From 1976 through 1980—for nearly the full Presidency of Peanut Farmer from Georgia, Jimmy Carter—my wife Ginger and I lived in an apartment in the Kalorama area of Northwest DC. A block away, at the corner of Kalorama and Connecticut, the closely-guarded Chancery of the People’s Republic of China (an Embassy starting in 1979) occupied two historic apartment buildings joined by an inner space. The Chancery overlooked the Rock Creek gorge from the southwest terminus of Connecticut Avenue Bridge, the world’s largest unreinforced concrete structure. Completed in 1907, the majestically arched, classic revival bridge was distinguished by two cast concrete lion “guards” at either end; two with eyes closed, apparently sleeping, and two with heads tilted upwards, and mouths slightly open. Twenty-four bronze lampposts, spaced equidistant along both sides of the bridge, provided discernable illumination after dark.
Almost daily, Ginger and I crossed the bridge on foot to enjoy the expansive view of the Rock Creek gorge below and the surrounding forested hills and trails. We often jogged across to challenge the 15-station parcourse at its northwest base. I often dashed across solo for jungle runs through National Zoo to its north. Coming down from a jungle run, one day I was walking deliberately down our ginko-shaded street of older townhomes and low-rise apartments when I saw a tan leather briefcase smack in the middle of our intersection, sun dazzled. I looked around to see if somebody might be coming back, but saw nobody in sight. I snatched it, toted it up two flights to our apartment, and lay it down on our vintage 1930’s porcelain kitchen table.
“Look what the cat dragged in!” I bragged, still out of breath.
“Don’t open it!” Ginger shouted, followed by, “Watch out!” when she saw me opening it in search of ID.
I assumed its owner was as worried as I’d be in his shoes. I wanted to return it pronto. But when I opened it, my heart raced like a trapped deer’s. The cold chill of death invaded my diaphragm.
“Those look like maps of where to find the secret treasure in King Tut’s tomb,” Ginger remarked.
In fact, the briefcase contained detailed diagrams of the innards of the Los Alamos nuclear weapons complex. Each was stamped in big, red, block letters TOP SECRET. An itinerary detailed an imminent visit to Los Alamos by a newly-elected U.S. Senator from Maine and his entourage.
I kept searching and found ID for the briefcase’s owner, a legislative aide for said U.S. Senator. I called the home number on the ID. When someone answered, I asked point blank, “Do you know where you briefcase is?”
He replied without flinching, “In the study, on my desk.”
I re-directed, “Why don’t you go check.”
Moments later he returned to the phone, breathless. “Who is this? And what have you done with my briefcase?” he demanded.
“I have it here. I found it in the middle of the intersection of 20th and Kalorama. I want to return it,” I said.
Relieved, he said, “We just had a baby. I was so focused on getting the baby into the car, I guess I forgot the briefcase. I didn’t even realize.”
He guessed? Didn’t realize? What was he thinking, bringing home highly-classified documents that in the wrong hands could severely damage national security?
I gave the loser my address. We agreed on a time. I said I’d hang out in the lobby and be on the lookout.
Ginger said, “Since he works for a Senator from Maine, maybe he’ll give us a couple of lobsters as a reward.”
I said, “Don’t bet on it.”
When someone lost and nervous looking and wearing a trench coat reminiscent of Deep Throat showed up outside the lobby’s glass door, I opened it, stepped out, and asked him to identify himself. When he uttered the correct name, I held out the briefcase. Without establishing eye contact, he grabbed the briefcase, mumbled “thanks,” pivoted, walked away, and didn’t look back.
“No lobsters,” I told Ginger. “I wouldn’t’ve trusted them anyway. You think I should’ve called Ben Bradlee?”
Joked Ginger, “You should’ve walked out to the middle of Connecticut Avenue Bridge and dropped it into Rock Creek.”
My friends assure me, “You did the right thing. If nothing else, you saved his career.”
Some joke, “Nowadays, you’d quickly be made to disappear” or “You’d be found floating belly-up in Rock Creek.”
I’ve lost my taste for lobster anyway.
Jim Ross, after retiring from a career in public health research in late 2014, jumped back into creative writing and photography after a long hiatus. Since then, he’s published 21 pieces of nonfiction and 60 photographs in 24 journals, including 1966, Apeiron Review, Cactus Heart, Cargo Literary Magazine, Dirty Chai, In the Fray, Lunch Ticket, Gravel, Chicago’s MAKE Literary Magazine, Memory House, Pif Magazine, riberbabble, Sheepshead Review, and Friends Journal. Forthcoming: Drylandlit and Palooka. Grandparents of twin one year olds, he and his wife split their time between Maryland and West Virginia.