In an ideal world, the reopening of the Washington Monument and the blooming of the cherry blossoms would have occurred simultaneously, allowing visitors to stroll the cherry-blossom-strewn grounds before going to the top of the monument.
The cherry blossoms were refusing to cooperate.
I was three hours into a shift at Survey Lodge. I had spent the past 2½ hours explaining to visitors that cherry blossoms had their own schedule. I was displaying a chart of the budding stages of the blossoms when a woman walked in.
“Ma’am?” she said.
The woman was sweet as could be, the type of visitor we loved. She was holding the hand of a young boy, and they waited until the person I was speaking with moved to get his stamps.
“Go ahead, Billy,” she told her son. “Ask the nice lady.”
Billy cleared his throat, shuffled his feet, and asked me, “Do you know when the cherry blossoms will come out?”
Taking the chart, I walked around the desk and crouched down. I showed him the different stages of budding, asked if he could tell which stage the buds were at.
“Um, four?” he said. I nodded.
“Well that can’t be right,” his mother said, still smiling. “According to your chart, stage four means we’re still up to ten days from peak bloom.”
“Well that won’t do. They need to bloom now.” She smiled at me, charmingly, as though I were a hostess denying her a window table. “Surely there’s something you can do?”
I shook my head and said I would if I could.
“But we came all the way from Topeka.”
“Don’t tell anyone I told you,” I said, looking around, “but if you squeeze the base of the bulb ever so lightly, you can encourage them to bloom faster.”
The woman reached out and touched me on the arm. “Thank you,” she said with so much gratitude I felt a twinge for the fib.
“Come on, Billy,” she said. They walked outside, and through the open door I saw her lift him to the lowest branch of a tree. I hoped they would remember the day as a touching memory and not as the day they got conned by an intern on the Mall.
On my way out that evening, I gave one of the blossoms a pinch. The next day, it had bloomed. Who’s to say it was a lie?
“Excuse me, miss?”
I was standing at the light in front of the World War II Memorial cursing the traffic, the subway delay, the people on the Metro escalators who didn’t know to stand on the right, walk on the left. My supervisor hadn’t called, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t noticed I was late.
I was so lost in my thoughts that it took me a moment to see the older man trying to get my attention. A couple of decades older than my father, he had the same white hair, the same weathered Irish skin, the same blue cap with gold letters my dad always wears. Same hat, different ship.
“Good morning, sir,” I said. “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for my friend,” he said. “I can’t find him anywhere.”
Scanning the crowd, I spotted a ranger with a school group, clusters of three and four veterans gathered around the memorial, a couple walking their bikes, a woman with a stroller. Two elderly ladies were sitting on a bench, one of them snoozing. But no elderly man wandering, searching for someone else.
“Where did you last see him?” I asked.
He had my attention. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go see if we can find him.”
We went to the memorial’s visitors center and searched without luck through the online registry of veterans. I gave him a sheet of paper with instructions for adding a name. “You’ll have to come back,” I said. “When your friend’s here, you’ll have to come back.”
He took my hand as though to shake it but instead just held it for a moment. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
“What’s behind that door?”
I was working at the Jefferson Memorial, in a room off the main portico. My sole purpose for the day seemed to be keeping people away from the door.
“Oh, nothing,” I told the teenager. “It’s just a closet.”
He grasped the doorknob and shook it. “Why is it locked?” he asked.
“So you won’t run off with our cleaning supplies.”
“Whatever,” he said, then put his headphones back on and walked away, convinced I was lying.
Which, of course, I was.
Beyond that nondescript door is a hallway leading to the underground backbone of the Mall & Memorial Parks unit of the National Park Service: The archives, with its rich photographs and signed letters. A library where rangers pore over books and old newspaper clippings to prepare their talks. Training rooms, a break room, and more. Directly beneath the domed memorial is a round room with dirt floors called the pit. There’s one just like it at the Lincoln. Both are closed to the public. They’re cavernous and damp, and they echo with hundreds of years of history.
The fact that the Mall & Memorial Parks unit has this underground facility helps explain why the Jefferson—one of the less visited memorials—has the largest and most elaborate of the memorial visitors centers. Grander than the bookstore at the Lincoln Memorial and more high-tech than the displays at the FDR, it makes the wall etchings at the Washington Monument seem like scribbled afterthoughts. It’s the sort of visitors center that’s standard in most national parks. But it’s the only one like it on the Mall. And it’s all smoke and mirrors. The real history, the stuff you don’t see, is behind a locked door off the portico.
As my time on the Mall came to a close, I was offered a seasonal ranger position in Alaska. During my time there, I always was baffled when people said to me, “I used to be a park ranger.” I could never understand how, if you were lucky enough to be a ranger, you would ever decide to do anything else. Until I left the park service myself, in search of stability and a single place to put down roots.
Several years later, I moved back to DC, and the Mall was my first stop. Every time I’m there—whether for Screen on the Green, a rally, or just hanging out with friends—it takes me a long time to walk anywhere. I stop to talk with people, to offer directions, to take their picture. Because I know where all the restrooms are, how people’s names get added to the World War II Memorial, and what’s behind the door. And I know how to make the cherry blossoms bloom.
This article appears in the July 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.