WASHINGTON, September 11, 2012 — I remember September 11. All Americans remember where they were when they saw, heard about, or experienced those dastardly attacks on our nation.
Most people, however, may not clearly recall the following day. For me, that day is also riveted in my memory. For, on that day, in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty for our nation, I found myself in a place that represented the heart of it all: The White House. It was an unscheduled visit, to be sure. Here is how it happened.
Leaving my home in the Kennedy-Warren on Connecticut Avenue, in Washington, I take the Red Line metro from Woodley Park station. My mission is to donate blood at the American Red Cross Headquarter Building.
Downtown, I walk past armed guards and armored Humvees on my way to E Street. Then, upon leaving that impressive headquarters building, I feel a tremendous desire, a need, to see another building just a few blocks away.
The White House had been evacuated the previous day as a feared target for further terrorist attacks. Being so close now, I need to see it. To know that it is all right, “that our flag was still there.”
Within minutes, I find myself standing on the sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue, staring at the White House. Looking at the half-staff flag fluttering on top of it, I think of the thousands of lost lives at the World Trade Center, at the nearby Pentagon, and in the field of Pennsylvania, that this flag mourns and honors.
Then I see a few people descending the gleaming front steps. Turning to two guards standing near me, I say incredulously, “I thought tours would be suspended today.”
“To tell the truth,” one guard says out of the corner of his mouth, “so did we.”
I walk around to the East Gate where each morning hundreds of visitors to the nation’s capital queue up and inch along for a chance to tour the Executive Mansion. Today, four officers stand talking at the gate.
There are no lines, no tourists in sight. Perhaps today they’re using a different entrance, I think.
“Is this where the line for tours begins?” I ask.
“Yes,” the female guard cheerfully replies, “go right on in.”
I hesitate just a moment, then think, Yes, this is what I want to do; today of all days, this is where I want to be: inside the White House.
Walking through the gate and up the cement sidewalk, I enter the reception area. A guard motions me past him to the metal detector. I pull out my keys and start to drop them in a basket, as I am accustomed to doing when entering government buildings. He interrupts me with a wave and motions me to go on through.
As a longtime Washingtonian, this will hardly be my first visit to the White House. Over the years, I have ushered my share of family members and guests through this historic edifice. My own first visit had been a private tour during the John F. Kennedy administration, during which I was introduced to Evelyn Lincoln, President Kennedy’s secretary, and to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
This day is different. I walk alone — through the Red Room, the Blue Room, the Green Room, and the East Room. I stand quietly before each presidential portrait and the many national artifacts, feeling a renewed sense of patriotic pride.
I keep thinking that only yesterday this building had been evacuated. Only a few miles away, a hijacked commercial jet had slammed into the Pentagon, killing more than 150 people. Marine One, under the escort of four F-16 fighter jets, had returned President George W. Bush to the White House South Lawn. And now here I stand, 16 hours later, viewing that same landing place through a window from inside the White House.
During my hour-and-a-half visit, I see just a smattering of visitors and only four guards. When I exit the huge front door, a pleasant young woman stands at the bottom of the steps. She hands me a commemorative American flag. Carefully, I place the staff of the flag in my shirt’s top pocket so that the stars-and-stripes are visible.
Crossing Pennsylvania Avenue, I amble through Lafayette Square. People seem to be noticing my flag. On K Street, a boy about 16 years old feels compelled to say as he passes, “Nice flag, sir.” He says those words as if he has never seen his nation’s flag before, and, in a way, he hasn’t, not the way he is seeing it now, the morning after 9/11.
Television news that evening reports: “The safety perimeters of the White House have been extended; Pennsylvania Avenue is now closed to pedestrians, as well as to vehicles; and Lafayette Square is cordoned off.”
The following day, September 13, the White House is, once again, evacuated. Tours are canceled indefinitely. And, even to this day, tours have not resumed in any manner resembling those halcyon days before the September 11 attacks.
The open White House of Sept. 12, 2001, may have been a short-lived attempt at “business as usual.” Or, more likely, it might simply have been an oversight.
Whatever the case, I am grateful that I was privileged to be one of a handful of ordinary American citizens who visited the White House in the wake of 9/11.
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”
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