I headed my Toyota out of the CG Air Station in Washington DC bound for the Smithsonian Castle. I needed to get Ambassador Elliot Richardson there for a dinner speaking engagement and I didn’t have much time. I never understood Washington traffic. Why were people snarled inbound on the 14th street bridge? They were supposed to be getting out of D.C. not trying to get back in.
The light rain didn’t help. At the slightest sprinkle, cars, like automatons, merged into tight jams. Drivers had fought hard for their own precious space, and they were protecting it. I was blocked out of the only exit I knew, two lanes over, not enough time. Now I was headed into unknown territory, downtown Washington at dusk. When I glanced at the Ambassador to explain our situation, I saw his head swivel to the right lamely pointing at the familiar red castle as it passed down our right side, a quarter-mile away. “I think that’s where we are supposed to be going,” he said as the castle faded out of sight. No Shit!
“Sir, I’ve been forced out of the exit lane and we are headed into the heart of DC. I don’t know the city well. Could you help me with directions?”
“I’m sorry, he said, “but I don’t know the city at all. Someone picks me up in the morning. I sit in the back seat with that little over-the-shoulder-pin-light and read the overnight mail that the driver brings with him. Now, that I think about it, I don’t think I could even find my way to work.”
Of course he couldn’t. Why should a Secretary of Defense waste away his time finding his way to work, fighting traffic while he hunts for the best rout? This man operated in a whole different world than I couldn’t even imagine.
“That’s all right, sir, we’ll make it in plenty of time. I’m sure I can feel my way around a block or two.” Did that sound convincing?
My strategy was to go far enough north, then head east for a few blocks and turn south. We should run into the Mall and then I’d be home free. It was working…for a while. Without warning, my street split into four lanes. The right and left lanes offered exits to the Mall, the center two continued to a down ramp that disappeared. Blocked out of an exit again, I entered the short tunnel, and then I saw the sign, “Welcome to Virginia.”
I don’t know how that happened. I tried not to react and hoped the Ambassador did not see the same sign. He didn’t. I calmly felt my way into a return loop, crossed the 14th Street Bridge back into D.C. again, successfully this time, just like it was the plan. I don’t think my passenger was even aware.
This could have been the end to a good story, except, I was not at the front entrance to the Smithsonian Castle when I did find it. I was on the back side, no obvious way to get in. I spotted a uniformed guard walking the perimeter, and I pulled to the curb.
“I’ll be just a moment, Ambassador,” I said. I jumped out of the car, called to the guard, explained the situation, and asked if he could help. He could. I returned to the car, opened the front door for the Ambassador and said. “Sir, this guard knows exactly where you are to be and will escort you there. It’s been my pleasure to meet you sir, good luck with your speech.” No sweat…fifteen minutes to spare.
On the way home, I envisioned what the Washington Post headlines could have been: “Coast Guard Captain lost for hours in endless loop from DC to Virginia: Ambassador Richardson late for Macmillan honors.”
With apologies to Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well.