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The Washington Monument has long served as the District’s night light—long, smooth, white sides bathed in klieg lights and crowned in blinking red. But something has changed. The flash pattern of aircraft warning lights that dot the top of the obelisk, two on each face, has mutated, seemingly of its own accord. Historically, the eight red lights blinked regularly—but each at its own interval. Lately, however, sky watchers may have noticed that the little red lights blink in sync, as if a single massive crimson bulb were flashing behind the eight small windows encircling the peak.
The change in monumental rhythm has not been lost on National Park Service (NPS) Ranger Suzanne Kelley. During a night shift last spring, Kelley looked out her station’s monument-side window, saw the lights all blinking at once, and wrote in the log, “What’s wrong? We’re in sync?”
So what’s the big deal? Though its tiny red spots may be ailing, D.C.’s tallest monument isn’t exactly about to tip over. But something ineffable has been lost. No longer can monument gazers stare at the lights on slow evenings and watch a light try fruitlessly to catch up with its mate. It’s a game born of tempo, like when you were a kid on a swing set waiting for your best friend to catch up with you, so that the two of you could swing in sync—even if it was only for a few moments. The random fusillade has been replaced by a metronomic throb.
Somebody’s wires are crossed here—nobody in Washington officialdom knows for sure why the flashing pattern suddenly changed last February.
There are plenty of theories. One ranger suggests that the pattern was changed to keep up with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines for hazards, including warning lights on “tall buildings and nuclear coolant towers.” Seems logical, except the FAA adamantly denies that its standards apply to the Washington Monument. The monument—which ascends into Prohibited Air Space Zone 56 (P56), or White House air space—is not a hazard, according to the FAA. If the monument were anywhere else, however, “we would probably call it a hazard,” admits Avis Person, an FAA air traffic control specialist. (Speaking of hazards, what about the dude who flew his twin-seater prop-job into P56 and crashed it a few feet under the commander-in-chief’s bedroom window? “He probably used the lights to guide him,” guesses Kelley.)
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Turns out there are no written rules regarding the cadence of the little red lights, which presumably means that rangers on the night shift could install a giant, rotating mirrored ball on the monument if they felt like getting down to “Disco Lady.”
Park service records indicate that the monument’s lights were wired to flash simultaneously—exactly as they do now—in 1980. But, “somewhere down the line, sometime between ’85 and ’87, they were changed to alternating blinking,” says Keith Newlin, the assistant chief of maintenance for the Mall.
Sam Nichols, an NPS facility manager familiar with the monument’s records, believes that in February someone “found” the schematic diagram showing how the wiring should work and switched the lights back to the simultaneous blinking.
Wayne Trotter is in charge of aircraft warning light sales for the NPS supplier, West Chester Electric and Electronic in Pennsylvania. He offers a few more clues. Trotter’s records suggest that since the 1980 wiring, the monument has always had a flasher to make the lights go on and off, and a separate unit to make them flash in sync. The synchronizing gizmo, however, only works if the lights are plugged into it; otherwise, they are controlled by the flasher. If the red lights flash alternately with no correlation to each other, then “they are not hooked into the [synchronizing] unit,” Trotter explains.
When I first contacted them, Newlin and his boss at the park service, superintendent Arnold Goldstein, said they were waiting for a “relay” part to bring back the alternating sequence, adding that they were certain that the in-sync blinking was “broken, not fixed.”
Two weeks later, however, the story has changed completely. Newlin, now wearing his bureaucrat’s hat, cites the FAA’s “Obstruction Marking and Lighting Circular, No. AC70-slash-7460-dash-18,” which calls for warning lights to blink simultaneously. From now on, Newlin states, the in-sync blinking is permanent. Perhaps because this is a 180-degree shift from earlier official statements, Newlin is very firm. “The lights are supposed to blink simultaneously!” he declares. “That’s it!”
Wait a minute. If the steady blink is the correct way, that means it was broken for perhaps a decade—from 1985 or so to sometime in February of 1995—when it blinked a more charming rhythm. And if the problem is indeed “fixed,” what about that relay doodad the Park Service ordered? “If it comes, we’ll just let it sit,” Newlin says.
What exactly did the electrician do inside the monument last February? “All we know is that when he came here the lights were out of sync, and when he left they were in,” says one ranger working at the monument.
Regardless of how or why it happened, it’s the end of a funky, nonsynchronous era at the monument. At least one seasonal ranger is bummed, saying the old alternating flashes gave the monument “ambience.” He laments that the new simultaneous blinking makes the monument dull. “People don’t have any reason to watch the lights anymore.”
All of the confusion may mask a big conspiracy. Think about it: Lights that blink like eyes at the tiptop of George Washington’s monument—10 years of seemingly random dots and dashes. The message is becoming clearer—must be some Mason thing.