Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Lighting Up at the Pentagon

I've seen the Pentagon plenty of times from the outside, peeking down at it from the overpass while traveling sixty miles per hour on my way to or from the National Mall. It's an impressive building. Five sides, you know.

From the outside at high speeds in heavy traffic, the building, like many other things passed by at high speeds, becomes a footnote to a longer journey. Without the benefit of a close-up view to admire it's size and simple architecture, it is just another monument. It may stand for something but visually it stands out no different than the Washington Monument or the Jefferson Memorial as a mass of concrete in urban sprawl.

Traveling to the Pentagon today, I must admit that I was much too absorbed in what I needed to accomplish to properly focus on the importance of the place to which I was going.

Did I have my rack cards, flyers, business cards, directories, displays and two forms of ID? Would the bungee cords I bought on the way from North Carolina be long enough to secure my belongings to the handcart I also purchased during the trip? Would the handcart fit through the turnstiles at the Metro? Does my SmartPass have enough money left on it from my previous trip to DC to last two round trips from Pentagon City Mall?

Even standing outside the building on line for the security screening I remained unfazed. We got through, holding up the line with all of our boxes loaded with propaganda, stood on line to get our visitor badges -- "Hey, why does yours have your name and picture on it but mine just says 'non-escorted visitor?'" -- and made our way to the courtyard.

Along the way were only a few easy-to-miss reminders of the purpose and importance of the building, like an American flag made of painted subway tiles positioned just inside the doors leading outside, or the hooded emergency escape masks packed into what first looked like oversize fire extinguisher cases.

The interior of the building has a sterile bustling feel to it, cleaner than a hospital and busier than an airport. At the same time, I couldn't help notice how genuinely friendly everyone seemed to be. When lost, we picked a woman at random and she changed route to show us the way, happily wishing us good luck even though she had no idea why we were there. Other people in sharp business wear or khaki military garb smiled and nodded. Almost everyone makes eye contact at the Pentagon.

I admit I thought the courtyard would be more impressive. Walking the short distance from one side to the other to set up our booth for the travel fair took only two minutes. A white tent long enough for twenty six-foot tables all draped with white linens stood most of the length of one of the five connecting walkways surrounding the courtyard. Within a few hot minutes, our table was set and we started receiving the first visitors to our booth.

Roughly 25,000 people work at the Pentagon, approximately one quarter of the population of the town in which I grew up, all crammed into a pretty small area each day. We visited with so many different kinds of people it was difficult to remember we were standing in the center of our nation's military command post. A career soldier would follow behind a contractor in an expensive suit, who followed a government employee from the secretarial pool, who followed a janitor, who followed a security guard with his K-9 patrol, who followed a visiting retiree with his grandchildren... You get the idea.

I'm not sure if the people responsible for the travel fair thought they were doing us a favor by placing the tent where it was, because the end result was our having a captive audience of a special kind of Pentagon employee during the event: Smokers.

The tent housing all of the booths was placed along the stretch of walkway reserved for smokers and, oddly enough, ran the exact length of the smoking section. I initially thought this a great idea. In order to indulge-- and there are quite a few smokers at the Pentagon -- people would be forced to stand close to the displays. Unfortunately, this also meant the entire population of Pentagon smokers was standing only a few yards away from us, chain-smoking themselves and second-hand chain-smoking the travel fair vendors to death.

You would think the fact of our fair taking place outside would have diminished the impact. It didn't.

Smoke wafted into our display area and became trapped under the tent's peaked roof. Several of us kept wondering why our throats felt so raw and our eyes were so irritated. By the end of the fair, I was just so ready to get away from cancer alley that any attempt to admire the Pentagon again as we exited was lost among thoughts of showering away the ashes.

Tomorrow we go in again for another round. If the weather forecast holds up, we could find ourselves lonely as rain will keep people from venturing out to our little tent. However, since it tends to have the same effect on the smokers, we might live a little longer if it rains.

ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

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