WASHINGTON, D.C. — Every Friday night from early May through early September, Washington's own detachment of leathernecks stages a spit 'n' polish spectacle at the Marine Corps barracks.
The evening parade is bound to conjure up images of Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, gazing into the sky and seeing the flag still there. It evokes a mixture of patriotism, pride and awe.
The setting for this viscerally satisfying experience is an old red-brick relic of a fortress, just a long grenade lob from the Navy Yard and a cheap cab ride from downtown D.C. Recognized as the oldest post in the corps, it dates to 1801. The selection of the site was supervised by Thomas Jefferson.
For 100 years, it was the headquarters of the Marine Corps. Even now, the commandant lives there in what is believed to be the oldest continually occupied building in the capital.
To Marines, the entire compound is known simply as "Eighth and Eye," its street address. Within the turreted quadrangle is a parade ground so smooth that guardsare reportedly on duty around the clock to keep birds from alighting and leaving footprints on the grass.
The leathernecks' fetish for a velvety "grinder," Marine talk for a drill field, is exceeded only by their fastidiousness in attire. Their dress-blue uniforms are, well, impeccable. Brightwork on buttons, buckles and weapons are evidence of rubdowns with hundreds of gallons of Brasso, and the luster of shoes and rifle stock hints that at least 10 times that quantity of elbow grease.
At the appointed hour on parade night, the 90-minute spectacle opens with a 30-minute concert by the Marine Corps Band, the musical group that John Philip Sousa organized and once led on triumphant tours of world capitals.
The band, which has always carried the secondary name of "The President's Own," has 80,000 arrangements in its repertoire, and what comes out of its superb artistry is everything from "Flower Drum Song" to "El Capitan."
The concert is followed by what has to be one of the world's fanciest feat of footmanship. This display of troop 'n' stomp lasts an hour. The jawdropping impact of precision and timing, along with the dazzling array of colors, is further heightened by the drama of the lighting.
Rifle butts crack as they hit the deck. Palms clap trouser seams at crisp commands. Eyeballs click as the men pass the reviewing stand. Movements and sounds are as one, with the spectators and their senses in swelling empathy.
It's as if all the pageantry, pride and tradition of the Marine Corps were on display in that one small area. And as far as the men are concerned, it is.
There's not much to be said for the seating. Anyone more than four feet tall is kneecap-to-shoulder blade with the person in front, but that's really of secondary importance. Once the parade starts, the seating is soon forgotten.
Every portion of the program is in its own way exceptional, right down to the way the guests are handled. Men rate salutes, and women are escorted on the arms of white-gloved officers and senior non-coms. Everyone, it seems, is a V.I.P.
An equally impressive ceremony takes place every Tuesday evening at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington Cemetery. The Marine Corps Band does not perform in this ritual, but color and drama are provided in an extremely complex drill and concert sequence presented by the Drum and Bugle Corps.
The real pomp and splendor of the "Eighth and Eye" production starts when all the spotlights except one are doused. That one catches five scarlet-coated buglers atop the barracks ramparts. This is followed by a variety of traditional military ceremonies: Adjutant's call, honors to the national colors and then perhaps 10 minutes of showmanship by the remarkable Drum and Bugle Corps.
That such a variety of flawless music can come from nothing more than a few hundred pounds of brass and several handfuls of drumsticks is almost beyond belief. And that one long, gutsy blare they issue several times during the evening causes the flesh to shudder.
They all march well, of course, but none march quite as well as the silent drill team. An unforgettable performance, the silent drill lasts 10 minutes and never once during the intricate maneuvers is a command issued.
The Marines perform cartwheels with their rifles during inspection. Columns snake in and around one another; individuals break off, scatter and regroup. The effect is kaleidoscopic in its symmetry, and the only sounds are the metallic grate of bayonets sliding into scabbards and the occasional smack of leather slings against wooden rifle stocks.
Haunting 'Taps' Played
Finally, a lone bugler, just barely visible in the half-light of an eerie blue spot, plays the hauntingly sad notes of "Taps" and the evening parade is over.
It's almost enough to make this former Marine wish he'd stayed in.
Reservations for the Sunset Parade on Fridays may be made by calling (202) 433-6060. Or write to Adjutant, Marine Barracks, Eighths & Eye S.E., Washington, D.C. 20390. Reservations are not required for Tuesday ceremonies at the Marine Corps Memorial in nearby Arlington, Va.