‘It’s just a giant library, open to the public,’ I repeated to myself as I approached the gate where a security guard in uniform and neon green vest stared at my license plate then at my face.
“Drivers license please, ma’m,” He demanded in a strong west African accent.
As I fumbled through my purse he came right up to my window.
“What are you here for?”
I would guess he was from Nigeria. But I didn’t ask.
“Uh…” I stammered.
“Yes,” I responded simply.
“First time here?”
He pointed to the parking garage immediately to my right.
“Or,” he turned to his left, gesturing to a right turn farther up the road, “you can go on the rooftop.”
He then turned to the building directly behind him, indicating where the entrance to the glass palace known as the National Archives II could be found. You will go in there and show your license and you will be issued an I.D.
I thanked him and proceeded to the farthest turn, to the rooftop parking. High security engages my claustrophobia.
Besides, I was driving my pickup with roofracks. Who knows how low the ceilings are in these urban parking garages.
In the Maryland burbs of Washington D.C., this building houses the records my friend, Tom, who lives in Arizona, wanted to peruse. Just how much trouble did the Grand Canyon National Park’s superintendent get in last century?
I entered the foyer and was asked to place my bag and pocket contents in trays on a belt.
When I passed through the metal detector, an alarm sounded. My pockets were empty, I wore no earrings. But the agent on duty knew her job and pointed to an anklet made by a dear friend, so familiar to me I had forgotten I wore it.
I slipped it into my purse and tried again.
The agent, entirely without humor, asked me if it was my first time here. I nodded.
I imagined that her dog had died that morning. Should I ask? What kind of dog had it been?
Instead I looked toward the glass window on the other side of a makeshift desk. Was she telling me I needed to go to the makeshift desk to answer questions or to the office on the other side of the glass window. I remained standing in confusion.
It wasn’t Dulles International Airport, no line of anxious travelers stood behind me.
“So I go around this wall to an entrance over there somewhere?” I asked with my hands.
“Yes,” she said, as though she had never in fact encountered someone of such a low IQ who actually walked on two legs.
I gathered my belongings from the belt and proceeded to the office, pulling open large glass doors I could only open because I am on a crew team and work out regularly.
One woman was busy instructing a young bearded man to stand on the black tape. A much younger woman asked pleasantly if she could help.
“I guess I need to get an I.D.?” I asked.
The young woman looked over at the older woman then back at her computer. She began asking me questions.
Soon the older woman took over and put a paper form in front of me and told me to fill it out.
One of the questions was regarding the nature of the topic I was researching. I paused, wondering exactly a) what I was researching and b) how specific I could not be.
“Grand Canyon History” was my response.
The next step was to watch a very dry power point presentation on a very large computer monitor, clicking through each page acknowledging I read and understood the protective rules in place at the National Archives.
While I was watching this, I couldn’t help but notice the woman, who was now alone behind the counter having dismissed the younger one for lunch, was enjoying the flirtatious conversation of an elderly gentleman from Colorado Springs. Hmmm, I thought I could mention, that’s where my son lives.
But clearly, these two had forgotten I existed.
When the man finally left, I pushed back my chair and announced I had finished.
Soon I was standing on the black tape.
“Remove your glasses,” the older woman barked, back to her old self.
Blindly, I stared at a tiny lense on a tiny tripod and wondered.
If I wanted to break in here, do some damage, who would I have to flirt with?
Upstairs things got friendlier.
I exited the elevator, having deposited my purse in a locker in the basement. I carried only the list of documents Tom wanted to see and my camera. I saw no signs.
I turned to the right where a young man in a turquoise shirt was exiting a heavy glass door. He politely held it open for me and I entered, looking for signs indicating Room 2000, where I had deduced, from website indices, I might file a request for my documents.
As I wandered down the hall the man in turquoise returned and called back to me.
He had inadvertently allowed me into the back room—the stacks—where the goods were stored, defeating all security measures with mere politeness.
He guided me by the elbow to Room 2000, which had been just to the left of the elevator door. With some embarrassment he informed the young man behind the desk that he had almost let me into the other side of the building. “Whew.”
Soon I was meeting with a consultant in a tight conference room where I was taught how to fill out forms to request materials. As we accomplished this mundane task I asked whether a degree in library science was required for his job—which seemed pretty interesting to me.
“I have a degree in history,” he told me, but yeah, that would help.
Soon I was back in the parking lot. My materials would be available in an hour and a half, the next “pull” being at 2 p.m.
When I returned I found myself reading complaints written by 1953 park visitors to Glacier National Park – mostly whining about trail conditions and signage. No, that’s not it what Tom wanted…I flipped ahead to a folder labeled “GRCA” for Grand Canyon National Park. I imagined the unfortunate secretary who had to type up letter after letter acknowledging the numerous complaints about the odoriferous restrooms on the south rim, informing them that Harvey, the concessionaire who was actually responsible for the restrooms would be informed of the complaint.
At the back of the folder letters received were tallied very simply by topic and even more simply by objective: “complaint” or “bouquet.”
Soon my time, limited by traffic controls defining rush hour use lanes, was up.
Dry, dull, but ultimately fascinating and insightful, National Archives II offers whatever you have the time to find out.
Security protects everything from the public, except the truth.