"I'm Tank. I'll be your operator."
I felt like a Mercury astronaut or a comic book character the first couple days at the new office. Everyone seemed genuinely glad to meet us and excited that we would be starting work soon. There are seven of us coming on as "new" rangers, so the treatment is a little bit different than when you are the only one. I haven't had such an experience since I was an SCA at Glacier when I was still in college. I was interested to learn each of us studied History. Everyone has worked in other parks across the country before coming here.
As you might expect, points reiterated during training often reflected the fact that the park is very high profile, and the fact that that is a double-edged sword. I will say now that this appealed to me from the beginning. From my "office," I can see the White House, the Supreme Court, and the Capitol. The presidential motorcade even went by during one of our training modules.
Despite feeling somewhat like an astronaut, with the responsibility and level of scrutiny, I still feel more like an ant under a magnifying glass. There is just so much to know and so little time. There are 7 monuments: Jefferson, FDR, Lincoln, Korea, Vietnam, World War 2, and Washington. Each has its own story about the monument itself as well as the history that the monument recalls. Then there's learning the little things like how to navigate the behind-the-scenes stuff, sometimes literally. Soon there will be an eighth monument, MLK. The monuments sweep virtually the whole of our nation's history, so the task of understanding them, as well as the history, is monumental.
In the first week, we did a lot of administrative work and got introduced to all the monuments with rangers who were just fascinating in their depth of knowledge. I enjoyed walking down the steps at the Washington Monument, which since the 1970s has not been open to the public. It's pretty fun to find the states you are interested in represented by their commemorative stones. After walking down all 500 feet, we immediately got back on the elevator and went straight back to the top to do some more work. I'm told a peregrine falcon sometimes eats its prey on the windowsill at the top.
The National Mall and Memorial Parks also takes care of a number of other monuments in downtown D.C., some of which are fairly new and might not be familiar to you. The D.C. War Memorial was built by the city and only recently became part of the national park; it is getting a facelift along with the Reflecting Pool's major rehabilitation. The Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II is another lesser-known monument tucked in a corner northwest of the Capitol, but it features a passionate and beautiful sculpture of cranes enclosed in barbed wire.
One lesser-known monument we saw was actually pretty far from the Mall: the African American Civil War Memorial. This monument features a statue of African-American servicemen, but interestingly also includes on stonework surrounding the statue a listing of every African-American regiment that served in the Civil War and the names of each man in those units. It's really amazing to see all the individual names. If you go, Ben's Chili Bowl is two short blocks away, where you can get a famous chili dog from the proudly black-owned store. It's a really fun experience and the food is also great. The sign on the wall says "The only people who eat for free here are BILL COSBY and THE OBAMA FAMILY and that's it!"
For all the excitement, I have to say the most stressful thing was figuring out how to use public transportation. Realizing that I didn't want to hike a mile to the metro twice a day, I had to figure out how to use the bus. It's been staggeringly easy, except for the little hiccup where I got on the wrong bus and took the long way around. (I found a Chipotle and a World Market as a result). My commute takes about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes including walking and waiting time, but it's virtually stress-free. It sure beats driving. I can get a seat on the metro both ways, and I can get my reading in. It's time I would have wanted to spend doing that anyway, and it's good decompression time. I wouldn't get that driving.
On Friday, as we were walking along the Tidal Basin, a couple of us spotted a bald eagle flying over the National Mall. Just another day in the life of a park ranger.