Exploring DC: The National Archives

If you want to tie up a visit to Washington DC in a perfect bow, then your last stop should be the National Archives.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

This had been an amazing vacation, but after 15 days, it was time for Dear Husband and I to go home and hug our dogs. I firmly believe that any vacation that lasts longer than that has diminishing returns. By day 16, your homesickness and exhaustion begin to overtake your excitement and joy. So, we eagerly packed up our things, but stored our luggage at the hotel because there was one last stop that we wanted to make before heading to the airport.

If you want to tie up a visit to Washington DC in a perfect bow, then your last stop should be the National Archives. As of this writing, thanks to the pandemic, one must have a timed-entry ticket in order to visit, but admission is still free. (If you plan to sightsee anywhere at all during COVID, it pays to plan months in advance. A lot is still closed or is requiring reservations.)

The National Archives houses not only our nation’s founding documents, but also, according to their website, “records that trace the story of our nation, government, and the American people.” Even my StoryCorps interview is housed somewhere therein. I had forgotten that until I started writing this post. I should have visited it.

When you approach this majestic building, you can tell the architect intended this to be a place of reverence. It is a place of significance. It is a veritable temple to our nation’s history.

The steps are flanked by two statues. Carved beneath the one on the left are the words “The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future.” Beneath the one on the right: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” That definitely sets the tone.

The first thing most people do upon entering (and we were no exception), is make a beeline for the 70-foot-tall Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. It is there where our nation’s most valuable documents are housed. These include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

To get to this rotunda, you have to pass through a set of 40-foot-tall bronze doors. The lighting is subdued, and there are guards around the perimeter, flanking each document case. And these are not Johnny Rent-a-Cops, either. You can tell that this is not a place for shenanigans. They mean business. I can’t remember for sure if they were armed, because no photographs are allowed and I was focused on the documents, but armed or not, these men and women were taking their jobs extremely seriously, and I was convinced that if I had tried anything (although nothing springs to mind) they’d have taken me down in the blink of an eye. Given that so many of my fellow Americans seem hellbent on eroding our democracy, I found their presence a comfort.

According to this article, preservation of these documents is a shockingly new idea. For example, the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, so it’s currently 245 years old, but for the first 127 years of its existence, it didn’t really occur to anyone that maybe special measures should be taken so that it would still be around for future generations. It was horribly abused and neglected in those early years, and the article describes that in detail. At one point it was tacked to a wall like a boy band poster. I’m amazed that there is anything left to look at, to be honest. The article also describes current preservation efforts.

Today these documents are benefiting from very advanced preservation techniques. The cases that house them are made of titanium. The glass that you look through to see them is bullet-proof. To avoid further deterioration, the cases are filled with inert argon gas. And every night, after the tourists have disbursed, these documents, along with their cases, are lowered into a vault that is 22 feet below the floor. We should all be taken care of so well.

I can’t begin to describe to you how much reverence and awe I felt while gazing at these documents. We’ve all seen pictures of them, of course, but here they were, right in front of me. The very bedrock of our democracy. (I wish I could have taken pictures for you guys, but I wasn’t looking to get shot.)

Let’s focus on our constitution, which was created in 1788, 12 years after our Declaration of Independence. It is the first permanent, codified constitution in the world. We had broken free of Great Britain, and they don’t have a codified constitution to this very day. That was something I learned only recently. (How on earth do you function without a constitution?)

In this country, we are taught to revere our constitution as if it were a religious document. We are told that ours is the greatest country in the world, and that this document is what made it all possible. Just as we pledge allegiance to the flag every single day in school and even at sporting events, we also used to sing hymns to our government during the commercial breaks as we children watched our Saturday morning cartoons. I still know the preamble to the Constitution because of those nifty bits of propaganda.

According to this list of national constitutions, the next constitution didn’t come about until 1814, and that was for Norway. But the vast majority of national constitutions weren’t ratified until after 1950. Cuba didn’t have one until 2019. So in that way, ours is pretty remarkable.

But here’s the thing (Yeah, yeah, there’s always a thing.): Our constitution is not the word of God. As a matter of fact, it has a lot of flaws that were corrected by subsequent countries. For example, it didn’t specify who could vote, and that has caused people without land, people of color, and the female half of our population a great deal of trouble throughout the years. If you look at our constitution and include all the amendments, it lists 26 rights for its citizens. The average bill of rights for other countries lists 60 rights. And only two other countries besides ours (Mexico and Guatemala) feel the need to list the right to keep and bear arms. And our gun violence statistics are the worst in the world.

Our Constitution hasn’t kept up with modern times by any stretch of the imagination. And yet, if you want to conduct an amusing little experiment, approach Americans, one by one, and tell them their constitution should be scrapped and completely rewritten, as the constitutions of many countries have been in order to keep up with a maturing culture. The looks of sheer horror on their faces will be priceless. We’ve been fed a reverence for this document with our mother’s milk. That’s great if that’s how you interpret patriotism. But that means our constitution is completely rigid and inflexible and no longer serves us well.

Yes, we’ve had 27 amendments to the original document, but they are few and far between. Number 27 was ratified in 1992, but before that, number 26 was in 1971. I’ll be shocked if another amendment is ratified in my lifetime. That’s a shame, because so much needs to be addressed that isn’t. The lack of amendments is not proof of a perfect document, but further evidence that this nation has been so polarized that I fear we’ll never be able to come to an agreement on anything.

We can’t even agree as to the founding fathers’ original intent with the second amendment, which was ratified in 1791, when we were still terrified that the British would overthrow our country. To them, “arms” were single shot rifles that could be fired only once every 30 seconds, and they were wielded by trained, responsible men, primarily to put food on the table. I’m quite sure that the founding fathers would have been horrified to see modern teenagers toting assault rifles.

I truly believe that it would be better to start fresh with a new constitution that is written with the knowledge and insight which comes from a more enlightened and inclusive society, one which has hopefully learned from its mistakes. Things like “All American citizens who are 18 or older shall not be prohibited from voting.” Yeah, I know. Never going to happen.

Having said all that, I was still awed by what I got to see in that rotunda. I’m sure it was part lifelong indoctrination, and part respect for this amazing democratic experiment of ours, but what it translates to is pure veneration. I’m very glad that this was our last stop in Washington DC. These documents are why DC, and the rest of this country as we know it, exists. It was only fitting to pay homage.

There are other displays in the National Archives, including one of four surviving originals of the Magna Carta that was written in 1297. It is the first known document that spells out human rights. Most of it wouldn’t work today as they were living in a feudal system, but the idea that humans should have rights, as evidenced by the Magna Carta, is what inspired our Charters of Freedom. I could not believe I was looking at this amazing charter.

I’ll be writing about a few of the other National Archives displays in a separate post, but for all intents and purposes, dear reader, this is the last official post for this particular vacation. Thanks for taking the journey with me. It’s been quite a trip!

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Exploring DC: Six Memorials and a Monument

Washington DC is chock full o’ memorials and monuments.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

As you can well imagine, Washington DC is chock full o’ memorials and monuments. We visited the ones below over the course of several days. We’d fit them in between visits to the various Smithsonian museums, based on location. There were a lot of other memorials and monuments that we missed or didn’t even think to look for, but here’s what we did manage to see.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Even though no one in my family was the right age to serve in the Vietnam War, I have visited this memorial twice, and both times it has moved me to tears. It’s kind of horrifying in its simplicity. It contains the names of the 58,318 Americans who died during this war.

The wall is set within a hill, so that the first panel you come to only has a few names on it. And as you go downward, ever downward, the number of names increase to the point where you start to feel really overwhelmed. And then as you walk up the other side, the names decrease again, but by then you know that even one name was too much.

The names are carved into polished black granite which is highly reflective. That means that as people come and look at the names, they see themselves looking back. Many people place flowers and letters and mementos at the base of these panels, and every so often the park service will go through and collect these things to be respectfully archived.

As an aside, check out one of the photos I took of the wall, below. Doesn’t it look like that woman who is facing to the right is hovering in mid-air? It’s just a trick of perspective. But I can’t explain why she looks like a statue that is made entirely of ebony. It kind of gives me the creeps. There is no statue at that location. I swear.

Another interesting fact about this memorial is that one end of the wall points to the Washington Monument, and the other end points to the Lincoln Memorial. This was intentional. It’s one more way that this memorial so effectively integrates itself into the larger landscape of Washington DC memorials.

There are also two statues at the memorial. One is called the Three Servicemen, and it honors the men and women who served in the war and later died from causes related thereto. That statue somehow manages to evoke the heat and the sweat and the mud and the exhaustion and the loss of innocence. The second statue is called the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which honors the women who served in armed forces and took part in this war. Surrounding this statue are eight yellowwood trees to specifically remember the eight servicewomen killed in action during this conflict.

The Lincoln Memorial was our next stop. Everyone is familiar with the memorial itself, if only from movies and photographs. But what I love most about it, as you can see in the pictures below, is that it’s pretty much always crawling with people. They sit on the steps because it’s our place. It belongs to all of us.

These people gaze at the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool. They stand on the very spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood to give his amazing “I have a dream” speech. They wander inside and thoughtfully gaze up at the statue of Lincoln. They recite the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln had jotted down on his way to Gettysburg, but which I think is one of the most thoughtfully and compassionately crafted speeches I have ever heard in my life.

On the other side of the hall is the speech Lincoln made at his second inauguration on March 4th, 1865. In it, he makes perfectly clear that this war was all about slavery. That’s why I include photos of it here. Don’t listen to those who try to whitewash and romanticize this war. It was about slavery. This man was there, and he’s telling you the way it was from across the decades.

It’s a remarkable inaugural speech, although not as succinct as the one he delivered at Gettysburg. As you read it, remember that the Civil War didn’t officially end until April 9th of that same year, And he had no way of knowing that when he delivered this speech. Thirty-two days after giving this inaugural address, on April 15th, to be exact, Lincoln was dead.

We sat on the steps of this memorial for quite some time. I thought about the grandeur of Washington DC. It is a very dignified city, despite all the political wrangling and outright corruption that takes place within it every single day. It is a place for Americans to be proud of, despite the fact that much of its architecture and layout is meant to intimidate others with our power, which we so often abuse. Being an American can be complicated, once the rose-colored glasses come off.

I thought, too, of the January 6th insurrectionists. How do you come to this very city and invade its capitol with violent intent? How do you disrespect this glorious democratic experiment by defecating in the hallway, dressing in horned hats with body paint, and threatening to lynch people that had (rightly or wrongly) been elected by their constituents?

I can see getting riled up at Bubba’s back yard bar-b-cue about not liking the state of things in this country. But how do you maintain that feeling through a long plane flight, an approach to this beautiful city, and a march to the capitol that was supposed to be led by your Cheeto-in-chief, but wasn’t? How, after all that, do you maintain your momentum to break in, vandalize and destroy, and put people’s lives at risk? Where does that energy come from?

Sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, it was impossible to comprehend that something like that could happen. Not in this city. Lincoln must have been spinning in his grave on that day. And yet some people still seem proud of that insurrection even now. I fear for America’s future.

On another day we stumbled upon the United States Navy Memorial. It took me a moment to transition to this dignified location, not only because the visit was unplanned, but also because we had just emerged from the Metro, which we had had almost entirely to ourselves due to the pandemic. The whole platform was occupied only by the two of us, plus a woman that was talking to herself in a very agitated fashion, while dropping her pants and depositing what looked to be a gallon of pee all over the floor. You’ve got to love big cities.

Having said that, I have to say that the Navy Memorial was really impressive. It consisted of a statue of a sailor, surrounded by an arc of three-dimensional plaques that depicted various aspects of Navy life. Here are some pictures of a few of them.

We also drove past the World War II Memorial one evening, but had no time to stop. That’s a pity, because it seemed like an amazing place. While doing research for this blog post, I also stumbled upon the World War II registry, and discovered that my father was not listed therein. And a few other friends have discovered that same situation with their relatives who served in that war. This is rather frustrating because my father’s service definitely altered the course of his life, and not for the better, and by extension it meant that I grew up without ever knowing him. So the least this registry could do was remember that the guy existed. Sheesh. I have sent them his information for inclusion, and at the time of this writing, it is currently “under review”.

On our last day in Washington DC, we decided to visit a few places that we had missed, but we had very limited amounts of time to do so. But the travel gods must have been smiling upon us, because we met Shionte, who made it all possible. The world should have more Shiontes.

She was our Uber driver to our first destination, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. When she heard of our plans for the morning, and our anxieties about not being able to fit everything in, she told us that we were her last fare of the day, so if we wanted, she’d wait for us and take us from place to place. Heck yeah!

The MLK Memorial is outstanding. It’s simple, yet powerful and to the point. It consists of a gigantic and superbly crafted statue of the man himself, plus a number of his most famous quotes carved into the surrounding walls. When the sun rises, it shines upon his countenance. And he gazes toward the Jefferson Memorial across the water, which I never quite seem to get around to visiting.

Dr. King’s statue is based on a phrase he used in his “I have a dream” speech. The phrase is “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” In this context, he represents the stone of hope, but you can still see the mountain of despair behind him. And you can see the scrape marks in all the stones, representing the struggle and movement that was required to get that stone of hope to where it is today.

I can’t think of a more dignified design that would adequately honor his legacy and the struggle for freedom, equality and justice. This Nobel Peace Prize winner was instrumental in bringing about much-needed change in this country. But we still have a long way to go.

From there, we headed back to Shionte, and she effortlessly weaved in and out of Washington DC traffic to deliver us to our next destination. En route, we learned that she was actually in the finance business, but she had been laid off due to the pandemic. I admired her ability to survive in this very expensive city under those circumstances. I hope things improve for her soon.

Next up was the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and it was huge, as befits our longest running president. He held office from 1933 to 1945, and that was a particularly trying time in our nation’s history.

The first statue you come upon at the memorial is one of President Roosevelt sitting in his wheelchair. I recall that that was a very controversial statue when it was first proposed. On the one hand, it’s an honest depiction of the man, and on the other hand, he usually went out of his way to hide his need for such a chair, so some see this as an invasion of his privacy.

I rather like it. It makes him seem approachable. Human. Like someone I could share a tuna salad sandwich with. And I love the idea of some young person in a wheelchair seeing this statue and realizing that they have as much right to have big dreams and big plans as anyone else does.

There were many FDR quotes scattered throughout the memorial, and they gave me the chills because they still apply, for better or for worse, to our present circumstances. He talks about the need for us to choose social justice and love for our fellow man. He mentions the importance of not throwing nature out of balance. He says we must guard the civil rights of all citizens, and guard against hatred, oppression, and injustice. He opines that war is a horrible thing. He says it’s more important to provide for those who don’t have enough than it is to add more to those who have much, and that there should be no forgotten men or races.

There are many cleverly integrated fountains throughout the memorial and, as I said, there are a lot of amazing statues there as well. One is of a man listening to a fireside chat on his radio. Another is of dejected men in a bread line during the depression. A third one, which I found particularly endearing, is of the man himself, with his little dog Fala. And another one is of his incredible wife Eleanor, who deserves a memorial of her own. I found her to be quite underrepresented in this one. But she’s actually the only first lady represented in a presidential memorial in this country, so that tells you a lot about the patriarchy.

Back to Shionte we went, so that she could take us to the Washington Monument. Due to the pandemic, you can’t go up the 500 feet to the obelisk’s observation deck anymore. That’s a pity because it purports to have the best possible view of DC. Instead, we went to the park store and spent entirely too much on DC souvenirs.

After that, we spotted a homeless man sleeping on the bench out front (visible in the picture above), and decided he would be the perfect person to give the rest of our food to before heading out of town. We had been making sandwiches and having healthy snacks during this entire trip rather than spending money at restaurants for every single meal. There was no sense in having this food go to waste. He thanked my husband and went back to sleep, but we knew he’d make good use of it eventually.

From there, Shionte took us back to our hotel, and DH had to chase her down the street to give her a well-deserved tip. Godspeed, Shionte, wherever you are.

We finished packing our stuff, and deposited it in the storeroom of the hotel, because it was time to check out, but not yet time to go to the airport, and we had one more must-see stop to make before heading home. That place deserves a post of its own, so watch this space!

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Exploring DC: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

This museum is not for sissies.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

Ever since the Holocaust Museum’s dedication in Washington DC in 1993, I’ve been wanting to visit. (And incidentally, check out that website link because it’s a very informative, fascinating site.) I immediately added it to our itinerary when we decided to go to our nation’s capital two months ago. The last time I was in the area was in the late 80’s, after they had broken ground for the museum in 1985, but before they had lain the first cornerstone thereof in 1988. Things move slowly in Washington.

Admission is free to this amazing place, even though it’s not part of the Smithsonian Institution. But if you want to visit in this pandemic era, know that you should plan well ahead of time. They required free timed-entry tickets as of this writing, and they’re often booked solid for months in advance.

However, if, like me, you aren’t quite that organized, don’t despair. There’s still hope. They release a limited number of same-day tickets every day. What you have to do is go to their website at 7 a.m. and try to get tickets before they disappear.

The first morning we tried this, we were surprised at how many people had also gotten up at that ungodly hour to do the exact same thing. My husband kept trying for tickets in the morning, only to see them snapped up by someone else. By the time he had gotten the hang of the process, which only took about two minutes, all the tickets for the day were gone. But we figured out a neat little trick for the second morning.

On that morning, DH logged in again at 7 a.m., but while everyone else was fighting over the early morning ticket times, he went for some that were for mid-afternoon, and he got them! Woo hoo! On a positive note, we were able to get tickets. On a less positive note, we would only have about 3 hours to check it out before it closed for the day, and that’s a whole lot less than this place deserves. (It’s open from 10 to 5:30. Also, be warned that it’s closed on Wednesdays.)

Having acquired the elusive pass into this museum, I could tell almost instantly as we approached it that it would be worth the hassle. The first thing I saw was a quote carved in stone on the outside of the building. It is a quote that I wish I could force every holocaust denier to read.

“The things I saw beggar description… The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering… I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda” -General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, at Ohrdruf Concentration Camp, April 15, 1945.

That set the tone. As we entered and waited in a long line for the elevator, we were told that we would start at the top and spiral our way down, from floor to floor. “A downward spiral, the same path far-right nations such as Nazi Germany always take,” I thought. I have no idea if this was intentional, but it was ever present in my mind during our visit.

Before you get on the elevator, you are encouraged to take an identification card from the tall stack of such cards, separated into male and female piles. One per customer. They look like the kind of cards you had to carry with you everywhere in Nazi occupied territory. Get caught without an identification card, you could be shot on the spot.

Each of these cards contains the 4 page story of a real person who lived during the Holocaust. They suggest that you read page one before entering the elevator, and then one page on each of the three floors that house the museum’s permanent exhibit. We did so. It was chilling. I’ll share with you the stories of the two people we chose in the photos below. Just sitting here rereading these stories has made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. They put a human face on each floor.

The 4th floor described the Nazi Assault, and covered the years 1933 to 1939. It explained how Hitler was able to rise to power, and how the entire country was falsely convinced that all their problems stemmed from the “racially inferior” or “enemies of the state.” Does that sound familiar? It should. Not that long ago, our government was trying to teach us to demonize immigrants and hate the press even as we were told to deny the horrifying news because it was supposed to be “fake”.

This exhibit also talks about the unscientific philosophy of Eugenics, which holds that some races are inferior to others. Where did Hitler learn that? From the Americans. Read my blog post about that here. There are many newspaper headlines on the walls, warning of the dangerous path Europe was on, and this floor also explains how so many people desperately attempted to escape, even as the world turned a blind eye.

The 3rd floor exhibit was called The Final Solution, 1940-1945. It described the slow but steady erosion of rights for the Jews. First, little things like not being allowed to have bicycles, then not being able to attend schools, and then increasingly violent persecution. Then separation into ghettos and mass murder by mobile killing squads, death camps and killing centers. It shows you what life was like in the concentration camps in grizzly detail.

Just as the Nazis did, they start you off slow. You enter a room full of photographs from floor to ceiling, showing what actual life was like for the Jews before the holocaust. Family portraits. Trips to the shore. Summer camps. Playgrounds. Holidays. Just your typical family photo album stuff.

Then you learn of the harsh policies that forced people into the ghettos, and then later forced them into the cattle cars that would transport them to one of the more than 1000 Nazi concentration camps scattered throughout occupied Europe. (Did you know there had been that many? I didn’t.) You are presented with an actual cattle car, which you have to walk through in order to see other parts of the exhibit. I knew this would be upsetting, but I don’t think I realized just how intensely the feelings would hit me.

At this point, I had gotten slightly separated from DH, and there were no other people in the immediate area, either. I walked up to the cattle car, but I didn’t want to step in. But then I told myself that no one had wanted to, and dammit, if they had to endure the horrors of the Holocaust, the least I could do was drag my over-privileged, extremely coddled behind into that car for two freakin’ seconds.

By then I was extremely foot-sore and my lower back was killing me, and I felt ashamed, because that’s not even a tiny speck of dust in comparison to the universe of terror, dread and torture that these people had to endure. Get. In. The. Damned. Boxcar.

So in I went. On one level it was just an empty boxcar. Huh. Smaller than I expected. But my imagination quickly populated it with a hundred terrified people who were crying, wailing, sweating, coughing, defecating and vomiting, desperate for water and food and space to breathe, and having no idea what was in store for them at the journey’s end.

It felt so real to me that I nearly dropped to my knees. I didn’t want to appear crazy, though, so I went into a corner and I leaned back against the wall and tried not to freak the heck out. I started weeping. This place was a box full of pain and fear, and yet I realized I was only feeling about one percent of what they had felt, because on some level I knew I could step out of that boxcar and resume my life at any second. Ultimately, that’s what I did. But I will never forget that place. Not ever.

I can tell you that this museum is not for sissies. But I felt compelled to press on, to learn, to bear witness, to prevent it from happening again. (Please, everybody, educate yourselves, and vote.)

We learned about the various concentration camps and sites of mass murder. I read about Babi Yar for the first time. It is a ravine outside of the city of Kiev where the Jews of the city were lined up and shot, over two days, to the tune of 33,000 dead. And then in the months to follow, more people were shot in that ravine, thousands more Jews, as well as Roma, partisans, and prisoners of war. In the end it was estimated that, at a bare minimum, 100,000 corpses were in that ravine. If that doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, you have no soul.

I was particularly drawn to any description of the Mauthausen camp in Austria, with its staircase of death, because my father helped to liberate it, and I’m fairly certain that he wasn’t sober a single day in his life after that. He died a sad and lonely alcoholic death when I was 8 days short of my 25th birthday. I never got a chance to know or even meet him. So I looked closely at all the photographs of Mauthausen, and the video of its liberation, and wondered if any one of those stunned American soldiers was my father.

I’ve held a certain theory my whole adult life. To wit: even though he wasn’t imprisoned there, my father was also a victim of that concentration camp, and by extension, so was I. The ripple effect of this ugly period in history continues to damage us all in numerous ways.

From there I came upon the shoes. Each death camp tended to accumulate massive piles of them, taken off the prisoner’s feet before they were gassed. This display was just a small portion of a pile of shoes from just one camp, and it was still dreadful to look at. My God, so many shoes. All that is left of so many people.

We then spiraled down to the 2nd Floor, which was called The Last Chapter. It was a floor that restored a little bit of hope within me. It was about the many people in the resistance. It told stories of those who risked death and imprisonment to save people. It talked about the underground, and the many Jews who fought back.

Being of Danish descent, I was particularly drawn to the story of the Jews of Denmark, the only occupied country that managed to save the vast majority of its Jews. 7,220 of them were smuggled into neutral Sweden. Unfortunately, 500 more were deported to Theresienstadt, but all but 51 of those poor souls survived.

The next part of the exhibit was a long wall that listed what the State of Israel call the Righteous Among the Nations. It’s a list of all those non-Jews who risked their lives during the holocaust to save Jews from extermination. The wall includes famous people such as Oskar Schindler (see also the movie Schindler’s List) to people who worked quietly in the shadows, such as Irene Gut Opdyke, a housekeeper for a German army major. She hid 18 Jews in her employer’s villa. These people and their stories should always be remembered. Here are but a few of them.

From there, the museum took on the topic of bystanders who did nothing at all. They didn’t collaborate, nor did they come to anyone’s aid. They simply stood by and looked elsewhere. They comprised the vast majority of the people, and it is that type of behavior we need to avoid if we don’t want these things to happen again.

One of the last things you see in the permanent exhibition is a cast of a wall that still stands to this day in Cracow, Poland. It is made of the fragments of Jewish headstones from a 400 year old cemetery that was destroyed by the Germans and turned into a mass execution site. What a sobering legacy.

After having gone on this downward spiral for hours, I was kind of shocked to enter the sad but tranquil Hall of Remembrance with its perpetual flame. On one wall is this quote from President Clinton, during the dedication ceremony for this museum.

“This museum will touch the life of everyone who enters and leave everyone forever changed – a place of deep sadness and a sanctuary of bright hope; an ally of education against ignorance, of humility against arrogance, an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lures ahead. If this museum can mobilize morality, then those who have perished will thereby gain a measure of immortality.”

Well said, Bill. But the editor in me wants to know why you said “lures”.

I wish we had had the time to see the temporary exhibits, including Burma’s Path to Genocide, which reminds us that these atrocities can and do still happen to this day, and especially the one called American Witnesses, which tells stories of the people like my father who saw the awful aftermath of the Holocaust firsthand, and the exhibit for children that shows the experience of the Holocaust through the eyes of one particular child. But time is fleeting.

After we left the ubiquitous gift shop, still feeling rather stunned, we realized that we were one of the last visitors in the building, and we watched all the employees leave as we stood in the rain, waiting for our Uber. The rain made me feel miserable, but at the same time it felt like the tears from the victims of our twisted and flawed human past. In that context, my irritation at little bit of cold water flowing down the back of my neck seemed trivial, indeed.

Exploring DC: The FBI Experience and Ford’s Theatre

If only there had been an FBI before Lincoln was assassinated.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind Washington DC tour, you’ll have to plan at least a month in advance. Back in the day, people would line up around the block to see the FBI Experience. It’s been going on in one form or another since 1937. Then 9/11 happened. Then COVID happened. Now, you can only enter this fascinating place if you have a family member who works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or if you contact your congressional representative.

Once you’ve gotten someone to reach out for you to secure a tour date, you must provide your name, birth date and Social Security number. The FBI will then do a security check. After all, you will be entering FBI Headquarters in our nation’s capital. They need to protect their personnel, building, information systems, and of course, all visitors.

I can’t speak for Dear Husband, but just walking up to the FBI building gave me the shivers. I was excited about our visit, but I also feel that it’s an intimidating building, and I suspect that that’s intentional. And while I had no doubt that they take security extremely seriously therein, I know that this democracy has enemies, and this place might be one possible target for their wrath. And yet I was heading right toward it. Little ol’ me.

Upon entering, you naturally have to pass through security, and it’s very similar to what one does to get on an airplane these days. The difference is that there is not a long line of people in a desperate hurry behind you, and these security guys were much more professional and courteous. We weren’t treated like cattle as one usually is by harried TSA agents.

You must present a photo ID. You are told not to take pictures until you enter the museum itself. There’s a long list of prohibited items, such as beverages, video recorders, weapons and fireworks, so travel as light as you can for this tour.

You are then ushered into a waiting room, where you will meet your guide. If you arrive early there is a nice gift shop and an interesting overview video to watch. There are also a few wall-mounted displays, including one with a very old letter from a young boy complaining that his toy gun, which he had purchased in the gift shop with his hard-earned allowance, got confiscated before the tour and wasn’t returned to him. The director’s letter back apologizes for the inconvenience and reimburses him the $1.25. I can barely remember that level of customer service.

Our guide met us in the waiting room. He was a very nice young man in a very serious suit who was clearly quite proud to be a part of the FBI, and was extremely knowledgeable when we asked questions. (I only wish he could have remembered to keep his nose under his face mask.)

Our tour would only include us and three other people, so the guide was able to give us lots of attention. We felt like VIPs. He walked us up a flight of stairs that included interesting information about the bureau’s diversity. (Rather than repeat it, I urge you to zoom in on the picture.

There were many displays about the jobs available in the FBI. We also got to see J. Edgar Hoover’s actual desk. I was dying to ask the guide if Hoover’s sexuality was widely known in the department at the time, as it apparently was in the Mafia. According to the stairway we had just climbed, LGBT were not allowed security clearances until 1985. But I didn’t know the political leanings of our guide or of anyone else in our group, and for once I wasn’t in the mood to ruffle conservative feathers. Out of respect for the person who was kind enough to get us in here for this tour, I was determined to maintain a level of decorum and avoid controversy.

There was an interactive exhibit that allowed you to collect evidence to solve a crime. There was a display showing the insane number of bullet rounds a special agent goes through when doing firearms training at the FBI Academy at Quantico. Another showed all the specialized equipment someone on the bomb squad might use, and a third described the Victim Services Division that was established after 9/11. They even have crisis response canines. If I were young enough to be hired, I think that’s the department I would want to be in. Well, that or the forensics lab.

An exhibit that I found particularly fascinating was a replica of a hotel room that was set up for surveillance of some high-profile criminal whose name escapes me. It just looks like a normal hotel room. Nothing looks amiss. But the guide pointed out that the painting on the wall included the artist’s signature, which contained a period, and that period was actually a hidden camera. I was intrigued but at the same time I was creeped out.

Our guide talked to us at length about some really famous cases and how the FBI solved them. In particular, we discussed the tragic Boston Marathon Bombing which you can read about in more detail here. For our purposes, suffice it to say that the scumbags were two brothers, and one ran over and killed the other with a stolen car while escaping from a shootout with the police. Oops. Later, the surviving brother was discovered to be hiding in a boat in the back yard of one very startled citizen. The police shot and wounded him (the bomber, not the startled citizen), and they pretty much trashed the boat in the process, in order to take him into custody. The actual boat in question, bullet holes and all, is the last thing you see at the FBI Experience. By then our guide had already departed, or I would have asked him if the poor boat owner got reimbursed for the vessel. I hope so.

That’s a lot of bullet holes.

I really enjoyed my visit to the FBI Experience. If you have the opportunity to see it, it’s well worth all the hoops you have to jump through to do so. Many thanks to the person who helped us get in. You know who you are.

After that, we headed to Ford’s Theatre, which is only a two-minute walk due north from the FBI building, on 10th Street. This is where President Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln would have greatly benefited from having an FBI, but unfortunately that agency wasn’t created until 1908.

Ironically, the Secret Service was established about three months after Lincoln’s death in 1865, but it’s mission at the time was mostly to investigate counterfeiting. It is estimated that one third of the currency circulating back then was fake. Lincoln had established the commission that would recommend a secret service. That agency wouldn’t be tasked to provide protection to presidents until 1901, after President McKinley, too, had been assassinated.

Walking up to Ford’s Theatre, past Honest Abe’s Souvenir Store and Lincoln’s Waffle Shop, I couldn’t help but wonder what the man himself would think about how we have turned his assassination into a morbid spectacle and a profit generating machine. Yes, it’s an important part of our nation’s history, but the exploitation of it is a bit macabre when you think about it.

Having said that, the museum and the theatre are pretty darned amazing. The tour used to also include a visit to the Petersen House across the street where Lincoln was carried and where he died hours later, and an exhibit that explores the aftermath of this tragedy, including the hunt for John Wilkes Booth, and the path of the president’s funeral train. Unfortunately, COVID has taken its toll on history, too. Those two parts of the tour are closed because they are rather close quarters, and social distancing would be all but impossible to maintain.

The museum was quite informative. It was self-guiding, and you could also get an audio guide for reasonable additional fee. We found the guides to be quite worth it.

The displays described Lincoln’s administration and his family life and his love of the theater. It discussed the conspirator’s plot and the actual deed itself. I had forgotten that there had been a Baltimore assassination attempt as well. Lincoln’s private bodyguard offered to give Lincoln a variety of weapons after that, but Detective Allan Pinkerton, who was in charge of what little protection Lincoln had, didn’t approve of the idea. (One wonders how Pinkerton’s agency has remained viable in one form or another to this very day, given his epic fail on Lincoln’s behalf. Don’t even get me started on its reputation for strike breaking.)

After looking at the display of the weapons that had been offered to him, I doubt they’d have done Lincoln any good. He was shot from behind. The bullet entered his head before he knew what was happening. He probably never knew on any real level. He had been laughing at the play when he was shot. He never regained consciousness, and died 9 hours later.

The actual gun that killed him is on display, and is shockingly tiny. It only has room for one little lead ball, and was only accurate at very close range. Also on display is a white plastic replica of the gun that visitors used to be able to touch in the pre-COVID era, but now that, too, is encased in plexiglass.

After the museum we were able to enter the theatre itself. It’s a beautiful place, and I was surprised to discover that they still put on the occasional play. In fact, there were books piled up on the stage, and when I asked about them, an enthusiastic docent told me that they had been props for a play that had been staged here just a few days previously. They also put on A Christmas Carol every year. I bet that’s fun. The docent confirmed for me that nobody gets to sit in the president’s box during these events.

Another surprise was that a back door right behind the stage leads directly to the alley. It was wide open when we visited. You can see it in the photo below. No wonder John Wilkes Booth was able to beat such a hasty retreat. Apparently he had a horse waiting for him right there. He couldn’t have designed the place better if he had built it himself. (Although he would probably have preferred a shorter jump to the stage, since it caused him to break his leg.)

The president’s box was smaller than I expected, too, and the chair he was sitting in was horrifyingly close to the door. In order to get to it, one must walk up a steep flight of stairs, then walk behind every single one of the patrons sitting on that level, until you get to the opposite side of the balcony that provides the door to the box. The president caused a stir when he walked in, but Booth didn’t, because he was a known quantity. He had acted on that very stage.

The docent was quick to point out that carrying Lincoln’s limp and extremely tall body own those stairs, across the street in the rain, and up the stairs to the Petersen house must have been a horror. Surprisingly, there was very little blood. In fact, there was confusion at first as to the location of his wound, or even whether he had been stabbed or shot.

We walked that same path his body had traveled, even though we couldn’t enter the house. I could imagine the street full of people, standing vigil. I imagined myself standing amongst them, waiting for news. I could all but see the doctor coming out every hour to give an update, until that final update which must have been so devastating to hear.

It’s always a little strange when you stand in the very spot where the world completely changed. Check out the Ford Theatre’s very detailed website to get more information on this incident and how the world reacted in its aftermath. But understand that actually being there, in that very place, adds a whole new level to your understanding. I highly recommend that you visit.

To make this day even more sobering, we then took an Uber to the Holocaust Museum. It deserves a post all to itself. That one should appear on my blog in 4 days, so watch this space!

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Exploring DC: Smithsonian Castle and the Kennedy Center

Both are examples of what wonders we humans can produce when we work together toward positive goals.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

On this day we were hoping to visit the Holocaust Museum, but it requires entry reservations thanks to the pandemic, and they are booked solid for months in advance. They do hold back a few tickets each day, but you have to log into their website at 7 am to try for those tickets. Dear Husband did just that, and watched the tickets all disappear within two minutes. All this while I continued snoring. But as is so often the case, that failure was good experience. We discovered a reservation trick that I’ll reveal in the blog post I write about that museum, coming soon.

Meanwhile, today was going to require a change in plans, so we decided to stop in to the Smithsonian Castle for inspiration. If you plan to visit more than one Smithsonian Museum while in DC, I strongly suggest that you go to the castle first. It’s the information hub for all things Smithsonian. However, it turns out that thinking that that’s all that it is is a big mistake. (Don’t you just love an awkwardly constructed sentence?)

The Castle was the very first Smithsonian building. Construction ended in 1855. It took 8 years to complete. It’s full of Gothic, Romanesque, and Norman architectural elements. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see 12th century knights in full armor and ladies fair wandering about the grounds. It’s a time warp of a building.

The building was designed by James Renwick, Jr., the same architect who brought us St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. As you enter, one of the many things you get to see is the original cardboard model that Renwick submitted, which understandably won him the contract. Behind that model is an interesting photo of buffalo grazing in front of the castle in 1889, before the zoo was started. Washington DC was kind of a backwater back then. Raw sewage ran in the streets and into the Potomac, and pigs wandered everywhere. It was a swampy, disease-ridden place, with no museums to be had. This one must have caused quite a stir.

The castle is made of a warm, Seneca red sandstone, and unfortunately slaves were used to quarry the stone. However, there’s no evidence to suggest that slaves were used for the construction of this edifice. That’s something, at least, given the fact that Washington DC was full of slaves back then, and emancipation was not yet a thing.

The first thing you encounter by the entrance of the castle is the crypt that is home to the tomb of James Smithson. A fascinating little side note about Smithson is that he never stepped foot in America while alive. He left his fortune to us for the purpose of starting a Smithsonian Institution because his only heir died without having children, and he wanted to leave some sort of dignified legacy. It is said that because he was born out of wedlock, despite having high-born parents, he was not treated well by English society, so his money going to America instead of England could also be interpreted as a final face slap. Regardless of what his motivations were, he’s a personal hero of mine, because we have been benefiting from this man’s generosity ever since.

After the crypt, the center of the castle is, indeed, full of information about the Smithsonian, as well as a place for gift shops and a café. The castle also houses the Smithsonian administrative offices. But the wings off to the sides held fascinating exhibits. More on those exhibits in a minute. Let me rant first.

My only complaint about the Smithsonian institution in general in this COVID era is that they don’t have enough volunteers, and for some reason that means they feel that it’s not prudent to leave their National Parks Passport stamps out in most of their buildings. (Every other national park has left their stamps relatively unattended and they don’t seem to get stolen, so I don’t understand why this is the attitude at the Smithsonian.) All of the Smithsonian is part of our National Parks System, and I was looking forward to collecting stamps everywhere I went. Once I figured out that most places had locked away said stamps, I assumed that at least the castle, the information hub of it all, would have all the stamps for all the museums. But no. They, too, are hidden away. This is heartbreaking. I hope they’ll see fit to change that, perhaps make the castle stamp central, in the near future.

Anyway, back to the exhibits. One side of the castle, called Commons 1, is full of displays from the various Smithsonian museums. If those museums were movies, these displays would be the previews. They whet your appetite for all the other Smithsonian locations. Commons 2 is all about the fragments and souvenirs of various famous buildings and events throughout the world. You can see an interactive, panoramic view of the inside of various rooms in the castle here.

There’s also a cozy library in the castle as well as some beautiful gardens surrounding it, all of which encourage deep contemplation about all the various topics that all the various Smithsonian museums support. Just interacting with the Smithsonian on any level kind of makes you feel smarter. It definitely makes you hold all forms of edification in high esteem. That can only be a good thing in an era when ignorance seems to abound.

That evening we got to do something else that was very exciting. We went to the Kennedy Center to see the musical Hadestown. I had blogged about this musical here, nearly 3 years ago, and finally my dream see it was to come true. And to make the experience even better, we were seeing it in a venue that I’ve always wanted to experience, and with my dear friend Martine, whom I haven’t seen face to face in more than 7 ½ years.

We met Martine at the Tazza Café, a delicious Mediterranean restaurant that’s right across the street from the Kennedy Center. The food was wonderful, and it gave us time to catch up a bit before going to the play. It also helped me reaffirm that Martine is one of my favorite people, and has an amazing future ahead of her.

Entering the Kennedy Center makes you know, deep in the marrow of your bones, that you’re about to see a special event. It is our National Cultural Center, and it was named after Kennedy two months after his assassination because he was the center’s most enthusiastic fundraiser and he was devoted to the advancement of the performing arts in the United States. It officially opened to the public in 1971, so we were attending during its 50th anniversary.

The center houses the Concert Hall, the Opera House, and the Eisenhower Theater, along with the Family Theater, the Terrace Theater, the Theater Lab, the Millennium Stage and the Terrace Gallery. The place is huge, to put it mildly. If all venues were at capacity at the exact same time, it would seat 7,262 people. It is nearly 1.5 million square feet of floor space sitting on 17 acres of outrageously expensive land on the Potomac River. It’s also the home of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera.

Directly from the Kennedy Center’s website:

“The Center’s mission is established in its authorizing statute:  present classical and contemporary music, opera, drama, dance, and other performing arts from the United States and other countries; promote and maintain the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as the National Center for the Performing Arts; strive to ensure that the education and outreach programs and policies of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts meet the highest level of excellence and reflect the cultural diversity of the United States; provide facilities for other civic activities at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; and provide within the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts a suitable memorial in honor of the late President.  To fulfill the mission as the nation’s cultural center, the Kennedy Center presents world-class art by the artists that define our culture today, delivers powerful arts education opportunities nationwide, and embodies the ideals of President Kennedy in all the Center’s activities provided throughout the living memorial.”

If for nothing else, you know of the Kennedy Center for the program the Kennedy Center Honors. They honor five artists or groups every year for their lifetime achievements. This year, two of the people they will be honoring are Bette Midler and Joni Mitchell. (You can catch the event on CBS on December 22nd at 9/8 central.) And it takes place in the Opera House, the very same venue where we would see Hadestown! I wonder what famous behinds will sit in our nosebleed seats. Here are some pictures we took of the center in general, and the Opera House in particular.

Hadestown was amazing. It’s a modern adaptation of two ancient stories: That of Orpheus and Eurydice, and also that of Hades and Persephone. It’s full of very talented dancers and singers, and the set itself is spectacular. It even has a rotating floor that made me kind of feel sorry for the cast. Not only do you have to sing well and dance well, but you also have to do this on a spinning floor? Seriously? And yet they carried it off without a hitch. I was quite proud of them, and awed by them. I must say I’ve never spent a more entertaining time in hell, and I’d go back again if it meant I could experience this musical once more. Go see this play is what I’m saying to you. It’s worth the price of admission.

Both the Smithsonian Castle and the Kennedy Center are examples of what wonders we humans can produce when we work together toward positive goals. It’s kind of stunning to realize that these two places are in our nation’s capital, where there is currently so much greed and division and toxicity. The very best and the very worst of humanity all in one amazing city. Visit Washington DC if you can, to experience a very unique mixture of amazement and disgust. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, indeed.

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Exploring DC: Modern Art and Sculpture Gardens

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

True confession: I used to be really intimidated by art. I worried that I wouldn’t be capable of understanding what I was seeing. What if I didn’t interpret it the right way? I felt a huge responsibility to artists to “get it right”. I also didn’t want to be perceived as a fool.

With age, I stopped caring about what people thought of me and my opinions. I focused on the fact that I loved art and I was delighted that humans were capable of creating such a variety of lenses through which to view the world. What I chose to see through those lenses should not matter to anyone but me. I also learned that my appreciation of an artist’s work could be greatly expanded by reading about his or her vision for the project, but even if I saw things that the artist hadn’t intended for me to see, I still took pleasure in my observations. Finally, I concluded that, as an overarching definition of what art is meant to be, I had somehow gotten it right after all.

Now when I see a pool of art, I jump right into it without even testing the water, because I know that I’ll enjoy it come what may. It’s rather liberating. I’m able to emotionally skinny-dip in the art world without any shame. (Just please don’t steal my clothes on the shoreline.)

I woke up smiling, because this day in Washington DC we planned to dedicate to art. We would visit the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and then check out another sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art.

I happen to love modern and contemporary art, and the Hirshhorn Museum is one of the most visited museums of this type in the United States. I was looking forward to seeing the works of many groundbreaking artists. I was not disappointed.

First, a bit about the building itself. When it’s not being renovated, it looks to me like a giant concrete snare drum. It’s basically an elevated cylinder that’s hollow in the center. Many people consider it a sculpture in and of itself, but I’ll be honest. It’s not exactly my favorite architecture in our Nation’s Capital.

Well, I should say that it isn’t usually. But right now, it’s being extensively renovated to increase its energy efficiency and their ability to control the humidity levels in the galleries. To hide the unsightly renovation work, the whole building has been draped in an amazing piece of art called Draw the Curtain by Nicholas Party.

This curtain is a series of women, depicted in Greco-Roman style, peeking from behind a variety of lush curtains. Backlit at night, it positively glows. And it does make you want to go into the building, despite the construction, to see what’s hidden behind those curtains. And enter we did.

The first exhibit we saw was called The Weather by the artist Laurie Anderson.

She has an eclectic body of work. The first thing you see is a video of a mesmerizing performance piece by the artist herself. It makes you realize that you’re in for a treat.

In another room is an installation called Salute. You walk into blackness, and then see two rows of silky red flags waving at each other. They’re moving mechanically, but the implication is that there are people who you cannot see who are waving the flags. The music is ominous. Sometimes the flags are imitating each other, or at least moving in harmony. Other times they are working at cross purposes. Sometimes even the ones on the same side don’t agree with each other. What a simple, elegant way to depict the precarious state of international relations. It gave me goose bumps.

Some brief footage I took, but the movement was constantly changing.

Much of Anderson’s work is based on stories. She’s an amazing writer. Her words transport you to another reality. Sometimes they make you question reality. In one room, once again black, you enter a word of chaotic white graffiti. You never want to stop reading the fascinating vignettes that are interspersed with odd sculptures. I won’t even pretend to describe this place. Pictures will have to suffice. I did, though, look at the guard that was standing in the midst of all this fascinating chaos and said to him, “You must have really weird dreams.” He laughed.

Here are a few of Anderson’s stories on display.

The last room in the Anderson exhibit was entitled Habeas Corpus. She does love her black rooms. This one had lights shining on a disco ball chandelier, and in the corner is a gigantic pillow in the shape of a man sitting on a recliner, and projected on that pillow is a video of Mohammed el Gharani, talking about his life.

He was captured by our government when still a child, and was accused of being a terrorist. He was sent to Guantanamo Bay and was tortured for seven years. Finally a judge ordered him returned to Chad as we had no legitimate evidence against him. He is now in Chad, but still has no identity papers and is essentially stateless. Google him for more information, and ask yourself, “How dare we?”

The next exhibit was called Pickett’s Charge, by Mark Bradford. These were very large textured works. They were 400 linear feet long, so they were displayed in a circle. The work is based on an 1883 painting of this particular civil war battle. He used colored paper, what appears to be twine, and ripped up reproductions of that painting to create a body of work that really made me feel the true chaos of war. Here are a few pictures.

Next, we enjoyed the work of Marcel Duchamp, a French artist. He believed that an artist’s ideas are more important than craft or aesthetics. I was particularly fascinated by his work called Hat Rack. Seeing it floating in mid air with no visible support was surreal, and the shadow cast on the wall was as beautiful as the rack itself. There were also a steady stream of quotes from Duchamp that made me stop and think, as did the semi-transparent chessboard that you were invited to sit at, and take photos from below.

The whole museum was absolutely mind blowing, even the linoleum floors and walls by the gift shop. We didn’t want to leave. Dear husband and I agree that it was one of our favorite places in DC.

It was a beautiful Autumn day, so from there, we headed outside to the Hirshhorn’s sunken sculpture garden. I love how sculptures can be seen from various angles, and the time of day, the lighting, and even the weather can make them look different, as if these things have lives that you’d love to know more about. My words won’t do this place justice, so here are some photos.

After that, we walked across the National Mall to the sculpture garden in the National Gallery of Art. It’s a lovely place full of winding paths and plenty of benches. It’s the kind of place that begs for a picnic lunch. Again, words aren’t sufficient. Enjoy the photos below, but I also urge you to visit their excellent website to see every single one of the sculptures, complete with detailed descriptions.

I would have loved to have seen the National Gallery itself, along with the Freer Sackler Galleries, the African Art Museum, and the Portrait Gallery, just to name a few of the other amazing art venues that are on offer in Washington DC, but unfortunately our time was limited. Even so, I must say that I ended the day feeling that my cravings for art had been satisfied, indeed.

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Exploring DC: The National Museum of Natural History

The exhibition space is the size of 6 football fields.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

I have been to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC twice in my life. The first time was at least 25 years ago, and I have vague memories of dinosaur skeletons, but that’s about it. So I treated my recent visit as if it were the first time. It was that level of excitement for my nerdy self. And even if I could remember visit number one, I suspect a lot has changed in the past 25 years. For one thing, we all had to wear pandemic masks, of course, but we also passed through metal detectors and had our bags searched. It was well worth the minor sacrifice in freedom to enter this place, which, like all the Smithsonian Museums, is absolutely free.

As I entered the museum, I was comparing it to visits to other Natural History museums I’ve seen. New York City. Ontario. These are my favorite types of museums, and they’re all massive, but this one in DC is even more gigantic. The exhibition space is about the size of 6 football fields, and that doesn’t even take into account the other 3/4ths of the building, which is off limits to the public, and houses offices and labs and the like.

More than 7 million people pass through these metal detectors every year. I will never get over the fact that it’s free because I attempted to go to the one in New York City on one of the free days it used to have, and the security guard bullied me into paying up anyway even though I couldn’t afford it and subsequently couldn’t have lunch. That’s my primary memory of that place. (I was a lot younger then. If they even have free days now, I wouldn’t put up with that foolishness at my age.) First impressions count for a lot.

But like I said, the one in DC is free, and we went right in, not to be confronted by a hostile guard but rather by a dinosaur skull that is bigger than me. Talk about a first impression! Holy moly.

Given this place’s size, and the fact that we only had about 4 hours to enjoy it, we had  to resign ourselves to the fact that we were going to miss a lot. But I believe we did catch all the highlights.

For example, out front is a replica of one of only 17 remaining colossal stone heads that were produced by the Olmec culture in what is now part of Mexico, at around 900 BC. As a Latin American Studies major, I have always wanted to see one of these heads. The replica is a faithful reproduction of the original 6-ton basalt monument. I wanted to kiss it on the lips.

The Olmecs transported the stones at least 93 miles and it took them years to create the finished product. The original of the head in DC is located in the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa, Veracruz. Even seeing the replica was a heady experience. (Sorry. Had to.)

We also saw the famous Hope Diamond, pictured below. When you see a diamond that huge (it’s 45.52 karats, and more than an inch across at its widest point) it is hard to believe that it’s real. The display said the diamond is more than a billion years old. That’s another thing that’s hard to imagine.

This diamond was discovered in the 1600’s in India, and has been recut and reduced in size twice. Louis XIV of France had it first. Then in 1792 it was stolen during the French Revolution. No one knew where it was for 20 years after that. Then it popped up in London, reduced in size by 20 karats, and was sold to King George IV. After his death it was bought by Henry Hope, a gem collector, and has borne his name ever since.

In 1901 it was sold all over the place, and then in 1912 Cartier sold it to Evelyn Walsh McLean of Washington DC. She wore it quite a bit. Her Great Dane may have even worn it once. The rest of the time she hid it under her couch cushions.

The jeweler Harry Winston of New York bought it from her estate in 1949, and he had it tour the world to raise money for charity, which I think is wonderful. Winston gave it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958, so now it technically belongs to all US citizens, but don’t go trying to borrow it. Rumor has it that it is cursed.

Curse or no curse, I got to get within a foot and a half of it. It was a surreal moment. I was standing next to something worth 250 million dollars. I couldn’t help but think that that would be a lot of hot meals for the homeless. I bet the Smithsonian’s insurance premiums are a bit pricey, too.

We saw a phenomenal gem and mineral display that made me all the more impressed by Mother Nature. We also saw some amazing fossils. We wandered through Bones Hall to gaze at the skeletons of creatures great and small. In the Ancient Egypt area, we saw beautiful coffins and interesting mummies, but the thing that stood out for me the most was the mummy of a bull, which is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We even got to see a giant Easter Island Statue.

I was sad not to be able to visit the insect zoo or the butterfly pavilion, and we sort of ran through the Hall of Human Origins and the African Voices hall, the Hall of Mammals and the Ocean hall. It’s all rather a blur. There was just no time. You could visit this museum for days and still miss things.

And of course, the building itself, just like all the Smithsonian buildings, was a sight to see. Below are some of the best of the hundreds of pictures we took during our surface dive into natural history. Enjoy!

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Exploring DC: The Library of Congress

I have always been in awe of the very concept of this building.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

Our first morning in Washington DC started off with high hopes and a great deal of excitement. We went over our day’s plans while we ate the hotel’s complimentary breakfast. We had decided that there was really no point to keep the rental car. Parking and driving in this city is a nightmare. And since 99 percent of the things we wanted to see in the next few days were located in or around the National Mall, and the weather was lovely, we thought we’d rent bicycles.

There was a Capital Bikeshare station just a half block from our hotel. We had done our homework and learned you could get a day pass for $8. We downloaded the app and then struggled to figure out how to use it. This meant we got a later start than usual, and thanks to COVID, we had to schedule an appointment for our first stop, the Library of Congress, and time was a waistin’.

Dear Husband hopped on his bike and cruised along without breaking a sweat. I had expected to do the same. We have been exercising regularly and losing weight, and I was feeling good about myself until I got on that damned bike.

Downtown DC seems relatively flat after having been in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but I was huffing and puffing. And sweating. And then my heart started pounding and I got dizzy and had a sneezing fit. I had to stop. When I was still drenched in sweat and my heart was still pounding 20 minutes later, it became quite clear that I wasn’t going to be biking around DC. Not even in my wildest dreams.

For the rest of the day, I was struggling to breathe and my heart continued to pound and the sneezing fits came and went. I was convinced that I had finally gotten COVID, but subsequent tests said that wasn’t the case. The doctor was stumped, too. Tests revealed nothing. It was definitely not a heart attack. The working theory at this point is that I got bitten by something in the woods of North Carolina and had had a strong but delayed reaction. I did have several hard bites on my arms and legs. Benadryl helped.

It was a long day, which included me bursting into tears in public because I was convinced I was ruining our vacation. I was overtired. I seem to have one melt down every vacation. And incidentally, if you think getting stared at by strangers while crying is awkward, try sneezing in public in the midst of a pandemic. People were glaring at me.

We weren’t able to visit the White House Visitor’s Center because that was to be the last day it was open during our stay and I just wasn’t up to it. Of course the White House was off limits, and thanks to the insurrectionists, we couldn’t even peek at the Capitol Rotunda.

That night, once we figured out I wasn’t going to drop dead, I slept and DH biked around the city, taking night pictures, as we had done by car the night before. Washington DC is stunningly beautiful after dark. Here are some of the pictures we took.

Anyway, the next day I was fine. We wound up getting around town via Uber and Metro, which cost more than we had hoped to spend, but that’s the nature of travel, isn’t it? Expect the unexpected.

So, let’s start again. The Library of Congress is located behind the now inaccessible Capitol building, so this picture is as close as we got to Congress on this trip. We also went past a cute Little Free Library, so naturally we took pictures of it, too. Sadly, we no longer had any books to drop off, but that turned out to be just as well, because on closer inspection it was a Little Free Art Gallery. What a nifty idea.

We finally got to the Library of Congress, and we threw ourselves on their mercy, because quite obviously we hadn’t made our appointment. They took pity and let us in anyway. I’m forever grateful.

I have always been in awe of the very concept of this building. It is the biggest library in the entire world. It contains some 170 million Items. I once visited the Library at Harvard, because a friend loaned me a student ID and I was able to sneak in. It contains 18.9 million items, and I was overwhelmed. So the Library of Congress collection is beyond all comprehension, as far as I am concerned.

The library is housed in three buildings on Capitol Hill, plus a conservation center in Virginia, and some off-site storage facilities. The three buildings in DC are connected by underground passageways, but we only explored the Thomas Jefferson Building. It’s the oldest of the three, and opened in 1897.

Even though the library is open to the public for research, mere mortals can’t actually take the any of the materials from the building. Only high-ranking government officials and library employees get to do that. Naturally, anyone can visit their fascinating and comprehensive website. Since I was exploring that site, I searched for my book, but no, they don’t have it. Is it arrogant of me to contact them and ask them to include it in their collection? Too late! I just did. And was promptly rejected. But I digress.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, the Jefferson Building. The architecture alone makes it worth the visit. And I love what they’ve done with some of the statuary.

The very first display I came upon was the Gutenberg Bible. It made me weak in the knees. The first book printed with movable type, which paved the way for every other printed book on the planet, was right in front of me. There are only four intact copies of this book printed on velum in the world, and this was one of them. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life.

Because I assumed people would think I was nuts if I just camped out in front of the Gutenberg Bible for the rest of the day, and because Dear Husband is not one for sitting still, we went into another room to check out an exhibit called “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote.”  Women’s Suffrage is a subject near and dear to my heart, so this exhibit was fascinating, and deserving of a blog post all its own. Rest assured, it’s on my to do list.

Next we walked into the Thomas Jefferson collection, which I consider to be a hallowed hall. It is, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of the Library of Congress. I never thought I’d lay eyes on this collection myself.

The Library of Congress was first established by President John Adams in the year 1800. Thomas Jefferson was president from 1801 to 1809. By 1814, the library had about 3000 volumes, which the British promptly burned in that same year. At that time, Jefferson had the largest personal collection of books in the country. He sold it to congress for $23,950 in 1815, which, according to an online inflation calculator, is equivalent to $430,149.78 today.

The purchase was controversial, as Daniel Webster said that some of the books were “of an atheistical, irreligious, and immoral tendency.” Nevertheless, it was a wise acquisition, because with these 6,487 volumes, the library had more than doubled in size. Sadly, another fire in 1851 destroyed about 2/3rds of this original collection. What I was looking at now was the third that survived, plus identical copies of the burned books that the library has been slowly tracking down and assembling over time. The original volumes have ribbons in one color, and the replacements in another, so you can distinguish between the two sets.

In this age of COVID, no volunteer docents were physically present, but the library has gotten around this problem by having TV screens in each exhibit that show the docents live. You step up to the screen, ask your question, and the docent, who is heaven knows where, responds. I asked my digital docent which book, of all in this collection, surprised him the most. He responded that he was impressed by the fact that Jefferson owned a copy of the Koran. The former president was fascinated with it because he had often heard it referred to in books of Arabic law. Jefferson was very enlightened for this period in history. I’m willing to bet that for every 1,000 modern Americans who attempt to criticize this book, only 1 has bothered to read it, which is why I find those criticisms laughable. (Yes, I have a copy of the Koran. No, I haven’t read it. Yet. Baby steps. I haven’t ever read the Bible all the way through, either. They are both rather hefty reads.)

Bidding adieu to the eclectic mind of Thomas Jefferson, we moved on to the next exhibit, entitled Rosa Parks in Her Own Words. Watching her speak on camera made me realize that I had never heard her actual voice before. I was fascinated. This is another exhibit that deserves its own blog post. But I will say this: I was taught growing up that Rosa Parks was a seamstress who was really tired one day and refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, and from there the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and by extension the Civil Rights Movement as we know it, was born.

In fact, her decision was far from spur of the moment. She had been an activist her entire life. She knew exactly what she was doing. I look forward to writing about this admirable woman in more detail soon. I have the Library of Congress to thank for teaching me that she was much more formidable than she was footsore.

Next came an exhibit that warmed the cockles of my Latin American Studies major heart. Entitled, “Exploring the Early Americas,” it was a fascinating collection of indigenous artifacts that really ought to be repatriated to their original countries, but hey, I’m glad I got to check out the loot.

I was particularly intrigued by the exhibit called “Mapping a Growing Nation”. I do love maps, particularly old ones that people clearly worked hard on but got entirely wrong. I zeroed right in on the maps of St. Augustine, Florida, because I lived and studied there for four years. The errors were too numerous to mention, but the maps were still works of art.

Before leaving, we had a chance to gaze down into the world famous room where people do their research when visiting the library. I can’t help but wonder how often Ruth Bader Ginsburg visited this place. Did she have a favorite table? What other famous people in the past century have had their questions answered here?

There is so much to see in Washington DC that we had to move on. Our next destination was the Natural History Museum, the subject of the next Exploring DC post. But I have to say it was hard leaving our nation’s most extensive library, just as it’s hard for me to leave any library, even my little free one.

Why? I’ll leave you with a quote emblazoned in gold leaf on a wall of the Library of Congress. “Ignorance is the curse of God. Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”

If only everyone understood this.

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The Ghosts of Washington DC Drawbridges

DC has multiple drawbridges and at the same time has zero drawbridges.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

We arrived in Washington DC from North Carolina just before dusk, and after about 8 hours in the car, I was in a bit of a stupor. And I hadn’t even been the one doing the driving.

Crossing the Potomac felt rather surreal. Most people who arrive via Interstate 395 would probably tell you that their first glimpse of DC was the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument. Clearly these people aren’t bridgetenders like I am.

The first thing I saw was quite unexpected. I saw a tenderhouse, which is where a bridge operator opens and closes a drawbridge. It was a beauty, too. For some reason that I still can’t figure out, the windows reflected a rainbow. I had to snap the pictures quickly, because DC traffic is horrible enough without us coming to a dead stop on a major entryway to the metropolis. I could swear I saw a bridgetender in the windows, and I still maintain I can see one in these pictures.

I remember thinking, “Wow, what a cool gig! You get to have a spectacular view, and you can explore this amazing city on your days off. Sign me up! I hope they are paid well, because living around here must be expensive. I wonder where they park their cars? I wish I had time to go knock on their door, but we’re only here for a few days, and our itinerary is packed solid.  But I don’t see a bascule… How does the bridge open? What’s going on?”

We were staying at the Hotel Hyatt Place, right across from NASA Headquarters, and very close to the National Mall, with its Smithsonian museums. That would be our primary focus. But that night, my primary focus was to get all our luggage out of the car and into our hotel room, and then collapse into a deep sleep.

While I slept, Dear Husband went to dinner with his nephew. After doing all the driving, I’m really impressed that he found the energy. He brought me back some takeout afterward, which I gratefully ate, and then we drove around the city and took pictures of it after dark as we’d be turning in the rental car the next day, but those amazing photos will be for another post.

When we got back to the room, we read books for a while, and then I was able to fall right back to sleep again despite my deep evening nap. Usually I struggle to sleep on my first night in a strange place. And I was excited about all the things we were going to see during this visit. I hadn’t been to DC in decades, and back then I had very little time and even less money to do much of anything. So you’d think I’d be doing a mind grind in anticipation of our several days here. But no. I slept the sleep of the profoundly exhausted.

By the next morning, I had forgotten all about that intriguing tenderhouse, and in fact I didn’t think of it again until I was reviewing our photographs while planning for my next blog post. But there it was, bold as brass. Which is crazy, because I had never even heard of a drawbridge in DC. Clearly I had some homework to do.

After some digging I discovered that DC has multiple drawbridges, and at the same time has zero drawbridges. There’s definitely more to this city than meets the eye. So follow me, if you will, down a really interesting internet rabbit hole.

According to Wikipedia, the bridge we crossed is part of the 14th Street Bridge complex. That takes a bit of explaining. This complex includes two train bridges and three automobile bridges.

The Long Bridge carries railroad trains. The Charles R Fenwick Bridge carries metro trains. There’s a southbound span called the George Mason Memorial Bridge, and that one is for cars but also includes a side path for pedestrians and cyclists. There’s also a two-way span called the Rochambeau Bridge.

But the bridge we’re interested in is the northbound only span, complete with its pretty tenderhouse. This bridge was named the 14th Street Bridge when it first opened in 1950 and was the first of the automobile bridges in this complex little complex of ours. It was renamed the Rochambeau Bridge in 1958, thirteen years before the current Rochambeau Bridge was built. Our bridge was then renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr Memorial Bridge in 1983, so the Rochambeau name was foisted off on its current bridge, which had gone years with no name at all.

Whew. Are you still with me? Because it gets even more interesting.

There actually used to be a sixth bridge, called the Highway Bridge, that was built in 1906 for streetcars and horses and wagons and the like. It has a kind of sad ending. It was torn down in 1968 and taken to the Naval Surface Warfare Center to be used for bombing practice.

Removing the bits and pieces of the Highway Bridge in 1968 required a crane and barge to be floated up the river. When that equipment was no longer needed, it required the Long Bridge and our Williams Bridge to open their spans for the very last time, on March 3rd, 1969. In fact, the Long Bridge had been welded shut a few years previously, so they had to remove those welds in order to open that one.

It’s a sad day for bridgetenders everywhere when drawbridges are decommissioned. Why was this happening? Well, the Mason Bridge, a fixed span, was built in 1962, and it only has about 15 feet of clearance. Needless to say, that eliminated passage for the majority of the seagoing vessels that had taken this route. As our drawbridge had less and less to do, it slowly ground to a halt until it completely stopped operations in 1969. In 1976 the bascule was removed altogether, but the tower still stands.

Our bridge must have a serious identity crisis. Not only is it a drawbridge without a bascule, but it’s also had a confusing array of names. It makes sense that it was originally called the 14th Street Bridge, because that’s the street in DC where this whole tangle of bridges dumps out at. But you know, politicians always have to put their two cents in, so in 1956 this huge debate began, which you can read about on the Wikipedia page if you really care. Suffice it to say it was eventually named the Rochambeau due to a compromise. Rochambeau was a French General who helped us defeat the British in the Revolutionary War.

So why, then, after all that arguing, was it later renamed the Arland D Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge? That’s a rather sad story. I’ll let Wikipedia tell it.

“On January 13, 1982, the Williams Bridge was damaged by the crash of Air Florida Flight 90. The Boeing 737-222, which had accumulated ice while idling on the runway at National Airport, stalled soon after takeoff, fell on the bridge, and slammed into the iced-over Potomac River. The crash killed 74 passengers and crew, plus four people in cars on the bridge. The repaired span was renamed the Arland D. Williams, Jr. Memorial Bridge on March 13, 1985 – following a December 4, 1984 vote – after one of the passengers, who passed a lifeline to five survivors before permitting himself to be rescued. He succumbed to hypothermia and drowned while rescuers worked to rescue the last of the survivors.”

You can see a brief video of one of the survivors on Youtube here.

There’s also an even longer video that pops up, explaining why the tragedy happened, but I didn’t feel like getting that upset, so you’re on your own with that one.

So that’s the story of the bridge and the tenderhouse that I saw in DC. I can’t tell you why I thought I saw a man standing inside, when the building has been locked up for years. I swear you can see him in the pictures above. Maybe he’s the Ghost of Bridgetenders Past. I’ll let you decide.

But while doing research for this post, I came across yet another DC drawbridge that’s no longer a drawbridge, and I crossed it multiple times during my visit without even realizing what I was crossing. The Arlington Memorial Bridge is a lovely span with big beautiful statues depicting valor and sacrifice. The bridge takes you to the Western End of the National Mall, right behind the Lincoln Memorial.

This bridge was built in 1932, and would have been built several decades earlier were it not for a lot of political foolishness that you can read about on its Wikipedia page. The reason I didn’t recognize it as a drawbridge is that it was replaced by a fixed span in 2018. But the original moveable span hadn’t opened since 1961. It also fell victim to the Mason Bridge effect.

There’s no tenderhouse to see, but this bridge does have an interesting secret that is only revealed to boaters who cross under it. According to Atlas Obscura, under the middle section of the span, you can see a large control room that apparently hasn’t been entered since 1976. Inside is the 91 year old machinery that used to operate the bridge when it was a draw. Apparently the 4 million pound counterweights are still down there as well. (Because why move 4 million pounds if you don’t have to?)

Man, I’d give my right arm to be able to go down there and explore that control room! That would have been the highlight of my already amazing trip to this city. Alas, I have no pull in our nation’s capital.

I have a confession to make. I was actually operating under the illusion that I could write about my time in Washington DC in two or three posts. Poppycock. There’s just so much to see and do in our Nation’s capital that it will take me forever to tell you of all the wonders I beheld. Which is fine, but I fear I might scare off some of my readers who really aren’t interested in travel posts. Therefore, from here on out in this series, I’m going to make every other post about DC until I’m done. In between these posts, I’ll write about other things. In other words, expect the next Washington DC post in 4 days, but the next blog post about heaven knows what in 2 days. Thanks, Dear Reader, for sticking with me!

The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Flying through COVID

What a trip this was!

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. This is the first post in the series, and a there is link to the next post in the series below.

We’ve all read so many horror stories about anti-vaxxers (or at least anti-maskers) acting up on plane flights lately that I must say I was looking at our next trip with a certain level of trepidation. Fortunately, we were able to get nonstop flights both ways, but I was braced to have to make unexpected stops to eject unruly passengers into the flyover states where they belong, after having first been forced to wrestle them to the ground and duct tape them into a seat. I’m not a violent person as a general rule, but I was prepared to kick some anti-vaxxer butt if need be, even if it meant interrupting my in-flight movie.

I had been sizing up my fellow passengers in the waiting area, and one guy had me a little concerned. He wasn’t wearing a mask, and when his wife and kids asked him to do so, he got really angry at them. Eventually he complied, and then sulked and glared at his wife like the big baby that he was, as we all pretended not to stare. I was really happy to see he was sitting nowhere near me once we all boarded the plane.

But before I get to the plane, here are some photos of the airport art that I saw in Seattle and Atlanta. Airports are great places for art. You never know what you’ll see.

The only pandemic drama we experienced on the flight out was a guy, built like a linebacker, sitting just in front of me. He kept his mask on, but his nose was exposed. The flight attendants kept having to stop and ask him to cover up. He would do so, but the minute they walked off, he’d expose his snout yet again. They talked to him four different times, to no avail. Given his size, I really don’t blame the staff for not turning it into a major confrontation. But yeah, he was breathing right in front of me. I was glad I was wearing an N95 mask, even though after a few hours my ears and the bridge of my nose were in agony. Wearing a mask is what a responsible person does.

Because we would be visiting friends and family, we planned to take several rapid COVID tests during and after the trip. Fortunately, they all came back negative, but of course we had no way of knowing that during the flights. I generally enjoy flying, but this pandemic added a layer of stress that I could have done without. I did make a point of thanking one of the flight attendants, because I know that their jobs are about a million times more difficult these days, so I wanted them to know they were appreciated.

Aside from linebacker, everything went smoothly. I settled back and enjoyed the view. My long-legged DH prefers the aisle seat, so I got to point out an amazing circular rainbow. I haven’t seen one of those in years. It’s great to be above the horizon to actually see these things intact. I wish this picture did it justice. We flew along that cloud bank for quite some time, with the circular rainbow keeping us company.

As this was an evening flight, I got to enjoy seeing the towns and cities lit up below, and later, when the clouds came in, we were treated to this lightning show in the distance. (Check out my brief video on my Youtube channel here or if your electronics are compatible, see it below.) If we had been closer, I’d have kept watch for monsters on the plane wings, a la Twilight Zone. But I actually felt quite safe.

We landed in Atlanta and checked in to the closest hotel to the airport, as it was midnight. We were woken up at 6 am by a jet engine starting up right outside our window. Not my favorite alarm clock.

On the flight home 15 days later, we flew from Washington DC to Seattle. I’ll start off with some more art from that day’s airports.

This flight was much better and also much worse than the first one. We had enough points to fly first class. I’ve only done that once before in my life. Alaska Airlines treated us to a decent meal, like all passengers used to get in the 80’s. (I had miso marinated cod.) I now understand why they close a curtain between first class and all the poor schmucks behind us. They only got beverage service. Not even peanuts. We also had ample leg room and comfortable seats. I could get used to this. I glanced around to see if we were sharing the cabin with anyone famous, but of course, we still wore our uncomfortable N95 masks, so who knows?

What I couldn’t get used to was the turbulence. Several days before, the west coast had been treated to a “bomb cyclone”, and now the remnants of that weather system was headed east, right toward our plane. I’ve had smoother rides on roller coasters. I guess this was karma for me making a snarky remark on Facebook that every time we leave town, all hell seems to break loose.

As we sank below the clouds on our approach to Seattle, I got to snap these photos of our city, which include a few of my drawbridges, the space needle, and the sports stadiums. What a pretty city we have.

Anyway, we survived and made it home to see our dogs, who were very excited to greet us. The things I missed most about home were my dogs, my bidet, and exercising at the local YMCA pool. There’s no place like home.

More about what happened on the east coast in days to come!

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