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Jack Smith

Author! Author! . . . On discovering that his books are in the Library of Congress

November 12, 1986|Jack Smith

Unless you jog through the halls and galleries, it is impossible to see all of tourist Washington in a week.

I wanted to see the Supreme Court Building. My wife wanted to see the Library of Congress.

"Why the Library of Congress?" I asked her, thinking she'd rather see the Botanical Gardens.

"I want to see if they have your books."

We climbed the steps to that magnificent building, absorbing such graven epigrams as Thoreau's "Books are the treasured wealth of the world."

Outside the great domed reading room a placard said "Readers Only. Above High School Age."

Despite the sign, which obviously meant "No tourists," my wife pushed on into the librarian's station. I followed meekly.

The librarian at the desk explained the sign. If tourists were allowed to roam about, it would disrupt the serious students.

I had no doubt he was right. I wanted to leave.

The reading room was perhaps the grandest secular space I had ever seen. A soft light fell from the towering dome to light the pages of open books on the oaken desks below. The silence was unearthly.

"I wonder if you have my husband's books," I heard my wife saying. It seemed to me a monumental impertinence. The man shrugged and looked skeptically at me. "What's the name?"

She told him. He tapped an inquiry on his computer and came up with the name of a book. It wasn't one of mine. Some other Smith. He tried another. Same result. I wanted to leave.

Then he came up with a title that was mine. "That's it," my wife said.

The librarian gave his computer a command and in one minute it had printed out the names and publishing data of all eight of my books. He tore the sheet off the machine and handed it to her.

I walked down the steps feeling somewhat elevated. I was not only in the Library of Congress, I was retrievable.

From the library we walked across the street to the Capitol and took an elevator to the gallery level, from which we could look down into the empty House and Senate chambers. Congress had recessed only the week before, and all the legislators were in their home states electioneering. The silence was eloquent.

In general, I prefer living spaces to museums; but the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History almost comes alive through its collection of Americana, from such trivia as the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in "The Wizard of Oz" to such patriotic symbols as the 42-foot Star Spangled Banner that flew over Ft. McHenry during the British attack of Sept. 13, 1814, and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became our national anthem.

So fragile is the flag that it is displayed only on the half-hour, when a cover rolls away and a ghostly band begins to play the anthem in an archaic rhythm.

Every facet of American life is depicted: Whitney's cotton gin, Edison's light bulb, Bell's telephone, Ford's Model T, Howe's sewing machine, a steam locomotive, an electric streetcar, Irving Berlin's piano, Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet, an Army barracks, a Depression home, a schoolroom.

Of course, we had to look at the exhibit of First Ladies' gowns to see if it was true that Nancy Reagan's beaded inaugural gown was stretching. Too true. The weight of the beads had drawn the hem down over her shoes. I wondered why they couldn't just tuck it up, instead of allowing Mrs. Reagan's embarrassment to become a subject of national levity.

A curious thing about the First Ladies is that the mannequins are shaped to reproduce the ladies' figures with some historical accuracy, but the faces are all the same. It seems like a risky compromise.

Inevitably, we had to go to the top of the Washington Monument. We got a hot dog and a beer at the snack stand and then got in the line that circled the base of the monument. It wasn't too long before we crowded into the elevator and were lifted to the top. A park officer drove the elevator, giving his spiel as we rose. The monument was 555 feet high, the highest structure in Washington; its stones had been fitted together without mortar, but mortar had later been squeezed into the exterior fissures to keep out rain.

At the top, small windows look out over Washington on the four points of the compass. To inhibit graffiti, the walls are covered with glass. But thousands of tourists have slipped their personal or business cards, wallet photographs, notes and other memorabilia behind the glass, impelled, no doubt, by some strange yearning for immortality. It was the only sign of litter or graffiti I saw in the capital.

Our Tourmobile rounded the stately Jefferson Memorial, perhaps the most beautiful structure in Washington; we could see the 19-foot bronze figure of the great statesman inside, looking out over the Potomac tidal basin.

We went on to the Lincoln Memorial and got off the bus. Before we climbed the steps to see the inspiring statue of the Great Emancipator, we walked down the road to where the Vietnam Memorial was almost hidden in a dell.

I wasn't even sure I wanted to see a memorial to that tragic war. It was a part of our history that seemed to belie all the lofty mottoes engraved elsewhere in the capital on stone. Then it was all the more important, I realized, to remember those who died in it.

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