Every year, close to a million people visit the Washington Monument. Most will bend back their heads to gaze up and get a glimpse of the very top of the tallest obelisk in the world — 555 feet in the air.
Only a few people know what it is like to see that view from the other end. Jesse Brown is a member of that very small club, but before he could join, he had to overcome his fear of heights.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., the 57-year-old electrician and cafe owner remembers going to the monument every April. With the energy it seems only a child can muster, he eagerly climbed up 897 steps to get to the observation deck. That’s also around the time that the fear began.
“I used to get nightmares as a kid,” Brown says, “about being at the top of a peak and being trapped and holding on to the peak waiting for rescue.”
In 2013, Brown got called to do a job. Two years earlier, an earthquake damaged the monument and electricians were needed to wire lights to the massive scaffolding that would be used during the restoration. Brown was of two minds.
“Wow, there’s that peak,” he says. “So, at first I wasn’t going to go up there.”
But Brown needed the work. He reluctantly climbed the monument, but told himself he would only go so far. “I just said I’ll wait it out as long as I can.”
And, if his bosses insisted he go to the top, Brown was ready to quit.
For a while his plan worked out. Waiting two months for a security clearance, he just looked at the monument, getting a feel for it. Once on the job, he worked from the bottom up and gradually got used to the height. He also used his power of concentration.
“I got up there and stayed focused on just wiring that panel,” he says. “I only looked out about every two hours to see where I was.”
Armed with growing confidence, Brown made it to 500 feet. That’s when he heard a call for everyone to come down now! He looked around and saw a storm headed their way.
“It was rolling at us real fast,” he says. “Another way to describe it, you see a bunch of horses in the desert and they kick up a lot of smoke, and that was a scary feeling. Everyone started running down the scaffold, and it was crazy.”
After the storm had passed, like everyone else, Brown started back up, but he still hadn’t been to the peak. And then it was time. The red beacons at the top needed to be replaced, and Brown was called on to do it.
“Somehow I just followed everyone else and I just went to the top and started working,” he says.
Once up there, he Brown saw a crack where the stone had separated and his confidence was given another jolt.
“I realized at that point how much the monument had actually moved during that earthquake,” he says. “This place is supposed to be supporting me, and it’s separated and I’m up here. That’s when I lost my nerve. I had to go down and collect myself.”
Still, work ethic drove him back up. Given all that, Jesse Brown describes touching the top of the monument with surprising amount of cool.
“You touched it but you didn’t get the same feeling that you imagined you would from being up on the top,” he says. “In other words, those dreams I had — being at the top was nothing like that dream. So you don’t have those thoughts running through your mind about what’s going on.”
Still, it was a day to remember.
“I’m here, I made it to the top. I have to take a picture of this, no one is going to believe me,” he says he thought while holding the monument’s peak.
So, while doing an extraordinary job on an extraordinary building, Jesse Brown did what most of us would do: He took a selfie.
Sue Goodwin is a freelance producer and the former executive producer for NPR’s Talk of the Nation.