WASHINGTON — Jean Bley was 16 when she rode the bus with the other seniors from Margaretville High School in Upstate New York to see the cherry blossoms for the first time.
It was 1939. Before a husband and family. Before the war. Eighty years and a lifetime ago. On Thursday, at 96, she was back with two friends on what she called a “jail break” from their retirement community in suburban Springfield, Virginia.
Virus or no virus, she and neighbors Beverly Fisher, 80, and Tom Coneeney, 77, had piled into Coneeney’s 13-year-old green Saturn and drove to Washington to witness the annual glory of peak bloom on the Tidal Basin.
Part of the group that is most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, they stepped out of the car for a minute to take in the timeless beauty of a Washington tradition that goes back more than a century.
They were among hundreds of people, drawn by the promise of light traffic, easy parking and small crowds, who wandered among the gnarled trees, awed by the delicate blossoms, which were heavy from the overnight rain.
Some wore surgical masks or bandannas over their faces, as experts said this week that a large percentage of virus victims that have been hospitalized are under 55.
Some tried social distancing.
Ashley Darcy-Mahoney, 36, her husband, Kevin Mahoney, 35, and their sons Jack, 4, and Connor, 2, hit on the superb idea of using the basin’s paddle boats.
That gave them social distance, scenery and a touch of adventure, they said, as they paused on their journey around the Tidal Basin. “We’re definitely worried,” said Ashley, a nurse practitioner who teaches at George Washington University’s School of Nursing.
But there was no line for the paddle boats.
“We were excited to be able to see the cherry blossoms in a way that enabled us to social distance ourselves in the middle of the Tidal Basin,” she said. “We have a moat around us. So we felt pretty good about it. . . . We had wipes to wipe down the handle bar. We have hand sanitizer in our pockets.”
Others focused on group size limits.
Kari Bennion, 42, of Ashburn, Virginia, noted that she, her husband, Jeff, 43, and their sons Garrett, 16, Chance, 11, and Trevor, 6, were a group of five. “So we’re less than 10,” she said, as they walked beneath the blossoms.
“We come every year,” she said. “We knew it probably would not be as crowded this year. We told the kids, ‘We’re going to stay together. Don’t touch anything.’”
She said she was not that worried.
“It’s such a beautiful time of year to be outside,” she said. “It’s amazing, a perfect day to be here. We’ve been here in the rain. We’ve been here when it’s been 30 degrees. We’ve been in coats. We’ve been here when there’s been a million people and you can barely move.”
The weather Thursday morning was overcast and still.
Rain water dripped from the pale blossoms. The cherry trees, some that may date to the first planting in 1912, were black from the dampness. And the gray surface of the water in the basin was smooth, save for the splash of a huge fish.
It was irresistible, many said. Despite the menace of the deadly virus and the dire precautions being urged.
“There’s a certain solitude about it, even with crowds,” said Hamilton Loving, 71, who with his wife, Judy, 65, stopped near the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. “People are kind of into the beauty of the spectacle. It’s extraordinary, really.”
They were also in an age group that has to be concerned about the severity of the virus, Hamilton said. “We’re moderately worried,” he said. “I don’t know how long this is going to go on.”
But the likelihood of smaller crowds was too tempting.
“This has become like Times Square in New Year’s Eve,” he said. “People from all over the world come here. You see people from China, Japan, Australia. . . . You can really tell what a global phenomenon this virus is, how it’s just really stopped everything in its tracks.”
Metro sought to help, closing two rail stations near the blossoms on Thursday until further notice.
Both the Smithsonian and Arlington Cemetery stations closed at 5 p.m. “to prevent Cherry Blossom trips,” the Metro transit police said in a tweet
But Bley, Fisher and Coneeney, neighbors in the Greenspring retirement community, were already there.
“He is the instigator,” Bley said. “He drives.”
The three are neighbors on the ground floor of the community’s Park View building. “We heard that the cherry blossoms are going to be in full bloom,” Fisher said.
“We said, ‘Well, we gotta come down and check it out.’” Coneeney said. ‘We came before. We’ll come again.’”
A retired elementary school teacher, Bley said she was worried about the virus “off and on.”
“We knew there wouldn’t be the crowds of kids and people, and we came sort of early, and there wasn’t a crowd,” she said as she stood by the basin with her cane, in a white windbreaker and black pants.
She said she comes every year. “It’s so nice that Tom brings me down to see this,” she said.
“I came in 1939 when I graduated from high school,” she said. “This was our senior trip. . . . I was 16.”
Two years after that trip she was married. Three years later she became a mother.
“I’ve had a wonderful life,” she said. “Life works out if you live long enough.”
They said they believed they were safe.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Fisher said. “We’re eating right. We’re washing our hands. And the rest is up to God.”
“Amen,” said Coneeney. “This too will pass in time.”