My family took our annual summer vacation last week. I've written previously that my wife and I are very determined to show our two sons the United States. We've split up the country into approximately eight trips, and now have about five out of the way. Those trips included a fantastic trip to the southwestern states, including Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico; a great trip to the Pacific Northwest last year; a trip to Gettysburg, Cooperstown, and New York City two years ago; as well as trips to northern and southern California. Still on the list are New England; a trip to Montana, the Dakotas, and Wyoming to see the rest of the West; and a final trip to Alaska.
This year's trip was to Washington D.C., Williamsburg, Virginia, and the North Carolina mountains. I'll just talk about Washington, which was a wonderful experience for our kids, though it couldn't have been any hotter. The temperature hovered around 99 degrees every day. Thankfully, the humidity wasn't in the 90's, or we'd all have been wiped out by the second day of the trip. After all, when you want to see the sights in D.C., you're going to be doing a lot of walking.
The drive is fairly easy; we took US 33 through Decatur and western Ohio to I-70 in Columbus, Ohio. From there, we drove into Pennsylvania, took I-79 south, and I-68 east. We arrived at my sister's house in northern Virginia in about nine and a half hours from Fort Wayne.
The next day, we spent the afternoon orienting the kids to the city. After a drive around the Mall and a visual of the White House and the Capitol, we headed for the various Memorials. First, the Vietnam Memorial, which stuns and saddens anyone over 30 years of age, but which is hard for my children's generation to appreciate. We spent some time trying to put it into context for them, but the memorial will never have the impact on any generation that it will upon those of us who grew up during that time period. Still, it is a must-see in any trip to Washington. We then traveled to the Lincoln Memorial, which is and always will be my favorite. The view alone from the Memorial back up the Mall to the Capitol is worth the trip all by itself, but of course, the stunning statue of our 16th President, along with the words chiseled into the marble walls of the greatest speech ever given in this country, The Gettysburg Address, are unforgettable.
We next traveled to the Korean War Memorial just to the east of the Lincoln, which is simple but memorable. A number of life-sized statues, representing a full platoon of soldiers, is marching in a spread out formation on a cold day. Surrounding the memorial are easels of fresh flowers from every country that had troops in Korea (the number of countries will that participated as Allies will astound you—at least 25 or more).
Then, it was back in the car and a trip to the Jefferson Memorial. This is a beautiful tribute to America's first Renaissance Man, and perhaps its greatest. You can stand at the front of the Memorial, at the top of the steps, and have a perfect view of the White House. I found out later that President Kennedy had a fair number of trees removed so he could see the Memorial from the Oval Office, and vice-versa.
Finally, we took the kids to the new FDR Memorial. I had seen it once before, in Winter, but in Summer, it is a real stunner. It is entirely outdoors, with a theme of granite and water throughout. It is split into four thematic areas, representing each term of FDR's Presidency. The Memorial is located along the tidal basin, just south of the Jefferson Memorial, and is another must see.
The next few days, we began a series of visits to the various Smithsonian Museums, which are, in my opinion, the best in the country. The first was to the Air and Space Museum, the most visited museum in the United States. While crowded, we managed to see everything we wanted, including actual space capsules from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo eras, as well as every kind of satellite and airplane you could imagine. My favorite part of the museum remains these capsules, which are so tiny and cramped that just looking at them gives you a case of claustrophobia. It reinforces just how much courage it took to fly into space in the early days. It also explains in vivid detail the various stages of space exploration that were required in order to land a man on the moon. Our kids have a new appreciation for the space program, as well as Neil Armstrong and all of the heroic astronauts who preceded him.
The next museum was my favorite: The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Actual dinosaur bones connected with reconstructed parts to create some stunning skeletons of T-Rex and others of its era; every kind of insect from every part of the globe, live and in living color; every kind of fish; every kind of animal, but placed together in such a way as to understand, through their skeletal structure, how they are related (how about camels and giraffes?). This explanation doesn't do it justice, but trust me, this museum is worth the three hours that it takes to do a decent exploration. You won't be bored, and neither will children.
The Museum of American History was also on the agenda. Some parts the kids really enjoyed, such as the historical walk through the electronic age from Edison to Microsoft; the history of television, including old TV shows and commercials that are both hysterical for their simplicity and very memorable for anyone over the age of 40. The American presidency exhibit was also great, and full of information about the life and times of our various leaders and the America they represented. Some parts of the museum were less interesting to both kids and adults, perhaps because it is somewhat dated, which may explain why there are some major changes being made. It was definitely worth seeing, however. Finally, we spent some time in the National Gallery of Art. We were pressed for time, fitting it in between a trip to the White House and the Capitol. The Museum, however, is full of outstanding and priceless artwork. For the many, including myself, who aren't normally patrons of art galleries but appreciate great works, this is perhaps the best American museum to visit. We decided to take the boys to the 19th Century French and European galleries, which included Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and others. The kids recognized many of the most famous paintings, which surprised me but also revealed how many masterpieces hang in the National Gallery. For art lovers, you could spend several days in here, but for the rest of the visitors, a full three hours is a good, educational experience. Worth the visit.
One of the best parts of the Smithsonian Museums are their gift shops. There is one in each museum, each thematically put together to reflect the subject matter of the particular museum. Great stuff you can't find anywhere else in Washington.
As for the rest of the trip: we were able to get into the Capitol for a special tour, which is the only way you can really see the Capitol any more. The boys saw the US Senate in action, which was what their parents had hoped to show them. Yet their favorite moment was in the old House chambers, (now a rotunda with statues), where our guide showed us the location of Rep. John Quincy Adams' desk (he served in the House after his Presidency). Adams' desk, unknown to the opposition party, was situated in a spot where, through an acoustical quirk, he could hear them talking across the room as if there were a hidden microphone there. He used to lay his head on his desk as if sleeping or resting, which caused many to make fun of him, little knowing he could hear every word the opposition party members were saying to each other in supposed privacy. You can still stand way across the room, in the right spot, and speak in a low tone and have it sound, only where Adams' desk was located, as if you were speaking into a microphone. Amazing.
We were also able to get the boys into the White House for a quick tour, which is very difficult to achieve these days due to the extra security since 9/11. It would be nice but untrue to say that it was the influence of Senator Long who got us in; in fact, it was my wife, Melissa, and her long-time friendship with a Ft. Wayne native who is now a Special Assistant to the President, who managed to wrangle the invitation. Sadly, the White House that used to be so accessible to its people is now off limits to almost everyone. This includes the closure of roads that traditionally have been open to traffic immediately adjacent to the 18-acre grounds. I look forward to the moment when the doors of the People's House are re-opened, as I think they will be one day. Until then, the security is air-tight, including a number of black-clad special force security guards, strategically located and heavily armed, who keep a sharp eye over the entire compound. They were never visible before the terrorist attacks, though there is no question they were on the grounds somewhere. Now, there are more of them, in plain view if you know where to look, and all of them on 24 hour high alert; a sign of the times.
Some final notes: a terrific, short side trip is to travel up Massachusetts Avenue away from the Mall area, past Embassy Row, to the National Cathedral. This is one of great Cathedrals in the world, massive in scope and stunningly beautiful inside, and should not be missed.
Other places to visit that should not be missed include the National Archives and the National Portrait Gallery (both currently closed until next year for renovation), and the Iwo Jima Memorial, best seen at night, which is immediately adjacent to Arlington Cemetery (another place that should be visited if just to see the Kennedy gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). At night, you can see the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Capitol Dome, and the Jefferson Memorial from the Iwo Jima Memorial, which is why it is located where it is. Few people ever see this sight at night, but it is one of Washington's best.
That's all: I won't make any of you who made it through this entire article suffer any longer. It was a great trip to the nation's capitol, a place that I highly recommend to young and old alike, no matter how many times you've visited. It is still, and will always be, the greatest capitol in the world.