Local Cleans Up Washington

Jay Walker can boast he’s cleaned the White House smokestacksJay Walker Goes to WashingtonLocal Chimney Sweep Cleans Up the White House

By Jason Dehart

Longtime chimney sweep Jay Walker of Tallahassee stood on the hot metal roof and surveyed the job ahead of him. Not one or two, but 36 chimneys awaited inspection on this one roof.

Rather than look at it as a daunting task, Walker was proud to be there. That’s because this was no ordinary domicile: The address was 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. – the White House.

“I had no idea that in 1981, when I stared in this business, that someday I’d be on top of the White House,” says Walker, who was part of a seven-member crew that checked on the flues of the president’s domicile in August.

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The gig didn’t come with compensation, and crew members had to pay their own costs to travel there. But the honor was more than enough payback.

“It has to be the highlight of my career,” Walker says. “Hopefully I’ll be able to do it again.”

During the work trip, Walker and his fellow soot workers – who hailed from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Carolina and California – were granted access even some security team members didn’t have.

“I was told by a security employee that had been there for many years that he had never been to the second floor, (which is) the residence of the president,” Walker says. “I was there.”

Walker and the others visited the Lincoln Bedroom, the Oval Office, the Roosevelt Room, the Cabinet Room and the West Wing. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, he says.

“Of course, the view from the rooftop overlooking the North and South lawns and the Rose Garden every day wasn’t bad, either,” Walker says.

Walker says a sweep from Wisconsin started the White House flue cleaning many years ago. Once a working relationship was established, the White House accepted teams of sweeps to come and do the work – for free – every two years.

For Walker, getting there didn’t take an act of Congress, but it helps to have the right connections. He says he was able to take part in this year’s effort after being recommended by a good friend from South Carolina who had been on the White House sweeping team in 2006.

Of course, since the Secret Service isn’t going to allow just anyone up on the roof, there were the obligatory background checks.

“They’re very thorough,” Walker says. “There are multi-layers of security at the White House just getting in and out every day. And the Secret Service was on the roof with us at all times, too.”

After putting those distractions aside, Walker and the team got down to business. They swept every flue of the old wood-burning fireplaces and masonry chimneys, and also performed video scans to look for cracks or other damage. And where did they find the most soot?

“Judging from the amount of creosote build-up, the fireplaces used the most were in the Oval Office and the vice president’s office,” he says.

When they weren’t looking for soot build-up, the chimney sweeps looked around at all the activity going on below them. That was neat, Walker says.

“A lot of people lined up outside the gate, taking pictures of the White House, and we just happened to be there,” he says. “You can look around and see the Capitol, you can see the Blair House, the Executive Offices, South Lawn, North Lawn … We even saw the motorcade for the vice president leave while we were there. Never saw him, of course. And President Bush was in Texas at the time.”

Even though they were given a certain amount of VIP treatment, it had its limits. At lunchtime there was no grand dining room for the sweeps. Instead, Walker said the crew took their lunches in the pantry with the rest of the hired help.

“There was no break room. We stood around the pantry and talked to other maintenance people,” he says.

“But up on there on the roof, it was just unbelievable … The worst feeling is the last day, walking out the gate when you know you’re fixin’ to be locked out and can’t get back in.”

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