Washington D.C.: Our Nation's Capital

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Washington DC is the capital of the United States of America. When in a new area, we find it beneficial to get the lay of the land. We knew were not going to attempt to drive into Washington, DC with Boss.(Remember that Boss is a one ton dually with an extended bed and wide hips. Finding a parking place is difficult. We have heard the horror stories of the Beltway, not to mention the traffic in DC proper. The beltway is an Interstate highway system, which encircles the city: well known for major traffic jams.

We found out that DC has a wonderful Metro, train/subway, system which will take the traveler almost anywhere in the general area. First we had to find the stations near us and check out the parking. The station at College Park is convenient, but has a postage stamp parking lot. Mostly students from the University of Maryland use this depot via their shuttle bus. The other station, the terminus of the Green line is Greenbelt, the planned city built after W.W.II. The parking lot there has its own shuttle bus to assist the patrons from the far reaches of the lot. Nearby is Greenbelt Park, a hidden gem in the National Park Service. Even though the park is officially closed at this time, dry camping is still allowed in one of the areas for only $14.00 per night (half for Seniors with the Golden Passport). A dump station is available for the necessary. The campground is less than a half mile from the College Park train station.

Our goal today was to scale the Washington Monument for the aerial view of the city and then visit the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. To enter the Washington Monument, you need to have a ticket, picked up for free at a nearby kiosk. To get a ticket you have to be there by 8:00 AM. We arrived about 11:00 and all were taken.

We headed to the Lincoln Memorial via the Vietnam Wall, a moving sight with the flowers, wreaths, and letters laid at the base of the monument.  At the South end are two books with the names of the dead in alphabetical order. The names on the memorial are chronological. Look up the name of the individual in the book and you will be directed to the panel on which his/her name appears. Across a small green are two more memorials dedicated to the survivors of the war: one of three soldiers, the other of the women who served.

What can be said about the Lincoln Memorial which has not been done before. These days barricades and fencing restrict the tourists’ movements. You cannot walk completely around the Memorial on the upper level. On the ground floor, however, is a museum which chronicles the construction of the Memorial and the events which have taken place at the site, such as the freedom marches, Marion Anderson’s concert, and Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a Dream” speech. Once again the NPS has scored with a wonderful movie relating the importance of Abe Lincoln’s life through his words and pictures and the impact throughout the history of our great country. The musical background is Aaron Copeland’s Lincoln Portrait.

Down from the Lincoln Memorial, opposite the Mall from the Viet Nam Memorial, is the Korean War Memorial. Make sure you have a ranger tour to derive the utmost from the experience. The purpose of the memorial is to involve everyone, the living and dead, into the experience. Originally there were to be thirty-eight(re: 38th Parallel) life-sized statues of soldiers climbing the rugged hill to freedom. The number was halved to nineteen.

Approaching from the road the one soldier is looking over his shoulder signaling to the troops massed in the woods behind to come out into the clearing, filled with juniper and rocks. As you climb the hill to the US flag, the symbol of freedom, you see at the end etched in stone that over 53,000 men lost their lives and more than 8,000 were MIA. At the top is a reflecting pool with a triangular wall jutting into it (the Korean Peninsula). Not to be overlooked is the dark wall on the other side of the hill. Into the wall are carved 2,500 photographic images of men and women who were ancillary to the combatants. You cannot see the faces from afar, only up close. Drawing near the wall the real faces can be seen staring out at you, and you yourself are also reflected in the wall along with the nineteen soldiers climbing the hill to freedom. You become part of the memorial and memorial becomes part of you. This is an eerily haunting feeling which lingers throughout the day.

Across the road to the tidal basin we walked. The thousands of Japanese Cherry Trees were in full bloom. In the distance stood the Jefferson and the Washington Memorials. Along the way lays the memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt. This consists of four outdoor rooms of writings, water and statuary, each one dedicated to a term in office. The monument is a lovely tribute to a great president who led us out of the despair of depression and the horrors of war. The tribute pales in comparison to what we had just experienced earlier.

The Jefferson Memorial is another on the must see list in Washington DC. Dedicated to reason and enlightenment, this makes a fitting end to an emotion filled day.

Some impressions of Washington and Washingtonians. The city looks like Illinois in the summer: construction everywhere you look; cranes, chain link fencing, barricades. Police presence where ever you look: on foot, in cars, on bicycles, motorcycles and horses. Joggers, I mean many joggers, not just a few pass by no matter where you are; in the park, on the tidal basin paths, on the street. People out in great numbers, either seeing the sights in small groups or large tours, or individually. A calliope of people, scents, sights, and sounds fill every pore of the body.

The early bird catches the worm, or breakfast with our Senators. Every Thursday morning at 8:30, while Congress is in session Senators Dick Durbin and Peter Fitzgerald hold a continental breakfast with their constituents in one of the subcommittee rooms in the Dirkson Building. We were also given passes to the Senate and House of Rep galleries. Check with your Senators, if they do the same.

A tour of the Capital is given only by Senate or House personnel. You have to know someone to visit your building. What has our country come to when you can’t even visit your capital building? Luckily we had gallery passes.

Our first stop was the Senate. What a marvelous place to see government in action.. We were disappointed by the paucity of gallery occupants. Less than ten percent of the gallery was full. The ones who came in were mostly school groups. Granted no earth shaking votes were being taken, but we heard Sen. Barbara Boxer of CA argue for an amendment to add antiterrorist devices to commercial airlines. This was supported by Sen. Evan Bayh from IN who also spoke. Sen. John McCain of AZ spoke in rebuttal. Sen. Kennedy came into the Chambers later. Every hour the President Pro Temp of the Senate changes. Every fifteen minutes, the court reporters rotate. What is missing is modern electronics. There are no tote boards, cell phones. The only computers we saw were one on the secretary’s desk and the ones operating the television cameras.

From the Senate to the House of Representatives. Whereas the Senators had individual desks and chairs, the Reps. sit in pew like seats with dividers between them. They have no desks. If they want to speak , they must go to one of the tables on either side of the center aisle and be recognized. One representative was giving a speech about bringing the troops home from Iraq. He finally withdrew his amendment, but got his anti-war point recorded in the Congressional Record.

Went to the Rayburn Building, where our Representative, Jesse Jackson, Jr. has his office. We still vote in Illinois and keep up with the local politics. He was out of the office, but his little daughter, Jessica, was in charge and had the staff running around looking for a lost soccer ball. His staff is in process of setting up a tour of the Capital for us.

To complete our day on “The Hill”, we visited the Supreme Court. They were not hearing any cases that afternoon. So we were able to visit the courtroom and receive a lecture (tour) of the building. When they are in session, you have to get into line very early to listen to each case. When all of the seats are taken the rest of those in line are allowed to sit on wooden chairs in the rear of the Chambers for three minute periods. The plaintiff and defendant lawyers have only one half hour to plead their case. Did you know that there is another court above the Supreme Courtroom? It is a basketball court. Both courts cannot be in session simultaneously.

We tried to see the Ford Theater, where President Lincoln was assassinated. The line was very long for the guided lecture. We are not allowed to bring backpacks into the theater. But after 12:00 you can go for a look see inside for a few minutes.

On our way to the theater we passed the new International Spy Museum. The price of entry was slightly steep, $12.00 per senior. I was expecting to be disappointed and ripped off. Much to my surprise, I was neither. The museum is high tech and delves into the many aspects of espionage, from Biblical time to modern surveillance devices and techniques. The museum is divided into different sections with many hands on activities. We spent over two hours there and could spend more time watching all of the videos and programs. Yes, Agent Maxwell Smart, they had your telephone shoe too. There were many replicas from the cold war, even the poison injecting umbrella. Did you know that Julia Child was once a spy?  Maybe that’s how she got all of her recipes.

Off to the Ford theater we went (only a block away). Lincoln saw part of “My American Cousin”. Today “1776” was on stage. Unlike 40 years ago, Lincoln’s box is now off limits. A picture hangs in from of the bunting where Boothe caught his spur and thereby broke his leg. The museum downstairs and the house across the street, where Lincoln died are closed for renovation,

On the way to the department of the Interior, we passed by the Willard Hotel, a strikingly beautiful edifice, where final negotiations were held to keep the Union united in 1861. We passed by the White House. Guess what—under construction—many blockages. The closest anyone can see of the White House these days is by watching West Wing. Another beautiful building is the Old Executive Office Building (one of the largest in Washington), next to the White House. This is also closed to the public. Interesting is that on the other side of the White House is the Treasury, close enough for the President to keep an eye on the money.

Finally we made it to the Department of the Interior. The building is more than two blocks long. Anne James gave us a wonderful tour of the facility. There is a large museum in the building depicting the history and various aspects of the department. The Interior was formed in 1849. The primary foci of it today are Land management and Indian Affairs. On the seventh floor is the old cafeteria with murals painted by artists from various Native American tribes. The windows give a beautiful view of the city.

All of the government buildings are closed on Saturday. Off to the Smithsonian we went. Everything is free.  The first museum we wanted to see was the National Air and Space Museum. Get there early to avoid the long lines. The museum is two floors tracing the history of flight and space exploration. Some of the original aircraft include Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis, Yeager’s Bell-1, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules, V-1 rockets, Steve Fossett’s balloon capsule, and many others. The Enola Gay is in storage. Later this year the museum will open an addition near Dulles International Airport and display much more of its collection.

We had a short time to visit one of the lesser museums of the Smithsonian. Next door is the Hirshhorn Museum specializing in modern sculpture and paintings. The museum, itself is a work of art, circular in design with a beautiful center atrium with a fountain and surrounded on the outside with elegant sculptures. They had an exhibit of Gerhard Richter, an East German escapee. His paintings depict either a bad case of myopia or an unwillingness to say openly what he wanted to say. Many of his paintings are blurred, but photographic in nature. He loved the use of the color gray.

Today we planned as a day off. I had wanted to do a little genealogical research. So I figured that today would be a good one to find out information about my relatives. The National Archives are located in Washington DC and they have a branch in College Park, MD.  Arriving at the Archives, NARA, I registered and received a photo ID to do research. Sadly, all of the records I was seeking were at the downtown office. The gentleman said that there was a free shuttle bus, which runs every hour on the hour between the two facilities. I scarcely believed my ears. Noon came and I hopped on the promised shuttle. I thought that this would take some time due to the horror stories of Washington DC traffic and the blockades everywhere. Taking the main roads, we passed through Hayettsville, Catholic University with the Basilica, many ethnic neighborhoods. Within thirty-five minutes, we were at NARA, on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the heart of downtown DC. We had hit the mother lode again. Free transportation without the hassle of finding a parking space at the METRO and the same travel time from College Park to DC proper.

NARA is the repository of federal records more than thirty years old (72 for census). The exhibition hall, closed for renovations, has the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution on display. Showing my registration card I was allowed complete access to the microfilm sections and later to the main reading room, where original records are pulled for the researcher by a very helpful staff. One note of caution: be sure you leave enough time for the record pulling. It takes some time to retrieve them. I took the four o’clock shuttle back to College Park.

We took the NARA shuttle downtown and went to the National Gallery of Art, a mere two blocks away. This is an incredible series of beautiful buildings with two main structures: East Wing and West Wing. Inside are fountains, gardens with live flowers, and, of course art. Their collection of Impressionists is not as extensive as other museums, but they do have something special: the only Leonardo Da Vinci in the US, Ginevra de’Benci. We spent the entire day immersed in the beauty provided by the great master artists and sculpturers. There were special exhibits by Gainsborough, Kirchner, Vuillard, and Matisse. Next week begins an exhibit of Remington’s Night paintings. We want to go back.

At the entrances of many of the exhibit rooms, there are boxes with information cards in different languages about the works in the specific hall. The visitor reads the card and then replaces it in the box for others to use. I have not seen that type of information at other galleries.

We finally got through to Andy Wilson, the intern for Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. and had a tour of the Capital. His staff was happy to see us again. A staff led tour opens doors for the tourist not available to the ordinary gallery viewer. We were able to go through hidden stairwells and go into the rotunda with a magnificent view of the capital dome. Today the Senate was discussing the Budget, which it later passed. The House was discussing natural gas drilling. We were on the way back to the Rayburn building, when the House called for a vote. Bells kept ringing in the corridors, and the Representatives we hurrying to the House chambers. It was exciting to see our government in action.

Because it was lunchtime, we were shown where the cafeteria was in the House complex. If you are ever in the area, I recommend eating lunch there. The cafeteria resembles a food court. The prices are reasonable and the portions ample.

Our next stop was the Library of Congress, the Jefferson Building. Self-guided tours are offered, but the docent guided ones are better. The paintings and statuary in the great hall are allegorical. Everywhere you look, you see the thought that went into the construction to one of the greatest libraries in the world. On display are one of the three complete Gutenberg Printed Bibles in the world and the last hand illustrated written Bible. The main reading room is dedicated to the different subjects of knowledge. The Library of Congress has its own web site, www.loc.gov. Here you have access to their card catalogue and to other information offered by the library.

Today we journeyed to The Holy Lands, a.k.a., The Franciscan Monastery. The facility was built so that people could visit the Holy Land Shrines, without having to spend all of their money to go to the Middle East. The shrines are replicas of Golgatha, the sepulcher, the manger at Bethlehem, etc. There are also replicas of the catacombs. Tour guides give insights into how the sites were authenticated. Even being a skeptic, I was impressed by their knowledge and the significance of the shrine. This is a highly recommended stop for any Christian visiting Washington.

A few blocks away rises the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. The church dedicated to Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, was started in 1920s and is still under construction. The architecture is a combination of Byzantine and Roman: the dome fashioned after the Capital dome and the Campanile after the Washington Monument. Besides the main upper Nave and the Crypt nave, there are numerous side chapels and oratories sponsored by different groups of people in the world. Each one is dedicated to Mary. The predominant manner of expressing the artwork is via mosaics. The sheer amount and quality of the mosaics ranks it among the top cities of the world.

On to the Natural History Museum. What we liked about the museum was the use of skeletons to classify the various species of animals, from prehistoric times to the present era. Some areas are under construction: namely the mammals Hall and the Native American exhibits. The geological collection of stones, especially the Hope Diamond, salivates any woman who loves to wear beautiful gems. The myriad colors of the different types of geological formations are a delight to the eyes.

The staff at the museum do a lot of things right. Comparing this museum is like comparing apples and oranges with the Chicago Natural History Museum. Each one has its strengths. Overall, I would have to rate the Field Museum in Chicago a higher grade for extensiveness of its collection, except for the geology department.

Visited the Holocaust Museum in DC. This is a moving experience. I have done extensive research on this black spot in World history. I was impressed by the lack of bias in the exhibits. The self-guided tour takes you up to the fourth floor, where the history of the rise of Hitler and Nazism is told in visual pictures and short videos. The lesson learned on this floor is that much of the prejudices, feeding upon ordinary people’s fears, and the manipulation of the media are still with us even seventy years after the events leading to this tragedy. Moving to the third floor, one encounters the solution to the Jewish Problem: the ghettoes, slave camps, death compounds, etc. Not only were Jews hunted down, but also Jehovah Witnesses, gypsies, Polish and Russian Intelligentia, and anyone deemed inferior to the Aryan ideals. On display are mounds of footwear from the prisoners, many of their personal artifacts, and one of the boxcars used as transportation to the camps. From my readings of the atrocities committed in the camps, many of the exhibits were understated. The second floor exhibits emphasize the resistance to Nazism by the Jews and many citizens of occupied countries. Also recorded, in a muted way, is a condemnation of the silence of many allies denying knowledge of the genocide, which was known to be occurring.

On a lighter note, we visited the US Forestry Service. How do you say Smokey Bear? We found useful information about our national forests and resources for camping and visiting them.

On the way back to the Archives, we stopped by the Smithsonian Castle, so named because of the architecture of the building. The main floor is open to the public and acts as a welcome center, complete with a video, explaining the various museums of the Institution. The Commons at the west end of the building is used as a banquet hall. It reminds me of the nave of a medieval gothic chapel, without the stained glass windows.

The path back took us through a butterfly garden. Most of the plants were not in bloom, yet. There were many signs describing the various plants and trees and the type of butterflies which they attract. This was a beautiful ending to a cathartic day.

The National Zoo boasts the home of the giant pandas. On the whole, we were disappointed with the treatment of most of the animals. No zoo is perfect. Each one puts their energies and resources on specific species of animals. From our observations, it seems that the National Zoological Park has a lot to learn from other institutions. Most of the animals, especially the more advanced animals are separated from each other. We did not speak with anyone and find out if there any extenuating circumstances for our observations. Even the great apes were secluded from each other. We thought about what would have happened at the Brookfield Zoo a few years ago, when the gorilla saved and cared for the child who fell into their exhibit, if they were not allowed to socialize and live naturally as a troop.

Took a trip to Walter Reed Army Hospital today. This the place where presidents get their annual physical exam. On campus the AFIP (Armed Forces Institute of Pathology) has a museum dedicated to medical research and history. They have an extensive microscope collection, beginning with the primitive ones of the 17th century to the modern electron microscopes of today. They are presently exhibiting the cycle of life from the hereditary stage to birth. They use many different forms of photography, from MRIs and X-rays to normal photos. Many are surreal.

After spending a couple of hours at the museum, I wanted to visit Georgetown and embassy row. Driving in DC can be a real challenging experience. Not only do you have the diagonal streets intersecting the grid patterns, you have creative signage, or the lack thereof. Maggie was getting more upset because of the labyrinth we were traversing. We finally found Embassy Row, on and around New Hampshire near the Dupont Circle. Off the circle is M Street, which is the main drag of Georgetown Heights. We got a great view of the stores and the throng of people on the streets, because traffic moves at a tortoise’s crawl.

Crossing the Potomac River, we wanted to avoid traffic to get back to College Park. I knew there was a highway which runs along the front of Arlington Cemetery. Eventually this would take us to I 95 and College Park. Cruising down the highway a police officer flagged me over and told me to follow him. I did not think that I was the millionth vehicle to travel the road. I was also sure I wasn’t speeding: just keeping up with the Jones’s. I found out that duallys were not allowed on this road since 9/11. Other pickup trucks, SUVs, etc. are allowed. He took down my vital information and then tried to take a mug shot for the FBI. After breaking two cameras he was finally successful. Look for my photo at your nearest post office. Now that we are wanted by the FBI, we will just have to flee the country.

On Monday, April 21, 2003 we toured the Smithsonian American History Museum. We spent five hours there and could have spent an additional five hours. Some of the highlights include Louis Armstrong’s first trumpet. The crinkled bell of the horn reminded me of my trumpet in grammar school. The exhibits on the American Presidency and of the First Ladies were exceptional. I especially enjoyed the traffic control through the exhibits. There was usually a specific entrance and exit. This made traveling through them easier. The first floor was devoted to various industries: agriculture, maritime, railroads, information, transportation, and Julia Child’s Kitchen . The museum has something for just about anyone. Having been to Fort McHenry, we were happy to see The Star Spangled Banner undergoing restoration.

The numismatic collection of coins and money is very extensive. What I never realized was the variety of currencies, both foreign and domestic, in circulation during the beginning of our country’s history. Each colony printed and minted its own currency. British, French and Spanish currencies were also considered legal tender. It was worse than the problems the Europeans have with the Euro. A common currency was a necessity to have a real country.

Went to The National Building Museum. The building’s beautiful atrium soars fifteen stories and is supported by large pillars. On the first and second floors are exhibit halls surrounding the atrium. Some of the exhibits are semi-permanent. You never know what will be shown. The atrium was a buzz with people setting up for the greatest craft show in the country. The Smithsonian Institute holds an annual contest for craftsmen and the winners exhibit their work at this museum. The items on display are also for sale.

A few short blocks away is the Postal Museum, a part of the Smithsonian. This museum explores the history of mail service, from blazing trails from New York to Philadelphia, to Ben Franklin’s appointment as Postal chief in the mid 1700s by The Crown, to the Pony Express, RFD, and Air mail. The building itself is impressive. It is in the Old Post Office with a magnificent main hallway with many cages lining both sides.

Next door is Union Station. It is still a pretty impressive building, having undergone extensive restoration and now housing many food courts and different shops to pick up last minute items before going home.

Today we visited most of the rest of the Smithsonian Institute: the Freer Museum of Art, the Sackler Gallery, the Museum of African Art and the Arts and Industry building. This sounds like a lot of walking, but the museums are small in area. The first two emphasize Eastern art from China, Japan, India, and Islamic works from different countries. Some of the pieces from early China and from the Islamic World are exquisite. Not to be missed in the Freer Museum is the Peacock Room by James Whistler. He got carried away with a commission to decorate a dining room. He took the peacock motif to the maximum extent. Even the ceiling is painted peacock feathers. The room is breath taking and is a perfect receptacle for the Chinese Porcelain collection of the owner.

The African Museum has many old pieces from ancient Nubia, which is South of Egypt in present Sudan. There are also many 20th Century pieces reflecting the culture of the people of Western Africa.

Not to be missed is the Arts and Industry Building, the host for many Presidential Inaugural Balls. The atrium is spacious and shaped like a cross. The building hosts special exhibits, which change on a regular basis.

One other exhibit was of a tropical butterfly house.  Enclosed in a closed environment (temperature 90°, humidity, 85%), hundreds of butterflies from Central America flew at will. I seemed to be a particular favorite, because they kept landing on my head. Maybe my animal attraction has been lost on the wrong species. Or perhaps they like gray hair. They were very beautiful.

Went to the tower of the Old Post Office: a different building than the Postal Museum. Washington DC has had a series of Post Offices as the demands of the Capital increased. This building has an eight-story atrium with an additional three-story bell tower. On the twelfth floor an open observation deck gives a birds eye view of the city below. Within the tower are the Congress Bells. These change bells are still rung by hand by a special group of ringers. They practice every Thursday evening to perfect their skills. They hold the record for pealing. A peal is a series of over five thousand rings of the bells according to a set pattern, which is never repeated, for the three-hour duration of the peal. The group has a conductor who directs the ringers in the precise patterns. If they miss a beat, they have to begin all over.    

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Source by John Pelley