On his first day at work repairing the Washington Monument, Guillermo Moreno -- political refugee from El Salvador, artisan, union stonemason -- casually rode the elevator up and stepped out on the scaffolding at about 500 feet.

The height gave him no worries. He trusts the harnesses securing him to the scaffold. He relishes the views, the wind gusts, even the uncertainties that manifest themselves in the little tingles he gets in his stomach. Height is his element.

But on that first day, just as he took out his power saw with the diamond blades and prepared to cut and extract his first piece of damaged marble, three National Park Service supervisors suddenly assumed positions behind him on the scaffold, scrutinizing his every move.

Moreno's legs began trembling. "They intimidated me, just by their looks," he recalls.

One supervisor requested that he remove the microwave-size block of marble in a single piece -- a dicey proposition, thought Moreno, given that the century-old stone seemed brittle in places, ready to crumble. But the supervisor was firm, wanting to preserve as much of the original stone as possible for history, and in the process, make certain no one walked off with any chips as souvenirs.

No chunks, Guillermo, please, said the supervisor.

"It hit me then," Moreno remembers. "I thought, `Nobody has cut this stone for a century.' I was so nervous. Only when I met my wife did I feel like that."

He told himself to get a grip on his nerves. "I was shaking. I was being extra careful. This was my big chance to prove myself. And I thought about how important this was to America, to your culture, and that [America] gave me the chance to do this. `I will not mess up' -- that's what I said to myself."

He got the block out in one piece.

There are 10 men besides Moreno currently working on the 555-foot obelisk, and thus 10 other perspectives on what the monument has meant to those now restoring it. The hours are the same for everybody: 6 in the morning until about 2:30 in the afternoon, and the work will never be what most people would call glamorous.

Nonetheless, a few of the workers, such as Everett McNeely, a 25-year-old restoration specialist, have dreamed of this opportunity since adolescence. Monument refurbishing is in McNeely's blood. One of his seminal memories is of accompanying his father, who also is in the restoration business, to the Statue of Liberty, where the elder McNeely's company was repairing the icon that graces New York Harbor.

At an age when many young men fantasize about careers in athletics and music, McNeely envisioned himself climbing atop America's most beloved shrines with his father's tools in hand. "I've always been a nut about monuments," he says.

Guillermo Moreno, who turns 32 tomorrow, grew up 4,000 miles from Washington and had never heard of the Washington Monument before he entered this country in 1985.

A Washington resident ever since, he has driven by the monument "thousands of times, because it's so beautiful." He says this grinning, a strapping man of 5-foot-7, 185 pounds, with big brown eyes and short-cropped black hair covered by his red hard hat.

Using a technique known in his trade as the "Dutchman," Moreno already has removed two of the most damaged stones on the monument's west face at about the 500-foot mark and, under the hawklike supervision of the Park Service, carefully replaced them with marble from one of the Baltimore County quarries used during the original construction. The monument's cornerstone was laid 151 years ago today -- July 4, 1848.

The replacement stone, cut into 8-foot by 8-inch slabs, was delivered on site to Moreno, who -- using talents he developed first as a welder and later while working with concrete -- further cut and shaped the marble into pieces about 2 feet wide, 77 inches high and 4 inches thick, each weighing roughly 55 pounds. Then he carefully fit them into place on the monument.

"My time, the moment of truth," Moreno says happily of that morning. It was the artisan's chance to strut his stuff, the architectural equivalent of a dentist drilling into two badly decayed teeth and installing crowns in an old patient.

The monument's smaller cavities have been left to McNeely and nine other restoration specialists, who do not cut new stone but strengthen and save what is already there -- replacing mortar in disintegrating joints and sealing small fissures in the marble blocks, while meticulously cleaning the surface with warm water.

Any discovery of a crack greater than two inches in depth generally leads to the summoning of Park Service officials, who must decide whether the gap necessitates calling for Moreno or some other stonemason to perform a Dutchman. "So far, most of the upper stone has been remarkably, surprisingly good," says David M. Suarez, president of Atlantic Company of America Inc., which employs the restoration crew.

The press and public have been barred by the Park Service from taking a look for themselves, but Suarez says his men are comfortably on schedule, already at the 380-foot mark on two sides of the monument, and the 334-foot mark on the other two. The workers' ranks will grow to as many as 25 as they proceed down the ever-widening exterior facade, all part of a $6 million job that began in April and is scheduled to be completed by spring.

"I will take my children up when it's finished," Moreno said proudly. "Know what I can't understand? How can some people in this country talk about the monument like they don't care what happens to it? It's their monument, their culture. I see something breathtaking."

Dedicated in 1885 and opened to the public three years later, the Washington Monument is equal parts revered symbol and revealing Rorschach test. When Moreno -- the lone immigrant currently involved in the project -- examines its scarred marble, he says he feels nothing so much as safe at last -- safe in a way he never felt anywhere in El Salvador, where just going to the store for milk sometimes meant seeing yet another body on the side of the road during the Salvadoran civil war.

He fled his homeland at age 18. His brain still flashes unnerving pictures of growing up in the town of Cojutepeque, 20 miles southwest of San Salvador, the capital. Sometimes Moreno the man will see what Moreno the boy tried to forget: two freshly decapitated heads displayed on fence posts outside his town, the eyes hauntingly half-opened.

Casualties of the war, the corpses were reminders to the boy of a madness coming ever closer. As a teenager, Moreno daringly ran away several times from Salvadoran Army officers looking to draft able-bodied boys into the war. "I knew my luck was going to run out if I stayed," he says.

He views his presence on the monument work crew as just another miracle in his turbulent life. "Me, an immigrant, they chose me," he exults, hardly able to believe anything since he got to this country -- not that he and his brother got busted as illegal aliens hiding in a car trunk at the border near San Diego 14 years ago, not that they spent 18 days in a makeshift jail, not that they next received political asylum, not how much a man's fortunes can change simply by being allowed into a different country.

A few weeks ago, the oldest of his three children, 8-year-old Johanna, wrote a report about the monument for her third-grade class at Harriet Tubman Elementary School, complete with an account of her father's work. "Her teacher didn't believe her," Moreno says, chuckling. "My daughter is so proud of me. `My daddy is on the monument,' she always says. She loves this country. She's a citizen. I tell her how beautiful the view is on the monument."

At his favorite sight, Reagan National Airport, the planes gleam on sunny days as they land. "I can see as far as Mount Vernon," Moreno says, excited as any child. "Awesome."

Everett McNeely also steals glances while he works. "Whatever the guys say about not looking, they look," he says, laughing. "On the first day, I think it actually slowed up work a little."

McNeely is an ambitious, ever-busy 25-year-old living on four hours' sleep a night: a 5-foot-8, 154-pound fledgling middleweight boxer who has won his first two pro fights; a graduate student in criminal justice at Howard University; a husband and father living in Washington; and, as the son of someone in the restoration field, the likely heir -- should he choose to go that route -- to the family business.

Growing up in Philadelphia, McNeely first saw the Washington Monument as a 6-year-old so terrified of heights that he wet his pants while standing with the other tourists at the top. "Maybe I thought I was going to fall out," he says.

By ninth grade, having traveled to Washington with his high school class, he found himself mesmerized by the obelisk, blurting to amused classmates, "I'd love to work on that thing someday."

His fascination steadily grew, stoked by his father, who confessed to his own absorption with the monument while doing roofing work on the nearby White House, telling his then-19-year-old son that if he, Everett, ever had the opportunity to work on the monument, "go for it."

On the job, McNeely wears one of the orange jumpsuits special-ordered for the restoration workers by Suarez. The suits have an American flag on the left shoulder and are meant to resemble astronaut flight togs.

Tourists often glance up, pointing at what look like orange ants on the scaffolding. McNeely can look down and see them all, including those meditative souls who lie on their backs and stare up at the monument. "I understand why they keep looking," he says. "Things sometimes hit you here."

It is when he has been around the monument, McNeely says, that the meaning of his life's odyssey has come clear to him. His compulsion to find his way onto the historic site peaked on one such day in 1995, during his involvement in the Million Man March.

"I looked up the monument and it just looked like . . . hope, you know? I've always set my goals high, and sometimes I've failed. But the day we started this project, I just hugged the marble. I had tears in my eyes. Getting here has made me feel I can do anything if I set my mind to it."

While he carefully packs mortar and checks joints, McNeely marvels at things no one but the workers, 50 stories above the grounded world, will ever be able to fully appreciate -- how much the scaffold vibrates in a stiff wind, and how soothingly cool the white marble feels, even on a scorching summer's day.

"It's going to be a little hard to come down from this place when it ends," he says. "It's been magic, like being up above the planet in your own special spot. It might be the great moment of our lives."


The three-phase restoration of the Washington Monument is expected to be completed by the spring of 2000.

Phase I (Completed): Provided for the modernization of the elevator system and installation of new heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

Phase II (On-going): The building of the scaffold system; cleaning and restoration of the exterior marble and of the commemorative stones inside the monument.

Phase III (Planned): Will include the removal of the scaffolding system and renovation of the observation levels and displays.

Current stage of restoration: Restoration experts working from the top of the monument down have reached the 334-foot mark on the north and west faces and the 380-foot mark on the east and south faces.

SOURCE: National Park Service

CAPTION: Everett McNeely, left, and Guillermo Moreno take a break from their jobs repairing the Washington Monument.