Monday, July 27, 2015

Four Days in Washington

A great boy at the feet of a great man. 
I should have said something about my impending hiatus, but I still operate under that bit of modern wisdom that it is not good to advertise on the Internet when you are going to be away from home...but I was, indeed, away. The family headed off to Washington DC. Now you have to pay the price of a churned-up writer's head...

Where to start? I may have been to DC as a kid, but, if I was, I remembered nothing. First, the city itself...

Weird. Not bad, at all (despite a few run-ins with drugged-up street people in Chinatown) -- just weird. I was pretty shocked by how un-historical the city felt, for on thing. This may seem like a ridiculous statement, but I think the Greek and Roman architecture, everywhere, makes the city feel timeless -- which might well have been the aim of the planners; the duration of the Republic and all that. This same end is achieved in the paintings in places like the National Archives and in the Capitol; the ones that show the Founding Fathers in neoclassical/Romantic settings that echo paintings of the Greek heroes and philosophers congregating and conversing in their animated groups, all in the act of debating or of feverishly passing paper documents around... It all works to elevate the city to the perceived level of Democratic Mecca, which, I suppose, is not a bad idea.

But Washington DC feels somehow slightly cold to me. I read, on a placard somewhere in the Museum of American History, that George Washington, in trying to find his niche as president, had humbly asked only to be called "Mr. President" (some had suggested he be the emperor, to give you perspective) and that he had decided, as president, not shake people's hands, but to bow formally, when he met them, in order to maintain some separation and to not seem either too aristocratic or too egalitarian. And the city that bears his name feels the same way; it doesn't really shake your hand; it bows a not-unfriendly bow; it welcomes you but it asks, politely, that you not put your feet up on the coffee table.

Some months ago, I fell deeply and immediately in love with Boston. With DC left feeling intellectually stimulated, culturally fulfilled and accomplished, but not in love.

One couldn't help, though, whirling away mentally into a million philosophical questions. The monuments were as powerful as advertised, especially the Korean War Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. The Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial are so ubiquitous in photographs, one feels he has already "seen" them, though they were wonderful to see. The Vietnam Memorial was moving simply because of the visual numbers of lost and dead...but, Jefferson and the Korean War Memorial were different.

At the Korean War Memorial, I felt my usual spiritual schism: two separate but strong feelings running in parallel: a deep pride in the men who fought and did what they believed in and a deep revulsion for the heinousness of war; especially of a war that achieved absolutely nothing and in which the soldiers were poorly equipped and inadequately supported by their government. Yet, there the men were, in the memorial, in rain gear and helmets, walking in formation and carrying their battered, poorly-functioning World War II reissued rifles, moving in formation through the dense vegetation. The lump in my throat was there in pride, but the anger threatened to push it out to the embarrassment of my family...

The staggering Korean War Memorial. 
We'd walked the entire National Mall on the first day and we were bone-tired by the time we reached the Tidal Basin. (My overused bass drum ankle was aching with staggering intensity.) Across the water, we all looked out at the Jefferson Memorial and I asked my wife and the boys if they felt up to it. Everyone nodded. (I'm glad they did, because any excuse to turn back would have been hard to resist.)

Thomas Jefferson has always been one of my favorite historical and philosophical figures and his monument could not have been more perfectly imagined. Looking back out over the city, the Tidal Basin sparkling between his statue and the White House, the water undulating as if to represent the silver thoughts of  democracy that Jefferson was so instrumental in promoting; as if the city had emerged from his rippling and twinkling ideals like Atlantis reborn, it was hard not to feel patriotic, in the real sense. It was cool, up there, as well, under and on the marble, the breeze blowing through and making the monument an oasis from the ninety degree heat and giving it the feel of a place of sanity, sheltering us under the column-lifted dome from the barrage of modern noise. I could have sat there for days.

Arlington, of course, was dramatic and moving, but it called up the same philosophical and emotional schism in me: a mix of pride and disgust. As we watched the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I found my eyes brimming. I'm still not sure if it was a result of the mechanical beauty of the ritual created by the soldiers themselves in honor of all of their lost and fallen brothers or whether it was because of the keen sense of waste of life -- the sense that the man in the sarcophagus was someone's son or husband or brother who died for -- what? Did he really die for the old boilerplate "freedom," as in WWII, or is that ubiquitously applied word just a cover up for lives wasted as they were in Vietnam and Korea? In those wars, did those guys die for "freedom" or did they die for the incorrect political calculations of men in suits and brass-studded uniforms? I honor sacrifice either way. Deeply. But I hate that they died for nothing. (I have friends who -- and this baffles me -- just cannot understand that position.)

At any rate, we came home back pretty tired, as if traveling through portals: from one stone-columned city into a stone-columned train station at Union Station and exiting through another stone-columned portal at Philadelphia's dramatic Thirtieth Street Station and then into a car and back into the tree-lined suburbs of home -- a home that would not be possible without human sacrifice and without that which occurs in those lofty Greco-Roman buildings in DC. None of that means, however, that I accept the absolute need for war or that every war is a battle for freedom or that I believe, wholesale, that America is a perfect place. Thomas Jefferson would surely scowl down upon me if I did. Blind patriots are fools.

The Union Station Portal

The Thirtieth Street Station Portal...and home. 


  1. I totally understand why you'd find some of Official Washington so gigantically monumental as to be a bit cold. Definitely come back some time during the off-season! Let a local point you to places that would show you the city on a much more human scale: residential neighborhoods where tourists rarely tread, for example, and the landmarks that make this a pleasant place to be. Also, I think you'd be genuinely moved by a visit to Frederick Douglass's house...

    After I visited Korea a few years ago, I came away convinced that, contrary to MASH, our dead didn't die for nothing. The North Koreans had managed to take nearly the entire peninsula; the UN and the U.S. managed to take back half of it, and in the long run, tens of millions of people haven't had to live and suffer in a grand-scale communist gulag. That doesn't justify the lack of political or tactical support at the time or the way the country largely forgot about those who served immediately after the war, or any other objection to war in general. I just think that compared to Vietnam, where we accomplished nothing, our dead and injured did help make something happen in Korea. (Whether a thriving, democratic South Korea was worth 50,000 American deaths is a matter for the subjective calculus of the individual conscience...)

    1. I do know a "local" I would very much like to meet up with on a longer visit, for sure... This visit was very much hitting the big things, since it was the first time for my boys and -- I think -- for me. we were very touristy on this one. Boston looms as my most recent comparison; in Boston, I think the downtown is very welcoming, so maybe that city is an inside-out DC. We'll certainly hit the city again. In fact, seeing the Cathedral is high on the list for the next trip.

      As for Korea, my understanding has always been that it started and ended with a separation at the 38th parallel -- we pushed up; they pushed back; we withdrew. Nothing gained and lives lost and we barely evaded dropping "the bomb" on them as MacArthur wanted. I suppose the scare we gave the north might have dissuaded them from pushing downward again... I hope you are right; I'd feel better. Maybe I need to read more on the subject...

  2. Nothing wrong with being "touristy"; I think it's the best way to orient oneself to the basic geography of a place! (Unlike most "locals" in touristy towns, I love when out-of-towners visit; it's neat to see where I live through new eyes.) Oh, hey, I'd also highly recommend the Catholic basilica on your next visit. And I think you'd like Clara Barton's house out in the burbs. And Mary McLeod Bethune's house. And, and...

    I may be wrong about Korea; my memory is based on a museum exhibition from a decade ago! We'll both have to find out more.

    1. Hopefully my travels will take me back! We both have research to do, in the meantime, to figure out this whole Korea thing...