They were all over the Capitol, the Smithsonian and Arlington National Cemetery. Look at the memorials to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln and you'd see them. From Union Station to the National Cathedral, you couldn't escape them.
From June 11 to 16, more than 200 Citrus County fifth-graders and their adult chaperones swarmed through the nation's capital. The Safety Patrol members turned downtown D.C. into an Orange Beltway.
Each year, a Citrus County caravan rolls up Interstate 95 bearing dozens of kids who have served as hall monitors and role models in the county's eight elementary schools.
All year, the kids wash cars and sell candy and other items to raise money for the trip. The payoff, though, is priceless. It's a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, a whirlwind of experiences for the students and the adults alike.
Educational Tours of Inverness sets up an ambitious itinerary that includes not just all of the significant places in Washington, but also a glorious ride through the Shenandoah Valley to Monticello and Luray Caverns.
For the kids, the trip is a lot more. It's a venture far from small-town Citrus to a big city. Many of their best memories are of seemingly mundane experiences like sleeping in hotels, riding a subway and shopping in a four-story mall.
For the adult chaperones, it's sightseeing without the stress of driving or lining up restaurants and hotels. It's also perhaps the last chance to spend meaningful time with your child before he or she takes that big step in the fall into middle school and adolescence.
For the members of the Sheriff's Office who accompany the tour, it's a work assignment that allows time for fun, too. The deputies, all School Resource Officers and DARE officers, are assigned to the six tour buses. The veterans of the trip compete good-naturedly to get their bus to the destinations first to avoid waiting in long lines at a museum, restaurant or highway rest area.
From 6 a.m. June 11, when the buses pulled out of Inverness, until midnight June 16, when they returned, the pace was full throttle. Elsewhere in this section today you'll find a list of the places visited. You can get tired just reading it.
That may be the only problem with the tour: the fatigue factor. With wake-up calls at 5:30 a.m. and lights-out at 10 p.m., and miles of walking in between, the kids and adults are exhausted by week's end.
But with so much to see and so many people to move, you have to start early. Besides, the kids have all summer to rest up.
Everyone on the trip returned with a bushelful of memories. Here are a few of mine:
The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is impressive enough, but when Susan Bailey, Kylene Colasanti, Tristan Duff and Yvonne Wellman placed a wreath from Citrus County at the memorial, a wave of goose bumps and pride flowed through the crowd.
This was my first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and I was as humbled as I expected to be. Standing before the tall, black slabs with thousands of heroes' names stretching far in each direction, then reading the letters that loved ones left at The Wall, my emotions crumbled. I'll always be grateful that a magnificent gentleman, Deputy Doug Alexander, was there to offer support.
Equally sobering was a trip to the Holocaust Memorial. The students were shown a special presentation set up for children that tries to explain the horror in a way they can grasp. Several chaperones slipped away to view as much of the memorial as possible in a short period. We didn't see it all, but what we saw left us shaken for the rest of the day.
John F. Kennedy once told a gathering of Nobel laureates that they represented the greatest collection of knowledge and talent assembled at the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined there alone. Seeing this great man's Monticello home and walking his grounds is an inspiration and a reminder of the boundless capabilities of the mind.
Mostly, though, this was an excellent adventure that the students will remember forever. As Lt. Jim Beebe said, someday these kids will be in a classroom and a teacher will mention Ford's Theater or the Magna Carta. A light will go off and the student will say, "I've been there; I've seen that." The lesson will come alive.
For that, it was worth washing a few cars and buying some candy bars.
Here are the places the Citrus County Safety Patrol visited on its trip to Washington, D.C., on June 11-16:
Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello
Pentagon City Mall
Law Enforcement Memorial
Museum of Building and Industry
U.S. Capitol building
Arlington National Cemetery
Kennedy grave sites
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Civil Rights museum
Iwo Jima Memorial
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
White House (view from street)
The Awakening sculpture
Smithsonian Museum of American History
Smithsonian Museum of Air and Space