Sunday, July 15, 2012

DC 2012 Part 4

Deeply rooted in our national culture is Arlington National Cemetery. There doesn't a day goes by that we don’t hear about it or see it in some form. The cemetery is the resting place of the heroic, the famous, the not so famous and those who never sought greatness but hold a place of honor because they died in the service of their country.

Arlington came to the forefront because of one man, Robert E. Lee. After turning down Lincoln for command of the Union Army, Lee became somewhat a pariah in the hearts and minds of Americans. Specifically Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs who decided to make the home of his former West Point Academy Superintendent (1852–1855, Meigs graduated in 1836) uninhabitable if he ever came back.

Ok…a bit of urban legend…it’s said there is a faint image of Lee on the back of Lincoln’s head in the Lincoln Memorial. It’s said it was a vague tribute by sculptor Daniel Chester French to Lee, with Lee looking back in the direction of Arlington House across the river from the Memorial. I was there..I didn’t see it but many say they do.

Officers began to be buried just outside the perimeter of the Arlington House  in 1864 (Private William Christman, 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, was the first person to be buried on the grounds of the estate). One of the first memorials he established was a massive memorial right in the middle of Mrs. Lees rose garden containing the bones of 2,111 unknown soldiers from Bull Run and the Rappahannock retreat in 1866. The back-story is that Lee never really owned the property. It was actually the ancestral home of his wife Mary Anna Custis. Stranger still is that Lee is a distant relative of George Washington by marriage.

You see, George was married to Mary Custis. They raised  John Parke Custis (adopted by George) from Mary’s first marriage. He had a son, George Washington Parke Custis who originally built the home, begun in 1804, originally known as Mount Washington, in honor of his adopted grandfather, George. When it was complete in 1818, Custis loaded it up with, what was at the time, the best collection of Washington memorabilia including many of his important papers and clothing. It was subsequently changed to the Arlington House and after Custis’ only child, Mary Anna married her childhood friend (and distant cousin) Robert Lee they took up residence in her ancestral home and it became the Custis-Lee mansion in 1831.

Lee’s decision not to fight for the Union started a whole series of events, which led to the home being seized by the Federal Government in 1864. Following ratification of the secession of Virginia from the Union into the Confederacy in 1861, about 10,000 Federal troops crossed the Potomac and occupied the 11,000-acre property. It was so big, they were able to create two military installations, Fort Whipple (now Fort Myer) and Fort McPherson (now cemetery Section 11). The property had one of the most commanding and strategic views of the Capitol and surrounding approaches.

Next, to put the nail in the coffin (sorry for the pun), the Federal Government levied a property tax on all seized properties of people with allegiance to the Confederacy. For the Arlington House it was $92.07.  The law required the landowner to pay in person. Mary Anna chose not to pay in person but through a representative. Because of this, Congress seized the land and the family had to move to another family home in Lexington, Virginia. She made one last visit in 1873 and was so distraught over the condition of the property (the military had used the interior for storage) she returned to Lexington and died five months later.

As is typical whenever the Government overreaches, in 1882, the Supreme Court declared the tax unconstitutional and the United States Federal Government a trespasser on the Arlington grounds and ordered the lands returned to the Lee family. With over 10,000 gravesites already there, George Washington Custis Lee (I think that makes him a great-great grandson of George) sold the land back to the U.S. Government for $150,000.  

The home is currently under major renovation. It wasn’t turned over to the National Park Service until 1955. The main structure is a Greek revival style mansion. The exterior is brick covered with stucco with a faux finish, which makes it look like marble and sandstone. The imposing portico is 60 feet across by 25 feet deep, featuring 8 massive Doric columns, 6 of them on the front. Each column is 23 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter at the bottom, tapering at the top. Even the pillars are covered in stucco, a finish popular in the 19th century.

Out in front of the mansion is the burial site for the original architect of the Capitol, Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Even though he was fired for not completing his contract, certain members of Congress felt he needed to be remembered and given a place of honor above “his” city.

But I digress, the cemetery awaits. Something you don’t realize until you get there is that….Arlington is on a big steep hill. Arlington House is on the top of the hill. So if you choose to walk, bring a hat and lots of stuff to drink.

What struck me were the sheer numbers of people walking the grounds. Bus loads of kids and adults come pouring through the entrance every day. More than 4 million visit every year. Among the throngs, you see a sea of the neon colored shirts of all those church and school groups who have been chasing you around town. Every color of the rainbow is represented undulating up and down the service roads throughout the cemetery.

We did the tourist thing and sought out the significant deceased. There was the John Kennedy eternal flame with both brothers at the base of the hill. Interestingly both Ted and Robert chose rather austere, simple white crosses.

There was the Challenger and Columbia Memorials, every major war and battle were represented from the Revolutionary War to Section 60 where the more recent Iraq and Afghanistan war dead reside. And of course, one of my personal interests, Audie Murphy in SECTION 46 SITE 366-11.

Ok…the real reason I wanted to go to Arlington was for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I know, you’ve probably seen it in movies or the news a million times but you really haven’t. Standing in the reviewing stands as they celebrate a flower presentation or changing of the guard are moving moments that don’t translate well on a flat screen. Just watching and listening to the steel taps of the guard’s shoes clacking across the expanse of marble in front of the Tomb 21 times in each direction, in the complete silence formed by those around you is, at once, awe inspiring and humbling.

Originally, a civilian guard was posted at the Tomb in 1925 but was replaced by a military guard in 1926. Guarding 24 hours a day/365 days a year began in 1937 by a special platoon within the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment known as the “Old Guard”. You can watch as the guards exquisitely move along the “mat” or the rusty paths of guards who have walked before them. Guards never wear their rank insignia so they never outrank the deceased they walk for.

While we were there, a wreath ceremony was conducted by the Lady of the Lake School (sorry, didn’t get where the school is). These wreath ceremonies go on continuously throughout the day and we saw two. I thought it was cool seeing the kids showing their respect and being involved in the wreath presentation. Here we see the next wreath preparing to be presented.

We made the trek back to the main entrance and had an opportunity to view an exhibit to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars called "The Lost Heroes Art Quilt" honoring America's fallen heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been on national tour since December 2009 when it was unveiled in Washington, DC. For the first year of its journey, the Quilt was physically carried by Gold Star Families from place to place, often at considerable expense. When more and more requests to display the Quilt were received, expanding the travel circuit across the whole United States, FedEx Freight and Southwest Airlines stepped up to provide generous support with free shipping.

Each photo depicts a fallen service member when they were a child. There is one member from each state represented in the quilt without rank in the uniform of their particular service. Around each photo are key words taken from loved ones describing that member’s life. A very moving display considering the proposition that at the time of the photos, no one would have imagined them taking the paths they took or their lives ending so soon.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

DC 2012 Part 3

As many of you know, I have been fascinated with aviation all my life. My first memory of flight was with my Dad when I was about 6 or 7. It was a crisp, sunny Saturday morning when he took me along to do some errands. Dad pulled into the MacArthur/Long Island Airport   in central Long Island a few miles east of our Deer Park   home. We drove along the rows of airplanes until he saw a couple of men working on a Piper Pacer tail dragger . We got out and my Dad asked if I could get inside and look around. They agreed and I got to climb in. I was hooked. All the dials, knobs and levers had little meaning then but I knew I wanted to learn all about them and fly one day.

So we found ourselves in Washington D.C., which probably has the highest concentration of aviation museums on the planet. I only made two hard and fast rules for our agenda while in DC. We had to go to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum downtown and at the Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia. The second was to go to Arlington National Cemetery. The rest would be icing on the cake.

Bright and early our second day, we booted up Patty for the trip back to the east side of DC to the Smithsonian neighborhood. I say that because the Museum resides in a district of Smithsonian museums stretching from the I-395 on the east to 12th Street to the west. If you were just to do the Smithsonian series, it would require about two weeks to hit them all. Forget the rest of the city and its collection of art and history museums.

We quickly discovered here are no open public parking lots. There are parking metered spots along the streets but these are hard to find and limit you to two-hour maximums. We also saw lots of tow trucks and tickets tucked under windshield wipers. Luckily, there are many day-rate or hourly underground parking lots in most commercial buildings throughout the city. Just make sure you know when the lots close or you’ll be out of luck.

Once we tucked away our rental, we made our way to the museum. Like so many buildings in DC, it's huge. The Air and Space Museum takes up almost the entire block. You might expect it of a building that contains full-size aircraft and rockets. There is enough room to house the entire front fuselage of a 747 (Northwest Airlines) like the scene in the movie Airplane! (1980).

The various anti-rooms contain theme aircraft depicting the different periods of flight from the Wright Brother's Flyer (nope, the real thing not some recreation) to the Space Shuttle. That's what I loved the most. In a lot of museums there are recreations of famous aircraft but here, when you look up and see the Spirit of St. Louis, it's the real deal. The one Lucky Lindbergh flew from Roosevelt Field in Long Island and set down in Paris on May 20, 1927.

There was the X-1 that Chuck Yeager flew to break the sound barrier and the X-15 the first aircraft to make it to the edge of space. All eight X-15 pilots were awarded Astronaut status because they exceeded 50 miles above the Earth. Oh heck, just look at some of the photos:

From my childhood I recall two big events. The day President Kennedy was assassinated and the first landing on the Moon. I didn't realize the significance of the first for quite a while but I followed the space programs from Mercury to today with a passion. So coming up-close and personal to the Apollo 11 Command Module was like finding the end of the rainbow, thus the picture:

Once we left the Air and Space Museum (I could have spent the entire week there but they probably would have asked me to leave at closing time) we then went to Dianna's list. She wanted to see the National Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Each within easy walking distance. These museums are chock full of the finest art in the world. We got to walk right up to a Da Vinci and a Rembrandt. There was a European side and an American art side which went from the classics to modern artwork. I wasn't aware of this (well....I'm not a big art guy) but you can ask to set up and paint a copy of anything in the place as we watched while this artist copied "The Mill" painted between 1645 and 1648 by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (Ok, now we know why everybody just called him Rembrandt).

On the way to the National Portrait Gallery, we walked through the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Really cool pieces, some spoke to me more than others.

But then there was an awesome sitting area around a terrific fountain which had 10 nozzels sending parabolic streams of water from its circumference toward its center in a water ballet.

We made it to the National Portrait Gallery where all the Presidential portraits can be seen along with influencial Americans and some Lincoln memorabilia like a set of face masks and hand moldings of the President in the early years of his Presidency. The masks and moldings of his hands were done in anticipation of creating busts and sculptures of Lincoln during and after he left office.

That was all the walking we could muster for that day so we asked Patty to get us back to the hotel to put our feet up and reflect over the days journey. But then to Ted's Montana Grill luckily three blocks from the hotel.  I had visited Ted's when my co-workers and I were there in February. Still a great menu and service. I had the Cedar Plank Salmon and Dianna had the Classic Steak.