In Capital, a Spring Day Provides a Break From War News

Times Staff Writer

The president and his war council had decamped to his country retreat. The duct tape and plastic sheeting were already purchased and stashed. Most important, the weather at long last promised spring.

So the lawns and colonnaded landmarks of Washington were filled Saturday with crowds trying to shrug off twin shadows: the attack on Iraq and fear of retribution at home.

The Washington, D.C., Marathon was canceled for security reasons, but the Smithsonian's Kite Festival and the Cherry Blossom Festival went on as scheduled. In the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who insisted on lighting the national Christmas tree during World War II, the residents of Washington grabbed at the chance to savor a sunny day and push back thoughts of war.

Nine police cars were parked outside the World Bank, and a window poster at a downtown pharmacy read: "Anti-radiation pills. Stock up now." About 1,000 demonstrators chanted antiwar refrains at Lafayette Square.

But at the museums and on the National Mall, many others worked hard to escape the week's dark undertones. "I'm here trying to get away from the TV," said Senta Boardley, a 33-year-old office manager who brought her son to fly kites.

The Capitol -- believed to have been an intended target of Sept. 11 hijackers and heart of the complex where anthrax-laced letters were delivered -- loomed to the east.

Her son and his fourth-grade classmates "are trying to keep up normal lives," Boardley said. "Anything can happen anywhere."

Likewise, Jim Golsen looked on his jaunt to the Mall as "a good break from the constant coverage." He and his wife, Erin, brought along their son Declan, who is almost 2.

"Why not?" Golsen asked. "He's in the day care center at the Department of Commerce, right by the White House. We're down here every day. Why not come down for something fun?"

Marc Murrison, a bearded astronomer who works at the Naval Observatory, faced constant reminders of the war during his commute last week. With the vice president's house situated on the observatory grounds, the main gate had been closed. It took a back route and badge-flashing at two checkpoints to get in. And though Murrison is a civilian, he likes his Navy colleagues enough to worry about the lives of America's troops.

The prospect of unreeling his neon-rainbow kite into a brisk wind had proved a fine salve for his nerves. In fact, it wasn't until he disembarked from the Metro downtown that he wondered how the fight was going overseas. "I forgot my radio!" he said.

On the other side of the lawmakers' dome, in the neighborhood of Capitol Hill, the residents complained about the recent resumption of military flights overhead. In the biggest upsurge since Sept. 11, 2001, the planes shook the row house windows during the night.

Everything, of course, is relative. As Gene Berry remarked to his neighbors, who sat on their front stoop: "It's 1 o'clock. In Baghdad, it's time for the bombs."

Berry can walk to his job as an administrative officer at the Library of Congress, and he is acutely aware of how close he lives and works to what may now be No. 1 on the global terrorist hit list. Still, he hasn't prepared for an attack beyond buying a few extra bottles of water, unlike others who have taken additional precautionary measures.

He is against the war, but "I have focused on not watching the reports."

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, "I was mesmerized," he said. "This time, I've made a conscious decision not to let it take over my life."

He promised his father, a Vietnam War veteran, that he wouldn't join in protests, even though "I hate George Bush. He hates George Bush."

A Hill staffer sitting cross-legged in front of his white-brick row house was absorbed in milling moldings instead of the fine print of legislative work. It's "completely normal," he said of his weekend.

He backs the war and plans to stay in his home of 10 years: "I choose not to live my life in fear."

Blocks away, the outdoor cafe at the Hawk 'n' Dove was fully occupied. At each table, diners reported avoiding the subject of war, save a stray remark or two that welled up and out. The restaurant's namesake divide was evident only in plans for the rest of the day: A table of two hawks decided to watch college basketball on TV. A group of three doves was headed for the cherry trees.

As usual, the pink cloud of blooms had failed to unfurl for the opening of the annual festival, which marks Japan's gift in 1912 of more than 3,000 of the trees. They were presented as a symbol of peace and planted at the Tidal Basin.

Tight green buds notwithstanding, a delegation of 70 Japanese dancers performed for a Shinto ceremony late in the afternoon.

Clad in bright green and yellow costumes, with white head coverings and a white smudge on each cheek and nose, they banged a five-beat cadence on their drums, parading slowly around the basin's footpath.

Earlier in the week, the embassy had put out a call at local schools for volunteers to join in the ritual. Army Sgt. Engelbert Indo, a Peruvian-born linguist who works at the Pentagon, brought his 8- and 10-year-old daughters.

None of the Japanese had expressed any qualms about their safety during a week of rehearsal, Indo said.

And he saw no conflict in being present at such a lighthearted event as fellow troops faced peril overseas.

"I was in Bosnia in '96, and what I asked for was for the people to have fun, to have joy," Indo said. "That's what we were fighting for. It was our job."

Now that he is on the home front, he added, his role has changed. His white head cloth was too tight and he was having trouble keeping tabs on the girls, but he had taken his own message from the Japanese drums.

"To celebrate life!" he shouted, throwing up both arms. A wide smile split his stubbly face.

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