It may be a sign of the times (or then again, it may not) that 102 high school seniors in matching Boys' Nation T-shirts apparently were routed from the steps of the Jefferson Memorial the other night for singing "God Bless America."
"We weren't protesting," said Bruce Menin, 17, of Miami, Fla. "We were singing out of pride and patriotism."
"Then this park ranger comes over and tells us to leave," said Joey James, 17, of Florence, Ala., "that we were denigrating the monument and have to have a permit.... It was humiliating."
A spokesman for the Park Police said he had no knowledge of the incident, but said it could have happened.
"Usually," he said, "any large group needs a permit to be in an area under park police jurisdiction."
But while he has seen hundreds of groups asked to leave monuments around the city for chanting protest slogans, he couldn't remember anyone being ousted for singing "God Bless America."
The Boys' Nation delegates, however, were undaunted. The cream of the American Legion's annual crop of 28,000 Boys' Staters, they continued with their annual pilgrimage to the nation's capital to learn more about how their government works.
"This kind of thing just inspires us more," said Frank DeSiera, the conference president. "It makes us concerned about the way the country is going. We"ll be the leaders of this country in 10 or 15 years and it will be our job to make things change once again, for the better."
The run-in with the park police was the second lesson on the ways of the federal government the delegates had during their visit to Washington.
Earlier the same day, President Carter, for the third time in as many years, refused to personally meet with the group.
"Every year since Andrew Jackson, the president has addressed Boys' Nation," said James, who worked closely with Alabama Gov. Forest (Fob) James in his last campaign.
"Roosevelt and Truman found time to see us even though we were in the middle of a depression and a war. Nixon and Ford spent 1 1/2 hours with us. But Carter has refused us. He was able to address the Future Farmers of America (on July 20), but he couldn't see us. It's insulting."
A Carter spokesman said yesterday that the president was unable to meet with the delegates because of his "very busy schedule." He also said that they were given a special tour of the White House, followed by a lecture and a question-and-answer period with Bill Lawson, the executive director of the White House Veterans Federal Coordinating Committee.
But DeSiera said that in all, the youths have been treated royally in their trips to various government departments and on Capital Hill.
"I think I can speak for all the delegates here when I say we wouldn't give up Boy's Nation for all the money in the world," he said.
"We're not just a bunch of runnynosed kids," said Bill Bennett of Seaford, Del. "We're the top 100 in the nation.... We're here to learn pride for our country and take it back home to our peers. And they should realize that."