This Presidents’ Day we walked the three flights of marble steps to the Lincoln Memorial. Warm hues of the setting sun glowed on the towering Washington Monument from the feet of Lincoln, captured as a mirror image in the reflecting pool, in a setting where throngs of visitors each day peer across the two-mile expanse to the Capitol building.
It is a stunning scene. Like ants, visitors from the world over walk, jog and bike along the National Mall, visiting the dozens of museums and monuments that reflect the national character — a character that has evolved over the past couple of centuries.
On the right side from Lincoln’s monument stands the Korean War Memorial, with its dozen or so soldiers walking platoon-style through that war-ravaged land. The soldiers are larger than life-size, the scene showing at once the prowess of the American soldier and the imminent danger they faced; 36,516 American soldiers were killed in Korea, 92,134 wounded.
On the left is the Vietnam War Memorial Wall. On this day at dusk a brilliant pink sunset provides a dramatic backdrop to Lincoln, while casting a tender touch to the black marble monument memorializing those 58,272 who gave their lives in Vietnam, while another 153,303 were wounded. Names of the soldiers killed in the war are etched into the wall in chronological order. The wall starts with that first line of names at ground level, then ascends on an even plane with more names on each section of the wall until at the mid-point the names of the dead are so numerous they fill a 10-foot section of the wall twice over, before it begins to recede on the slope back out of the depths. There is no glorification of war here, yet it honors those who served and died in perhaps the most powerful way — by recognizing them as individuals. It is a tangible place for families to come back time and again and trace the names on the wall with tender fingers and the heartfelt pain of loss.
The walk back past the EPA building, the OAS, the White House and National Aquarium, past the National Theater and on to the National Museum of Science and the first of the Smithsonian museums bolsters one’s sense of what it is to be an American. The sheer size of the buildings is impressive, the architecture majestic, the foresight to create the National Mall and line it with the nation’s treasures brilliant and creative. It speaks well of the national character.
The day before, 35,000 people had gathered at the National Mall in protest of the tar sands pipeline that seeks to find an outlet, via the upper Midwest, to the oil refineries on the Texas coast. Ripton’s Bill McKibben was leading the march to change our national policy through people power — wielding individual influence over the moneyed powers that be in Washington. It’s a national tradition that got its start during the civil rights demonstrations of the 1950s, and continued on into the anti-war marches through the late ’60s. That, too, is part of the national character.
Inside one of the Smithsonian museums stories tell of the days of transportation, of gold rushes, and the early whaling industry; and of a food culture based on America’s fertile soil that leapt to mass agriculture and back again to the rebirth of the slow-food movement; and today there is a special exhibit on African-American culture, revisiting the origins of slavery, the Civil War, Lincoln’s proclamation, and the battles of equal rights ever since.
In civil rights, at least, we have come a long way, and yet we had so far to go.
We came to D.C. via another capital — Topeka, the state capital of Kansas, where we had gone to visit my dad. At 88, Dad is in an assisted care facility battling an aggressive Stage 4 prostate cancer that has eaten into his rib cage and permeated part of his spine. He had spent a week visiting us in Vermont just this past Christmas, then one night while attending a concert in Kansas City in late January he had trouble moving his legs to get out of the seat. The surgery a couple days later to remove the worst of the cancer (on his upper spine) was the first time in his long life he had stayed overnight in a hospital.
Dad’s sudden change has been occasion to talk about life — his journey, the highs and relatively few lows (none he could think of, even though he lived through the Great Depression; at 12 in the mid-1930s he had to move from Kansas to California, where there were few jobs and the search kept the family moving from town to town until they returned to Kansas in 1939). He skims over his years at Northeastern University in Chicago — on the GI Bill — after World War II, but always dwells on the part where he got a Rotary scholarship to Melbourne, Australia, where he met Mom, then 19, and they married within the year.
He noted his job history paralleled mine, or vice-versa. His first job was as a reporter and night editor at the Wichita Eagle Beacon, and a year later, at 26 or so, he bought the Humboldt (Kan.) Union, a small weekly newspaper where my brothers and sister and I were raised playing on Main Street while mom and dad worked full-time — a similar pattern I would repeat almost 30 years later.
We talked about my daughters all moving back to Vermont and into the news business and he said again how pleased he was. We talked about how well it’s all worked out, how few regrets there had been, how lucky he was and we all are.
It struck me that that, too, is part of the national character — the metaphor of family, hard work, opportunity and personal success.
Dad’s brother flew out from California with his two daughters (and my close cousins) this same weekend to talk and reminisce. Even though our families were separated by thousands of miles, we have almost always vacationed together in Colorado each summer. We talked of the times back when, with the two brothers trying to clarify dates and sequences of life events — a privilege to hear, once again, to be sure.
On my way back to Vermont, the taxi driver and I had a good 30-minute talk at 6 a.m. on our way to Dulles. He had moved to Houston from El Salvador 30 years ago; then moved to Washington where he got a job in a hotel, while he established his taxi business. Working six or seven days a week, he has raised two girls, 18 and 24, and just the day before had visited his second grandson, newly arrived at the hospital, and was still beaming. The high school senior is headed off to college next September, he says, filling his chest with well-deserved pride.
It is the story of America’s continuing promise to so many who come seeking opportunity.
But it’s not all roses. On my flight to Montreal, I sat next to a French woman, 46, who is living and working in the ultra-modern metropolis of Dubai. She is a partner in a playground equipment company and was meeting her cohorts in Montreal for business and pleasure, only they couldn’t come through D.C. as she had because one was Syrian and another Lebanese, and the hassles of getting a visa were just not worth it. America has changed since we invaded Iraq 12 years ago.
On the last leg of the trip, after driving an hour to the Vermont border crossing, I sat in a line of maybe 10 cars for 45 minutes as guards searched through seats and trunks of even the nicest vehicles to make sure we weren’t carrying any contraband, or worse, into the country. When it was finally my turn, I wanted to ask with more than a hint of sarcasm if he’d found anything that day, but I didn’t. We were all just going through the motions of feigning precaution and I didn’t want to prolong the charade further.
And that, too, is coming to define the national character — complex as it is, to match the times.