Monday, May 27, 2013

Washington DC Part IV -- A Perfect Post for Memorial Day

We started out our second full day in DC with a side trip to Mt. Vernon, home of George and Martha Washington.  Why, you might ask, does a "perfect Memorial Day Post" start with this?  After all, Memorial Day is supposed to honor those fallen in battle, and George Washington did not do that (numerous close calls notwithstanding).

It is a fair question, but in truth, he was our nation's first soldier.  And while he did not die, I think what he sacrificed mirrors closely what our troops still sacrifice to this day.  You have to visit Mt. Vernon to really understand why that is so.

George Washington loved this place, and it is so beautiful. The pictures do not capture the singing birds, the light breeze, the smells of verdant farming, or the astonishing peacefulness that can still be found here.  Our country thinks so much of this man that they have committed substantial sums just to keep it looking, sounding and feeling like it did when he lived, and I am grateful they do, because without that experience, you can't fully appreciate how much he sacrificed to lead the revolution.  Eight long years, he never even saw this place once. He thought about it every day in the field, and when asked what he wanted to be remembered for, it was farming, not soldiering.  But instead of leaving Valley Forge to come home for a time, as he could have, he slept where his troops slept; ran and fought and hid and suffered with them, day in, day out.  They received no pay, had ragged uniforms and no shoes; because he was unable to manage his estate, it was always on the verge of financial ruin, which worried him constantly.  A devout family man, he worried about the effects his absence would have on his wife and children, the latter of whom did suffer lack of direction and discipline because of his absence.

Amazingly, these issues can still face our troops today: long absence from family, with modest pay, often leaves them with financial and family challenges. So maybe it is not such a bad way to begin a Memorial Day post, thinking of the sacrifices, large and small, from beginning to end, that our troops have always faced. I hope never to take that sacrifice for granted.  A visit here, after having recently read the magnificent Washington biography by Chernow, certainly has helped me to remember.

The view from the back porch is just spectacular. The park service has purchased much of the land on the opposite bank of the Potomac to keep it from development.

It was such a special place to him that he wanted to be buried here, (not under the Capitol Rotunda, as others planned) and he was.  I have recently grown tired and highly skeptical of the claim from intellectuals and the left that the founding fathers -- Washington and Jefferson among them (they couldn't possibly have said it about Adams) -- were "really not that religious," or didn't really believe in God.  It seems that you can't read a biography of anyone these days (even Lincoln) without someone tossing such statements in, unsupported, as an aside.

Yet here we were, looking inside the sepulcher of the Washingtons, and what is the only statement that accompanies their remains?  See for yourself:

Having read how many times in his life he referred to "Divine Providence," I see no basis for the assertions from the intellectual left, other than dishonesty born out of a willingness to do anything to subvert religion.  And therein lies a deep sadness for me.  I understand the problems of religion born from centuries of too much human frailty on stark display, and the need for frank discussion of same, but that does not justify such dissembling of the honest beliefs of perhaps our greatest man. 

The estate itself is so well preserved that you can experience life as it was then, complete with blacksmiths and others plying their trade, as well as farming done with the same techniques.   

These are the slave quarters at Mount Vernon. Washington freed his slaves upon his death, one of the only southern founding fathers to do so.  

The carriage below was actually owned by him. 

Apocryphal or not, it seemed very appropriate to take a photo of budding cherry blossoms at Mt. Vernon.

From Mount Vernon, we went to another favorite place in the area -- the former estate of Robert E. Lee, now known as Arlington National Cemetery.

I was overwhelmed the first time I came here, at age 17, with a group of high school kids from all over the country, attending what was known then as the Presidential Classroom. The sheer number of tombstones still boggles my mind - they seem to go on forever.

My first visit started here, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which says: "Here rests in honored glory, an American soldier, known only to God."  The careful precision of the guard, the dedication and discipline that are offered in honor of those unknown dead, really impacted me.

Next stop was the gravesite for the Kennedys, where I actually cried in front of all of those peers. I had started at the simple gravesite of Robert F. Kennedy, opposite of which they have carved in granite these messages from his life:

"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

"Aeschylus wrote: In our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.  What we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred, what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.  Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and our people."

This speech was given in a very African American neighborhood in Indianapolis, the evening of the day when Martin Luther King was shot.  No one wanted him to make it, but he went, and spoke to a crowd that could easily have seen him as part of the establishment.  When I read this, I remember thinking, how could anyone shoot a person who believed in that, and had the courage to say it when and where he did?  Why would you end the life of anyone who just wanted to make gentle the life of this world, through love and compassion and wisdom?

Bobby Kennedy will always be a hero to me, for that reason.

From Bobby Kennedy's grave, I made the short walk to JFK's gravesite, which contains excerpts of his famous inaugural:

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need--not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it.  The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.  My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."

Reading that message the first time, from a President shot and killed a year after I was born, made me think of all the noble dreams, all the great causes that had been cut short by the shortsightedness of men. It touched something deep in me.  Where might we be if we could just live up to the inspiration that surrounds us, instead of living down to the fears that so quickly overtake us? Those lost opportunities are what made me sad enough to cry, as a 17 year old in front of peers from all over my country.

It was a joy to share these sites with my family, these many years later. These words, people, and honored places are part of what it means to be an American, and to me, it is a duty and honor to explain that to my family.

Here is L'Enfante's grave, overlooking the city he designed. 

A last look at our nation's capital, over the rolling, special hills of Arlington.  

Friday, May 24, 2013

Spring Break, Part III -- Washington DC and Environs

After driving all over southern Virginia and then southern Pennsylvania (Gettysburg) for the better part of three days, we stayed at a Holiday Inn a block away from the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, which made our enjoyment of the National Mall so much easier.

This is truly one of the great places on the planet. Where else can you see George Washington's camp cook set and one of his dress uniforms, the Flag that flew when the Star Spangled Banner was written, the Magna Carta (one of the originals), the Declaration of Independence (the original), the Constitution (an original) the Bill of Rights (original), the Wright Flyer, Spirit of St. Louis, and the space capsule that went to the moon and back, all without even getting in your car?   I have always wondered: how is it that a nation made up of peoples from all over the world, with different and often conflicting religions, cultures, and histories, and even speaking different languages, somehow coheres into one common country that achieves so richly?

I don't really know all the answers to that, except that whatever it is, it resides here, on the National Mall, and in this great city. Here is our narrative, our value statement, our place of common pride, which every person should visit and experience as fully as they possibly can.  Because this country, for all of its warts and yahoo idiots that can occupy the halls of government, is truly the wonder of the planet.  Here resides the beating heart of freedom, side by side with reverence for the rule of laws made by the people, of the people, and for the people.  It is the audacious dream that collective betterment comes by and through freedom, rather than in surpression of it.  That implies a lot of individual responsibility to fellow citizens--obligations of civility, fairness, hard work, individuality and self-reliance.  There is no question that the phrase "the hard work of democracy" should always have the emphasis placed on the word "hard," but all it takes is one trip to the National Mall to know that it is worth it. Here are some highlights from our trip there.

We started at The Air and Space Museum:

Orville in a replica of the Flyer (Wilbur crashed on the first attempt)

Kate, Alden, Wilbur and Orville

Replica of the Wright Flyer -- gives you a perspective on its size. 

Now here are the kids and the Apollo 11 Capsule that went to the moon.  How is this for a perspective:  just 66 years from the Wright Flyer to setting foot on the moon and returning successfully.  If that does not drop your jaw to the floor, then nothing will.  Our country is amazing.  What can the future possibly hold?

From the Air and Space we went next door to a relatively new addition to the Mall -- the Native American Museum.

The Pottery exhibit they had here was amazing. All from central america -- so colorful and intricate in their art.

This papoose was from the Ute Indian tribe, in our neck of the woods.

From there, it was monuments, monuments and more monuments.  First up was a lovely little island in the middle of a pond with exemplars of all the signatures from the Declaration of Independence carved into stone. (Keegan is running around the island in the second photo in this post).  From there, it was on to the Vietnam, Lincoln, Korean, Martin Luther King, and World War II memorials.

Signer's Island

The Vietnam memorial. I was here when President Reagan dedicated it in 1984. It was a rainy veterans day.  We all had to pass through metal detectors, and I have never seen so many guns, knives and handgrenades (I kid you not) in my life. It is quite an experience to be with hundreds of thousands of Vietnam Vets.

Keegan really and truly loves his brother, and nothing makes me happier.

There are very few places I know that feel as much like a temple as this spot does. The reverence and hushed voices that pervade this place are amazing considering all the people that come.

Two great girls in a great place.

The Korean War Memorial is very interesting.  Kind of like the Vietnam, only not quite. I did love this quote though:

The MLK memorial is new since I was here last. He really is one of my personal heros.  It takes so much to go through what he did and not hate. Just amazing. I didn't really like the likeness of him -- too stern and condemning, in my view, but the monument itself is great. One of my favorite quotes of all time is this one:

Such a handsome, good boy.

Last but not least, we went to the World War II memorial. I love the place they gave it on the Mall, but I am not sure the memorial does justice to that greatest generation. They really need a very talented artist to do something amazing.  Hopefully one day. That said, there are some favorite parts, such as the quote Kate stands next to below:

This one was also pretty special for Aldy--he has been in love with aircraft carriers lately, and consequently, has devoured everything he can learn about the battle of Midway.  He enjoyed sitting in this spot.

And with that, we ended our first day in the Nation's capital city.  More to come.