The old man and his dog Tiger wandered into the opening of the Festival of American Folklife yesterday and sat down near a group of children jumping rope and singing rhymes. After an hour, Ray Scott, 86, was unable to contain his happiness. He began clapping his frail hands and tapping his sneakered feet to the children's songs.
"In all my years," said the man from Newark, "I have never felt so American."
Ray Scott is blind, but the retired railroad worker said he did not need his eyes to know there is magic in the air at the Washington Monument grounds.
"I can feel what's going on," he said.
The 15th annual festival, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service, will run through July 5. More than 600,000 people are expected to visit the festival, where performers and craftsmen from 30 states are displaying their talents. Booths offer art exhibits, food and entertainment, including the Ojibwa Indian musicians and a group of deaf storytellers.
After the opening ceremonies at 11 a.m., the crowds gathered under the tents to view the demonstrations and enjoy the carnival atmosphere. Jill Lewis, a Montreal schoolteacher, stood at the craft sales tent, closely inspecting the pottery, quilts, baskets, toys and dolls. "I've already bought so many things," she said. "I hope I have enough money to get home."
Fifteen-year-old Katie Carson from Vermont was at the Washington Monument with her friends when she noticed the festival. "I thought it would be a great way to meet guys," she said with a giggle. "But it turned out to be the most fun thing I've done in Washington." The girls watched the Hispanic and native American builders from the Southwest making sun-dried adobe bricks. The builders from the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico will eventually construct a "horno," or beehive, oven and bake bread.
A small boy named Nicholas, about 7, wanted to play in the cement the builders were using. His mother quickly snatched his away and plopped him in a sandbox. "If I can't play and I can't have hot dogs," he wailed, "I want to go home."
Nicholas seemed to be the only one dissatisfied with the food selection. Long lines formed at the concessions, serving Serbian delicacies and two types of southern barbeque.
A group of senior citizens from Atlantic City ate chicken and ribs while watching Lee Willie Nabors, a 65-year-old chair maker from Oklona, Miss. Nabors learned how to whittle when he was 9. "I've been at this festival for three years, showing people how I do my work," he said. "They keep asking me to come back. I think the people like me."
"Like?" whispered a woman in the group to her friend. "If I thought he'd adjust to Atlantic City, I'd bring him and his chairs home with me." Her friend blushed and shyly covered her face with an "I love Washington" handkerchief.
The Gustini family from Tucson -- mom, dad, grandma and the six children -- also studied the chair maker's hands as he quickly but carefully carved the wood. "Monuments, buildings, they don't mean a thing," said the mother, Greta Gustini. "This is what I want my kids to see."
Her husband, George, said he was excited by the people of all ages and backgrounds getting to know one another. "It's beautiful to see such harmony," he said. "I hope these people can carry these attitudes into their everyday lives."
Meanwhile, Ray Scott and Tiger and several of the children played games on the grass. A little girl put her visor and Mickey Mouse sunglasses on Scott. "You can keep them," she said, "until we come back next year."