I grew up in inner-city Washington, DC, in Columbia Heights. I always was eager to work and add a little money in my pocket. Unfortunately, DC had age restrictions for an individual to work. Mayor for Life (I use that term affectionally), Marion Barry, first became mayor in 1979; he committed local funding and doubled the size of the summer youth program, saying that any youth who wanted a job could get one. That was music to my ears because I wanted to work. Former Mayor Barry, who died in 2014, became one of the summer job program’s most consistent champions, endearing himself to an entire generation of Washingtonians like myself. I followed all prompts to sign up for a summer job. They trained us on professionalism in a large group and received further training at the worksite. My assignment was the Smithsonian National Zoo. My job location was a nice long walk or one bus ride (H2, H4, or H8 for you METRO bus riders). My job was ground maintenance for the Panda House. Ling-Ling (Chinese: 玲玲, 1969–92) and Hsing-Hsing (simplified Chinese: 兴兴; traditional Chinese: 興興, 1970–99) were two giant pandas given to the United States as gifts by the government of China following President Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972. In addition, the U.S. government sent China a pair of musk oxen as a gift. The pandas had been captured in the wild in June and December 1971. They arrived at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., on April 16, 1972, and were formally received several days later, on April 20, at a ceremony attended by First Lady Pat Nixon. During their time at the National Zoo, the pair had five cubs, but none survived past a few days. Ling-Ling died suddenly from heart failure on December 30, 1992, at which time she was the longest-lived giant panda in captivity outside China. Hsing-Hsing would pass her record when he was euthanized by zookeepers on November 28, 1999, at the age of 28 due to kidney failure. Following Hsing-Hsing’s death, the zoo received thousands of letters and cards from people across the country expressing sympathy. The Panda House at the National Zoo remained empty for over a year until the arrival of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian from the Wolong Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in December 2000. I share the history of the pandas because they were a big deal to many people around the United States. The ZOO was visited by hundreds of thousands of individuals each summer. I got up close and personal, getting to see the two Pandas behind the scenes in their private environment. They would get locked up in their inside accommodations when I needed to cut their grass. As I write this, I am amazed at how dangerous this was at the time. My employment started the summer going into ninth grade, and I was all but fifteen years old. I believe that I was more eager about making money than my safety.
Mark Ausbrooks is the Academic Tourist. He occasionally blogs about colleges and universities that he encounters.