Michael Volchok was taking no chances. This was history, and he needed to be on the scene, inside the room among the fortunate few on, finally, The Day Ollie Spoke. It might be stunning. It might be tense. It might be one of those events of which, years from now, Volchok could say proudly: I was there.
So there he sat: All night. Alone. In the dark. On the cold marble steps of the Russell Senate Office Building. With a bagel and apple juice for comfort. About 4 a.m., eight hours after his vigil began, another man came. By 5 a.m., still four hours from the start of Oliver North's testimony in the Iran-contra hearings, seven others gathered with him, eagerly discussing the revelations the day might bring. By 6 The Line had begun snaking down the block. By 7:30 it numbered more than 250.
"I called some office Monday, and they told me I ought to get here at 6 this morning, but I didn't believe them," Volchok, 19, said. He flew Monday from Yonkers, N.Y., just to hear what North had to tell the nation. He had not slept, but his voice was excited and impatient. "I've read the transcripts from the hearings, I've read the Tower commission book, and I knew -- I knew -- I had to be here. I'm serious: This could radically alter American history. You don't know. How many people would try to see John Dean's testimony now if they knew what he was going to say?"
Volchok stopped talking and began to make a list that would guarantee the early risers their cherished place in line. Volchok's name was first. Dave March, who arrived at 4:30 a.m., was fourth. He had driven all the way from Greensboro, N.C., and the darkness and anticipation were familiar.
"During the Watergate hearings, I made the same drive just to see John Mitchell testify," March said, "and I got out here at 5:30. There was already a bunch of people, so I figured I ought to get up a little earlier this time." The 36-year-old English teacher rubbed his half-shut eyes as Volchok edged over to listen intently. "The Mitchell testimony was a fairly striking experience, and I expect this to be the same. I couldn't resist. I just had to hear Ollie's disingenuous voice. I think he might take Reagan down and, hey, let's hope he does so in the first 30 minutes."
That's all the time March would have to watch. Only 14 seats were open to the public in the hearing room, and none of the hundreds who waited on Constitution Avenue were allowed to stay longer than 30 minutes. No matter.
"I just think this is a key point in history ... It's worth the wait," said Hill Allen, 19. "No one would come with me ... Some of my friends are having an Ollie party, getting some pizza, some beer, and hanging out in front of the TV all day. But television wasn't good enough for me."
As the 8:40 a.m. admission hour approached, the line got loud and weary. Newspapers and magazines littered the sidewalk. Television camera crews and cables wound through the crowd. Debates emerged: Was this more important than Watergate? What would North say? Would he wear all of his medals? A policeman with a German shepherd pushed through the crowd. "Somebody said there's a heated argument around here," he asked sternly. "Where is it?" "You just missed it," said two line-waiters, laughing. Clusters of interns waited, quick to emphasize that they were working on The Hill. The Vietnam Veterans to Prevent World War III waited. Tourists waited. One man in line held a large black-and-white sign resembling a movie poster. It read: "Ronald Reagan's Fantasies presents: Oliver North as Contrambo." North's supporters, if they were there, kept their own counsel.
Debbie Tyler, 24, of Mount Pleasant finally made it inside the hearings with four of her friends at 2:30 p.m., after eight hours in line. They sat down and suddenly took their shirts off, revealing bright yellow T-shirts that said: "The hearings may go on ... but the policy is still wrong."
"The guards got real tense when we did that. They grabbed our shoulders every time we moved," Tyler said. "But everything was worth it. We got to suggest to the committee they they should get to the meat of the issue. Why is everyone talking about Oliver North's snow tires?"
Andrew Christie and Charles Bishop walked from the hearings at 3:45 p.m., nearly nine hours after they took their places in line, leaving behind 100 of the exhausted Contragate curious still queued up. "You don't get the continuity you do on television," said Christie, who is visiting from Sydney. "But you get a real strong sense of the atmosphere, and I think that's important. I think the difference is something like listening to a music on a record or going to see the music live. The impression sticks."
"It really does," added Bishop, a resident of Mount Pleasant. He wiped his brow. "I really just wanted to get a good look at Oliver North, to get a strong sense of him, to get a flavor of the hearings, and to be present during a historic occasion, to see our process working. It was worth it. But I won't be back tomorrow."