GETTING TO KNOW THE WHITE HOUSE JAIL by Walt Sehnert

It was to be a typical tourist visit to Washington, D.C. Our daughter, Marie, and granddaughter, Sarah, were to be in the city for an educators’ meeting so Jean and I decided to accompany them and take in the sights together during free time.

 

An added incentive for us to visit the nation’s capital was the fact that we had a young friend, Christian, visiting us from Germany and it would be an ideal opportunity for us to show him more of the United States. Some 30 years before, Christian’s father, Reinhart, had visited us in McCook on an exchange student program. Since that time we had kept in touch by mail and a couple of visits to Germany, so when Christian’s parents wrote us that he would like to visit the United States we were eager for the chance to get to know Reinhart’s son.

 

Washington, with its many historic monuments, museums and government buildings, is a very interesting city and with the help of Congressman Bill Barrett we quickly lined up a demanding schedule of tours for three days with two more for a visit to Gettysburg and two more to Civil War Battlegrounds. Christian was interested, but later remarked that he really only wanted a short course on the Civil War, not a Master’s Degree on the subject.

 

We had been to the Lincoln Monument, Washington Monument, and the Vietnam War Memorial, listened to the Marine band in concert, toured Ford’s Theater and reconstructed Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth, in our minds. We even had a meal at the Washington Hard Rock Cafe, which we found is a “must see” for teenagers from Germany, even as it is for grand-daughters from Colorado.

 

One of the last places on our tour was the White House. Our wait for this attraction was lengthy and we were tired, yet filled with anticipation as our group approached the gate leading into the president’s home – probably the best known home in America. We were required to pass through this gate rather like the metal detection gate in an airport, in single file, past the watch-ful eyes of several security guards. Sarah thought that all that security was excessive and needlessly slowed our tour, but we assured her that it was necessary’ and we should be glad that there were such measures to guard the first family.

 

All seemed to be going well. A couple of people ahead of us were taken out of the line and examined individually but were then allowed to rejoin the group for the tour and our progress was steady. Then suddenly sirens began to wail and from who knows where, security men came running into our area. Now everyone was examined individually. Sarah was first and was wide-eyed as she submitted to the search. She was quickly passed as were the other members of our party until they came to me. The siren suddenly got much louder as I entered the gate and one security man and one security woman politely asked me to accompany them and helped me along by gently taking my arms and steering me away from the group.

 

When we got -into a small room, isolated in the inner regions of the White House, I was directed to take a chair and the lady officer began asking me questions about my home, who I was, what I was doing in Washington, how long I’d been there, who I was going to see and the like. Then they asked me if I was on any nuclear medication. At first I didn’t know what they were talking about. But just as I started to sweat a bit I remembered that I had had a Thallium Treadmill examination only the week before and asked if the Thallium which the doctors had shot into my veins might be considered nuclear medicine. They were noncommittal about this, but asked about my doctors and where they might be reached by telephone. I was left to cool my heels for some 15 minutes while the security man went to check my story. Apparently the answer he got from the doctors was satisfactory because after that they became quite friendly as they explained that Thallium can show up for 6 months after it is injected into one’s body. The amount of Thallium in me had set off the alarms which detect if someone is bringing a nuclear device into the White House. Several times they explained that they just can’t be too careful, but never did apologize for detaining me. I was told that I would set off alarms three more times as I made my way through the tour, but operators had been warned so I would hear nothing and would not be detained again.

 

“Now, rejoin your group and have a good time,” I was told.

 

“My group” was most inquisitive when I rejoined them and seemed to relish the celebrity status that my abrupt departure caused. The rest of the tour was without incident and by the time we left the White House we were back to being plain old tourists again. We decided to relax by having lunch at the Washington Station, which has been converted into a mall of eating establishments representing ethnic foods from all the countries of the world.

 

When we had chosen our ethnic foods, (each of us chose a different country’s food so would share and sample), we took our places at a table in the central eating area. We were enjoying our meal immensely when Christian suddenly became very silent, then whispered to us, “are you sure that those security guards really believed your story and let you go free? Look over there to the right there’s that lady who took you to jail.”

 

Sure enough, it was indeed that security lady. We watched her for a time but there were no dark glasses or furtive looks in our direction while we ate.

 

We decided that at that moment, she was off duty and was simply enjoying her lunch the same as we were. And it had been an experience. That little room in the bowels of the White House was not the Lincoln bedroom, but it was someplace that not every tourist gets to see. This was surely true. After all, she was merely doing her job back at the White House. But I sure didn’t offer to pay for her meal.