Back-channel diplomacy in our nation’s capital, Part 2


A couple of weeks ago I recounted my sons’ and my adventure in Washington, D.C. in the middle of May. We had a wonderful few days touring various important historical, cultural, and governmental hotspots: The Capitol Building, the White House, the Lincoln, Vietnam War Veteran, World War II, and Washington monuments, several Smithsonian museums, and the Holocaust Museum, to name a few.

On our last full day we decided to take the Metro train to Arlington Cemetery, learn some of its rich history, and pay our respects during the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A concierge at our hotel informed me it was a simple and quick ride on the blue line, and that the nearest metro station was actually accessible directly through an entrance adjacent to our hotel lobby. What could go wrong?!

So we went to the station, found a helpful Metro employee who assisted me in purchasing three passes that would enable us to journey to Arlington, and proceeded to the proper platform. After about 15 minutes of different trains arriving and departing—but no blue line trains—we began to wonder what was going on. A patron overheard me talking to Luke about my confusion and intervened.

“I’m really sorry to tell you this,” he said, “but the blue line is down for maintenance all weekend. Didn’t anyone tell you?!

You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought to myself. Well, okay. I thought a few things in addition to that. A Metro employee helped us buy the tickets, knowing all I wanted was blue line access to Arlington Cemetery, and he never mentioned the blue line was down?!? I was furious.

“We’ll see about this,” I barked at the boys, and I marched rapidly up to the main entrance area. The boys have heard that tone in my voice and seen that facial expression before, so they knew sparks were about to fly. They followed me quickly, and exercising appropriate discretion, kept their mouths shut. I caught a quick glimpse of Daniel, and could see he was anxious about what might happen next. Daniel—sweet, compliant, agreeable—despises confrontation. Indeed, he hates aggression so much he won’t even play wrestle with me anymore. Whenever I introduce the idea of going mano-a-mano for fun, he invokes a well-worn mantra to dissuade me from attacking him: “Dad…CALM! CONTROL! CALM! CONTROL!”

I kept marching as if my feet were angry at the pavement, and soon found a large, circular Manager’s Station inhabited with two employees. I rapped on the window, made eye contact with a large man inside, and motioned for him to come out. “I WANT TO TALK WITH YOU—NOW” I mouthed. He complied, and I came face-to-face with a towering figure who looked like he could have played tight end for the Washington Redskins a decade prior. All of 6 ft. 5 inches, probably 250 pounds, and agile looking. In his mid 40s and past his prime, but possessed the look of a former athlete and was still a very strong dude.

“Sir?” he asked me amiably.

“Are you in charge?” I asked.

Looking a little nervous, “Well, yes, I’m the manager on duty, sir. What can I do for you?”

“I purchased 3 tickets to get to Arlington Cemetery with the aid of one of your employees, and that employee didn’t have the decency to tell me the blue line was out of service today. I’m furious and I want my money back!”

Luke began to shuffle backwards, slowly. He was (justifiably) mortified by my actions and worried his father was taking his final breaths below ground at the corner of G and 12th St. NW in downtown Washington, D.C.

“Sir,” the manager intoned, “I can’t do that.”

“Wrong answer. You’re the manager of this station. I want my money back now. And an explanation for why one of your employees bilked me, and I want it now,” I shot back, not quite yelling, but getting closer to doing so.

“Now sir, just calm down. I understand you’re upset—“

“—No kidding!” I interrupted.

“Yes, I get it. But I don’t think I deserve the tongue-lashing you’re giving me, and I promise I’m gonna get you and your sons where you want to go if you just calm down and give me a chance.”

I had composed in my brain another unhelpful and smart-alecky response (“Oh, yeah, I have a lot of confidence in your solution, y’all have been ever-so-helpful so far,” etc.), but I paused when I saw Ambassador Daniel from the Principality known as Swensenistan standing behind the Manager mouthing something to me. Luke by now had receded, standing 15 paces away and trying desperately to appear as if he had nothing to do with the angry-tourist sideshow his father had created. I spied Daniel’s mouth carefully to try to make out what he was trying to communicate.

He placed his right hand up next to his face and gently pumped his opened palm next to his cheek as he pleaded silently, “CALM…. CONTROL…. CALM…. CONTROL…. CALM…. CONTROL.”

I grinned. I didn’t issue the juvenile reply I had composed. I apologized. I listened to the gracious and patient station manager who did, indeed, have a solution to our dilemma. And then I thanked my gentle, sweet, adolescent, autistic son for working a little magical back channel diplomacy in our nation’s capital.

By Tim Swensen

Virtur & Mischief

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