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In any other city, if you asked the appropriate officials, nicely and politely, why are there two fountains with a merman resembling Bewitched‘s Darrin Stephens ornamenting a bridge, they’d probably tell you.

But this is D.C., where paranoia reigns, and the National Park Service (NPS) treats all media inquiries as if the answer would lead to the first installment of the Watergate series.

Luckily, some brave government employees, past and present, skirted official channels to let us in on the dirty little secret of East Potomac Park’s Inlet Bridge.

“Alas, if it looks like a fish, well maybe it must be a fish. Let’s face it, looking through some of the old telephone directories from the NPS could lead one to believe that at one time a prerequisite of working there was to have an animal name. There are lots of Foxes, Wolfs, a couple of Doves and Drakes, and Beavers—to name a few. It was only reasonable then that they should use an icon like former NPS Regional Director Jack Fish. What better model than a Fish for a fish?”

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—Submitted by Bob Baer (pronounced bear), College Park, Md.

Brigitte Murry of Arlington informed me that a co-worker who used to work for NPS told her that the fish gargoyles were erected when Jack Fish retired, about 10 years ago. Robert Sonderman, an NPS employee, said that Fish was a long-term,very popular director of NPS’s National Capital Region, which comprises D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and parts of West Virginia, and then directed me to NPS regional historian Gary Scott for more details. Unfortunately, a call to Scott prompted a tango with the public-affairs office that will probably continue long after my death.

In the interim, with lukewarm official sanction, West Potomac Park NPS employee John Ryen told me he had heard that the gargoyles were added to existing shell-like fountains upon Fish’s retirement. But when he looked for a work order, he found none.

Hmmm—call Woodward.

Earl Kittleman, the head of public affairs for NPS, says that since the fountains are not an official commemorative piece of art, NPS can’t say with authority what the gargoyles represent—if anything. “You can print rumors if you want to,” says Kittleman, noting that Tourmobile drivers are the greatest source of Mall scuttlebutt. “But it’s not dedicated or designated in that official fashion—it remains conjecture or legend or whatever.” Then he told me to call Scott, who refused to take my calls.

Unable to chisel verification out of NPS by deadline, but with e-mail, faxes, and calls from government employees supporting the Fish rumor pouring in, I’m going to apply a journalistic test I learned from reading All the President’s Men: If enough people tell you it’s so, it must be.

Meanwhile, on the silly front, Brooke Hamilton e-mailed that the origin of the fountains can be attributed to Dr. Bombay, who wanted to find out what would happen if he crossed Teddy Roosevelt with Teddy Kennedy. Hey Brooke, I already exhausted the Bewitched jokes. More original humor was found in the submission from Robert Seasonwein of Potomac, Md.:

“While some have speculated that Flipper “bronzed’ Lloyd Bridges on Ohio Drive when he took up with the Little Mermaid, we have it on good authority that the merman is actually Roy Cohn, who, as punishment for stopping to admire the Lincoln Memorial, was made part of the fountain by J. Edgar Hoover, the evil sorcerer of Washington. Hoover’s spell allows Cohn to come to life on Joseph McCarthy’s birthday, when he dances naked in the reflecting pool.”

For those of you who want to see more of Cohn than Angels in America could offer, you’ll have to wait a year. McCarthy was born on Nov. 14, 1908—one year before the Inlet Bridge was built. Hmmm.

Next Week’s Mystery: Oooh, That Smell