Sunday, June 10, 2012

Return to D.C.

Several months ago, my wife had a momentary lapse of judgment and, on a whim, decided to allow me to organize the Saraceni yearly vacation event. We had a small IRS refund (yeah…first in five years) and had been mulling over several options including our annual cruises we had been doing. But I had an epiphany back in February when my co-workers Tonia and Chad and I got to attend a work related trip to the nation’s capitol as part of grant we had been awarded. I got the bug. For the limited time we had, we did a fair amount of sightseeing (mostly in the dark) and I got the bug to go back as soon as possible.

Given the go-ahead, I got onto and in an hour had arranged a complete package of airline (American, no stops both ways), hotel, and rental car from DFW to Reagan National. It really is true, if you book at least three months in advanced, you can get amazing bargains.

It was the third week of May and having poured over archived weather reports for the past 20 years and checking the Weather Bug app on my iPhone every other minute for a week, I decided to go light with only a windbreaker as a jacket. Dianna on the other hand went warm and brought pants and long sleeve stuff. The night before launch, I stood in our cavernous Texas kitchen and broke the bad news to our daughter. I informed her that the flight left bright and early at 10 a.m. and to insure we would get enough Sherpas to haul Mom’s luggage to the gate in time to depart, we would have to get to DFW by 8.

My daughter’s reaction was typical in these matters, her head ever so slightly defiladed as she dropped her gaze down, causing a shadow to form over her eyes, below her beautiful bangs in the raw neon glow of the recessed lighting. Mind you, I was asking for a serious compromise on her part, I was asking, after all, for her to sacrifice her Saturday morning rest period. 

So her response to this bit of news was, “Crap, that’s early.” I assured her she needn’t get all fixed up and only needed to get us there. She didn’t even have to get out of the car. I acknowledged that, once we were gone, she’d have the whole house to herself and could sleep in all she wanted. Her eyes brightened as visions of Rave parties in the back yard danced in her head, she quickly said, “I can do that.”

And so it was we got to the airport the following day on my ample schedule to push our way through the crowds at the ticket counter and trudge through security with perhaps an obligatory electronic wanding or pat-down thrown in for good measure. They threw us a curve in that nobody decided to come to DFW that day. We whisked through the ticket counter with no “overweight” bags (shocking but $50 dollars lighter for the effort) and literally “walked” through security. After redressing on the other side, we quickly found ourselves at the gate with another 90 minutes before departure. Oh well, Dianna was off with her Nook and settled in for a long wait.

Did I mention Dianna decided to try to ratchet down her use of multiple suitcases? She packed one large case and stuffed all her make-up paraphernalia (like most men, I don’t know what’s in it.. I just carry it) into two small carryon bags. More about this later on the return trip. Nonetheless, we were on the way to DC.

The flight was full but pleasant and after the most interesting arrival through DC airspace (more on this too later), we made a classic “Navy” landing. I am confident our pilot was a former Carrier qualified pilot. We came in pretty hot and really “slammed it down on the mains.” If this had been the real thing, I think he would have caught the 3rd wire with his tail hook. I know this because I heard the distinct sound of tires squealing as he locked up the brakes to get us off on the high-speed off-ramp to the gate. This too was evident when the flight attendant reminded us to remain seated while the Captain brought whatever was left of the plane back to the gate so they could open the door and,” So you can pick your way through the wreckage to the terminal." She added things may have moved in the overhead by adding,” Remember, shift happens”. Then  thanked us for flying American.

We then made our way to the car rental lot and made contact with a much-harried female rental agent. We arrived with our paper work for an economy car. When we got there, she told us those cars were clear across the lot and, clearly not interested in making that walk, asked if we wanted to use an upgraded sedan that was right in front of us. Without paying an extra fee, we got into a really nice 4-door Nissan Altima. My contribution was installing our GPS “Patty”. Again, a stroke of genius on my part. DC is not a very user-friendly place if you don’t know your way around.

It was late afternoon and little traffic as I plugged in the hotel address for Patty. We skirted through traffic and made our way to beautiful Alexandria, Virginia. The Westin Alexandria Hotel  I chose was really close to the airport and I had been impressed by the town when we were there in February. The Westin, it turns out, was in a newer revitalized part of town. Known as the Carlyle Group complex, it also houses a US District Court and the new headquarters for the US Patent and Trademark Office .  

On our arrival, we checked in and got up to the room…which faced the back alley. Ok, I must say, the price we paid for this room was worth it but a little disappointing. The next interesting thing was the room refrigerator was locked up. I went down to the desk for the key. They were, of course, apologetic about not giving us a key but then I was taken aback when the clerk cautioned me about putting anything in it I expected to get cold. He confided that none of the room refers were very good and none of them kept anything cold. Wow. As it turned out, he was right.

With quite a bit of daylight left, we decided to head into DC to try a walk around the National Mall. Patty got us there pretty quick and we were rewarded by a parking spot near the mall. It was Saturday and the mall was alive with camera swinging tourists, kite fliers, picnickers and lovers.

We got to the high point where the 555 foot tall Washington Memorial sits atop the National Mall. Major Peter Charles L'Enfant, George Washington’s personal buddy and choice for DC designer, selected its site in his 1791 Federal City plan. Lack of funds postponed construction but, by 1836, the Washington National Monument Society advertised for competitive architectural designs. The winning architect was Robert Mills, whose design called for a neoclassical plan, which provided for a nearly flat-topped obelisk surrounded by a circular colonnade on which would stand a statue of Washington in a chariot. Inside the colonnade, statues of thirty prominent Revolutionary War heroes would be displayed.

In an elaborate Fourth of July ceremony in 1848, the cornerstone was laid. Lack of funds and the political intrigue of the time caused further delay. The outbreak of Civil War of 1861 exacerbated the society's difficulties with fund-raising efforts. When Lt.Col.Thomas L.Casey resumed work on the project in 1876, he heavily altered the original design for the monument so that it resembled an unadorned Egyptian obelisk with a pointed pyramidion. The monument was dedicated on February 21, 1885, and officially opened to the public on October 9, 1888.

A word about Mr. L’Enfant. A military friend of Washington during the Revolution, L’Enfant was one of those French idealists who saw great possibilities in the great American experiment and offered their assistance in defeating the British and creating the new Republic. However, well meaning he was, he was incapable of completing his design for the new Capitol and became kind of a pariah with Congress by being late with his finished design and cost overruns (sound familiar?).

After the war, L’Enfant became a notable architect in New York City and was a Freemason like Washington (his initiation took place on April 17, 1789 at Holland Lodge No. 8 F&AM). L'Enfant laid out a 400 foot-wide garden-lined "Grand Avenue", which he expected to travel for about 1 mile along an east-west axis in the center of an area that would later become the National Mall.

The great sub-story you may not have heard was that after L’Enfant was cut loose, it was his humble assistant, Andrew Ellicott, who actually completed the plan, surveyed and laid the “boundary stones" delineating the District of Columbia. They still exist to this day. Note that L’Enfant’s design was diamonded shape (well...until Virginia took their western coast of the Potomac back) and was supposed to be a statement to their old enemy, Great Britain, in creating a world-class capitol city, which would outshine the leading world-class city of the time, London.

The really cool back-story was  the fact that most of the real grunt work was not done by Ellicott but by a freed African-American slave named Benjamin Banneker. Banneker was a self-taught man who the Ellicott’s had hired to help in their family grain mill businesses. Banneker taught himself astronomy and celestial navigation which were the same basic concepts used in surveying. When they were asked to help in finishing L’Enfant’s survey work for DC, Andrew hired Banneker to complete the surveys, which led to the placing of the boundary stones.

Banneker went on to use his astronomy and mathematical skills to author a well renowned almanac of the time, 1792 Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris. He even included Thomas Jefferson in his friends list.

Our first stop was the base of the Washington Memorial. Well…we tried. Since the earthquake (August 23, 2011), the tower has been closed for repairs but still awe inspiring to stand next to. It’s great to be an American and understand what it represents.

As we got to the top, we took in the scene before us. Everywhere I looked, I saw regular people having a great time in their “Central Park”. I couldn’t help but see the irony of the moment. Here we were (us tourists) coming from all over to see the great city as all the folks who call this place home out on a sunny Saturday, playing in a kick ball tournament, eating hotdogs and drinking beer, oblivious to all the history and political intrigue going on around them. Lucky bastards.

We walked the mall heading west toward the Lincoln Memorial. On the way, we came across a curious stone lying just above a low stone wall I learned used to be the high water mark before the introduction of the Tidal Basin flood control bridge (before the bridge was constructed in 1889, the Capitol typically flooded every time it rained or at certain high tides of the Potomac).

It turned out to be the Jefferson Pier. When Jefferson was president, he instructed Andrew Ellicott to survey a prime meridian (longitude 0°0') through the future site of the U.S. Capitol. It was another attempt to trump the British who had established the world’s prime meridian through Greenwich, England . The Jefferson Pier was to be that center point in 1793 but was overshadowed by a second meridian assigned by Jefferson through the center of the White House in 1804. Thus, the part of the inscription’s chiseled-out fifth line reportedly once incorrectly stated: "BEING THE CENTRE POINT OF THE".

We wound our way to the Lincoln Memorial where we scaled the steps and took in the view. The last time I was there, it was night and, although beautiful, daytime brings in a whole different element. Although the reflecting pool repairs were still incomplete, I had a chance to see all the way to the Capitol and Washington Memorial and finally understanding how amazing it must have looked when crowds that filled the National Mall during the speech of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 or Marian Anderson singing in 1939. Finding our car, we had Patty return us to our hotel and a well-needed rest. Stay tuned for more.....

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