In the inky blackness of night, Aaron Steketee strolled into the marble sanctuary of the Lincoln Memorial. Craning his neck, he fixed his gaze on the pensive face and strong hands of Honest Abe.
Golden beads of light from tiny bulbs in the ceiling bathed the majestic statue, making Lincoln seem, somehow, like a guardian angel watching over the city as its people fell into slumber.
A serenity descends on the memorial at midnight.
The noisy camp children more interested in their Pokemon collections are long gone--so, too, the tour-weary families with their whirring video cameras and must-see foldout maps.
For a few seconds, there is just President Lincoln and National Park Service Ranger Steketee. Alone together.
Wearing his green-and-gray uniform and straw hat, Steketee walked to the side wall where the Gettysburg Address is chiseled. "Sometimes it sends a shiver up my spine, especially at night," said the 25-year-old park ranger, one of dozens who work the night shift on the Mall. "It's a more peaceful, moving experience at night."
When the sun melts away and the sky turns the color of coal, the monuments on the Mall change their appearance. It's almost as if each has two distinct faces, one revealed during the harsh daylight, the other only when the evening stillness sets in.
During the day, the Korean War Veterans Memorial is touching with its triangle of stainless-steel soldiers and its black granite wall etched with images of American martyrs.
At night, though, it becomes "real," according to Sgt. Michael A. Russo, a supervisor with the U.S. Park Police, which patrols the grounds. "It's almost like the soldiers are walking."
The National Park Service staffs the monument grounds until midnight. Then the Park Police watch over the Mall area, which draws visitors throughout the night until the sun peeks out from behind the Capitol dome.
At the Lincoln Memorial, some will pay their respects only in the darkness.
"During the day, you can see the dirt and all the flaws," said Suzanne Burdic, 20, visiting from New York. "In the night, you just see all the beauty."
Nighttime also makes the site more romantic; marriage proposals are frequent, rangers said. Privacy is another reason people arrive under cover of darkness. Attorney General Janet Reno stopped by Sunday night. Who knew?
Occasionally, there is talk of closing the monuments at night to ward off the drunks and defacers--those few who try to sit in Lincoln's lap or carve their initials alongside the names of the nation's war dead from Vietnam.
It'll never happen, Russo said. It would be un-American to shoo people away just because the sun is setting.
CAPTION: National Park Service Ranger Aaron Steketee keeps an appreciative eye on the Lincoln Memorial after dark.
CAPTION: Lisa Medici, 18, and Shon Turner, 25, talk at the Lincoln Memorial. The scaffold-covered Washington Monument looms in the distance.
CAPTION: People spend a balmy evening on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Park Service rangers say marriage proposals are frequent at night. Some visitors visit the memorial only after dark, when "all the beauty" is seen.