Thursday, March 10, 2005

A Mini-Travelog on Our Washington Jaunt

As I've mentioned, our son and I spent a good deal of Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington, D.C. on a thirty-four hour foray. (We'd originally planned on being there for two-and-a-half days, but that didn't work out.) The trip was made possible by the fact that, having completed his college education, our son has taken a job with an airline and both he and his family have flying privileges.

I love Washington! Yes, you see a lot of folks milling around on Capitol Hill and environs with the obvious intent of leveraging our tax dollars into the coffers of their industry or interest group. But you also see a lot that's good and fine about America. When I go there, I remember the words of a buddy during a trip our families took to Washington together a few years ago: "You know, when you see all of this, you realize this really is a great country." It's true!

My parents first took me to DC when I was five-and-a-half, owing to my already-intense interest in history, government, politics, and our Presidents. It's a trip still etched in my memory. I remember the tour through the White House; climbing to the top of the Washington Monument; gazing at the statue of my boyhood hero, Abraham Lincoln, at the Lincoln Memorial; the solemnity of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown; the Iwo Jima Memorial; the then-primitive Air and Space Museum; and the tour of the US Mint. I remember that every time we stopped somewhere for lunch or dinner, I looked around, certain that President Eisenhower would walk in to grab a bite to eat and I'd be able to talk with him.

I went there in 1969 and 1988 and have been back three more times in the past several years, each time taking in a few different sites and experiences.

This latest jaunt with our twenty-three year old son was particularly enjoyable. Knowing that we were there for just a few days and having this luxury of free flights, we decided to simply focus on one or two things. We did so, but were able even to do a bit more than planned.

We arrived early on Tuesday morning, only to be greeted by a steady stream of "wintry mix," a wet amalgamation of rain and snow. It was also incredibly windy, sometimes turning our umbrellas inside out. The walk from our hotel on Eleventh to the Mall was not pleasant, frankly.

On the mall itself, the clouds and fog laid so low and the air was so thick with wet snow, you literally couldn't see either the Washington Monument or the Capitol dome!

But once we arrived at our first stop, we spent five fantastic hours at the National Gallery of Art, which we had never seen before. (This was one of our two intended destinations for the trip.) I guesstimate that we saw about 30% of the Gallery's publicly-displayed art. We also were treated to a fantastic tour, about which I may write later, giving us an overview of Western Art from the thirteenth through the nineteenth centuries. All of this is in one building. Art from the twentieth century is seen in a connected building.

While in DC this time, we also visited the Supreme Court and Library of Congress for the first time.

We stopped at the Freer Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian is a fantastic thing and I'm glad that my tax dollars help to support it! (I feel the same way about the National Gallery of Art.) The Smithsonian's mission to contribute to "the increase and diffusion of knowledge" is consistent not only with the specific desires of Englishman James Smithson as expressed in his will establishing it, but also with the spirit of George Washington's wishes, who had always wanted to establish a national university in the US capital city.

While I must confess that most of the artifacts from India, China, and Japan at the Freer didn't float my boat, I was fascinated to learn something about James Whistler and the aesthetic movement in painting while there. It seems to me that Whistler and the other aesthetes were something of a bridge between the representational art that prevailed through the nineteenth century and the non-representational variety that has been ascendant since. The aesthetes tried to create art that simply by its use of forms, light, and color evoked reactions that were sub-rational or supra-rational and divorced from politics, religion, ideology, or symbolism. They and their advocates proclaimed that they were setting art free from its enslavement to anything but purely artistic expression. I suppose that's a bit analogous to what the creators of ambient music strive for today. But, of course, the very embrace of a notion of "art for art's sake" is an inherently religious, political statement. It was interesting pondering and discussing these thoughts with our son as we moved from room to room and onto other DC venues.

We took a quick trip to a spot we'd visited before. Ford's Theater is close to a coffee shop where we had breakfast. Stage hands were preparing for a production of The Big River. I love it that Ford's functions as a real theater while remaining a shrine to one of the great martyrs of American liberty, Abraham Lincoln.

We also took a bitterly cold walk to our other key destination for this trip: The World War Two Memorial. It took far too long for this monument to come into being. But it is a beautiful structure, setting between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, right next to the Reflecting Pool. As my son put it, "It's both understated and imposing, if that's possible." I think that he's right.

One side of the memorial is devoted to the Atlantic Theater of the war and the other to the Pacific. Lining the walls of a sloping walk that moves toward a central pond are bas relief sculptures portraying the experiences of World War Two veterans and those on the Home Front. Ringing the circular structure are wreathed sections memorializing the veterans from every US state and territory.

On large cornerstones are inscribed quotations from various World War Two-era luminaries, including Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.

While, for this Baby Boomer, the World War Two Memorial isn't as personally moving as the Vietnam War wall, it does seem appropriately grand and a fitting tribute to "the greatest generation." (I may agree with our daughter, though. She says that her favorite of the service memorials on the Mall is that devoted to the Korean War vets.)

As always seems to happen, the neatest experiences during our trip came in relation to the people we met. I'll probably be writing more about them in my posts on Sunday.

No comments: