On Monday, April 15, while the Boston Marathon was getting underway, the boys and I were in Washington, D.C., embarking on another time-honored American tradition: visiting our representative in Congress.
We entered the Longworth House Office Building at the corner of C Street Southeast and New Jersey Avenue SE, with the Capitol building visible just a few blocks away. After we went through security, the first thing we saw was what looked like a wooden desk. It actually houses emergency escape hoods in case of a biological or chemical attack on the Capitol.
“What’s an escape hood?” Lindell, 6, asked as he read a sign affixed to the desk.
“It’s just for safety,” I said. “In case of an emergency.”
“What kind of emergency?”
“Um, well, one where the air in the building is bad.” I took his hand to hurry him along.
“Will we need a hood?”
“No,” I said.
We took an elevator to the office of Rep. Mike Michaud, from Maine’s 2nd District, and also our 22nd dinner guest for Dinner with the Smileys last May. After walking through halls of marble lined with flags from other states, seeing Maine’s was like spotting home.
“It’s ours, Mommy! It’s ours!” Lindell yelled as he ran up to the congressman’s door.
I thought about all the people, throughout the generations and across the United States, who have also traveled the same halls to see their representative.
Inside Rep. Michaud’s reception area there was a shelf filled with Maine-made goods — syrup, potato chips, lobster buoys — and this was even more surprising and exciting for Lindell: “It’s Maine syrup … in D.C.!”
Rep. Michaud invited us into his office. We talked about the weather in Maine and our plans for our weeklong stay in D.C. The congressman showed the boys the lunchbox he used to carry to his job at a mill in East Millinocket, Maine. Ford, 12, asked about other photographs and memorabilia on the walls.
This, I thought, is America.
On our way out of the building, Lindell asked about the escape hoods again.
“Is it like a mask for when you can’t breathe the air?”
“Yes, Lindell, but you don’t need to worry about it.”
A few hours later, news broke about the bombings in Boston. I stopped midstep on the sidewalk as I read from my iPhone. I was afraid and wanted to go home, but the next day we had a tour of the Capitol through our Sen. Susan Collins’ office. The boys were so excited; I could not let them know anything was amiss. And I succeeded for awhile. But then, the news was everywhere: on televisions at the hotel’s complimentary breakfast, on newsstands at the Metro station, in conversation in the elevator.
The boys knew something was wrong.
The next day, security was noticeably tighter at the Capitol, but no one — not the tourists, the staff, nor the senators — stayed hidden or seemed afraid. They wouldn’t be terrorized, and I took their lead.
Still, I cringed when Lindell asked about the hoods again.
Little did any of us know, but around that same time, an off-site mail facility had intercepted a ricin-laden letter headed for the Capitol. I read the troubling news on the way back to our hotel, and I became increasingly worried about my family’s safety.
I couldn’t hide the week’s news from the boys any longer. Now, reports of both events, plus the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, nearly saturated the environment as we went about our day.
I tried to keep things “normal” because I didn’t want the boys to be afraid. In the days that followed, we went to the monuments and museums. I took pictures and collected maps. The boys bought souvenirs. And I hoped that they weren’t listening when other tourists asked, “Did they catch him yet?” and “How many have died?”
All the while, I kept a vigilant eye on our surroundings.
Then one morning, during breakfast at the hotel, Lindell saw a lone suitcase on the floor in the lobby. It was a small bag, seemingly abandoned next to the front desk.
“I wonder if that suitcase has a bomb in it,” Lindell said.
“Maybe we should tell someone about it,” Owen, 10, said.
Before I could answer, a man returned for his suitcase and left the building with it.
“Well, I doubt it had a bomb in it anyway,” Lindell said between bites of waffle. “It was probably too small, and who would want to blow up their suitcase? Or this hotel? I bet we are safe. But I’m glad we saw that.”
Owen continued to eat his bagel.
Ford ate a blueberry muffin.
Sounds from CNN filled the space.
Behind my sons, pictures of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial hung in frames on the wall.
I thought, “Maybe this is the new America.”
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.