Sunday, June 24, 2012

Return to DC Part 2

Monday opened up to be a rainy, muggy mess with traffic backed up on the 395 into downtown. We made it in time to hop on our bus tour of DC. I decided to start the vacation with an organized tour of the sights to get a lay of the land and see what we would need to see the rest of the week.

We used DC Tours. Very reasonably priced and they have a variety of tours both day and night and specialty tours of any of the big attractions like Arlington and the Capitol and a myriad of lesser tours around the “District” and Virginia. I chose the 6 hour jaunt around downtown DC which included a box lunch and a river tour of the Potomac. Of course, you all knew "Potomac" is a European spelling of an Algonquian name for a tribe subject to the Powhatan confederacy. Some accounts say the name means "place where people trade" or "the place to which tribute is brought". How appropriate.

Bryan was our able tour guide with great insight into how DC came about and the overall history of the city and the political shenanigans it took to finish building it. After listening to some of the back stories about the building of the Capitol, it was easy to see that things really haven’t changed much in 217 years. It was all about the money. Washington was, after all, a businessman and knew how to broker a deal. Once the Capitol lands were laid out, it became important to get the financing to build the great city. Problem was, nobody was buying.

Lets not forget that when all this was happening, the U.S. was a loose band of states which had just survived a revolution. There was little money in the coffers. Remember that taxation really didn’t take off until 1913. Probably because we colonists had an aversion to the British taxation policy in the 1760s, leading up to the American revolution. After that, we subsisted on  tariffs of imports (i.e. "taxes "), on whiskey, and on glass windows (who knew?). By 1800, there were only 130 Federal employees on the payroll. Today it's estimated the current number of employees at 2.15 million. The United States imposed income taxes briefly during the Civil War and the 1890s, and on a permanent basis starting in the 1930s.

In 1788, the Maryland legislature passed an act, allowing it to cede land for the federal district. The following year Virginia followed suit on December 3, 1789. But, fears that Congress would abolish slavery in the District, Virginia petitioned Congress to return their part to Virginia. Congress gave it back on July 9, 1846 ruining the original diamond design.

Being the cagy guy he was, Washington lobbied to extend the District to include most of the area south around Alexandria. Those other cagy guys in Congress had recognized that Washington and his family owned property in and near Alexandria, just seven miles upstream from Mount Vernon, Washington's home and plantation. So Congress nixed the idea believing it to be a conflict of interest (how ironic) and not wanting to add to Washington’s sizable wealth. In 1801, Congress placed the District under their control and, though the residents have a representative in the House of Representatives, they can’t vote.

Once they had a basic plan in mind, Washington, Congress and his money men, decided to sell blocks of land like a new real estate development. In the first two land auctions only a handfull of lots had been purchased. Don’t forget, for most of its early history, Washington was mostly a filled-in swamp which had wild swings of weather from freezing cold in the winter to hot summers with insufferable humidity (wow...kinda sounds like Texas) causing Congress to debate whether to stick it out or move the Capitol farther west. But investment did come to DC and made it the crowded, world class capitol it’s founders envisioned.

Bryan stressed the importance of denoting “Memorials” vs. “Monuments”. He said monuments commemorate a famous or notable person or event while memorials celebrate or honor the memory of a person or an event. The Washington Monument represents the founder of the country while the Lincoln Memorial preserves the memory of the man and the events surrounding his Presidency (i.e. seccession, the Civil War, freeing slaves, his assassination). Clear? Good.

It was great having somebody else drive and be able to take note of all the places you see just along Pennsylvania Avenue. Folks, there are soooooo many places of interest, I quickly became overwhelmed with just the number of museums in a ten square block area around the Capitol. You name it, there’s a museum for it. You have your art museums (public and private), National Crime and Punishment Museum, the American Genocide Museum (that sounds like a fun place), the Textile Museum, National Building Museum, National Chess Museum and the Poetry Museum. Not only do they have a National Jewish Museum, they even have a National Jewish Military History Museum. The best part is that most of the big museums have restaurants where you can rest yourself and gather your strength for the next series of stops.

One of our first stops was the Capitol Building. Here again, you see this thing on the news almost every night yet you’re unprepared for the size and scope of the place. Truly the seat of government with both houses, the Supreme Court and all the Senate office buildings all around. It is cool to see the entire National Mall from the steps all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.

Although the corner stone had been laid by Washington himself in 1793 (a Mason will take any opportunity to use his square and compass), things went slowly. The sandstone had to be ferried in from Virginia and getting stonemasons to come to this little corner of wilderness was even tougher. Many were brought in from Europe. Architect Benjamin Latrobe had his hands full with no money and substandard construction techniques that, at one point in 1808, they had to rebuild the North Wing because it had partially collapsed. Latrobe was rehired after the War of 1812 to fix what the British burned but quit in 1817.

The 19th-century neoclassical style building, at one time, contained both houses and the Supreme Court. The Court left for their own building in 1935 leaving the House chambers in the South wing and the Senate in the North wing. The building is 751 feet 4 inches and 350 feet at it’s widest point. Its height above the base to the top of the Statue of Freedom is 288 feet. The building contains approximately 540 rooms and has 658 windows (108 in the dome alone) and approximately 850 doorways.

While we wandered around in the rain snapping pictures of the great hall, I had a moment standing near Bryan I wish I could have recorded. A German couple had drawn him aside to ask what the building was for. Bryan carefully explained the makeup of the building and, in only a few well chosen words, gave a great explanation of our form of government, hitting the highlights of our Constitution and what it meant to Americans to have a place they could freely visit and have access to their government. It gave me goose-bumps listening to him and seeing  the reaction as they comprehended the importance of the place we stood in.

After he was done, I remarked to Bryan how well he handled it. Bryan said he’s often asked by foreign visitors to explain how our government works. It was one of the best things about his job explaining our way of life and our Democratic process to people who come to visit Washington from other lands. It was clear he took great pride in his job and I was glad we took the tour with him.

We then drove back around the Capitol complex where Bryan pointed out points of interest and of course the places they filmed various movies that took place or had scenes in the Capitol like “Transformers”. He said it was kind of a trivia thing for all the residents there to point out famous scenes from different movies and TV shows (no, Dianna, there is no real Jeffersonian Institute in DC from “Bones”). But when Bryan noted the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building to us, her phone camera was clicking away.

We then made our way to the WWII Memorial. Even though it was raining we got out to a steady flow of busloads of Vets, some in wheelchairs and walkers, making there way down to the fountain plaza. A huge open space in the round memorializing the two major theaters of war and the wall of honor. The 4048 gold stars refer to the Gold Star displayed from windows of the homes of families of fallen soldiers. Each star represents approxiamately 100 of the dead, a total of 405,399 military deaths during the war years.

Bryan explained that each day several “honor flight” veterans come to visit the memorial and he always volunteers to take a picture for any Vet or family member that asks. I got an opportunity to get a shot of several Vets gathered in front of the fountain which looks back out onto the Mall and the Washington Monument. A recent article stated that World War II vets are dying at a rate of 740 a day. There are only about 1.7 million veterans remaining of the 16 million who served our nation in World War II.  At that rate, we only have a few more years to honor them in person. It was really a special moment to share their visit with them.

We stopped by the White House. The street in front of the White House has been closed since the Oklahoma bombing of the Murrah Federal Building and is now a walking mall. But that hasn't stopped the protestors from occupying the street in front of the famous wrought iron fence and Lafayette Park. Funny when you recall that right up to Pearl Harbor, you could just walk up to the White House and many early residents recall picnicing on the lawns surrounding the People's House. Up to late in the Civil War, you could walk up to and inside to look around and visit without walking through a metal detector or a background check.

While we were there, there was an ongoing protest staged by a Jamaican human rights group playing really loud Reggae stuff and the ever present tent of William Thomas, dedicated peace and anti-nuke activist. Now passed away, he and his wife Ellen and protest partner Concepcion have been keeping up their 24/7 vigil at the White House for 31 years since June 3, 1981. Millions of people from hundred of countries visited Thomas as he kept vigiling, warning them of the dangers of nuclear holocaust and the ravages of war.

Across the street is historic Blair House. Here, Presidents have entertained and housed world leaders (it's where Lee turned down Lincoln to be General of the Union Army in April 1861) and was the temporary home for President Truman when he and Bess had to leave the White House when it was remodeled between 1948 and 1952. The place had known defects due to poor construction when it was built but Bess drew a line in the sand when her beloved piano on the second floor crashed through the floor to it's new location on the first floor.

It was also the site of the first on-duty death of a White House Policeman,  Leslie Coffelt, November 1st, 1950. While on protection duty out front, two Puerto Rican Separatists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, attacked officers in front of Blair House intent on assassinating Truman. Collazo took on the entrance officers and Torresola attacked the guard shack shooting Coffelt. A gunfight ensued injuring another Capitol Police Officer, Donald Birdzell. Coffelt was able to get up and fired on Torresola killing him. Coffelt died four hours later. The whole thing went down in a little over 38 seconds. Collazo was wounded, ultimately subdued and sentenced to death. Truman communed it to life and Jimmy Carter cut him loose in 1979.

We then made our way to the Lincoln Memorial. Dianna and I had been there the day before but it was still exciting to see it again. It was a Monday and there were several hundred people climbing the steps and getting pictures in front of the Memorial. Bryan took the time to do a little explaining as a large airliner came in pretty low, made a hard right turn right over the Memorial and headed for Reagan National Airport, the way Dianna and I came in the previous day. Seeing our reaction to how low the aircraft was, Bryan broke away from his discussion of Lincoln to tell us why the airplanes make such a radical approach to Reagan.

Initially, the flight path came in from the north right over what is the Lee House at the top of Arlington National Cemetery. There was a woman who lived at the top of the hill there and continuously complained about the low flying and noisy aircraft over her house. The city fathers basically ignored her until aircraft mechanics began finding large splotches of dried oatmeal on the bellies of the planes after they landed. Officials discovered this woman had constructed a large slingshot in her backyard and was flinging oatmeal bombs at the airplanes as they passed over. Realizing how low that put the planes, the FAA changed the approach to a west arrival across the Potomac and hard right turn over Constitution Ave. which puts them right over the Lincoln Memorial for the short final approach to Reagan. It gets even weirder if the winds out of the north and they take-off directly over the Memorial and downtown DC.

Other fun story is that, during WWII, several government buildings had anti-aircraft gun emplacements on their roofs for the possibility of an air attack. One of these was on the Department of Commerce at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue. Some young Commerce employee decided to take his sweetheart up to the roof during the crews lunch break and show off. Well, he succeeded in firing off two rounds,  one taking out the State of Connecticut seal and the State of Maryland text on the east side friezes surrounding the Memorial.

Then to two of my most inspiring memorials, the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. My Dad’s war was WWII. For my generation it was the Korean War (Police Action or Conflict depending on what history book you’ve read) and the Vietnam War. I was born into the first one and watched from the side-lines in the second but both drew me into the study of history and politics.

The Korean Memorial is rather stark but draws you into it. On an open field of land it depicts a patrol in combat spread, 19 soldiers frozen in time reflected in a glossy stone wall. The reflection takes on meaning when you learn the artist, Frank Gaylord, had originally planned on 38 soldiers, the symbolic border between North and South Korea, the 38th parallel, walking through the triangle field toward the apex of the Memorial. But last minute budget reductions caused him to scale down his vision. So he came up with the idea of placing half that number (19) in front of polished California Granite so he could still get his 38 soldiers.

The wall contains sandblasted images of the real soldiers, equipment and people who were in the war. Further up is the wall with the theme of the Memorial, “Freedom isn’t Free”. We saw several flower arrangements listing the senders as people or towns from the Republic of South Korea. Bryan remarked that there are many tour groups from South Korea that make there way to the Memorial and lay wreaths. Many there still consider the soldiers who fought there as having saved them from a Communist take over and keeping them free. He said it was very moving to see how Koreans react when they come upon a Korean Vet at the Memorial. Many shake hands, hug and get pictures with the Vets when they see them.

Then on to the Vietnam Memorial. I am always intrigued by how people react to sanctuaries like this Memorial. It’s the same feeling you get when you leave the street and enter a church. People seem to automatically grasp the significance of the wall and the need for silence. The wall lists 58,272 names, including 8 women. Approximately 1,200 of these are listed as missing (MIAs, POWs, and others), denoted with a cross; the confirmed dead are marked with a diamond. There is always a volunteer docent by the wall with a guidebook of the locations of each name by panel. Most people think the list of names goes in the order of their death. But actually the two walls start at the center (highest point; 1957) and move outward to 1968 at the east end, circles back to the west end finishing 1968, then back to the apex at the end of the US involvement in 1975. A symbolic healing of an open wound which were the war years.

Just about everybody is familiar with the “Three Soldiers” statue to the south of the Memorial but most people are unaware of or miss the other significant statue, the Vietnam Women's Memorial. It is dedicated to the women of the United States who served in the Vietnam War, most of whom were nurses. It depicts three uniformed women with a wounded soldier. The woman looking up is named Hope, the woman praying is named Faith, and the woman tending to a wounded soldier is named Charity.

Halfway through the tour, we were driven to the Washington Marina. The Marina was part of the original City Plan. Recalling that back in 1790’s, water commerce and transportation was pivitol to any successful city so was DC. The founding fathers knew it was important to have access to water and included the building of a Marina where ships could dock and unload cargo and diplomats.

But it wasn’t until 1938 when “Yacht Basin One” was established as the result of a presidential order by President Franklin Roosevelt. Between 1939 and 1941,”Yacht Basin One” was constructed on federal land by Works Progress Administration (WPA). The first Presidential Yacht is believed to be the 536-ton steamer River Queen leased by Lincoln in 1865. The best known is the U.S.S. Sequoia which is now privately owned, has been restored and is docked nearby. Built in 1925 it began it’s career as the Presidential Yacht for Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. It’s been used by several Presidents up to 1977 when Jimmy Carter had it sold as a symbolic cutback in Federal Government spending and to help eliminate signs of an "imperial presidency".

It was an OK tour of the lower Potomac to the Fort Washington National Park and back. It was pouring rain and we were relegated to staying on the covered main deck with those cloudy clear plastic windows to look through. We also had a tour guide that apparently had a man-crush on Lyndon Johnson. Pretty much all he talked about was Johnson’s time in office and how misunderstood he was as President and predicted Johnson will, one day, be regarded as one of our great Presidents of all time. In between, he commented about stuff we were going by and would lapse back into some observation about Johnson.

I only took three things away from that tour. There is a Titanic Memorial built in 1971 (go figure) originally dedicated on May 26, 1931, at the foot of New Hampshire Ave. in Rock Creek Park along the Potomac River. The monument was removed in 1966 to accommodate the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and rededicated in 1968 on the south Washington waterfront outside Fort McNair in Washington Channel Park at Fourth and P Streets, SW. It is a statue of a man honoring the men who stayed behind instead of jumping into the boats and saving themselves. The stance of the statue may have been the inspiration for Kate Winslet in the Bow Scene.

As we passed Oxon Creek, our guide pointed to the top of the ridge to our south and noted some cranes at a construction site. He told us it was the site of the new Department of Homeland Security headquarters building. The best part was they were building on a corner of the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. St. Elizabeth’s is a Federal Mental Hospital where John Hinkley, attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan is housed. Somehow a natural fit, Homeland Security and a mental Hospital. Speaks volumes.

The other was the battlements of Fort Washington. Fort Washington was completed in 1809 and was originally named Fort Warburton. Authorized by Congress to protect the Capitol from a sea invasion, when it was needed most, during the War of 1812, the fort was destroyed by its own garrison during the British advance to deny them the facility. It was rebuilt and continued to be used as a military base until just after WWII having never fired a shot in anger.

Back in our cozy tour bus, we made our way back to the National Mall. We stopped at the Jefferson Memorial and moved around to the relatively new Franklin Roosevelt Memorial. It’s pretty big and is constructed in a series of four “rooms”. Each room provides a snapshot of a period during Roosevelt’s extensive 12 year Presidency from the Depression years, the Tennessee Valley Authority dam-building project, World War II and his death at the end of WWII. It subtly reminds us of Roosevelt’s struggle with Polio by depicting him in a wheelchair.

There is also a great statue and reminder of how influencial his wife, Eleanor was to him and his administration. It honors her work as the United States’ first representative to the United nations.

It was interesting to learn that before his death, when asked how he wanted to be remembered, he stated, "If they are to put up any memorial to me, I should like it to be placed in the center of that green plot in front of the Archives Building. I should like it to consist of a block about the size of this (his Oval Office) desk". And there it sits.
The next was a walk along a Japanese Cherry tree lined lane to the newest monument, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. The entry portal is two stones which are parted. Through the portal is visble a single stone wedge which appears as though it had  been pushed forward toward the horizon; the missing piece of what was once a single boulder. Beyond this portal, the stone appears to have been thrust into the plaza. Even the address, 1964 Independence Avenue, S.W., commemorates the year that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

The design competition was stiff with many submissions but only, Chinese sculptor Master Lei Yixin, made the grade. You see the National Park Service specified the monument was to be hand sculpted. Apparently all the American artists couldn’t read the instructions because most of them turned in either castings or machine sculpted images of the Civil Rights leader. So we have a hand-sculpted chunk of Chinese granite by a Chinese sculpter and constructed by Chinese stonemasons (the Union stonemasons didn't like that). We have only ourselves to blame. Don’t get me wrong, the sculpture and surrounding landscaped Memorial is very eye-catching and moving to see.

A full six hours later, hot, damp and hungry, we ended up near our car and headed back to Alexandria. I had Patty take us down King Street to find a place to eat (sorry Chief, not Murphy’s). We ended up at a great little Italian place, Bertucci’s. I had the Pesto Grilled Salmon and Dianna had the Tortellini. It was a great place to get the load off my feet and cool off in historic downtown Alexandria.

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