"Do you see it?"
"Wait, just over there!" An office worker pointed, and everyone's head turned. "Behind the trees!"
There was a collective "Ah!" as dozens of spectators on the Ellipse sucked in their breath.
For one tantalizing second, we had a clear view of the Space Shuttle Discovery atop its massive airborne transport. The sun gleamed on the jet's creamy exterior and glinted off the beaten, bronzed sides of the shuttle before the pair slipped back behind the wall of foliage.
"Wow!" people said, and "Beautiful!"
Children sprung from school for the morning in order to view the shuttle on its way to Dulles skipped and capered about. The people on the Ellipse began hastening toward the Mall, many of them checking their phones and offering stray bits of information to each other.
"Thirty-nine trips to space, that's pretty cool," a man was saying to his boys.
"We can expect at least one more pass over the Mall," another fellow announced to no one in particular as he looked up from his iPhone.
We joined the stream of spectators making their way to the base of the Washington Monument and got there just in time to see the shuttle making another run.
The clouds seemed in some mystical way to collaborate with NASA. Each time the shuttle appeared in the sky above us, we felt the sun beating down. Every time it cruised away, the clouds seemed to mass again and the air dropped a few degrees.
But maybe it wasn't the clouds. Maybe the warmth we were feeling came from the joy of seeing this American marvel. Maybe the chill came from the elegiac nature of this valedictory fly-by: The space shuttle is history.
Still, the crowds were in high spirits. As American flags snapped in the breeze, strangers chatted in a rare moment of civic connectedness. Everyone had been brought together for the same reason, and everyone was happy about it.
Earlier this week, we'd had a different moment of civic connectedness, though not with quite the same degree of pleasure. Everyone had been brought together for the same reason, but no one in the long line at the suburban post office was cheery about it. The queue snaked out the door on the final date to file income taxes, but there was only one postal worker at the counter. It was lunchtime, you see.
The people who had assembled along Discovery's route had done so freely and gladly. Indeed, they'd paid for the space shuttle with their tax dollars, thank you very much, and I bet that no one out gazing at the sky on Tuesday regretted the expenditure for a moment.
It was only after the shuttle's third pass over the Mall that the crowds of spectators began to drift away. People did so reluctantly, with backward glances at the pretty scene and the skies filled only with clouds.
"I guess that's it," a woman said quietly to herself, as she pushed a stroller with twin babies towards Independence Avenue. The babies had slept through Discovery, but at least she could tell them they'd been there.
It had been lovely. It had been awe-inspiring. Now it was over.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.