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Letter From Home “City Of Visitors” 5/25/17

May 25, 2017

David McCullough writes a line in his latest book, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For that stands out as pure truth. “History is both now and then, today and yesterday.”

Several weeks ago McCullough appeared on the Charlie Rose show and spoke in his usually eloquent way about why people need to see this country’s national parks and historic sites. He spoke about the need to show young people the wonders of the past. James and I were already months into the planning for such a trip that took us to Washington, D.C. and some sites in the general area.   Connecting with the touchstones of the past was exactly the very thing we wanted to do and which McCullough urged.

For ten days we made our way to the famed sites where monuments and buildings have awed millions. To see the Lincoln Memorial in daylight is one thing, as I did on my first trip to D.C. in 1987, but to stand in the lighted wonder at night and ponder the man as on this trip, is quite another.   I found myself talking to many people day after day and asking them their impressions. I sought out ones who I thought might lend the best insights.

As such I asked a black woman who was age 88 what she was feeling about the memorial. It was her first time to see it and being from Jamaica she spoke as one who knew of the power Lincoln’s words gave to those outside this nation. “It is very powerful for everyone,” she said with soft words and dark knowing eyes.

On the backside of the memorial looking out across the Potomac  I spoke to a father and then told his young teenage children about the battle of First Bull Run and how many townspeople took carriages and boxed lunches to watch the battle as many felt the war would be a short term operation.  Hours later the beaten and badly wounded soldiers would be limping or being carried back over the river into Washington.  Some without shoes, others without guns, others without an eye or limb.   It was interesting to see the young look out and hear of the events and perhaps in their mind see history play out.   (As McCullough hoped would happen.)

There were many moments that made me simply stop and be still. Standing inside the National Cathedral makes one grasp how limited our vocabulary is when trying to describe it, but to then hear a symphony play within the soaring structure, as we did Sunday afternoon, leaves one simply breathless. One can only imagine the sound in heaven.

The experiences of this kind are felt in almost every footstep as one journeys the city. The history of the place looms large as we passed the spot where the old jail once stood that housed Charles Guiteau who shot President Garfield just a couple blocks from the AirBnB where we stayed in the gentrified and glorious Capitol Hill Neighborhood.  (The picture above is only a representative view of the area.) He was also executed at that jail. That is not such an odd thing to mention as being a serious history buff I had placed on our itinerary to be at the spot where Garfield was shot at a railroad station. The station is long gone and the Museum Of American Art now stands on the southwest corner of present-day Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue.

There were so many small items and thrills such as coming across the wooden box for the Electoral College votes that finalized the 1968 election and formalized the outcome for Richard Nixon. There was the lunch at the Watergate where my smile never left my face.  We walked on the Hill and came upon a tree planted to honor former First Lady Rosalyn Carter and then another one planted for the legendary Republican Senator Everett Dirksen. While viewing trees Senator Manchin of West Virginia passed and then Senator Markey of Massachusetts walked along with some aides. People watching was grand fun at this location as the news makers passed.

History has been a decades-long fascination of mine. So when James arranged for separate tours to visit Mount Vernon and Gettysburg I can honestly say each of those days I felt akin to a kid on Christmas morning. Traveling by boat up the Potomac River and passing some of the 8,000 acres that made up George Washington’s home and later looking into the room where Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson would have visited and dined was as if I had stepped into the pages of a Joseph Ellis page-turner.

The horror of Gettysburg is well known but to stand on the battlefields and reflect on the moves and counter-moves that resulted in a most pivotal outcome was sobering. I had read long ago of the moldering bodies that still were present from the July battle when President Lincoln gave his address in November. We passed the hotel where he stayed and saw the second story window of the room where he finished his short speech. But to see the bluffs and hear the stories of battle and grasp how the winds blew that day and carried the smoke of cannon and musket, as bodies lay strewn about was most powerful.

There was one constant to this trip that started from our first taxi ride and continued on each street corner, restaurant, and site along the way.   People were just amazingly friendly.     I think I live in a very friendly city (Madison, Wisconsin) but D.C. was just so much more  so with smiling and nodding heads offering a greeting, or helping out when one looks…well, lost.

James and I were on a street corner about five blocks from the White House with a small map when a very well dressed man passed by and inquired if we might need some help. I joked about my befuddled look being the norm. He then instructed us in how to find our next site to see. He was an older man who worked as a lawyer on K Street.

We had a great conversation with folks from Louisiana at Arlington Cemetery, and grandparents from Ohio who were taking their grandson from Kentucky to Gettysburg.   When I asked the 10-year-old what town he lived in he replied, “I live in a small town surrounded by a small town”.   I told him I knew about small towns too as I came from one that only had three digits in our zip code. The grandparents laughed.

But it was in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts where I was able to grasp why everyone was so willing to talk to others, give some help, smile and nod—even on the Metro subway. The lady who waited on us at the counter where we bought another book—we bought several back from various places we stopped—gave me the answer. I had asked that perhaps this all was due to D.C. being in some respects a southern location and some of the charm was showing.   She was from England, had lived in D.C for 17 years, and had a different point of view.   Everyone is friendly, she said, as this is a city of visitors in one way or another. Everyone knows how it feels to need a smile or have some guidance.

We had plenty of smiles given to us and help along the way as we traveled. From flying out to D.C. and then taking a sleeping car back aboard Amtrak to Chicago this trip was the very type McCullough had urged.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lana permalink
    June 17, 2017 2:43 PM

    I always think your Letters are the best part of this blog. Wish you did more of them.

  2. Solly permalink
    May 25, 2017 6:12 PM

    Sounds like a fantastic trip. Glad you were able to make it and had an edifying time. Altho I don’t know if a photo of you goosing Abraham Lincoln is appropriate for a family blog. Your story about the lady at the Kennedy Center reminded me of when I was young and an intern for Congressman Rev. Bob Cornell. On my off time I got a chance to see the sights and at the Kennedy Center Info. Desk I asked the lady if they had a bubbler. She asked me to repeat it and I said a bubbler. Still a confused look and then I said, you know a drinking fountain. “Oh, are you from England?”

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