Wayland student returns from capitol internship with vivid memories

T. J. Messer knew his fall in the nation's capitol would mean great experience and exposure to the political arena. What he did not know was that he'd have a front-row seat to the heart of a rebuilding country.

A senior at Wayland Baptist University, Messer spent his fall interning with Congressman Mac Thornberry in Washington, D.C. A political science major from Amarillo, Messer was excited to have an opportunity to witness firsthand the political process. He was in for much more.

Messer arrived in Washington on Sept. 4 and was still settling into his duties in Thornberry's office when the nation was rocked by a terrorist attack on Sept. 11. He remembers that day vividly.

"I was going to go hear Laura Bush give a speech to the Senate committee on education and was really excited," he recalled. "I'd arrived at the Senate building and gone to the food court for coffee when I saw the TVs showing the first plane crash (into the World Trade Center)."

Messer said almost immediately the Secret Service guards announced the event's cancellation. He opted to walk the short distance to his apartment and freshen up before returning to the congressional office. Turning on the TV at home, he saw coverage of the crash hitting the Pentagon and knew things were about to change drastically. The office called to say federal buildings were being evacuated and he was to stay at home.

"It was weird to see congressmen escorted out of town by police. My roommate, who was also a Christian, and I decided just to kneel and pray. We knew God would take care of us," he said.

Being just two blocks from the Capitol, Messer and his roommate were able to witness the mass exodus of government staff persons. It was several hours before they could get through the jammed phone lines to let family and friends back home know they were OK.

The next day, Messer participated in a candlelight gathering in front of the capitol along with about 8,000 others including congressmen and staff persons. The group eventually walked down to the White House, he said, and some hung a large American flag over the White House fence.

Washington would never be the same.

"Security was unbelievably tight after that. They had blocked off all the streets around the capitol, so there was much less traffic," he said, adding that the event also changed the politicians he worked with during the semester. "A lot of the time you hear about bickering and partisan wars, but the day of the attack until now you just see a government that is really working together for the good and not fighting."

Messer said that change plus the resurgence in patriotism made for an interesting time to be at the nation's capitol. The events of Sept. 11 also meant subtle changes in his duties as an intern. For the most part, he was responsible for going through mail to the congressman, attending press conferences, taking notes, helping give tours and arranging for flags to be flown. When the anthrax scare threatened government mail, Messer said that part of his job slowed to almost nothing for a while. And the offices themselves were closed for a full week while crews made sure no officials were in danger.

While in Washington, Messer said he got to visit the usual tourist attractions and took a side trip to Baltimore, Maryland, where he participated by cell phone in a Thornberry staff meeting while standing on a street corner. He also got to hear Vice President Dick Cheney give a speech and visited with Attorney General John Ashcroft one Sunday at church. Though he never got to personally meet President George W. Bush, he did get to see him at the national Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

Messer said the experience just enhanced his desire to work in the political arena, though he hasn't decided for sure whether he'd like to be in Texas or in Washington.

"While I was there, all I could think about was getting back to Texas. I missed Nancy (his new wife) and my family," he said. "But now, all I think about is going back."