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Making Monuments

November 9, 2012 | by

Library of Congress

From the time I was really young, I carried around an excellent fact about my father: he’d once stood on the very top of the Washington Monument. On the pointy tip, on the outside. That was the notion that I grew up with. I remember having some trouble picturing the circumstances in which he might have done this. We lived in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. and so I often saw the monument out the car window on trips downtown. I think I felt some retroactive worry for his safety, and I wondered about his apparently incredible sense of balance, but the truth of the story was never in doubt. It came up casually in conversation. Questions were shrugged off, or maybe I was too young to understand. Apparently it had to do with his job.

Later on he told me more. My father was a young engineer involved with the 1934 renovation of the monument. (That’s not a typo: He was born in 1908, and he was fifty-three years old when I was born in 1961.) Scaffolding had been erected all around, and as part of the project the solid aluminum point that sits on the very top was removed for refurbishment, leaving a flat square of marble. My father gave me the impression that he actually stood, or stepped, on that square, about 555 feet off the ground, before the point was reset. Judging from pictures I’ve recently found of other men standing around it, I’m not totally sure about that. Even so I’m not any less impressed than I ever was. I always thought my father was a pretty goddamn cool guy.

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