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WASHINGTON -- Our nation's capital is certainly a city of interest. Tasks like electing a president -- or finding your tour guide -- are filled with intrigue.

Merryman gives a talk in front of the Lincoln Memorial.Washington tour guide Jane Merryman says her identifying feature is a yellow parasol, so it sounds easy to find her. But Washington's Union Station is thick with bureaucrats on break, politicians power lunching, and tourists snapping pictures of the Capitol dome.

And despite the sunny day, a lot of people seem to be carrying umbrellas.

It turns out Merryman's parasol -- frills and all -- isn't just a personal quirk: Umbrellas are required at her company, the Guide Service of Washington, Inc. -- so tourists can easily spot their group leader.

Merryman narrates all types of tours; on this week's tour, which was organized by Illinois-based tour operator Mayflower Tours, she's been showing 50 older adults around historic Williamsburg, Gettysburg and Mount Vernon. They've returned to Washington this morning for the final two days of the tour.

What may seem to the group as an interesting jaunt through Washington's limestone-faced monuments actually is a very structured and time-tight event. Merryman has to make sure her group sees every monument they've been promised in the Mayflower brochure. As there are unpredictable lines and roadblocks everywhere, the tour guide's job takes insider's knowledge, strategy and an uncanny sense of timing.

Noon, Thursday -- Merryman reveals she has laryngitis; one of the worst ailments -- other than a broken leg -- that a tour guide can have. But she's in good spirits, flashing a dazzling and engaging smile.

After unleashing her group in Union Station's cavernous food court, Merryman grabs lunch upstairs. She's joined by Sigrid Muller, another guide who, like Merryman is wearing an ID badge and toting a small umbrella.

They wave to at least three other umbrella-ed tour guides during lunch. "This is where we all meet," Merryman laughs in her southern accent. "We network on what's open, what's closed." She tells Muller about her group's surprisingly short wait for the White House tour this morning.

But despite being within a stone's throw of the U.S. Capitol and the White House, there is no talk during the tour about the current presidential election, the Clintons or Monica Lewinsky. Politics, sex and religion are off-limits topics for Guide Service guides.

1:45 p.m. -- Merryman hops on a Starr tour bus and is greeted by her group, a rollicking, animated bunch. After a quick head count, the coach pulls out onto Constitution Avenue.

Merryman stands in the aisle and picks up a microphone. She begins to work the audience like an emcee. "How're y'all doing?" After a few jokes, she gets serious. "We're off to one of my favorite places -- Arlington National Cemetery," she says. "It is sacred; it is special; it is solemn. But it is also beautiful."

Merryman leads the group to the Vietnam Memorial.She begins to tell the group what to expect at Arlington but breaks off midsentence: "Okay, you're now on Pennsylvania Avenue." She points out the museums and adds little historical tidbits. The group is nodding, sometimes murmuring agreement, sometimes all exclaiming together.

As they pass the Washington Monument, she teases them: "What do you suppose that building is?"

2:30 p.m. -- At the cemetery, Merryman opens her parasol and leads the crowd inside. After purchasing tickets, she herds them onto the Tourmobile that will take them to the Kennedys' grave site. The group already has heard most of the Tourmobile driver's speech from Merryman on the coach.

2:45 p.m. -- The group sees the Kennedy graves and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Merryman stands back, and after giving the group a few minutes at each site, raises her parasol and moves the group along. She patiently answers question after question: Where is John-John buried? Who's house is that? What's that monument? Who is eligible for burial?

At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Merryman works on getting everyone a good view of the changing of the guard ceremony. She tracks her charges with a metal counter in her hand. After the ceremony, Merryman pops open the parasol and the group gathers around.

5:00 p.m. -- Back on the coach, the group is quiet and tired. Merryman picks up the microphone. "Wasn't it wonderful? I knew y'all liked it." Applause.

5:20 p.m. -- Dave Waryga, the coach driver, negotiates the drive of this night's hotel, the Hilton Crystal City. Merryman tells the group to stay put, and she runs inside, reappearing in a few minutes with a stack of keys. "Now, we'll meet back on the bus at, shall we say, 6:25?" she says as she distributes the keys.

Most of the group disappear to their rooms to relax, but Merryman stays downstairs "fussing" at a bellhop because the suitcases haven't yet been sent up to the rooms. She arranges Sunday's transportation to Dulles airport. Then she gets back on the bus. She's almost talked herself hoarse, but despite all the walking she still looks fresh and energetic.

6:25 p.m. -- The next leg of the tour is dinner in the historic district in Alexandria, Va., and a nighttime drive around the illuminated monuments. This is one of the nights where everyone's on their own for dinner. Merryman points out a few restaurants as the bus drives up the main drag.

"I think the fun is just walking down the street and picking a place," she beams. The group breaks up into packs; Merryman picks a steak house, alone. "I've had dinner with them every night since this tour started," she says. "They've probably had enough of me."

8:20 p.m. -- Back on the bus, Merryman pours a bag of Hershey's Kisses into a bowl by the driver's seat. People, holding their stomachs, climb on and proudly tell Merryman which restaurant they picked. "Oh, I'm so full," they moan, before noticing..."Oh, Kisses!"

Merryman directs her group around the new FDR Memorial.The group is reenergized. The question "Do you want to see the lights?" meets with a resounding yes. As they drive along, Merryman tells them to look for the Capitol building. "If you see a light on the top of the dome, it means the Legislature is in session," she says. Sure enough, a bright light tells the group their tax dollars are at work.

"Now, look out for Mr. Jefferson," Merryman quips as the coach zooms past the Jefferson Memorial. She keeps talking as they drive up and down the Mall, looking at the Washington Memorial, Lincoln, the White House and Iwo Jima lit up in the dark. The crowd "oohs" and "aahs" together. Merryman laughs.

9:30 p.m. -- The tour ends for the night. Merryman walks up and down the coach, switching the index cards that identify everyone's seat assignments. She's tired, and her voice is barely above a whisper. And tomorrow -- the last day of the tour -- is packed with sights. Merryman heads off to her hotel room.

8:00 a.m. Friday -- Down in the hotel's restaurant, Merryman and her group help themselves to their pre-paid breakfast buffet.

8:25 a.m. -- The bus microphone is back on. "Does everybody have their cameras?" Merryman asks the group before they take off.

Their first stop is a requested -- but unscheduled -- return to Iwo Jima.

"I don't normally backtrack. They can't dawdle," Merryman says as the group circles the immense statue. There's lots to see today, and precious little time.

8:45 a.m. -- Next up is a triple stop: Korean, Lincoln and Vietnam memorials. Merryman talks about the history behind the memorials, the sculptors' mindsets and public reaction while Waryga drives down Constitution Avenue.

9:35 a.m. -- As Merryman leads the group to the Vietnam Wall, a passing tourist remarks, "love the umbrella!"

Merryman keeps the parasol closed as they pass through the Vietnam memorial. She is silent, letting her group form their own thoughts. A few blink back tears.

10:00 a.m. -- Merryman asks Waryga to swing by Ford's Theatre on the way to the Library of Congress.

10:20 a.m. -- At the Library of Congress, it takes 20 minutes to get the group through the metal detector. Merryman is tense but patient. "It's the luck of the draw," she says about the wait. But it's worth it; the group is in awe of the beautiful ceiling vaults and mosaics. "Wasn't that glorious!" she enthuses as they get back on the bus 40 minutes later.

11:30 a.m. -- Merryman's last stop this morning is at the new FDR Memorial.

12:10 p.m. -- "Okay, finished all those," she says to herself, satisfied. The group stands around the Tidal Basin. Merryman flashes her smile.

12:30 p.m. -- The group is on their own this afternoon at the Smithsonian. Some want to go to the Holocaust Museum, others to the National Art Gallery. Merryman points out those places and tries to orient the group as they drive over: "See, there's the Capital, and there's the White House again, to your left."

Merryman answers a question from one of the group members.Speaking of the White House, Merryman has to go there and get some extra brochures to distribute to the group. Then she and the bus head back to the hotel for a five-hour break before she hosts the group's farewell dinner tonight in Georgetown. But she won't be napping during the break, mind you.

Like most of those employed in Washington Merryman has a ton of paperwork to complete.

Leading question: What's it like being a tour guide?

WASHINGTON -- Jane Merryman has been leading groups around the capital with various umbrellas for 16 years, and she professed to love every minute of it.

"The first year I detested it," she confessed. "But then I became more proficient. Any guide in D.C. will tell you they are hooked."

Not just any Washingtonian can become a tour guide, though. The Washington, D.C. government requires wannabe guides to take an exam -- testing knowledge of history and familiarity with the capital -- and get a license.

"I think there are some renegade guides out there -- but none that we would hire," said Renee Price, president and co-owner of Guide Service of Washington, Inc., where Merryman and about 100 other guides work. "We also run a training class every year. We're very fussy as to who we accept in the class."

Merryman and some guides also belong to the Guild of Professional Guides, which offers seminars and educational programs.

Price said Guide Service is the largest step-on tour service in the Washington area. "We have contracts with all the major tour operators in the world," she said. That includes Mayflower Tours, the escorted tour company that arranged and set the itinerary for Merryman's group.

"We've done individuals, we've done families."

"One thing that makes us unique is that we can have quality control over our guides," Price said. "First of all, we train them, and secondly, they only answer to us. We've been known to replace a guide at the last minute, if the chemistry doesn't work out."

Some tour guides operate independently, but Merryman said she likes working for Guide Service: She doesn't have to worry about marketing herself, or canceling a tour because she's sick. Since she's been at Guide Service for so long, she also gets to select which tours she wants to lead.

Merryman said independent contractors make more money, but her seniority at Guide Service puts her on an equal pay scale. Price wouldn't say how much tour guides make, but she stressed, "It is not enough money to be self-supporting. Most of our guides...are retired and have other sources of income."

Merryman agreed. "This is like a retirement job," she said. "When my husband retired, I left."

But she clarified with a laugh: "Oh, no. I'm happily married. But one of us had to get out of the house."

For more information on Guide Service or Mayflower Tours, visit www.dctourguides.com or www.mayflowertours.com.

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