Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Monumental City - Part I

We spent this past Labor Day weekend in a place we've visited often, Washington, D.C.
As you probably already know, we like road trips and lucky for us Washington is a 7 to 8 hour ride (including bathroom breaks and other stops), which makes it a pretty good weekend getaway for us.  We love Washington.  We're both history buffs, both love architecture and public art, and we both love the fact that all the museums, including the National Zoo, are FREE!   Our first time there, we thought the Smithsonian was one big's actually several, including the Air & Space Museum, The Museum of Natural History and the Museum of American History, all walking distance from the big strip of grass and reflecting pool known as the National Mall.

We've been there four times now, and still have not seen everything!  I've never actually been into the Holocaust Museum, nor have we been to the zoo or even the Law Enforcement Memorial, where names of police officers killed in the line of duty, including someone my family knew, are engraved.  Little by little, we're checking those sights off our list.  Funny though, even though we revisited a few places we had already seen, I actually didn't take many photos this time, so some of what you are about to see was from our previous trips.

Arlington National Cemetery is across the river, and it is definitely a must-see, in my opinion.  Rows upon rows of white markers, the Tomb of The Unknowns, the changing of the guard - all of these will leave an impression on you.   Between rows of soldiers laid to rest are a few other memorials, such as a memorial to the Challenger astronauts, and one to those who died when their helicopters crashed during an attempt rescue the hostages in Iran just before Reagan was elected.   Only thing is, I feel weird taking pictures there.  I take pictures at a lot of cemeteries - after all, genealogy is a hobby of mine and I feel photos are less intrusive than rubbings, but somehow at Arlington it feels wrong.   Like I'm capitalizing on those who lay there.

One of the most memorable scenes in American military history is depicted near the entrance to Arlington, the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial....

The scale of it was surprisingly large to us....I never thought it was this big!
Back in D.C., one of the landmarks you refer to often to figure out where you are is the Washington Monument.  Beyond it is the U.S. Capital, another important point of reference when you're strolling around (which, of course, I have no picture of....fortunately, we'll probably be going there again!)
You can barely see it here, but between the Washington Memorial and the reflecting pond that leads up to the Lincoln Memorial is the World War II Memorial.

As far as war memorials go, it is the most recent one built in Washington.  I have mixed feelings about it.  On one hand, do I say what I truly feel about it? Or will that come off as being unpatriotic?  

I don't hate it, but perhaps because my dad and uncles served during World War II, I'm more particular about what I think it should have been.   And of course, did I build it? Nope. Did I pay for it? Nope.  Do I make a living designing these things or know anything at all about art?  Except for "knowing what I like", no, I really don't know squat.  I will say this - I am grateful and happy that something was built while there were still World War II veterans alive and able to visit it.  And the sheer scale of it - it's huge - is by all means appropriate.

This is one side - the structure in the middle represents the Atlantic side of the war, and there is a smaller monument for every state...
This is the Pacific half...
And we all know by now, my Dad served in the China-Burma-India theater, and that slab of stone is what represents it.  I kind of feel that each theater, each battle, deserves it's own memorial.  One that tells the story, tells you how many soldiers died, how many civilians.  But I guess that would be tough to do.  It would probably take up the whole mall, and then some, to give each story it's due.  One thing that did touch me, was those three kids there.  Their grandparents were from Burma originally, and it was touching to see their reaction to seeing the name "Burma" - a country they had never visited and probably never will - carved into stone.  They were so excited to see it!  "Here it is! Here it is!" they shouted as they ran over to it, smiles on their faces as bright as the sunshine.

Anyway, despite the sheer size of the monument, I was a little disappointed.  Its very cold and gray.  
Not that I wanted some neon fiberglass structure, but this monument is actually what some would consider fascist architecture.  It's very generic-looking, and completely symmetrical.  It's something Hitler would have commissioned, and that bothers me.  Also when you compare it to some of the other war memorials,'ll see exactly what I mean...

For example, one of the monuments that surprised me the most was this one - the Korean War Memorial.  As you approach it, it sort of peeks out of a cluster of trees, and you're not exactly sure what exactly you're walking towards.
The closer you get, ghost-like statues of soldiers appear.
Alongside them is a granite wall, with faces of lost soldiers etched in them as if each one was taken from a photograph.  It's eerie to walk by, look each one in the eye, then see your own reflection on the gleaming stone.

As the sun sets, the soldiers become even more ghost-like in appearance.  To the naked eye, they actually seem to glow a little bit more than they do in this photo...
It's truly haunting.  And I think that's what a war memorial should be.

The other well-known war memorial is, of course, the Vietnam Memorial.  If you're as old as I am, you might recall that this design was met with a huge amount of criticism when first chosen.  People thought it was too boring.  A wall, with thousands of names engraved on it?  What the heck is that?  People probably thought the statue of three soldiers would be the main attraction.

It is a beautiful piece of art.

On our first approach several years ago, we might have thought the same thing...but only for a moment.

It starts out kind of like the war did.  A few inches high, a few names etched in stone. 

At this point, you still hear idle chatter among those people visiting it for the first time.  But as you make your way along the wall, it grows higher.  As the years pass, there are more and more names added to it.

And chances are, you will come across someone who was there, or someone who lost a son, a brother, a father, uncle, or cousin.

You realize that while they are simply names etched in stone to you, other people come here to remember someone who died.
Tucked safely into ziploc bags or pocket protectors are fliers telling you that today would have been someone's birthday, or that someone was killed in action 3o-something years ago today.  Faces to go with those names, and the heartache of realizing that somewhere out here in the real world, someone misses this person.

We met someone here a couple years ago, looked for the name of his army buddy, Charles E. Hosking, Jr. who was killed in Vietnam.  It was the first time this veteran had been to the wall, visiting here with his son,  and he really wanted to find his friend's name and take a picture for his scrapbook.  Come to find out, they were originally from Gloucester, MA, so we chatted about home, and he told us about his friend.  One of the things that always bothered me about my visits to the wall, was that I would try to memorize names, so I could somehow honor them in my own way.  But since I have no real connection to anyone who died there - my cousins all came home, safe and sound, thank goodness - by the time we walk away I have usually forgotten.  

But here's what I can tell you about Charles E. Hosking, Jr.  His nickname was "Snake".  He swore a lot, and was a real hell-raiser, according to his friend.  He died when he threw himself on a grenade that had been launched into a foxhole.  He was the only one who had died that day in that foxhole, having given his life to save his brothers in arms.   His name is the last one, fifth row down, on the section to the left.
My husband took that photo three years ago and emailed it to the veteran's son.  And three years later, I visited Charles "Snake" Hosking Jr. at the wall.  In honor of him, and in honor of his friend.  I may have never known you, but I will never forget your sacrifice.

And even here, as you leave the wall, and the names begin to dwindle, you are still deeply affected.  Even here, it is still silent as you pass by.  What started out being criticized as an impersonal monument is perhaps one of the most touching of all.

Another tribute to the Vietnam War is the Nurse's statue.  I've been by here a few times, and often flowers are tucked into the statue by those who have passed by.
 As you head back to the mall to catch the sunset, you look at the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial in a different light.

You realize what we as a nation have sacrificed, but also how far we've come.  No matter what your political views are, or what you feel about the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the various social issues that tend to divide us, you walk away with a sense of pride.   And the feeling that whatever difficult times may lie ahead, we can overcome them.  


Tattoos and Teething Rings said...

I have always wanted to go to DC, I love history and architecture. And now that I have kids, I think it would be a great family trip. Of course, I will probably wait until Urijah is at least 3 years old.

Lissaloo said...

What a fun time! We love Zoo's :)

5thsister said...

Tears are streaming from my eyes. I, too, will now remember Cherles E. Hosking, Jr for the sacrifice he made to save his buddies that fateful day in the foxhole. He's a true hero. May God bless his soul.

Willoughby said...

Another great travel post! I'm telling you, girlfriend, quit your job and become a travel writer. You're so good at bringing the places you visit to life for your readers! How appropriate that I would be reading it on September 11.

I completely understand your sentiment about photographing the graves at Arlington. I posted a picture of a grave on my blog a while back and I really struggled with whether I should. I didn't want to exploit the young woman who's buried there, but I wanted to tell her story. It's a fine line.

I was so glad you posted pictures of the Korean War Memorial. I have always wanted to see it. It is hauntingly beautiful. My dad, who is still alive, served in Korea.