in for the president while other agents try to navigate threats. To make the simulation effective, Wood says that the training incorporates non-lethal "marking rounds," or plastic bullets that leave a colored trace and a superficial sting. “Instead of a blank going off, you’d know if you’ve been hit or where you hit your target,” he says.

14. THEY DON’T CARRY BAGS, SO DON’T ASK.

The quickest way to annoy a Secret Service agent? Ask them to carry your luggage or grocery bags. “[Vice-President] Walter Mondale once asked an agent to pick up laundry,” Robinson says. “They don’t do that.”

All images courtesy of Getty/iStock.

7 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Roadies

Lindrik/iStock/GettyImagesPlus
Lindrik/iStock/GettyImagesPlus

Although the word roadie may conjure up images of non-stop partying with rock stars, the reality is that most work unglamorous, physically and emotionally demanding jobs. They lug the gear, set up the instruments, manage the stage, run the sound, sell the merch, drive the bus, and generally do whatever it takes to make concerts possible. Mental Floss talked to a few roadies (who probably wish we'd stop calling them that—see below) to get the inside scoop.

1. Roadie is an outdated term.

Some roadies who worked in the 1960s through the 1980s later wrote books bragging about their sexual conquests, wild partying, and drug use while on the road. Although that lifestyle is not completely obsolete—genres such as metal, rap, and hip hop supposedly see more illegal activity than indie, pop, folk, and alternative—most roadies don’t refer to themselves as such.

Morgan Paros, a violinist and singer based in Los Angeles, says that the generic term roadie seems slightly derogatory now. Instead, it’s better to use terms that more specifically describe individual duties. “Anyone on a tour is generally working very hard to fulfill their role of tour manager, front of house (sound engineer), light tech, stage manager, instrument tech, or merchandise manager,” Paros says. “These individuals make everything possible for the performers every night.”

2. Roadies work insanely long hours.

Most roadies work 16- to 20-hour days. Waking up early and going to sleep late is part of the job description, as Meg MacRae, a production coordinator who’s been on the road with Bon Jovi and the Eagles, attests. A typical day for her starts with a 6 a.m. bus pickup, after which she sets up a temporary production office at the venue. After a long day of problem-solving, booking flights and hotels, and making sure the crew is taken care of, she ends her day at 1:30 or 2 a.m.

3. Roadies get used to roughing it.

Unless they’re working for an A+ list performer, most roadies are not living the high life, sleeping in luxury hotel suites and flying on private jets. Being on the road can be hard work. Depending on the band’s budget level, the road crew may sleep on the floor of a shared hotel room, or sit in a crowded Ford Econoline or Chevrolet Express van for hours.

Tour conditions offer minimal privacy and maximum mess. “You wouldn’t believe how insanely messy a van can get after a 6-week tour of the country,” says Michael Lerner of Telekinesis.

David, a front-of-house sound engineer based in New York, also describes the dirty working conditions in many venues. “Consider how grimy some music venues look. The dusty mixing board in the back coated in spilled beer, the germs of hundreds of singers talking/spitting/shouting into the same microphones night after night, and the questionable odors of green rooms inhabited by people who spend a solid portion of their days packed into a van … this is your office. Good luck not getting sick.”

4. Roadies usually have good reasons for putting up with it all.

So why do roadies subject themselves to the long hours and less-than-glamorous conditions? Many say they love music so much that they can’t imagine working in any other field. “For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to have a job in music,” tour manager and sound engineer William Pepple writes. Some roadies also get into it because they love traveling all over the world, seeing new cities, and meeting new people.

5. Maintaining relationships at home is a big challenge for roadies.

Being a roadie is a lifestyle rather than just a job. Because they travel so frequently for work, roadies often struggle to maintain relationships with loved ones. Technology such as FaceTime and Skype has made keeping up with family, friends, and significant others easier, but it can still be a challenge to find privacy to make phone calls. Roadies who travel on buses have a little more privacy and time to connect with loved ones back home, since bus tours often give them the freedom of waking up in the city where the band’s next show is, while road crew on van tours spend the majority of the daytime driving to the next show.

6. They probably have at least one horror story from the road.

Whether it’s an unscrupulous promoter cheating the band out of their earnings, a bus overheating, a van breaking down, or driving through dangerous winter storms, roadies probably have at least one horror story. Most awful promoters or venues, though, are usually due to simple misunderstandings. “Most bad days are due to either bad communication or a lack of understanding that most touring people just want simple comforts: a clean shower, clean towels, a safe place to put their stuff, laundry machines, and good food,” says Mahina Gannet, who’s worked as a tour manager and production coordinator for bands such as The Postal Service, Death Cab For Cutie, and Neko Case.

7. Good roadies are there to work, not just hang out with the band.

Achieving a balance between being professional and having fun is harder on tours because “you are working, living and traveling with your co-workers,” Gannet adds. “I’m there to get a job done, and when it’s done, I love to hang out. A lot of tour managers I’ve seen definitely can go to either extreme (some actually thinking they are a member of the band, some so distant the band can’t talk to them), but it’s like everything else in life. It’s about finding your own personal balance.”

This piece first ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

14 Secrets of McDonald's Employees

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

While there’s virtually no end to the number of fast food options for people seeking a quick meal, none have entered the public consciousness quite like McDonald’s. Originally a barbecue shop with a limited menu when it was founded by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in the 1940s, the Golden Arches have grown into a franchised behemoth with more than 36,000 locations worldwide.

Staffing those busy kitchens and registers are nearly 2 million McDonald's employees. To get a better idea of what many consider to be the most popular entry-level job in the nation—staff members on the floor make an average of $9 an hour—we asked several workers to share details of their experiences with errant ice cream machines, drive-through protocols, and special requests. Here’s what they had to say about life behind the counter.

1. McDonald's employees can't always deliver fast food all that fast.

While McDonald’s and other fast-service restaurants pride themselves on getting customers on their way, some menu items just don’t lend themselves to record service times. According to Bob, an assistant store manager at a McDonald’s in the Midwest, pies take an average of 10 to 12 minutes to prepare; grilled chicken, 10 minutes; and biscuits for Egg McMuffins, eight to 10 minutes. In the mood for something light, like a grilled chicken and salad? That will take a few minutes, too. Bob says salads are pre-made with lettuce but still need to have chicken and other ingredients added.

The labor-intensive nature of assembling ingredients is part of why the chain has more recently shied away from menu items with too many ingredients. “We are trained to go as fast down the line as we can, and if we have to stop to make something that has 10 ingredients, it tends to slow things down,” Bob tells Mental Floss. “Corporate has realized this and has taken many of these items off in recent years, [like] McWraps, Clubhouse, more recently the Smokehouse and mushroom and Swiss and moved to items that can go a lot quicker.”

2. McDonald's workers wish you’d stop asking for fries without salt.

A serving of McDonald's French fries is pictured
Joerg Koch, AFP/Getty Images

A common “trick” for customers seeking fresh fries is to ask for them without salt. The idea is that fries that have been under a heating lamp will already be salted and that the employee in the kitchen will need to put down a new batch in the fryer. This does work, but customers can also just ask for fresh fries. It’s less of a hassle and may even save employees some discomfort.

“People can ask for fresh fries and it's actually way easier to do fresh fries rather than no-salt fries,” Andy, an employee who’s worked at three different McDonald’s locations in the Midwest, tells Mental Floss. “For those, we have to pour the fries onto a tray from the fryer so they don't come in contact with salt. It can get awkward sometimes getting everything into position, especially if you have a lot of people working in close proximity and it's busy, so I've had some scalded hands a couple of times trying to get fries out in a timely way.”

3. McDonald's workers have to pay careful attention to the order of ingredients.

McDonald’s is pretty specific about how their burgers and other items are supposed to be assembled, with layers—meat, cheese, sauce—arranged in a specific order. If they mess it up, customers can notice. “In some cases it has a big impact,” Sam, a department manager and nine-year veteran of the restaurant in Canada, tells Mental Floss. “Like placing the cheese between the patties with a McDouble. If they don’t put the cheese between the patties, the cheese won’t melt.”

4. There’s a reason McDonald’s employees ask you to park at the drive-through.

A McDonald's customer pulls up to the drive-thru window
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

After ordering at the drive-through window, you may be slightly puzzled when a cashier asks you to pull into one of the designated parking spots. That’s because employees are measured on how quickly they process cars at the drive-through. If your order is taking a long time to prepare, they’ll take you out of the queue to keep the line moving. “My store has sensors in the drive-through that actually tell us exactly how long you are at each spot in the drive-through,” Bob says. “We get measured based on something we call OEPE. Order end, present end. [That measures] from the second that your tires move from the speaker until your back tires pass over the sensor on the present window. My store is expected to be under two minutes.” If an order will take longer than that, you'll be asked to park.

5. The McDonald's drive-through employees can hear everything going on in your car.

While the quality of the speakers at a drive-through window can vary, it’s best to assume employees inside the restaurant can hear everything happening in your car even before you place an order. “The speaker is activated by the metal in the car, so as soon as you drive up, the speaker turns on in our headset,” Andy says. “We can hear everything, and I do mean everything. Loud music, yelling at your kids to shut up, etc.”

6. The employees at McDonald’s like their regulars.

Customers eat inside of a McDonald's with an order of French fries in the foreground
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

With hot coffee, plenty of tables, Wi-Fi, and newspapers, McDonald’s can wind up being a popular hang-out for repeat customers. “[We have] a ton of regulars who come into my store,” Bob says. “I'd say at least 75 percent of my daily customers know us all by name and we know them all, too. It makes it nice and makes the service feel a lot more personal when a customer can walk into my location, and we can look them in the eye and say, ‘Hey Mark! Getting the usual today?’ and we've already started making his coffee exactly how he takes it.”

7. McDonald’s staff get prank calls.

Unless they’re trying to cater an event, customers usually don’t have any reason to phone a McDonald’s. When the phone rings, employees brace themselves. In addition to sometimes being asked a legitimate question like when the store closes, Sam says his store gets a lot of prank calls. “Sometimes it’s people asking about directions to Wendy’s,” he says. “A lot of inappropriate ones. Most are pretty lame.”

8. For a McDonald’s worker, the ice cream machine is like automated stress.

A McDonald's customer is handed an ice cream cone at the drive-thru window
iStock/jax10289

The internet is full of stories of frustrated McDonald’s customers who believe the chain’s ice cream machines are always inoperable. That’s not entirely true, but the machine does experience a lot of downtime. According to Bob, that’s because it’s always in need of maintenance. “The thing is, it is a very sensitive machine,” he says. “It's not made to be making 50 cones in a row, or 10 shakes at a time. It takes time for the mix to freeze to a proper consistency. It also requires a daily heat mode, [where] the whole machine heats up to about 130 degrees or so. The heat mode typically takes about four hours to complete, so you try to schedule it during the slowest time.” Stores also need to take the machine entirely apart every one to two weeks to clean it thoroughly.

Bob adds that the machine’s O-rings can crack or tear, rendering the unit inoperable. Seasoned workers can tell if a unit is faulty by the consistency of the shakes or ice cream coming out, and sometimes by the noises it makes.

9. McDonald's employees don't mind if you order a grilled cheese.

Contrary to rumor, there’s no “secret menu” at McDonald’s. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes snag something not listed on the board. Andy says a lot of people order a grilled cheese sandwich. “I've made many a grilled cheese before,” he says. But it’s not without consequences. “Sometimes it can get a bit risky doing it because the bun toaster wasn't designed to make grilled cheeses so sometimes you get some burnt buns or cheese or the cheese sticks inside and it slows down the other buns from getting out on time so that causes more burnt buns.”

Another common request is for customers to ask for a McDouble dressed as a Big Mac, with added Big Mac sauce and shredded lettuce. “I think [it’s] a way more practical way to eat a Big Mac since there's less bun in the way, and it's also way cheaper even if you do get charged for Mac sauce.”

10. McDonald’s workers recommend always checking your order.

A McDonald's employee serves an order
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Nothing stings worse than the revelation that an employee has forgotten part of your food order. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because the employees are being lazy or inattentive. According to Bob, it’s simply due to the volume of customers a typical location has to process in a given day. “We are human,” he says. “Mistakes do happen. We always feel terrible when they do but when we serve 1000-plus people a day, it's bound to happen.”

Bob recommends checking your bag before leaving the restaurant and not taking it personally if there’s an issue. “Be nice to us if you have a problem,” he says. “It's a huge difference between coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, I seem to be missing a fry from my bag,’ and ‘You bastards didn't give me my fries!’” If you want to check your bag at the drive-through, though, he recommends trying to pull ahead so cars behind you can move forward.

11. McDonald's employees don't recommend the grilled chicken.

If a menu item isn’t all that popular, it can wind up experiencing a low rate of turnover. Of all the food at McDonald’s, the most neglected might be the grilled chicken. Because it doesn't move quickly, workers find that it can turn unappetizing in a hurry. “That stuff has a supposed shelf life of 60 minutes in the heated cabinet, but it dries out so quickly that even if it's within an acceptable time frame, it looks like burnt rubber, and probably tastes like it, too,” Andy says.

12. Golden Arches employees aren’t crazy about Happy Meal collectors.

A McDonald's Happy Meal is pictured
David Morris, Getty Images

Happy Meals are boxed combos that come with a toy inside. Usually, it’s tied into some kind of movie promotion. That means both Happy Meal collectors and fans of a given entertainment property can swarm stores looking for the product. “The biggest pain involving the Happy Meals is the people who collect them,” Bob says. “I personally hate trying to dig through the toys looking for one specific one. We usually only have one to three toys on hand. It's especially a pain in the butt during big toys events such as the Avengers one we just had. There was like 26 different toys, and some customers get really mad when you don't have the one that they want.”

And no, employees don’t usually take home leftover toys. They’ve saved for future use as a substitute in case a location runs out of toys for their current promotion.

13. McDonald's employees can’t mess with Monopoly.

The McDonald’s Monopoly promotion has been a perennial success for the chain, with game pieces affixed to drink cups and fry containers. But if you think employees spend their spare time peeling the pieces off cups looking for prizes, think again. Following a widely-publicized scandal in 2000 that saw an employee of the company that printed the pieces intercepting them for his own gain, the chain has pretty strict rules about the promotion. “Monopoly pieces and things like them get sent back to corporate,” Bob says. “We aren't allowed to touch them, open them, or redeem them as employees.”

14. One McDonald's worker admits there have been sign mishaps.

A McDonald's sign is pictured
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Many McDonald’s locations sport signs under the arches advertising specials or promotions. Some are analog, with letters that need to be mounted and replaced. Others have LED screens. Either way, there can be mistakes. “I've never seen anyone mess around with the letters,” Andy says. “But I do remember one time we were serving the Angus Burgers and the ‘G’ fell off of the word ‘Angus.’ Good times.”

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