We've made it back to the East Coast, mostly intact. The kids haven't been here before, so anything we see or do will be novel for them. If you had two days in Washington DC, and 4 kids between 7 and 16, what would you do. Other restrictions: no car, and the weather is the worst in 3 years (100 F, with humidity to match).
Day 1 found us touring what seemed by the end of the day an endless cycle of "The Memorial to the Unknown Dead President". Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, Kennedy, Roosevelt (both); Vietnam, Korea, WWII, Arlington. The smaller sights had the most impact, as they were the least expected: the nurses' memorial for Vietnam, the island memorial to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the origins of Arlington Cemetery, with the odd connection between George Washington and Robert E. Lee, and Lee's refusal to lead the Armies of the North against the South, the softball games on the Mall in the early evening.
Where we come from, history starts about 1850, with little of substance occurring before the 1890s; back East, by the time you get to that date, it's treated like current events. Old houses, old battles, old grudges, old patterns. But if you're Cody and Will, you've got no interest in the past, new or old. They went to the Capitol, where they (much to their chagrin) got gallery passes from Sen. Gorton (R) and Rep. (R). (They'd have much preferred Dicks and Murray [note from Cody: we were too lazy to walk another 3/4 mile in the heat, we had just walked over 3 miles already with no shade]). Anyway, in the Senate, they heard fiery debate from Kennedy, Gramm, and others on changing Medicare to save money and tax the rich, and in the House, on Most Favored Nation Status for China. We got a blow-by-blow when we met up again for a sunset trip up the Washington Monument.
Next morning, back on the Metro, this time with commuters. Today was the record-breaker, so our decision to see the museums was providential. Hopping off at the Archives station, we arrived at the National Archives just at 10 AM opening time, avoiding any line to see the carefully cloistered Declaration, Constitution, and Bill (which had 12, not 10 amendments on it). They were reverentially kept behind velvet ropes, in humidity-pure glass sealed cases, with only a soft green light shinning on them. Coupled with the yellowed parchment ("I thought it was hemp", Cody said), faded ink, and lumpy guards saying "Keep moving", it was hard to make out anything other that (a) "When in the course of human events", (b) "We the people", and (c) the (groan) 2nd Amendment. Maybe that's the idea - just knowing that we have a Declaration of Independence, and Constitution, and a Bill of Rights is enough for most people. I for one wanted to read what's in them. I especially like the part about the pursuit of happiness. What a concept to found a nation on!
One of my previous trips to Washington had been in October, 1969, when 500,000 people covered the Mall and sang, "Give peace a chance". One motivator for me to go there was Dick Gregory, who came to my school the year before to give a lecture/comedy shtick. This was just after the summer of assassinations (RFK, MLK) and riots in the streets. I remember the vivid image he gave when trying to explain why people were so upset and rioting (or demonstrating).He suggested that when we sat down with our parents, turned on the TV, and saw the chaos in the streets, we should grab our copy of the Declaration and stand up on the top of the television, screaming the words as commentary to the pictures.(Remember, most of what's in there is about your God-given right to rise up against your rulers if they are not listening to you, and doing you wrong.) I had that idea in my mind when I tried to explain to Annie just what was written in the Declaration.
On that earlier trip to DC, the one place everyone wanted to see was the eternal flame. We all knew that meant JFK's grave. Back then it was a bit simpler than now, with no inscription of the end of his inaugural speech. That same simplicity commemorating a recently remembered tragic event is why the Vietnam memorial is the most popular spot there today. Each person there has a different set of memories, some very personal, some political, some spiritual. But they all share the experience, and none of the polarizing anger is present anymore, just a deep sense of sadness and confusion.
Where was I - oh yes, back to the Museums. The oddly named National Museum of American History definitely topped the Natural History Museum, but both were beat by the Picasso exhibit at the National Gallery. I like art when I find my spontaneous reaction is either to laugh or drop my jaw in wonder. Picasso did both. Its obvious why he went where he did in his art. By the age of 15, he could do realism with all the power and subtlety of Rembrandt. At that age, you're not ready to get stuck in a rut, you've got to find your own route out of the roots of the past. He took all his skills and tried to rearrange the world.
Which is just what Lincoln did with the Gettysburg Address, the other jaw-dropping experience I had at the City of the Artifacts of American Democracy. I know the thing by heart, of course, but reading it in six inch high letters with a twenty foot high Lincoln sitting bemused behind my back is a different expereince. How he could encapsulate the idea of a country, and the need to keep it together, in those short phrases is a constant beacon to anyone who values language as a form of communication, art, and noble human endeavor.
**Next Day's Journal**