Besides being a teacher, an avid traveler, an aspiring writer and photographer, I am a tourist guide in Washington, D.C. While we are winding down our busiest time of year, there are still a bazillion school groups coming to the Nation’s Capital. It seems that every 8th grade in the entire country comes to Washington in the spring (and many 5th, 6th and 7th grades as well!).
This week, I have had a group of adults from Finland and 5 different school groups; 4 from various places in Michigan and one from Texas. While they generally all want to see the same things, there is variation based on time, weather and schedule. But there is never a dull moment in Washington. Something new and strange is always happening.
Sacred Air Space
On Saturday, my Finnish adults stopped at the Capitol to take photos. We had just gotten off the bus, when I noticed that the Capitol police were shrilly blowing their whistles and seemed to be clearing people from the plaza immediately in front of the building itself. I thought that perhaps one of the Honor Flight groups was coming and they wanted to give them space.
But suddenly, the Capitol Police officer was running towards us, shouting at people to clear the area and urgently waving them away from the Capitol grounds. I ran back to our bus, which had not yet pulled away and asked our driver not to leave as I thought we might have to re-board. Then the police officer is up in front of the bus window telling the driver to “get that bus out of here!” (My guests were beginning to re-board as quickly as possible) So I asked the officer, “Can I please get my group back on the bus?” His response? (In a very LOUD voice)”There is a plane headed toward the Capitol. Do you want this bus here when it arrives? Get it OUT of here!” I just about shoved the last few people on the bus and our driver, bless his heart, moved it.
Lunch was next on the agenda, so we proceeded there without further incident. Many of the guests understood English, but some hardly any so I think that they really didn’t know what was happening.
I did a little research during lunch and afterwards told them the story.
Apparently a small private plane flown by a new pilot had violated D.C. airspace and didn’t immediately respond to calls for identification. They went into emergency mode, scrambled F-16’s, and when the poor pilot, who was just flying to North Carolina to visit his daughter, landed, he was met by CIA and FBI. Probably not a good day for him.
We were able to visit the Capitol (without incident) after dinner. And they had a great story to tell when they got home!
Wait – who was that guy?
On Tuesday, I had a group of middle school students from Texas. They had a scheduled tour inside the Capitol. We unloaded the bus on the west side of the building and walked up to the Visitor Center, stopping along the way so everyone could catch up and I could explain all the sights. We had reached the southeast corner, the House side of the Capitol, and they had a great view of the Library of Congress. So I commented, “The green domed building you see behind me is The Library of Congress, and behind you is Senator Charles Rangle!” (D-NY) As I was facing my group I suddenly noticed that he was walking behind them. I didn’t actually mean to blurt it out, but he was literally a step away from my students.
He smiled, waved and a few parents shook his hand.
We proceeded into the Visitor Center for their tour. I usually don’t accompany the groups on the tour – but the dome is under major renovation in the rotunda and I wanted to see for myself how it looked. It was a very busy day – not just because of the tour groups, but there were hearings going on, television cameras and newscasters everywhere; the place was a buzz of activity.
On the tour, the groups move from the Rotunda into Statuary Hall, through a narrow corridor, passing by the Office of the Speaker of the House. As we passed through the passageway, who should approach from the House Chambers, but Speaker John Boehner himself (surrounded by the usual cadre of Secret Service). He passed about three feet away from us! One of the parent chaperones in the group got a photograph! I wasn’t that quick.
1, 2, 3 helicopters!
It is uncommon to see the President (or POTUS – President Of The United States, as he is commonly called in D.C.) out and about in Washington. When he does ‘move’, it is generally in a large motorcade; streets are closed, traffic is snarled and everything generally comes to a halt. But while stopped at a traffic light on Friday evening with a group of students from Michigan, we suddenly spotted the tell-tale triple helicopters flying low over the Mall. Sure enough, Marine One was transporting the President from Andrews Air Force Base where he had just arrived back from France and the D-Day/Normandy Commemorations, to the White House. The students were able to see the helicopter disappear below the trees as it landed on the south lawn.
One of the very special things to do while in Washington DC is to tour the monuments at night. On warm evenings, it is a spectacularly beautiful city – the monuments and buildings are all illuminated; the fountains and pools are bathed in soft light. Unfortunately, the hot, humid weather of the DC summer often gives way to an evening thunderstorm, some of which can be quite severe. Last week, while on one of those idyllic evening tours with my group of students from Texas, I noticed the evening sky was darkening ominously in the distance. Like a hen ushering chicks, I urged my young charges to move a little faster. We rapidly crossed the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial and raced up the stairs just as the first gigantic drops of rain began to fall. Safely beneath the sheltering marble pillars I explained the memorial and allowed the students some free time to explore while I figured out our next move in the rain and storm. Suddenly there was a flash of lightening followed immediately by a huge clap of thunder seemingly right above our heads! But the subsequent piercing screams of pre-adolescent girls were far worse than any amount of thunder. They echoed in the cavernous space of the memorial and made my ears ring!
The downpour began in earnest and most of the noise created by the hundreds of people crowded into the Memorial was drowned out. Some of the students wanted to make a “run for it” to the bus but fortunately sane adults prevailed. The gift shop made a small fortune in the space of 20 minutes selling rain ponchos and anyone moving about was ducking and weaving to avoid being hit in the eye by an umbrella!
After about 20 minutes, the thunder and lightning had moved away and the rain had abated slightly. The 70 or so marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial are slick as ice when they are wet, so I guided my charges to the handrail with strict orders to “hold-on and don’t run” as they descended. Across the plaza, through the trees and out to the waiting bus, all the while leaping and avoiding puddles and lochs of water (at least I was!), you could hear the exuberance of the kids after surviving their great adventure!
Guests visiting Washington often ask me if I get tired of explaining or describing the same things over and over again. Never! Because it is never the same, there is always something new and different to see or tell about. While the basic scenery may stay the same, the people, the activity and the ambiance are ever-changing. There is never a dull moment!