By Jim Stasny, House, 1962
It was hot twilight and the sky was angry with storm clouds. I and a friend stood watching them from outside the Capitol building on the west front terrace. We were soon joined by a couple of veteran pages who told us this was the night we would see something special, something seen only by the few who were Capitol Hill insiders. And it was, they said, a special rite of acceptance as a page.
Only a total moron would swallow drivel like that. But if you were 16, any mystery not involving mean vertebrates with big teeth or serpents twice your size, could serve as a total moron antidote. So when my friend and I were told the “special acceptance” involved a blindfold, we figured, okay, we’ll take the moron route.
As we turned inside the Capitol building, lightning was already flashing behind us. By the time we climbed down two flights of stone stairs, thunder drummed the building. We reached a landing where the blindfolds were to be put on. Another flight of stairs descended before us. Then, with blindfolds in place, a senior page grabbed my arm. I ran my hand on the opposite side against the wall. When we finished with the stairs, we turned right, walked a short distance, turned left, then stopped. Someone on either side helped my friend and me climb up a few more steps. The thunder cracked louder, echoing, forbidding.
A page spoke.
“Stay here and keep the blindfold on until you count to 100. Don’t step back. You’ll fall. Give me your hand,” which evidently my friend did.
“Feel that? It’s a light bulb. There’s a switch on top of it. When you get to 100, turn the switch.”
And we were on our own.
Forget the 100. We waited just long enough so that we couldn’t hear the other pages. The thunder that had been so loud before, now felt like it was going off in my chest.
With the blindfolds off, it was still dark. With the light bulb suddenly on, it was too bright to see anything for an instant. Then we saw the bars.
Completely disoriented, my first thought was that we had been locked in a basement cell. The bars, however, turned out to be a gate. Behind it was a big, black, cloth-covered box under glass. The box, we discovered, was called a catafalque, stored in a small vaulted room in front of which we now stood. From a framed sign hanging on the wall, we learned that the thing behind the gate was the platform on which they had put Abraham Lincoln’s casket. The little room, with the Lincoln casket platform in it, was originally to have been George Washington’s tomb.
The light bulb flickered. The thunder roared. The box behind the gate seemed to be looking back at us. Had either my friend or I been alone at the time it’s possible one of us might have suffered an unfortunate physical consequence.
Instead, never mind the speedometer reading on our heart rates, we walked down the stairs, then quickly saw light in a passage leading away from the Lincoln thing behind those iron bars. We returned to the page bench just as the House was closing up shop.
“What did you think?” one of the veteran pages smirked.
To avoid the fact that I had actually been frightened, I just said: “We’ve got jails in Indiana, too, you know.”
I don’t think that’s the answer he was looking for since all he said was: “Dumb ass.”
Those two words grew me a little that night, clarified a few priorities. Dumb ass. I realized I was far less concerned about the impact of his adjective than I was about the safety of my noun.
Maybe this “page boy thing” felt like it was starting to pay off.
Jim Stasny, House, 1962, has compiled some of his memories of adventures on Capitol Hill as a 16-year-old from Whiting, Ind., and has shared them with the USCPAA. From the page corps, Jim went on to school at John Carroll University and then the Kennedy School at Harvard. He was a staff member for Sen. George McGovern, worked for six years on the Senate Budget Committee, and was a speechwriter at Fannie Mae.