The Island

by William Han

Once there was an island on the Potomac. Not the Theodore Roosevelt Island, but the one that is no longer there. It was long and thin, a strip of beleaguered land that stretched along the river right across from today’s Jefferson Memorial. School textbooks say that George Washington chose the site for the Federal City because of its natural scenery. Why else could he have wanted to begin a manifest destiny in a swamp? But it wasn’t the scenery. It was the Island.

When Washington saw it for the first time he immediately recognized that there was something mystical about the Island. He kept it off maps, so that it would belong to none of the four original sections of the District of Columbia: the city proper, Washington County, Alexandria County, and Georgetown. It would be a no man’s land. Besides commissioning the Capitol and the White House, Washington secretly arranged for a Masonic temple to be erected on the Island. Ever since then and until the Island finally drifted away, every American president came to the temple on a fixed day of the year to pay homage and to pray for deliverance, whether from a scandal, a recession, or a foreign adventure gone awry. But no one outside of the Oval Office ever found out what that day was. And no one can say for sure what the temple housed originally, if anything. The more outlandish theories include the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and the real Declaration of Independence—it being common knowledge, of course, that the copy at the National Archives is just that, a copy. And ever since Washington’s inaugural pilgrimage, every president has brought some small but rare token on behalf of the United States. By the time the Island was finally given up for lost, it had come to house such curious though sometimes macabre treasures as Geronimo’s right thigh bone and a strand of Cervantes’s hair, snapped with a tailor’s scissors from the poet’s forehead before he’d breathed his last.

You will not find records of the Island. There are no accounts in historians’ tomes, none in glossy coffee table books on the District, not in Frommer’s or Lonely Planet, not even in historical novels. Arthur Schlesinger refrained from mentioning it out of delicacy, and even Gore Vidal, that rebellious patrician, omitted it from his American Chronicles. Every proof, every sliver of evidence has been systematically and meticulously destroyed. Grandparents ceased telling their grandchildren about it, and the grandchildren never listened anyway. Newspaper editors quietly cut out every allusion to it by their writers. And the federal government drew its big black pen. All this until the people of the District of Columbia, in a collective act of amnesia for which Americans are justly celebrated, simply forgot that this Island ever existed. Only a few, a sad and discredited few, still remember the sandy strip on the Potomac. But if you look around carefully, you will see that it has left small traces that they simply cannot wipe away, however hard they have tried, from the palimpsest that the city has inevitably become. If you listen for long enough to old men with canes on park benches, you will hear the faintest whiff of nostalgia for it. If you read old archival copies of the Washington Post, every yellowing page of it smudging beneath your thumbs, in time you will come across an elliptical mention. The odds are best in obituaries from the 1940s, though at least one reference has been spotted in a personal ad from as late as 1969, courtesy of an aging but still mischievous Lothario and a haggard editor who knew that he would never be promoted out of compiling clearly erroneous claims of being sweet and caring or toned and athletic.

Besides the president’s annual pilgrimage, the Island was open to the public every year on June 16, at least since 1865, when President Lincoln made the announcement in the now-redacted paragraph of his Second Inaugural. Teenagers had swum the river and picnicked on the Island ever since the Founding. But to do so they had to get past the guards, who made every effort to keep juveniles off the sacred Island. And even after Lincoln opened it to public access, the police made sure to cap the number of visitors at red velvet rope levels. But on that first summer day in 1865, beginning early in the morning, lines stretched all the way from the bridgehead to the Mall, across the Mall, past what is now the Natural History Museum and towards Capitol Hill. That year, and every year afterwards, only a small proportion of the eager crowd, the ones who really wanted it, the ones who came in the middle of the night with camping chairs and blankets, were allowed to pass. You could see the joy on their faces. They felt like they were finally making it, like they’d joined the Circle of the Elect, like they’d somehow become more American than their neighbors. The first Irish Catholic was allowed to pass in 1870, the first Jew in 1904, and the first black in 1920.

But even long before that Washingtonians had noticed the Island beginning to drift. On the morning when news of the Alamo arrived, one officer guarding the bridge saw that it had grown crooked and strained where the screws entered the wooden planks. By 1848, when Zachary Taylor returned from the war down south, the bridge had all but collapsed. They rebuilt it some yards downstream, but a few years later it had to be moved again: the Island was accelerating its pace inexorably. Geologists could not fathom the cause of this drift, but ingenious plans were solicited and concocted: ropes, concrete buttresses, oversized magnets, even a strategically positioned steam engine designed by a former Union Pacific engineer. But nothing made a difference. By the Spanish American War the Island had passed the headland that would become Reagan Airport. When Woodrow Wilson sent American troops to Europe the Island was passing Alexandria. And then it really picked up its pace. Soon after FDR was sworn in the Island officially entered the Chesapeake Bay. And even then it didn’t stop. Just before Pearl Harbor Roosevelt ordered the Island abandoned and evacuated the national treasures compiled over a century and half. It had already sailed past Virginia Beach by then, and bravely it continued into the stormy Atlantic.

At the rate it was going, the Island should be near Liberia by now. But strangely, as soon as the people of these United States succeeded in their act of national forgetfulness, the Island too had disappeared. The few X-Files types who chartered planes and hacked into satellites to locate it have all failed. And when they sued the government under the Freedom of Information Act, without fail the corpulent, squinty-eyed DOJ lawyer would glance at them with a smirk and ask, summoning all the contempt that his years in the bureaucracy had endowed him with, “Well that’s quite a story mister, but where is this Island now?” The Truth-Is-Out-There folks would fumble, look down at their mismatched socks showing above their mismatched shoes, and reluctantly admit that they simply didn’t know. They say that even the government has been looking for the Island, ever since it lost track of it during the Johnson Administration. Pentagon, CIA, NSA, NOAA…. Astronauts were to keep an eye out for it from space. Rumor has it that there is an entire secret task force inside the Department of the Treasury charged with finding it. Why the Treasury is another mystery altogether. But in short, the Island has pulled a cosmic disappearance act, stumping everyone in the process.

They also say that FDR visited the Island one last time when he ordered the Army engineers to take apart George Washington’s temple. The president looked on silently from his wheelchair as the honor guard raised their rifles three times and fired three times, the clang of their shots cracking the cold, silent air about them as though it were glass. The dignified young men in impeccable uniforms, still oblivious of their fates in Normandy and Iwo Jima, folded the Stars and Stripes and laid it down softly at the center of a wooden box. Then they buried the miniature casket. President Roosevelt clutched the wheels of his chair with hands like claws until an assistant interrupted his meditation. He turned away, never looked back, and left the Island to drift out to sea with nothing left in it except that one flag in that one box, buried deep beneath the sand.


William Han works as a lawyer in New York City and previously wrote for Time Magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.