Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Wasiks Go to Washington

I've been wanting to take this trip for years. I've always enjoyed museums and learning in general; Washington is an exhibition center on steroids. Each new museum must be bigger and better than the older relics lining the mall.

Air and Space was the spectacular tribute to the space race from to X-1 rocket plane to the space shuttle, complete with great hands-on exhibits on the physics of flight. It's always a must-see in DC. The V-2 and a map of all of the places in Britain that were devastated is part of it as was the first German cruise missile (the V-1 or buzz bomb) and the Tomahawk cruise missile. It's ironic how this wonderful sense of awe and wonder about entering outer space became such an unrelenting arms race.

The National Archives is also a staple, with its darkened hall containing the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Articles of Confederation and Declaration of Independence -- so faded that all you can make out is John Hancock's signature. Guards hound you not to take flash photographs and the wait was 45 minutes just to get in the door. Was it worth it? To see those original words and to understand the thinking behind it -- and how this living document undergirds our freedoms -- is still a monumental feat of civilization. Yet to be written: an amendment stating that health care is a fundamental human right and should be guaranteed for all citizens from cradle to grave (working on that one). Although the physical building is small, the archives hold some 8 billion records from films of the Normandy invasion to immigration documents from our family (somewhere).

We were most excited about seeing the Capitol, which is the seat of the legislative branch, and a majestic building in its own right. The rotunda fresco has George Washington ascending into heaven along with a half-dozen Greco-Roman Gods watching over. It's a combination of American mythology and paganism that is capped by the iconic paintings in the rotunda hall. It's triumphant and disturbing in a way that defies words. Just as were were entering our orientation film, which was surprisingly stirring, we ran into our neighors David and Peggy Husemoller and their two boys. We took the tour with them. Although it was too loud, crowded and short to be very satisfying, we were happy to run into our fellow Prairie Crossingites. We skipped going back to our Congresswoman's office (Rep. Melissa Bean) to get a gallery pass (a separate deal from the tour) because it involved leaving the building and going through security again. I was a little taken aback that I couldn't schedule a time to meet with Rep. Bean (she was too busy), although they were all too happy to do a photo op with her (I don't do photo ops).

You have to go to the American Indian Museum kiddie-corner to the Capitol to discover how this manifest destiny came at the expense of the original inhabitants -- more than 90 percent perished either from disease, war or resettlement. In a peaceful, curvilinear building oddly containing a dome of its own while evoking a wigwam, the Indian Museum pays homage to the many great Native American nations and traditions while telling you how mercilessly Europeans exploited, enslaved and pogromized them. It's a sad saga with a heavy dose of dignity and culture. I learned that the Lakota believe that everything is connected (a true spiritual ecology), why native whale hunting is still important in Alaska (they feed an entire village) and how Cortez formed a rag-tag army to defeat 200,000 Aztecs with a handful of Spanish and other tribes. Despite all of the historical violence behind this American story, I found the museum itself serene.

At the other end of the mall, the Lincoln Memorial, Viet Nam, World War II and Korean Memorials all trigger this sense that tremendous sacrifices were made to preserve the working spirit of the constitution. Some injustices were corrected while other still fester (Viet Nam). It is the most reflective part of the Mall and for me, another opportunity to re-read Lincoln's second inaugural and decide whether the "angels of our better nature" are prevailing today.

By comparison, the World War II monument seems plain and perfunctory. Far too many laurels and columns. It seems like an afterthought. Viet Nam is still the one that reaches in and pulls your heart out, especially with the hundreds of vets and families trying to connect with it.

Sidetracks included the International Spy Museum, which appears to be a storefront (that is, private) museum, but offered everything from a short history of the Cold War to Julius Caesar's special code. It was fascinating, though pricey compared to all of the free Smithsonian venues, which dominate the mall. I heard an author there who wrote about the British counter-intelligence effort during World War II. Instead of torturing captured German spies, they threatened to expose them and turned them into double agents. "Deceiving Hitler" by Terry Crowdy is a must-read if you like this subject.

We also spent a day at the zoo with the three adorable Pandas, who sat and ate special popsicles in front of the crowds. The elephants, who are living in crowded quarters, will get a new expanded habitat area, and put on a little show as well. As with all of my zoo experiences, I always feel sad for the animals. I know they live longer in zoos and get excellent care and food, but they're still behind bars with millions of humans gawking at them. What must they think? Are we really saving habitat this way?

Washington is remarkable, because unlike most newer cities, the public transportation is excellent. With the exception of two taxi rides two and from magnificent Union Station (Washington), we either walked or took the Metra. That meant we were able to save some money on the outrageously expensive DC lodgings and stay in a family suite in Arlington, Virginia, just a few stops from everything we wanted to see in DC.

The girls were disappointed that the outdoor pool wasn't open yet, although the first and last days of our week-long visit were certainly warm enough for swimming. We saved a lot on cab fares and were able to cook a few dinners and breakfasts in our room's full kitchen. We also saved a bit eating at the Smithsonian food courts. Since we're members we saved 10% on food there.

One drawback: The Rosslyn metro entrance was a little disturbing for me since it's a huge tunnel going down at a 45-degree angle (a little offputting for me). I got over it and was pleased to hear a fellow playing a flugel horn as we left on our next to last day. We talked with Reginald Conyers and told him Julia would be studying trumpet. He said he would be looking for her and would be waiting to play a duet with her when she was ready. Julia, as always, was game. Earlier in the week, she struck up a conversation with a gent on the subway and bluntly asked what his job was. "Homeland security," he replied. Fortunately that's when we had to get off.

This was our second trip to Washington via Amtrak's Capitol Limited, which goes right into Union Station. We didn't get in a car the whole trip save for a lift to the Metra Prairie Crossing station. We went by train for nearly the entire week, trimming a bit from our carbon footprint. Had we been able to walk to the station (the weather turned bad on the way out), we could've avoided cars altogether. Maybe next time.

While we love the humanity of train travel, neither Kathleen nor I slept on the train all that well. It wasn't much better when we were in a reserved family sleeper car the last time out (coach this time). During one breakfast, we were watching President Obama bemoan the fact that he was "jealous of Europe's high-speed rail." Stop the train envy, Congress! We can build a fabulous, fast train network, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce traffic fatalities and put millions back to work. President Obama has provided seed money in his stimulus and budget packages. Let's make a 20-year commitment to build first-class interstate and intra-city systems. The investment would bring this country together in a profound way.

Julia did manage to provide a highlight, though. A moony-eyed pre-teenage boy was palpitating over Sarah and threw a note at her to call him (without saying much more than that). Incensed, Julia went over to the lad and asked him "why are you sending a note to MY sister?"

The urchin replied that he went to school with her, obviously humiliated since he was sitting with his grandparents and was being confronted by a 60-pound, 8-year-old girl.

"No you don't!" Julia barked at him, a which point the youth skulked away to sit with his mother.

We are happy to report that the nation's liberty (nor Sarah's) is not imperiled at the present and won't be as long as Julia is around.

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