Wednesday, October 7, 2009

An Emotional Day

Our first day in Washington was rich in both history and emotion. We were here perhaps three decades ago, and I remember little about that trip. I was perhaps too young at the time to fully appreciate it. This time, touring the many grand, sad monuments that celebrate the country's great men--and those who died at their behest, I found myself choking back tears for much of the day. Marjorie gave us a great start to the tour by driving us to Arlington National Cemetery...


... where the smiles were for the camera, naturally, not for the thousands of dead human beings that crowd the ground behind them. Here's Teddy...




... such a simple grave, and an identical one for his brother, Bobby, right next door. And then there's John...


... and Jackie, right next to him, with the two children who died at birth on either side. This is the long view, up the hill.



Two assassinations already, and the day had hardly begun. And three great leaders who served us all, each in their own way... Marjorie drove us down through the wooded countryside, amazingly in the middle of the city, that leads downtown; and left us off at the Washington Monument...


... where we started our long walking tour. Our first stop was the relatively new World War II Memorial. We had heard and read a lot about this site, and agreed with most of the criticism we had heard--on a strictly aesthetic basis. But the emotional response was quite different, and surprising.


We were surrounded everywhere by Veterans from that war--the one that had really defined my life as a child in England at the time--and I remembered the convoys of Yanks and the brash young men who sat aboard the tanks and armored cars. If you've every seen the film "Hope and Glory" you'll understand something of the awe with which we little boys looked up at those soldiers and begged them to throw us gum. And here they were, those who survived, sixty years later...


... in their wheelchairs or struggling along on their canes, all old men pondering their youthful memories like myself. Many of them, like the one above, sat or strolled with young soldiers in smart uniforms, who were perhaps on some kind of respectful duty to support their elders and listen to their stories. I myself stopped a couple of them, learning that they had served in England, and had fond memories of the country... and the girls! All in all it was a profoundly moving experience--more moving, indeed, than our next stop, where I had expected to me far more deeply moved, the Vietnam Memorial designed by Maya Lin.


It is indeed a deeply moving spectacle, with its endless lists of names of those who died in that dreadful, unnecessary conflict; and I did recall my days of protest, as a student then at the University of Iowa and then again as a beginning Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California, and my sense of outrage as the war continued and men continued to bleed and die for what was so clearly a bad idea; and I did give thought to how history has repeated itself since, how men have refused to learn... But, looking inside and registering what was happening there, I realized that the feelings ran less deep than those for World War II.

We walked on from there to the Lincoln Memorial. Again, more emotion choking at the throat. It's only a couple of days since we were at Gettysburg. And we had just come from the site of another assassinated President, another assassinated Senator and would-be President. And here we were at Lincoln's feet, at the spot where the (assassinated) Martin Luther King stood for his celebrated address, which was playing loudly on the CD player that a Park Ranger had brought, and over which she stood guard...


It's all too much, isn't it? I stood there, reading the fine words, the inspiration of all those who should have learned something from the Civil War and from this great President's fine words, and could not help but think how little some of the truly fundamental things have changed.

We ate lunch at a refreshment kiosk and walked on to the Roosevelt Memorial. Here's Ellie, giving him a perhaps disrespectful but heartfelt kiss...


And again, you just read the words of this great man, the fine, inspiring, truthful words like these...


... and these...


... and you just shake your head. We listened sagely to words like this--and there are many carved into the stone at the Roosevelt Memorial, many wise words and wonderful sentiments--and we went right ahead and did the same damn things again. The words have a painfully poignant relevance today. Have we learned nothing?





This huge, meandering site or rock and waterfall, bronze statuary and inscribed quotations was certainly my favorite. Despite the failing legs and the swelling feet, I was certainly have glad to have made the long walk to this splendid place. I did love, also, the elegant Jefferson Memorial...



... where the inscribed quotations are equally apt. The one above, if you can read it, is should be required reading for today's Supreme Court constitutional constructionists. And a quotation, on the opposite wall, about the freedom of religion, should also be required reading for those who confuse the roles of church and state.

Our last, most painful stop of the day was at the new Holocaust Museum.


Over the years, I have come to know most of the history involved, so there was not much that was unknown to me before. But the museum is a powerful and profoundly moving reminder of the boundlessly cruel excesses of which our species is capable. The history of this country, so impressively recalled in a tour of these Washington sites, is a reminder of both the greatness and the tragedy of humanity--a species characterized all too often by violence, conflict, and war.

Oh, and the we walked back past the White House, marveling that we now have an African-American family living there, an African American President! So many contradictions! So much to celebrate, in this nation's capital! So much to mourn!

Last evening, exhausted, I switched on C-SPAN in our friends' living room and found myself watching the Dalai Lama, another great leader making another great speech as he accepted the Tom Lantos Award. Some of our own leaders were there, listening--Nancy Pelosi, John McCain--and applauding His Holiness' call for peace, compassion, tolerance, and human understanding, those things we still have in short supply. Today, our leaders will continue with their bickering at the expense of the poor, the sick, the truly needy... You can see how this could have been an emotional day for me!




3 comments:

roger said...

"Have we learned nothing?"

apparently not.

great post peter. a reminder of who we want to be.

Alaska's Dirt said...

I visited Washington with my folks as a young girl in the eight grade and never forgot it. The Gettysburg battlefield was especially poignant. Thanks for the short tour and the reminders! Am certainly due back.....

Katherine Coons

Gary said...

The boys and I will read this together after school today.

I feel refreshed and moved by the breadth of
our immense American journey. I have 17 friends who's names are on the Vietnam Memorial wall.

FRD was green early and our time has come to step up
and clean it up.

Thanks Peter for this one!