There Goes the Castle

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.

The Doodling Ambassador

Ambassador Elliot Richardson was one of the distinguished members of a Coast Guard Academy Advisory board. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1975-1976, and still carried the title. He was better known to Americans, however for his earlier rolls in the U.S. Government. President Nixon had appointed the Harvard Law graduate as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) in 1970. He later served as Nixon’s Secretary of Defense and Attorney General. In 1974, rather than follow Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, he resigned.
Rear Admiral William Stewart, the Chief of the Office of Personnel, and I flew via Coast Guard aircraft from Washington, DC to the Academy for a whirlwind day of briefings for the committee. I was the chief of Training and Education Division and therefore the Admiral’s chief staff officer for Academy affairs. The Ambassador and several other DC politicos flew with us.

The meeting was held in the Henreques Room of Hamilton Hall. We were surrounded by the library’s walnut and glass-front bookcases and large mahogany tables. I watched the Ambassador who sat at the end of the table of Advisory Board members. There was a Spartan handsomeness about him. His hair was neatly parted, and combed in a modest pompadour. He wore dark horned rimmed glasses. His straight lined thin lips receded modestly to set off his square cleft chin. He looked like Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch playing Ambassador Richardson.

He appeared to be more interested in the magnificent Aldis Brown murals of historic Coast Guard battles that encircled the room above the bookcases than the business at hand. Of all things–he was doodling! His ink pen swirled, stopped, checked, scratched, reversed, and blocked every figure and form known to man in a never ending tribute to nothing until his 8 x 10 notebook paper was filled with artistic gibberish. I was disappointed that this distinguished visitor paid such little attention to the briefing–until the Academy briefer finished his presentation.

Following mundane comments from the other members of the committee and the Academy staff, the Ambassador unwound his lanky frame from the chair he had surrendered to nearly an hour before, and stood.

“It seems to me, from what I have been hearing, that the main issues fall into categories…..”

His slow Tennessee-like drawl silenced the room as he gave the most erudite, yet simple, summary that captured the essence of the entire meeting. He even laid out potential solutions. I couldn’t believe it! The man was brilliant! I relearned a big lesson that day… never prejudge capabilities on appearances.

I later learned that other high profile figures were famed doodlers: Congressman Barber Conable of New York, and Nelson Rockefeller. Both men have claimed that doodling kept them “more active, intellectually.” They have also agreed that Elliot Richardson was probably “the most prolific doodler on Capital Hill.” His aides fought for his doodles after staff meeting; they were collectibles. That was my second mistake of the day, albeit through innocent ignorance, I did nothing to recoup his doodle. It did not live on, but, rather, found its way into the janitor’s trash…lost forever.

After a hectic day, our Coast Guard pilots informed us that bad weather was going to delay our departure. Ambassador Richardson expressed mild concern. He was scheduled to speak at a Smithsonian Institution dinner that evening honoring former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Takeoff was delayed and progress was slow. Admiral Stewart who had guests returning with him was making alternative plans to insure the Ambassador got to the dinner on time. He turned to me.

“Dick, I know your car is parked at the Air Station. Could you high-tail the Ambassador to the Smithsonian Castle? I think it’s going to be close to get him to the dinner on time.”
“Yes, sir, of course.”

We taxied directly to the CG hanger, and the Ambassador and I hustled off the plane as soon as the wheel chocks were in place. I ran ahead and opened the front door for the him. He climbed in just in time…it was starting to sprinkle. As I slid under the steering wheel I could see the Ambassador scanning my dashboard. “This is a very nice car,” he drawled. He smoothed his hand along the tan imitation leather beneath the windshield, “Is it new?”
“No, sir. Not really. It’s a two year old Toyota Corona.”
“Well, it’s very nice.”
“Thank you, sir.” I smiled to myself thinking about his reaction to my car. It dawned on me that I had placed my distinguished passenger in alien territory….the front seat of a compact family sedan. Hell, he probably hadn’t even sat in the front seat of any car for years, much less a little foreign model. I smiled again to myself and thought, “I’ll just let him dream on of the day he might own one too.”

The trip was not over yet. We still faced rain and Washington, DC traffic . It did not bode well.