In the conclusion of "Journey to Ixtlan," Carlos Castenada sets off in search of "centers of power" -- geographical spots emanating spiritual force -- a quest more interesting than anything else he did in that book. And I too have sometimes wondered whether such places exist, and whether Shuter's Hill in Alexandria might be one of them. This is the hill surmounted by that conspicuous ziggurat, the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Tower. However, it's hardly the sort of place one thinks about "seeking out," let alone cuddling up to -- expecially on dark nights. Since the kind of power Castenada imagined, should it exist, would not necessarily prove to be benign.

Shuter's Hill, some say, was the natural Capitol Hill around here from a geological point of view, and would have ended up as the center of political power, too, if it hadn't been for the calculating modesty of George Washington, who thought that choosing a place in Virginia, and close to his farm, might be regarded as imperialistic. And so here we were, where we are.

But some fanciful local legends say that the ancient promontory on the Virginia side kept its mysterious lodestone-like force and, for reasons more than merre coincidence, was later chosen as the natural pylon Orville Wright was required to fly around (and back to Ft. Myer from whence he'd taken off) before the Army would buy his flying machine and move America into the modern age. And according to these, it was no coincidence, either, that the Masons, in 1922, chose that hill as the site of their big, pink, granite, Babylonianish-looking tower, that people around here still don't seem to know how to react to. Except that some say it's downright ugly; while others, more literate, maintain that it resembles the Tower of Babel, where God struck disunity into the human race by smiting it with a confusion of tongues, a great thing for Berlitz, perhaps, but bad in every other way. And so, these critics say, that place is emblematic of our essential national disunity, and foreshadows the doom that's bound to blast us ere long. Which may be true. Although speaking personally, I love that old memorial and was sorry to lear that it's hit on hard times and is crumbling. Because I have one fine memory of there.

This all happened when I was a young poor fool of an outlaw poet, with everything in the world except money, and with a few good friends who were equally impractical and defiant, and who shared with me the truculent, accurate suspicion that this town despised us for not doing the sensible thing and getting government jobs. And I was walking down the train tracks near that memorial one fine spring afternoon, when a terrific thunderstorm hit. Upon which -- being less bent on self-improvement than G. Gordon Liddy, who under similar circumstances lashed himself to a tree -- I ran up Shunter's Hill seeking shelter.

At the doorway of that huge memorial, sound asleep in a folding chair that was tilted back at a perilous angle, was a handsome old man who looked to be about 85, and at his side was a Japanese transistor radio that was blaring out a play-by-play account of the Yankees-Red Sox game. This old man wore a business suit and, even in sleep, a formidable businesslike expression. And in my stupid youthful intolerance I thought to myself, Ah, George F. Babbit! We meet again! And tried to decide whether to sneak in, or sneak out, since with the beard, Levis and old Army surplus jacket, to say nothing of the unbusinesslike ideas in my brain, I was pretty definitely not his kind of young man -- or so I imagined. When suddenly, he opened his mild, intelligent eyes, of a surprising blue, and asked me whether I wanted to see the parade.

"Sure," I said. Anything but that storm. And so followed him into the cool, cavernous interior of that place, across the rich, complicated Persian carpets, and past marble columns surmounted with mysterious-looking Middle Eastern emblems.

It was an eerie feeling. There were no cars in the parking lot outside, and that friendly, hearty old man and I were utterly alone in the great hall. And at last we came to a gigantic table that had thousands of gaily-painted tin soldiers on it, of many different colors and kinds. Then he punched a little mother-of-pearl button, and suddenly gorgeous band music, louder than the storm outside, filled the great hall -- as, with the tabletop moving, those tin soldiers began to march by in majestic review. I though my heart was going to burst with the simple happiness of it all -- a place where I would not be kicked out, and the splendid John Phillips Sousa music, and the brave tin soldiers marching by. And I felt like I never wanted to go anywhere else, or do anything else again.

And the old man must have sensed that I did not want to leave. For when the marching stopped, and the room at last fell silent, he smiled, winked shrewdly, and said, "Let's do it again!" And we watched that parade for an hour. It was a wonderful time. So there had, indeed, been power on Shuter's Hill, although it was not exactly mysterious. From then on, I was unable to get along with those who mocked the Masons for being square. And because they provdied free hospitals for crippled children, and because one of them, who'd had no cause to, had been kind to me, it came to seem as less than important whether they liked, as I did, the music of Billy Holliday or the books of Albert Camus. In fact, I have secretly thought of myself ever since as belonging to them -- in a strictly unofficial way, of course.

Which leads me to suggest, apropos of invisible power, that this is pretty typical of how we Americans belong to a lot of things, including this country -- which is to say, out of the heart, and secretly, and in spite of considerable differences. Because our instinct for brotherhood, doesn't spring from some mere shallow whim to be a Perfect Elu, King of the Brazen Serpent, or Prince Kadosh, but is the product of more substantial motives that are stronger by far. And, since this kind of power is not visible the way the frenzied rallying of a million chanting madmen is, some foreign leaders are currently being tempted, perhaps, to believe that it does not exist. Just as the British, long ago, were similarly tempted, and learned to their great cost that all things are not what they seem. Which is something that others who trust in our seeming disunity may soon learn, too -- although not necessarily in Ixtlan.