(As you might expect, I've been far too busy doing on my trip to spend much time writing about what I did, but I've managed to eke out some time to jot down a few impressions, presented below.)
My Father’s House Was Warm At Night, He Used To Sing Me Lullabies
Philadelphia may be the “Cradle Of Liberty”, and it’s certainly got the creds to back up the title: The Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross, Ben Franklin, et al, but Washington, as the Nation’s Capital is literally awash in the ghosts of 231 years worth of struggle, and while many of them linger in the shadows, a few are painfully visible.
Most tourists pick the daytime to make the rounds of the museums, monuments, statues and parks, but, visiting them at night casts them in a completely different light, one that doesn’t always reflect well on our collective National Heritage.
At night, Washington, and particularly the National Mall, which runs in a roughly East-to-West line between the Capital Building and the Lincoln Memorial, is a line that demarcates a historical lineage of death and carnage that may seem nostalgic in the light of day, but at night circumscribes a darker, and decidedly more morose aspect.
After barely an afternoon sweltering though the heat and humidity, I decided to try to cool off by taking a walk from my hotel, located a few scant blocks from the White House, to the Washington Monument, and from there, along the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial.
There’s really not much to see that that time of the evening; the north entry of the White House facing Lafayette Park is fairly nondescript, overshadowed by the French neoclassical monstrosity of the Eisenhower Executive Building adjacent to it; even the creepy Gulf War vet who’s been perpetually camped out across the street since 2001 doesn’t lend much in the way of gravitas. On the other hand, the view across the South Lawn, toward the Rose Garden and the more famous portico has a sort of off-putting effect at night, like looking from a distance at the entry to some hoity-toity hotel meant for high-fallutin’ folk who only drop by when the weather is clement.
The Washington Monument is a curious thing amidst a veritable cornucopia of curiosities, is a huge bare marble obelisk, fashioned in the likeness of some ancient Egyptian paean to a departed pharaoh. It stands in prominent and stark contrast to the more ornate memorials that surround it. People who approach it exhibit an instinctual, almost primeval need to touch it, to lay hands upon the base of it, to sprawl against it as though it were some sort of huge, pointy lifesaver meant to help keep them afloat in turbulent seas. In the brief time I was there, I saw this action repeated perhaps a dozen times; always spontaneously, by people who simply could not have seen others performing the same oblation from differing sides of the structure. I have no idea what causes this behavior; again perhaps the very featurelessness of its surface compels people to sprawl against it, to attempt to ascribe some sort of feature to it, if only by way of imprinting it with some slight pressure from their own bodies.
To the West of the Washington Monument, at the eastern edge of the reflecting pool is the relatively new World War Two Memorial. It’s a decidedly more traditional type of structure, as opposed to say the stark, dramatic simplicity of the Viet Nam Memorial, consisting of a central pool flanked by double fountains which are themselves surrounded by shooting sprays of water, set amidst 52 stanchions, each bearing the name of a state or territory and accompanied by quotations from significant personages of the time: Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Nimitz (interestingly, nothing from McArthur), along with the names of the major battles, those of the Pacific Theatre on one side, and the Atlantic on the other.
The Lincoln Memorial stands at the far end of the reflecting pool, which has evidently become an evening haven for ducks and a large contingent of Canada Geese. The Lincoln had the largest nocturnal crowd of any of the memorials I visited, and unlike the Washington Monument, a definite atmosphere of somber reverence pervades the site. The huge seated figure rests wearily on the great chair inside the immense vault, eyes gazing into the infinite distance beyond the Capital Building far to the East, and flanked on one side by the text of the Gettysburg Address, and on the other by the Second Inaugural Speech. The ghosts abound here in abundance; the hundreds of thousands of war dead, the hundreds of thousands more who grieved for them, the millions more who suffered, both as orphans and widows, as well as slaves kept under the yoke of oppression, whose freedom was exchanged for rivers of blood. I had originally hoped to go to Gettysburg, to see the battle site, but in a way, the Lincoln Memorial stands as an even greater witness to the tragedy of our Civil War as an encapsulation of not just a single battle or of a particular struggle, but rather as the distillation of all of them.
Starting back toward my hotel, I stumble on “The Wall” almost as an after thought in the darkness. Sitting at ground level, the dimly lit faces of polished black granite appear suddenly to the unwary, as if a great gash had been cut into the earth by a giant scythe, one arm pointing back toward Lincoln and his singular burden of suffering, while the other points forward toward the Capital Rotunda, like an accusatory finger. The ghosts are more in evidence here, as the rows and columns of the dead and missing seem to rise out of the earth like smoke or fog. Along the base people have placed photos, written biographies, flowers. As one walks down its length, figures emerge from the darkness: a heavy-set man gingerly bending down to peer at a particular name while a teenager, presumably his grandson hangs back, nearly lost in the shadows. Even in the dim light the clean surface is smudged by the fingerprints of those who have come to touch the name of a husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, friend or comrade, leaving only the trace of the oil from their hands as evidence of their homage and grief and remembrance. The very simplicity of The Wall makes it heart-wrenching to behold, because it makes no political statement, makes no judgment about the rightness or wrongness of the cause for which the men and women whose names are inscribed upon it fought and died; it only asks us to make the effort to remember.
I feel a little shaky walking the final few blocks back to the hotel. Certainly the still not-diminished heat and humidity are to blame in part, but one feels the accumulation of the emotions equally, and along the way one can’t help but have a keen awareness of the figures sprawled out on the park benches as one passes; the homeless, the destitute, the damaged – all casualties of another war still being fought, but one where the enemy is so much more difficult to define. The living ghosts of the present, who normally walk amongst us barely seen or acknowledged, occasionally pitied, more frequently despised, and I can’t help but wonder how long they will have to roam before we can lay the memory of their suffering to rest, along with the legions amongst whom they reside day-by-day.
on 3:13 PM