A Monument to Summer

The crowds at the National Mall always indicate when summer is in full swing, and also when it's drawing to a close.

September 05, 2005|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

It has been called "the nation's front yard," where monuments sprout instead of crabgrass.

Tourists - who long ago replaced robins as the harbinger of spring in Washington - visit The Mall to pay their respects at memorials and to mug for pocket cameras, to extract a little taxpayer's revenge by dawdling inside all those free Smithsonian museums.

But if you live only a few blocks away on Capitol Hill (as I did for a dozen years), it's different: You come to The Mall almost every day. To jog. To bike. To catch the sunset. To smack a softball. To forget about whichever war and whatever political scandal is consuming the city and the country.

The National Mall is 143 runway-shaped acres of mostly grass and gravel, anchored on one end by the U.S. Capitol, on the other by the Lincoln Memorial. Nothing especially wild about that terrain, but it became my not-so-private Walden Pond: a getaway place alive with the rhythmic folding and unfolding of seasons.

Summer gets star treatment, what with the National Park Service's picnic-blanket concerts every Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. Yesterday, the National Symphony Orchestra gave vacation time its usual brassy sendoff with a performance on the west lawn of the Capitol.

Mount a video camera atop the Capitol dome, point it west toward the Lincoln Memorial, and press "record." Then return a year later and play the tape back at fast speed: You'll be able to tell what month it is just by the ebb and flow of people.

Traffic is heaviest in June, July and August. Somehow kite fliers, cyclists, center fielders, kickball players, ultimate Frisbee fanatics, inline skaters, dog walkers, class trippers, ice cream vendors and tourists manage to peacefully coexist. Even Democrats and Republicans generally refrain from drawing blood.

I've been on The Mall for fireworks displays and festivals that drew hundreds of thousands of spectators. Never saw a punch thrown or an ugly drunk in action. Never caught a whiff of tear gas.

Sometimes we all can get along.

Not only people gravitate to The Mall in summertime. Park Service maintenance workers must battle what they call an "integrated pest problem."

The Reflecting Pool by the Lincoln Memorial is a playground for billions of gnats. Spiders, in turn, come feed on the gnats, then regurgitate bug puree on the memorial's facade, leaving behind ugly, tarlike blotches. Birds come feed on the spiders, then build nests on poor Abraham Lincoln's marble head.

Park Service crews scrub away the bug stains and string low-voltage electrical wires around the ceiling to keep the birds at bay and Mr. Lincoln's dignity intact.

Spend enough summers on The Mall and you'll accumulate enough moments that can't be readily replicated in other locales. Where else does a softball game come to a mid-inning halt while the president's helicopter swoops overhead en route to a White House landing?

I've biked around The Mall and stumbled upon a military rock band in full swing that featured an official U.S. Navy Elvis impersonator.

I've sipped wine with friends on the Capitol lawn late on a starry Fourth of July night, long after National Symphony Orchestra members had packed up their trumpets and cellos, and felt a rare, happy buzz of patriotism that can't entirely be explained by Chardonnay.

I was also neighbors of sorts with the only person who could ever claim The Mall as a mailing address. All summer (indeed, most of the year), Stacy Abney would sit on the steps of the tourist entrance to the Capitol building, brandishing a large, hand-scrawled sign. He was a native Texan who'd migrated to Washington to protest the fact he wasn't receiving his just GI benefit dues for injuries suffered during World War II.

Stacy was a grizzled man of monumental stubbornness. He had been sitting on the Capitol steps for more than 20 years, bedding down every night in a cardboard box stashed underneath the main staircase.

I would occasionally bring him an apple pie. We'd sit in the sun and watch tourists stream by, making the smallest of small talk. I took great comfort in knowing my government could find room in its cold heart for a National Squatter.

Stacy is gone now. In the late 1990s, he took ill and was hustled off to the nearby Soldiers' and Airmen's Home, where death eventually ended his protest. By then times had changed for step sitters. Security was already becoming an issue in Washington.

Those concerns took a quantum leap forward after Sept. 11. Holiday concerts on The Mall are more subdued nowadays, what with the sobering presence of metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Someday America will breathe easy again and those concrete barriers ringing the Washington Monument will be dismantled. Until then, communal life on The Mall carries on with reassuring normality.

One day in the next week or so, shadows on The Mall will suddenly grow longer and the sun will lose some wattage. That's the day, regardless of what the calendar says, when we turn the corner toward fall. Last call for suntans.

The tourists begin heading back to Iowa and South Dakota, where they'll have to pay to catch a glimpse of an Old Masters painting. Kite fliers, Frisbee fanatics, ice cream vendors and cyclists will slowly fade away, their attention turning to leaf raking, Redskins and Ravens games, and spinning class at the health club.

Birds take flight, but Abraham Lincoln never goes anywhere. He sits stoically on the steps of his bright-white memorial, a Stacy Abney cast in stone, eternally presiding over the National Mall.

Gaze long enough at that stern-bartender face, bathed in soft, changing-season light, and you'll hear him speak.

"C'mon, Summer. Drink up. It's gettin' late. Time to close."

To read previous stories in this series, go online to baltimoresun.com/places.

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