A History Lesson

Thursday proved to be our busiest day, at least in terms of learning and museum hopping.  We awoke early, had a quick breakfast, and rolled out (ha) to our first stop: The Newseum.  It had topped the list of recommended spots, higher with some folks than even the Smithsonian.  Once we arrived and figured out their elevator system, I could see why.

The Newseum was only opened in 1997, but has a wealth of news-related history and knowledge.  They have the largest display of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany:  eight twelve-foot sections of the former separator of East and West Berlin and a complete guard tower from Checkpoint Charlie.  Along with news footage and some other signage, it was easier to imagine being separated from the rest of the world by such an imposing concrete barrier.  I learned about tactics the West used to try and get information across the border and the various ways people tried to escape to West Berlin.  I wasn't old enough to really understand when the Wall fell, but this exhibit helped connect the dots.

I was keenly interested in their special exhibit showcasing Pulitzer prize winning photographs.  There's also a room dedicated to famous news stories that date back to the 1400s.  I saw actual newspapers talking about the shootout at the OK Corral, the Titanic disaster, and even the Beatles arriving in America.  They had artifacts from reporters and news anchors and all manner of evolving technology from all ages of news.  One section of the building was entirely dedicated to 9/11 and the museum houses the twisted remains of the antenna structure that once resided atop Tower 2.  The whole museum was really amazing.

After that, our next stop was the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  The nine-year-old in me went crazy seeing skeletons of a T-Rex and Triceratops, a huge room full of taxidermied mammals, and a huge floor of gems and geodes, including the Hope Diamond.  There was a huge section devoted to aquatic life and they had a huge squid that rivaled the one I saw in Wellington, NZ all those years ago.

The last hurrah of our overall museum tour was the Museum of American History.  We saw artifacts right out of Social Studies class, such as the desk used to draft the Bill of Rights, and large sections dedicated to the evolution of the military from the Revolutionary War up to current.  The most breathtaking thing I saw there, however, was the original Star-Spangled Banner.  The actual flag that inspired the National Anthem that flew over Fort McHenry.  No photography was allowed, but it wouldn't have done it justice anyway.  We wrapped up our visit to the museum by going through the First Ladies exhibit; Mom was very excited to see dresses, china, and other items belonging to the First Ladies all the way back to Washington.

It was another long, tiring day but one that was completely worth it.  Our last day in D.C. wasn't nearly as packed, but something I was equally excited to experience.


Arlington and the National Cathedral

After spending the previous few days seeing sights relatively close to the hotel, Wednesday was the day we decided to branch out a little and see a little more outside of the National Mall area of Washington.  To that end, I was very thankful that my friend Heather was available to help get Mom and me around.

Our first stop was just on the edge of the area we'd already seen, the Jefferson Memorial.  It sat by itself across a small pond from the Washington Monument.  It's also an area that is highly prized during the Annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which had been going on while we were visiting, but the unseasonably cold weather had prevent the blooms from showing their stuff...but a few trees were finally starting to break through.  The monument itself, much like the others, was a huge construction with carved quotes on the inner walls, all facing a giant statue.  Jefferson looked out over the water and towards the Washington Monument, and I imagine on a warmer day it would have been lovely to just sit on the steps and watch people on paddle boats.  But that was not this day.

We drove out afterwards to see Arlington National Cemetery.  It was a somber walk/roll through the grounds on our way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Seeing a place like that on television and seeing it in person is a much different experience.  The gravestones stretched out as far as the eye could see; some were just soldiers, while others included their families.  Some markers had small rocks on top of them, signifying someone had visited.  I came across one that must have had a dozen stones lining the top and found out later it belonged to Joe Louis.  We made it up to the Tomb in time to see a 'Changing of the Guard' ceremony, which was quite a sight to behold.  The honor and tradition in such a ceremony spoke loudly of the honor it was to be a part of it, no matter how many times the soldiers had stood guard before.  The Tomb itself overlooks the entire city of Washington and is very peaceful.

As we walked back to the Visitor's Center, I noticed a group of Vietnam veterans walking together; I imagined they were visiting friends, or perhaps just paying their respects overall.  I wondered what when through their mind when they were in such a hallowed place.  I'm sure their emotions were quite strong, whatever they were.  I had no military experience whatsoever and there were moments I felt like I could just burst into tears at the gravity of it all.

The final stop of the day was the National Cathedral.  It's way off in another part of town and, though it's large and quite majestic, you don't see it until you're right up on it.  What struck me is that it's just as big and ornate as cathedrals like Notre Dame and felt out of place in this country.  It felt older than absolutely everything else, like it had been air-dropped from Europe.  As I walked inside, my ears were instantly full of the rich, echoing sound of the organ.  We were just in time for a demonstration, apparently, and as I walked to the back and marveled at the stained glass and rich detail the melodic tones washed over me like a baptism.  It was wonderful.  Once they finished, I even got to walk up and see the organ itself...which was WAY more complicated than I expected.  But a testament that nothing that beautiful is easy.

The rest of the afternoon was restful; Thursday promised to be another busy day of museum hopping.


Touring the Capitol

Tuesday was the only day we had where there was a SPECIFIC scheduled event:  a tour of the Capitol itself.  In order to arrange that, I had to reach out to one of my local Senators.  Considering I am not a big fan of EITHER Oklahoma Senator, I decided to go for the one that wasn't actively trying to debunk climate change and emailed Dr. Coburn's office back in January to arrange our visit.

We walked through the Russell Senate Office Building towards the office of the junior senator and I felt like I was back in elementary school.  All the doors looks so huge and the hallways stretched forever.  The only sounds I could hear were the heels of my boots on the floor and Mom's wheelchair wheels rolling along in front of them.  We got to Coburn's office and were greeted by an aid and told they'd be ready to show us around in a few minutes.  Mom giddily signed the official ledger as a visitor and I looked at the complicated debt clock on the wall.  Mom pointed out there was an old Operation game under the coffee table, as well, before it was time to head to the Capitol.

We'd gone through some pretty hefty security getting into the office building, which was across the street from the Capitol itself, and I expected to have to go through all of that over again.  However, our guide took us down a level and we crossed to the Capitol via an underground tunnel that also included a tram!  One of them zoomed past as we walked to the main building and I thought how strange it would be to see one of those cars filled up with familiar political faces, or opposing Senators having to sit next to one another.

Once we got to the Capitol itself, we had some bad news:  due to some pretty hefty tour groups that had just registered, the wait would be almost an hour to get in.  Our guide, however, was wily; she was able to get us our tour stickers and we began our tour as intended.  We started by going to the old Supreme Court chamber (which I didn't know once was in the Capitol itself) and saw some original columns that still had bullet holes in them from the War of 1812.  We went down into the crypts (originally designed as a burial chamber for Washington) and then made our way to the rotunda.

I've been under some major domes in my travels, none as magnificent as the dome at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.  The Capitol doesn't beat it, either, but it's still a beautiful and awe-inspiring sight.  It's an odd marriage of American history and European styling, complete with a godlike fresco of Washington in the middle.  The main room is surrounded by statues, sculptures, and paintings depicting the establishment of the country and our journey to America as we know it today.

After that, we went to the old Senate chamber (another place I was unaware existed) and then the old House chamber, which is now a statuary.  There are two statues in the Capitol for every state, and Oklahoma has a Sequoyah statue and a Will Rogers statue.  When approached to have his statue placed in Washington, Will Rogers supposedly requested it face the House chamber so he could 'keep an eye on Congress'.  People touch his boot for luck, too, just like in Claremore.

That marked the end of our tour.  Afterwards, we went by Ford's Theatre and went to the International Spy Museum where we saw all kinds of amazing spy gadgets from the Cold War and beyond.  It was a good day in Washington.


The Nation's Capital

We arrived in D.C. mid-day Sunday and after a brief snafu with the shuttle from the airport (they sent the car to Dulles, not Baltimore!) arrived at the hotel immediately impressed with the location.  Half a mile from the Capitol Building itself and within walking distance to just about everything on the National Mall.  The day's travels had worn Mom out, so she rested while I took a quick walk around the area to get my bearings and prepare for Monday's start to our historic journey.

A few weeks ago, Mom asked me to see what wheelchair availability would be while we were here.  I hadn't realized her hip problems had progressed to that point and that was a hard thing to accept...but it was very brave of her to put it out there so easily.  I happily reserved a push wheelchair for the week and it arrived on Monday just before 10, so that's when we headed out.  Our first stop was the Capitol Building, a truly awesome work of art and a strong symbol of America across the globe.  Although it was cold and a little windy, we were warmed by the sun and our sense of unfocused patriotism.  Boy, that sounds cheesy...but still true.

The next Big Ticket Items(tm) of the day were two wings of the Smithsonian:  the American Indian wing (Mom specifically requested this one - and it had a lot of amazing artifacts and enough information to fill the entire week) and the Air & Space wing.  I, of course, was like a kid in a candy shop around so many airplanes and lunar vehicles.  Seeing such iconic craft like the Spirit of St. Louis & one of the Apollo capsules was a fascinating trip into the history of mechanical ingenuity.  It's amazing to see what the Skylab looks like and how big Saturn rockets actually are in person.

We still had a lot of day left, so I decided it would be a good idea to walk more of the National Mall and see how much we could accomplish.  Sprinkles came and went as we walked through the park, past the original Smithsonian building and other beautiful government structures, until we arrived at the Washington Monument.  It was still closed from earthquake damage a while back and we couldn't go up, but that didn't take away from the simple magnificence of the structure.  Since we'd gone that far, I decided we could try for the Lincoln Memorial, too.  After going through the new World War II Memorial, we walked by the reflecting pool and arrived.

The trip had already been filled with that electrifying feeling you get when seeing something in person you've seen so many times in books and on television, but I don't think anything hit me quite like the Lincoln Memorial.  Seeing the giant statue of the 16th President of the United States with my own eyes, being able to turn and see the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome in the distance inspired a moment of silent reflection that made me feel proud; even with all of the things that have happened in this country that I'm not proud of, there are so many other things I am proud of.  And we can all aspire to be someone better.

We visited the Vietnam Memorial and made our way to the White House, which had a lot of Easter festivities going on, and slowly made our way back to our hotel.  We stopped for dinner in Chinatown and enjoyed the vast cultural diversity this city has to offer.  All said and done, I walked seven miles not including the time in the Smithsonian Museums, all while pushing Mom around the sights.  I was a tired puppy...but extremely excited for our next day, which would include a tour of the Capitol itself.