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Trip Report A Lovely DC Day

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On Friday, 30th April, I was a part of a group of 150 on a day trip to Washington, DC. What a lovely day it was: 85 and sunny with low humidity, Washington sparkling in the light and all of us from 3 months old to nearly 70. (Mostly teenagers, though!)

We started out at the recently refurbished Smithsonian National Museum of American History. It opens at 10AM, and that's a good time to get there: while it doesn't get quite as crowded as the almost-impossible Museum of Natural History, there's still a lot of people. But the museum is splendid in its newness and has adopted some decent planning measures for the numbers of people who visit. From the Greensboro sit-in lunch counter to Warren Harding's sea-green pajamas, there's something for everyone!

Lunch was on the mall under the trees; the benches are in the sun, and a few of the older folks chose them, but it was beautifully cool and relaxing under the trees after tromping through the museum.

From there we started our walk: from the Washington Monument (and the views of the White House) to the World War II memorial, where a huge group of veterans were gathered, to the Vietnam Veterans memorial, Korean War Veterans' Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial at the end. It was such a plus for the kids to get a chance to speak with some of the veterans.

Just in case anyone would like to duplicate the trip, in the next post I'll give the little "tour book" that we gave to each student. The info is from the Washington Walking Tour, the various park sites, and books on the monuments.

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    Welcome to Washington, DC!

    Our first stop is the National Museum of American History. It’s part of the Smithsonian museum group, and it’s sometimes been called the “nation’s attic” because there are so many items collected here.

    By the way, the Smithsonian Museums started when, in 1829, an English scientist, James Smithson, left $508,318 (about $12,000,000 in today’s dollars) to the United States to establish an “institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” One of the somewhat odd aspects of this was that Smithson had never even been to the United States.

    The museum has three floors of exhibits (and a lower level where the cafeteria is located.) Bus 1 will start on the first floor, Bus 2 the 2nd, and Bus 3…well, you probably know. You are allowed to take pictures, but please note that in some places you can’t use flash—watch for the signs in areas where fragile artifacts like the Star Spangled Banner are displayed. The floors are divided into East and West wings, and there are some special features in each area that you shouldn’t miss. It won’t be possible to see it all, of course, but here are a few suggestions and a few *must-sees for you (note that we enter at the first floor Constitution Avenue entrance):

    1. First Floor East: *transportation and technology: everything from a 1903 Winton (the first car to be ridden across the USA) to a 1950’s Chicago mass transit car to steam locomotives and classic cars.

    2. First Floor West: science and technology, including the Hall of Invention…and Sports Inventions

    3. First Floor West: the kitchen of famous chef Julia Child


    4. Second Floor * Star Spangled Banner: the flag that flew over Fort McHenry on that night when the Baltimore lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was on a British ship with his prisoner-of-war friend, watching the British bombardment of the fort. When Key saw this flag still flying in the morning, he was inspired to write, “O, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” Notice that the flag has more than 13 stripes; there’s one star missing: the number of stars and stripes at that point were equal, but one has been removed (as has a lot of the fabric; it was presented as souvenirs.)

    5. Second Floor East *Greensboro NC lunch counter, the beginning of the “sit-ins” that helped to end segregation in the South; it’s a piece of the original Woolworth’s counter

    6. Second Floor West: First Ladies’ gowns and exhibit of their lives

    7. Second Floor West: “Within These Walls” and “Communities in a Changing Nation” both show a way of life: Within These Walls is 200 years of change in one house over 200 years, while *Communities in a Changing Nation shows industry in Bridgeport, CT; Jewish immigrants in Cincinnatti, OH; and slaves and free African-Americans in Charleston SC, all in the same time period.

    8. Third Floor East: a collection of Lincoln artifacts (including the top hat he wore to Ford’s Theater on that fateful evening) and personal memorabilia from other Presidents….including Warren G. Harding’s silk pajamas!

    9. Third Floor West: Popular Culture has iconic items from entertainment and sports figures

    There’s a huge souvenir shop on the first floor.

    Lunch on the National Mall

    The National Mall is not, as one might expect, a large complex of shops. Its name goes back to the original meaning of mall, which was derived from a game called pall-mall played on a strip of grass. So this large grassy area is a mall, and it stretches from the Washington Monument to the Capitol building. The grassland and open vista is certainly in agreement with Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan, commissioned by George Washington, but the mall wasn’t officially established until 1965. Most of the buildings lining the mall are Smithsonian Museums and federal buildings. It is officially a national park, and has 2,000 American elm trees and almost 4,000 Japanese cherry trees, which remove about 492 tons of air pollution every year.

    There are benches here for your lunch, or you may just have a seat on the grass! Restrooms are available if necessary in the various Smithsonian buildings, but you'll need time to go through security.

    We assemble at the base of the Washington Monument to begin our tour of some of the important monuments and memorials of Washington, DC. Do you know the difference between a monument and a memorial?

    The Washington Monument is 555’5 1/8” tall and weighs more than 80,000 tons. It’s an obelisk, and you’ll notice that it’s two different colors. That’s possibly because work on it was stopped for about 36 years due to political squabbling and lack of funds. (The Vatican, headquarters of the Catholic Church, had sent a stone to be used in its construction, as many other countries also had. A political group called the Know-Nothings were very anti-Catholic {and anti a lot of other things} and destroyed the stone; the money for building the monument was stopped.) The Civil War intervened as well, but finally the Army Corps of Engineers finished it in 1885. The capstone is aluminum; at that time, aluminum was more precious than gold since it was more rare. Before it was put in place, it was displayed on the ground for a while so that people could “walk over the top of the Washington Monument.” There are 50 flags surrounding the monument; originally they were to be the State flags, but there were too many arguments about which state would be in which location, so they are all national flags.

    Looking straight down the Mall from the Washington Monument you see the West Front of the Capitol. (There’s an East Front and a West Front, but no back.) The statue of Freedom on the top faces east to the sunrise—“The sun never sets on freedom”— and it was on the east side that all inaugurations from Thomas Jefferson’s on were held. However, now the West Front is now used for Presidential inaugurations. The change took place for President Reagan’s inauguration; as an actor, he was very attuned to the visual effect and the West Front offers a more dramatic view. During the most recent inauguration, 1.5 million people filled the mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.

    Standing on the slight hill a little south of the Washington Monument and looking north, you can see a building with black awnings to the right. That’s the Willard Hotel, quite famous in Washington’s history. One President who spent a lot of time in the Willard was President Grant; Mrs. Grant wouldn’t let him smoke his cigars in the White House. The people who were petitioning him for their special interests soon found that out, and came to ask him for favors in the lobby of the Willard—the foundation of the term “lobbyists” used today.

    Directly across from this point is the White House: the South Lawn, which you see from here, is the landing site for helicopters such as Marine 1, the Presidential Helicopter. If you look closely, you might see the security forces on the roof of the White House.

    Proceeding from the Washington Monument we come to the National World War II Memorial, located between the Monument and the Lincoln Memorial on the site of the Rainbow Pool, which has been incorporated into the Memorial design. The WWII Memorial, completed in 2004, was constructed to keep the sightlines clear between the Washington and Lincoln structures, but this does not prevent it from being a large and significant structure. There are many symbolic elements in the WWII Memorial: you are sure to discover even more for yourself, but here are a few things to look for:

    1. The columns with wreaths that make up the perimeter of the memorial list the States in the order that they became a part of the USA, starting with Delaware and alternating from there; there are 56, for the 48 States at that time, Washington DC, and 7 territories. The wreaths are oak (industry) on one side and wheat (agriculture) representing the idea that all parts of the country were involved in the War effort. The idea of the bonding of the country is seen in the rope-style motifs.

    2. The North and South sides, each with a memorial pavilion, represent the Atlantic and Pacific war theaters respectively. This theme is carried out in the bas-relief (raised sculpture) panels on either side, which include all aspects of the War at home and abroad. In each memorial pavilion is a bronze baldacchino, or sculptural canopy, with eagles holding a bronze laurel, the symbol for victory.

    3. The wall of gold stars is a commemorative area for those Americans who died in the war. (There is some controversy about this: supposedly, each of the 4,048—or is it 4,000?-- gold stars represents 100 Americans killed in the war. The total casualties were actually over 405, 000.) The star represents the flags flown by families who had soldiers in the war; a white star meant someone from the family was in the military, a gold star meant that the soldier had been killed.

    4. A “Kilroy was here” engraving is supposed to be on the back of the golden gates next to the PA and DE pillars. See if you can find it! “Kilroy” was the name of an inspector of military goods, supposedly, who used this little signature picture and saying on things sent out. The GI’s adopted this and used the saying/cartoon as a way of identifying that they had been in a particular area.


    From the World War II Memorial we continue (going slightly to the right as we face the Lincoln Memorial) past the Constitutional Gardens to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.

    The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (notice that the word “War” is not a part of the name: this is a monument to the veterans, not to the war itself) was created by a young architect named Maya Ying Lin, an Ohio native whose parents had fled China when Mao Zedong and the communists took over. There had been a competition for choosing a design for the memorial; the guidelines were that the memorial needed to:
    1. be reflective and contemplative in character;
    2. harmonize with its surroundings;
    3. contain the names of those who had died in the conflict or who were still missing;
    4. make no political statement about the war.

    The long black reflective wall fulfills these criteria, but when it was first unveiled there were people who found it to be too unusual; thus, more traditional sculptures of soldiers were added. However, the Wall has become one of the most visited sites in the nation and tributes are left there daily. The walls, made of black granite from India, rise from the ground and go into the ground at the opposite end, signifying a full circle.

    The names on the Wall are arranged in chronological order; there are 58,261 names on the wall. Those marked with a diamond are confirmed dead; the plus signs indicate someone who is MIA (missing in action.) The plus sign is turned into a diamond if and when the person is confirmed dead; a circle will be placed around the plus sign if any are found to be living. So far, there are no circles on the memorial. The dates, numbers, and dots are all ways of helping people to find names on the Wall. Richard B. Fitzgibbon, of MA is the first known casualty, in 1956, but the Wall dates start with 1959; therefore,
his name is listed on the Wall with that of his son, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, who died Sept. 7, 1965.


    If time permits, we will go toward the Lincoln Memorial by walking along the Reflecting Pool and cross in front of it to reach the Korean War Veterans Memorial. The Korean War (1950-53) lasted 38 months and ended with Korea being divided at the 38th parallel (line of latitude); the memorial features 19 soldiers who are reflected so that there appear to be twice the number.

    The sculptures, stainless steel figures of members of the various armed forces, are over 7’ tall; each is posed differently and at any point where you are standing one of the sculptures is “looking” at you. The juniper bushes represent the harsh terrain, and the ponchos and other gear are an indicator of the awful weather conditions that the soldiers of Korea faced. The reflecting wall has photographic images of 2,400 people who were a part of the war, and there is a wall with the simple inscription, “Freedom is not free.” Rose of Sharon hibiscus bushes, a symbol of Korea, are found on the south side of the memorial.
    Returning to the Lincoln Memorial, we will climb the stairs to the huge seated statue of Lincoln created by the sculptor Daniel Chester French. The Lincoln Memorial has become known as the site for many important events, among them Philadelphia singer Marion Anderson’s concert, which was arranged by Eleanor Roosevelt after a DAR group in Washington would not allow her to use their hall due to segregation practices. In 1963, this was the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, given to 250,000 people who filled the Mall.

    Inside the classic Greek temple, there is the seated statue of Lincoln and carvings of his words from the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. There are also murals of the “Angel of Truth.” The choice of a Greek temple was not just for its appearance; the architect, Henry Bacon, felt that since Lincoln helped to preserve democracy, it would be appropriate for the Memorial to represent Greece, the birthplace of the concept of democracy. The statue also has significance, in that Lincoln’s hands are shown in two poses: clenched, in strength, and open, signifying his compassion. There is another symbol used on the front of his chair that might not be used now: the fasces, a bundle of sticks bound by a cord, symbolizing strength in unity. The statue was dedicated in 1922; very shortly thereafter, the fasces became much better known as the symbol of fascist dictatorship in Europe.

    Although some people believe that there is a sculpture of Robert E. Lee found in Lincoln’s hair, that’s just imagination; so is the story that his hands form the American sign language for “A” and “L”. What is true, though, is that from the back of the Memorial you can look out and see Arlington Cemetery, the site of our National Cemetery. The house that you see there is Arlington House, built by George Washington Custis, the adopted grandson of George Washington. His daughter married a distant cousin, the son of “Light Horse Harry” Lee of Revolutionary fame; the house served as their family home until it was confiscated by the US government in 1864 for non-payment of taxes. Of course, Mrs. Robert E. Lee wouldn’t have been paying taxes to the US government while her husband was leading the Confederate army. Almost immediately, 1,800 casualties of the Battle of Bull Run were buried there, and a Freedman’s Village (for former slaves) was established. Eventually, the eldest Lee son received the property back as the legal heir, by a Supreme Court decision in 1882, but Congress purchased the land back from him in 1883, and thus it became a part of the National Cemetery.

    Back on the bus for the return trip...traffic was a little horrendous, but the kids had a good time singing and snacking!

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