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Location: The White House
Item: An unopened letter from 1842
White House Tour
In the summer of 2013, I was ten years old. My mom had remarried, and my new stepdad, Corin, had decided to take us to Washington D.C., to see the nation’s capital. Corin loved history and the founding fathers and war and stuff, so we went to see the Reflecting Pool, and the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, and something not-at-all-scary called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and on our last day, we were going on a tour of the White House. Best for last, they kept telling me.
I wasn’t bored, exactly, and Mom had lectured me before we left about not being selfish, and to look at this as a new beginning, and I did try my best to like Corin. After all, he made my mom so happy, and the smile on her face when he held her hand or put his arm around her or, yuck, even kissed her was a smile I didn’t used to ever see.
We had to wait almost two hours for our turn to join the tour–there had been a whole busful of kids in identical uniforms that got there right before we did–and I kept busy with my iPod until the battery died, and then I had to sit quietly, which isn’t easy as a grown man, and certainly wasn’t as a little boy. My feet hurt from all our walking, and Corin’s response was that a man doesn’t complain about sore feet. I responded that ten years old was only a man in Mexico, but he didn’t think I was very funny.
When our tour began, Mom mouthed “Be excited” to me, and I tried to do that too. I know I wasn’t a brilliant kid, but I had been convinced that we’d get to meet the President–it was Obama in those days–and was really disappointed to find out that wasn’t part of our tour.
The White House was a big, low-ceilinged building, much more like a museum than a house. There were lots of paintings and desks and cabinets and things under glass, and while the tourguide, a nice stocky black lady in her thirties, was exuberant, I couldn’t get excited about it all, or even pretend to be. There were a couple of children in our group, but they were drugged or something, because they stayed quiet and looked around with wide eyes like we were at a zoo or toy store. I thought about sneaking off, going exploring in the huge place, trying doors and seeing if I could find the room where the missiles were or something, but everything was roped off, and there were actually security guards with pistols who were probably just waiting for something to do.
I was staring at a motion detector in the upper corner, watching the red light blink when I moved when I realized I was being left behind. “Come on,” a voice said, and I was relieved to see another kid my age waving me over.
“Jonathan?” Mom said at about the same time, and I hauled butt to catch up.
“Don’t lag behind, okay, buddy?” Corin said, and I did my best not to scowl at him. Maybe in his mind we really were buddies.
“Hey,” the boy said, and I said hey back. “Have you ever been to the White House before?”
“I’ve been on more tours than you could imagine. But I live here, so what else am I going to do?”
“This is our first trip to Washington. My mom says there’s a lot of crime here.”
“Yes, but there’s crime everywhere you look. I’m Willie.”
“Jonathan. How do you not get bored here?” I asked, and I saw Corin stiffen in front of me. I lowered my voice.
“I do, sometimes. But Mardelle is a good tourguide.”
I looked to the head of the group to our guide, who was talking about Canadians trying to burn the building down. I tried to pay closer attention.
“If you’re lucky,” Willie whispered, “she may talk about the ghosts.”
“What ghosts?” I wondered, at full volume. Whoops.
“Excuse me?” the guide asked, looking right at me. Now everyone else did the same.
“Are there really ghosts?” I asked.
I saw the embarrassment in Mom’s eyes–but not in Corin’s curiously–but the tourguide smiled. “I do get asked that a great deal. And it’s not an easy question to answer.” She addressed everyone now, and I liked the way her voice projected. She wasn’t shouting, really, but we could all hear her clearly. “I, personally, have never seen a ghost here, but many believe the White House to be haunted. In the three years I’ve worked here, I’ve been on three, maybe four tours, when someone has claimed they saw one. So, look carefully, and maybe you will too.” She started walking again, and we followed her.
“See?” Willie said, and his grin was infectious.
“Whose ghost do they see?” asked a man with a cool accent.
The tourguide stopped walking and turned around. “Usually, it’s Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president. He’s been spotted here, in the halls, at the window on the east side, and in the Lincoln bedroom, which was a meeting room in his day.” An old woman on the left looked around as though she was afraid she’d see him too. My mom glanced back at me and raised her eyebrows. I did it back. The guide continued. “The man who was head tourguide when I first started claimed he had seen Lincoln twice, and heard him several times more, but I was never sure whether he was exaggerating, or just telling a good story.”
“And is he wearing the hat and beard and everything?” I asked. Corin didn’t seem pleased by this, but I was actually getting into the tour, so he shouldn’t have been able to complain.
“The hat sometimes, but the beard definitely,” the guide said, and people chuckled.
“And how close was the ghost to Daniel Day Lewis’s performance?” my step-dad asked, and most all of the adults laughed at that. There had been a movie about him around that time.
The guide resumed the tour, now talking about other things. I wanted to ask more about the ghosts, but got the feeling it would be rude, even though it was relevant to what we were doing.
We passed a big brown chair that looked almost like a throne, and somebody I couldn’t see asked how much of the furniture and stuff was the same today as it was back then.
“None of it,” said Willie beside me. He was starting to look bored too.
“Hardly any of the original furnishings are still here, though much has been reproduced to look like it did,” said our guide. “Even most of the walls and ceiling are new. In fact, today is the first day tours are going into the Autumn Alcove since they renovated that room. There was a water leak at the base of one wall, and it was all replaced, but it looks identical to how it did before. Interestingly, they found some coins, some papers, a rusted fork, and an unopened letter from 1842 in that wall.”
“What was in the letter?” I asked, but didn’t dare to raise my voice.
Willie said, “It was nothing. A dull request for more militia in Rhode Island. Something about the Dorr Rebellion. Did I mention it was dull?”
The tour continued, so I whispered to the boy. “Have you ever seen ghosts?”
Willie shrugged. “My mom heard Andrew Jackson’s ghost here once.”
“Who’s Andrew Jackson?” I asked. Not because I was stupid; I knew he was somebody famous, but I couldn’t remember for what.
“Andrew Jackson?” the tourguide said, not at all irritated by my question. She was cool. “He was the seventh president of the U.S..”
“Old Hickory,” my new step-dad exclaimed, which didn’t mean anything to anybody.
“Is he a ghost too?” I asked, more to the lady than to Corin.
The tourguide chuckled at that. I was beginning to think she was pretty. “Yes, he is–reportedly–one of the ghosts who haunts the White House. As well as Presidents Cleveland, Harrison, Tyler, and Thomas Jefferson.”
“See,” Willie said beside me. “She’s the best guide. One of them, Rodrigo, won’t even mention the ghosts if you ask.”
“They should have a tour that’s just about the ghosts,” I said.
“Shhh,” my step-dad said. His goofy smile was gone. Of course, nobody shushed Willie.
I tried not to say anything for the rest of the tour. Another lady asked if we’d be visiting the Oval Office, so I wasn’t the only one who thought we’d be meeting Obama, but the guide didn’t make her feel stupid in the least. Being a tourguide didn’t seem like the worst possible job in the world to have.
“Do you want to go exploring?” Willie asked, as we were going around a corner.
I did, most definitely, but I didn’t dare. I thought I’d been on my best behavior, but I got the impression Corin didn’t agree. I wondered who Mom would side with, and I dreaded learning the answer.
A few minutes later, we reached the end of the tour. Mardelle asked if anyone had any questions, and a lady asked about the letter.
“Which letter is that?”
“The one you found in the wall.”
“Oh. I didn’t find it, some workmen did,” said the guide. “I never even saw it.”
“But what was in it?”
“Like I said, it was unopened. No one knows what it was about yet. Somebody at the Smithsonian is going to take a look, but apparently, that’s a lengthy process.”
“What about the coins?” asked Willie. “Who gets those?”
The woman didn’t answer. She asked if there were any more questions.
It occurred to me again that nobody shushed Willie, and that I didn’t see his parents around. “Are you by yourself?” I asked.
“Do they do reenactments here?” I asked.
“What?” Willie asked.
The tourguide glanced my way, but a man with a–what do you call it–a turban asked her something and she turned her attention to him. I looked at my new friend.
“Why are you dressed that way?” He was in old fashioned clothes, though I had only noticed it when I saw his shoes.
“Oh, this. My mother chose this outfit for me.”
“She works here too?” Once again, my new step-dad shushed me. We had reached the end of the tour, so he shouldn’t have cared. But typically, he still did.
Willie leaned close to me and whispered, “Come on another tour. They can be fun.”
I nodded, but I doubted we would ever come back. Little Rock was an awfully long way away.
“Ask another ghost question,” he prompted. I tried to think of one.
“Any other questions?” she asked.
Somebody asked how much she got paid, and she dismissed it. Silence hung in the air for a moment, and Willie said, “Ask her if she’s met Willie Lincoln.”
After nobody acknowledged his words, I cleared my throat, and repeated it.
“A good question,” the guide said. “Another history buff?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. Willie seemed to be stifling a laugh.
“Yes, another reported ghost is that of William Lincoln, the eleven year old son of Abraham Lincoln.” Corin gave me a look, but I couldn’t tell if it was irritated or impressed. Maybe both.
She continued, “He died here in this house, of typhus in, oh, the early eighteen sixties.”
My mouth started to open, and I turned to look toward Willie to say something to him, but he was gone. Of course he was gone.
We left the White House, got on our bus, and Corin never criticized me for my behavior. That was nice, but I almost would’ve preferred he yell at me, for the distraction.
When I got back to our hotel room, I plugged in my iPod, and got on the internet. Sure enough, the friend I’d made on the tour was none other than William Wallace Lincoln, looking exactly as he had in the photograph that came up, the one from his obituary in 1862.
The trip ended up not so boring after all.
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