Just as the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, Calif, so the penguins have (finally) returned to the Silver Spring Metro station. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Every March, hundreds of thousands of mighty emperor penguins return to the pack ice of Antarctica to breed.

Last week, after a 12-year absence, the penguins finally returned to Silver Spring, Md.

They’d been gone since 2005, when a massive mural depicting dozens of anthropomorphic penguins commuting by public transportation was removed from along Colesville Road, outside the Silver Spring Metro station. A lot of the paint had peeled from the 25 eight-by-four-foot plywood panels that made up the 100-foot-long “Penguin Rush Hour.”

Artist Sally Callmer Thompson repainted her penguins, but by then construction had started on the snakebit Paul S. Sarbanes Transit Center. The panels were put in storage, and there they remained.

Now they’re back up. Sort of.

“It’s actually a digital reproduction of the panels, which is why I’m so happy about it,” Sally told me on the phone from her home on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. “It won’t have all the problems with deteriorating from the elements.”

The 25 original panels were transported to Dodge-Chrome, an imaging and printing company in Silver Spring. Employees there used something called a bar scanner to digitize them.

The digitized images were then printed on thin aluminum sheets that are bonded to a polyethylene core.

“The materials are flexible, durable and have an anti-graffiti coating on them,” said Suzan Jenkins, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County.

“The aluminum panels are not subject to the foibles of weather and rot,” said Don Scheuerman of the Montgomery County Department of General Services. If a panel gets damaged, they can just print out another one.

“And I don’t have to fix it!” Sally said. “I’m very happy about that. I’ve done enough of the fixing part. It was not as fun as it was fun doing the original.”

Sally is delighted that her handiwork is back up after so long.

“What good is a mural that’s in storage?” she said. “Nobody can see it.”

She said that the original painted panels may wind up in an indoor venue somewhere, perhaps in Silver Spring, where the penguins became an unofficial mascot after the mural was unveiled in 1990.

“They haven’t found a place yet, because it’s kind of big, but it’s nice to know that the originals may go up again someday,” Sally said.

The digital re-creation looks pretty good to me, the lines crisp, the colors bright. Don said we shouldn’t worry too much that it’s not the “real” mural. After all, the original statue of David in Florence was moved inside and a replica was put up outside — “not to compare 25 plywood panels to Michelangelo,” Don said.

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, Montgomery County bigwigs will assemble at the Silver Spring Metro station to welcome back the penguins.

I’m hoping their return — the penguins, not the politicians — will bring good luck to troubled Metro. Perhaps the penguins are like another species of bird: the raven. It’s said that should the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the monarchy will fall. The penguins left Silver Spring and, well, you know what happened.

Each morning I wake up . . .

The view outside the window was dreary as I rode the Red Line on Tuesday morning. Rain streaked down the glass while, outside, everything and everyone looked wet and miserable.

The backs of the industrial buildings near the Fort Totten station showed their haphazard graffiti. Here and there on the ground were piles of railroad ties, gravel, rusty metal.

A woman sat down across from me and, with careful concentration, began to slowly transform herself.

She picked out the edges of her eyes with a pencil, then daubed her lids with iridescent eye shadow.

Next, she unscrewed a mascara brush from its little cylinder and swept the inky corkscrew across her eyelashes, turning them from tiny apostrophes into long exclamation points.

It was a private ritual, this morning maquillage, undertaken in public. As commuter behavior goes, it struck me as pretty harmless. She wasn’t clipping her toenails or eating a breakfast burrito. And she wasn’t trying to put on her makeup while behind the wheel of a Camry hurtling around the Beltway.

The rain had stopped when we pulled into the Rhode Island Avenue station. The woman snapped her compact mirror shut, grabbed her bags and got off, a new face ready for a new day.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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