"Well there used to be these flood drains down on the House side of the Capitol, wet weather tubes they called 'em, and a couple guys from the Capitol Police found 'em and put some folding cots in there and they'd go down there and take a little nap. Well this one night there were three guys down there in their longjohns having a snooze and this sewer rat comes up. Bit as a possum. Stands up on his hind legs and says 'Ik Ik Ik!" And those guys tore outta there so fast you would know what. Well I guess a senator was taking some visitors through about then, and all these guys all ran out in their longjohns . . ."
When Bob Sanders tells a story, You Are There. He does it all, right from his seat: You see the cops taking off their uniforms, you see the rat standing there with his paws above his head like Dracula, you see the guys in their longjohns confronting the senator.
Sanders is a natural-born story-teller. A military policeman who served all over the world for 30 years before joining the Capitol force in 1967, "ten years and two days ago," he is something of a national treasure.
And wouldn't you know the Smithsonian has discovered him. He is now part of the Festival of American Folklife, which, this year, in an inspired change of pace from last year's Grande Bouffe, will concentrate on the folklore of Washington, D.C.
From Oct. 5 to 10, an enchanting assortment of Washington characters will tell stories, shoot the breeze, embroider lies and generally jaw at each other in two-hour panel sessions in a tent on the Mall in front of the Museum of History and Technology.
There will be cabdrivers, bartenders, market vendors and the people who work at the Capitol itself, some of the 19,000 Hill people who exist for the benefit of the 535 elected officials.
Sanders, 51, has just retired. His father wanted to name him after Teddy Roosevelt, but his mother couldn't stand TR, so they compromised on Robert. E. Lee, a good Tennessee name.But some people still call me Teddy.
He remembers the animals best. One friend owned a boa constrictor who had to be fed live mice. His pals gave him a Capitol sewer rat, and next morning when they came around to the cage, there was the rat standing tall and washing his armpits. The boa lay dead with half its head eaten off.
Then there was the dog named Duke, "second best bomb dog in the country," who wore a police hat and goggles. You had to put them on for him, but once they were on, he'd wear them for hours.
Sanders always told visitors that the statue atop the Capitol was "a pragnit Indian. Stands for the Birth of a Nation, I guess." Nobody knows how many Americans are going around today with that nuggert of misinformation.
There are at least 1,000 Capitol police covering several blocks around the building itself, and theirs is a strange life.
During the '60s they had to cope with protestors, but today things are more relaxed. It is not a job for a Steve McQueen.
"There was this general's wife who came through all the time, she carried a purse in front of her that had two stars on it and she expected you to salute. Well I always gave her a great big quiverin' salute. What the heck."
A couple of folklore fanatics named Steve Zeitlin and Jack Santino spent three months tracking down a handful of these special people. Some of them are shy and had to be drawn out by the two young Ph.D. candidates. Some of them can only hint at a bizarre and hilarious secret world they have created under the noses of our nation's leaders.
Like the Elevator Opera.
Only a few of the Capitol's 24 elevators are manned. It's a patronage job, and the senators-only elevators usually are assigned to comely women. Kerry Whitney of Aspen, Colo., is one of these. All day long she ferries senators up and down, smiling coolly at the flirtatious ones, talking in French to some, teasing this one about his new shoes and that one about his moustache aborning.
A person can get awfully tired of telling 70 visitors a day where the Rotunda is, or the men's room, or the way out.So the operators have evolved an opera, complete with arias ("turn left at the white statue for the Rotunda, the Rotunda, the Rotunda. . . ") and a little ballet for bowing people aboard. Don't expect to see it, though, unless you're the kind of person who hears the animals talking on Christmas Eve.
Tom Nottingham, chief of the Capitol guide force, has seen people cry at the mere sight of the Rotunda ceiling or at the dramatic story of the Unknown Soldier. Over the last 15 years he has heard guides pass along stories, expanding them enroute until the little Tiber Creek that used to course down the Hill became a raging river and the chandeliers gained an additional ton each year.
Jean Wilson, a caseworker for Sen. Richard Schweiker (R-Pa.), keeps a Full Moon File for the crazies who call in every month to camplain about the planes coming through their house.
Blanche O'Berg, secretary to the late Sen. Robert H. Taft, still keeps her former boss's memorial bright with fresh flowers.
Jack the Wrapper, whose job it was to wrap gifts for senators, once wrapped an unwary visitor in a giant package.
Jack is retired now, but the others will be on hand to dispense their living folklore Wednesday and Friday Oct. 5 and 7 from 2 to 4 p.m. outside the Museum of History and Technology.
The autumn folklore festival is an experiment, Zeitlin said. Less hot and hectic than the traditional summer scene, it may prove a permanent fixture. In any case, it's a great idea: You don't have to go to Ghana to find folklore. It's sitting right next to you on the D-4 bus.