I've worked at Mount Vernon for several years, interpreting history for a never-ending stream of visitors. Once in a while, awed by the beauty, one of them will ask me how I managed to land the job. Most of the employees on the estate probably have been asked that question more than once, but it's still fun to toss it into the conversation in our lounge when we get a break. "Hey," someone will shout, "somebody just asked me what you have to be to get to work here." The invariable reply, probably from several corners of the room at once, is "Crazy!"
Working at Mount Vernon can be a joy one day and a grind the next. The setting is unique, beautiful, and even inspiring, but, at the height of the tourist season, the job itself can be hard enough to make me feel downright nuts to stick it out.
Washington once wrote that he believed there was no one traveling north to south or south to north those days who didn't stop at Mount Vernon. I believe the same is true of tour buses today. Starting around Easter, the school groups invade. It's not unusual for 20 bus loads to be waiting for the gates to open on weekend mornings. And they're just the first wave before summer's intermittent floods begin. On the record days more than 1,000 people an hour move through the house in an unbroken mass, like a giant millipede. Just watching them all can be exhausting, let alone having to talk to them too.
We're called interpreters because, ideally, we digest the facts and weave them together into a lively, comprehensible interpretation of what Gen. and Mrs. Washington's life was like. One of Mount Vernon's pleasures is the conversations that result when we've sparked an interest or fleshed out hazy textbook memories. But for part of the year, we can only hit the highlights as fast as we can talk.
The busiest times bring on the worst aspects of the job: the pressure to keep people moving, the unhappy feeling of only skimming the surface of what we'd like them to know, the strain of repeating the same two minutes' worth of information for as long as an hour at a stretch, and the occasional tension of being polite to the very rude. Most visitors accept the crowded conditions with good grace but the exceptions complain, snap their gum, or carry on loud conversations just before interrupting us mid-sentence to demand a description of the room just described.
The worst times combine record crowds with record heat. With sweat trickling down my back, my throat parched from 40 minutes of nonstop talk, and my patience almost gone from trying to get people to come in off the piazza where they stop to take pictures moments before the their tour is finished -- those are the days I question my motives for sticking it out. And besides making me wonder why I work in a place without air-conditioning, the heat waves can cause "mind melt." Sometimes my mind wanders too far away from automatic track and suddenly, as if a tape has snapped, I've stopped talking and am standing there with no idea what I've just said. I've also been surprised to hear myself inject new, possibly inappropriate words such as "genuine" for "General." One of my colleagues once informed her audience that the large dining room was the place where Washington first learned he had become pregnant.
But there are good things about dealing with so many people too. Several times I've had the nice surprise of seeing familiar and even famous faces jump out from the sea of strangers. I've run into people I haven't seen in years. I missed President Bush when he brought King Hussein last year, but I have seen ambassadors, visiting royalty, and movie and TV stars. So many people pass through that I wonder wistfully whom I'm missing on the days I'm not there -- a high school friend, a favorite professor, a long lost love. ...
Even on crowded days we get regular breaks from the nonstop talk when our schedules move us to a post on the grounds or in the museum. Then we get the best busy-season chance to talk with people rather than at them. It doesn't feel like work to be enjoying the views of the river while shedding some light on Mrs. Washington's character, or debunking the cherry tree and wooden teeth myths, or talking about Washington's agricultural experiments.
That kind of contact with the visitors is one of the things that keeps me at Mount Vernon. And then there's the beauty of the estate and the quiet times when we have it to ourselves. We come in along the North Lane with the morning sunlight filtering through the magnolia branches onto the Greenhouse's old brick, the only sound the birds' songs, the air clear and as yet dust-free before the crowds arrive. To close up after they leave, we might go up into the cupola above the mansion's red roofs or into the overseer's quarters where we breathe in the unique smell of the old, old, rooms, long unused. It's a special mustiness, not just of dust and mildew, but still somehow holding the memory of habitation. At times that tangible feeling of memory pervades the estate and blends with the landscape's beauty, and the appreciation of both gives way to an emotional attachment that rarely takes hold when the visitors are trooping through.
For a special tour one April evening years ago I was posted in the study, Washington's inner sanctum. It was the quiet end of a chilly, dark day. For a long time I was alone in the slowly failing light, sometimes standing at the windows taking in the beauty of the red buds around the edge of the misty East Lawn. I thought about Washington contemplating the same view of lavender blooms surrounded by the new spring greens, framed by the steel gray sky and for the first time the historical significance of where I stood settled over me in a new way and I felt what I call "the presence." Mount Vernon has no ghosts but it does have a feeling that's taken me a step beyond the realization that I stand where Washington stood and into an emotional realm where I've suddenly felt his having been there, his having worked, thought, and written there.
This rare, illusory feeling of contact with the Washingtons is another reason I stay on. Gen. Washington was known as a hard taskmaster, but by and large, I'm glad I work for him, playing a small part in preserving what he held most dear.