Salt stung my eyes as I jogged beside the tidal basin. I plodded on, marking time for the inevitable tourist traffic, drivers who would not see me in my bright yellow running shorts and white tee shirt as I tried to cross Boundary Channel Drive. It was late March, a day to be alone with my thoughts. Cherry blossoms bursting, the air warming, the days longer—the season was starting.
Out of nowhere, a cab, one of the many that seem to own Washington’s streets, took aim on me. He honked, yelling something in Arabic I did not understand.
I got to the gym early, earlier than usual, running across the Potomac River on the Fourteenth Street Bridge, I avoided the expansion bolt that had tripped me up a year before, ripping the flesh on my knee as I splayed out on the concrete. No one stopped to help.
In a blinding snowstorm an Air Florida passenger jet would hit this same bridge nine months later. Heroes stepped forward that day, ordinary people, risking their lives to save strangers. It was a measure of hope. We all felt good that people could give so much. Sweet irony: I rode to work on the subway every day with people who never looked at each other, never spoke. I wondered if they would step forward.
My stride slowed, my breath came harder. This would be a long run, one that seemed to make sense, perfect for my mental health. No one could reach me here. I was losing steam.
Crossing Independence Avenue, I heard sirens. Loud airplanes and sirens were DC’s background music. Police cars roared off in the distance, heading up 16th Street at double time. The noise faded into the distance, and I was once again listening to my own heartbeat, brushing the sweat from my face with my arm. It would be a warm day, in spite of the overcast and early morning drizzle.
I stepped from the shower, getting ready for a round of meetings that at the time seemed important. We had a standing joke: never enough time to do something well, always time to do it over. The locker next to mine was empty, unusual for the rush hour at the Pentagon.
I decided not to eat lunch, trudged back to my office, gym bag going home for it’s weekly laundry. Guards glanced at my pass. Nobody was roaming the halls. My friend, Bill, who ran the blind man’s stand stood at his doorway, looking for customers, for answers.
I pushed my combination into the cipher lock; still hot from the shower I sat down to tackle the phone messages lying on my desk. Hot air was blowing from the ventilation grille over my head.
My secretary ran in, “Reagan’s been shot,” she said, “and they’re taking him to the hospital.”
“God,” I said, “how did it happen?”
“Not sure,” she said, and left me alone.
We had no radio, no TV in the office. Phones our only source of contact with the outside world. I picked up the receiver, no dial tone. Everybody else had the same idea. The system crashed.
The State of the Union address comes every January. A recovered President Reagan stood erect at the podium. The audience was hushed as he introduced the man, an unlikely hero, who dove in the icy Potomac River to save lives. Lenny Skutnick, I think, he was. Emotions ran high. A survivor and a hero. Lenny was our everyman, our hope. We dabbed at our eyes, took short breaths, applauded as hard as we could.
Next morning, I sat alone on the crowded subway, deafened by the silence.