Memorial Day in our Nation’s Capital

Washington DC is iconic. It is hard and rigid; everything seems a shade of off-white, creamish, gray. Erected in the same type of marble and limestone, many of the buildings use similar designs and look like they were made from the same block of imitation Greek Legos.

Aside from the population of academia (which comprise a large chunk of the residents), the city seems filled with men in suits, Hillary Clinton wannabes, homeless, political hookers, and a catch-all of government service workers. Friendliness was a PS many failed to include. While New Yorkers have a bad rap, the DC-ers, whether they’re local or politico-transplant, are slow on the uptake and not so generous with their hospitality.

Things seem spread out but close together – the heart of the city seems to be this large monument park. They found a piece of land, labeled it Capitol and tried to redeem the title with the cement tributes to those that founded this country on morals and virtues we’re still trying to emulate. What future monuments will be erected for our children? Will the future generations recognize a gap in leadership integrity?

The Washington Monument is like the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Sears Tower; it’s the tallest thing you see – an unspoken logo. From the circular plaza holding the infamous phallic tower of bricks, you can see the Lincoln Memorial. Here you are in a book of postcards, in a slide show, in any movie montage set in the nation’s capital.

The reflecting pool between the Lincoln and Washington Memorials, like a mirror, instantly double the memorials. Like jewelry, this rectangle of water is sparkly adornment for an otherwise hard and dry expanse.

The Lincoln Memorial, under a night sky is stunning and dramatic. Yet upon the steps and below the gigantor’s feet, it is ransacked by middle school kids where they obnoxiously read anything but the ‘Respect Please’ signs. Varying groups assemble in matching t-shirts; a stark white memorial dotted with a sea of blue, green and tie-die. Middle schools from Ohio, NJ, neighboring Baltimore. Some snap pictures, some are texting, and some giggle and flirt. They are not war age yet; they don’t have children yet. The war is a lesson they’re just learning; just one reality life has to slap on their faces.

Particularly poignant – on Memorial Day – and on a day when our country is still at combat – are the dedicated war memorials. Mothers still put yellow ribbons around their trees and wear pins with stars on them.

The World War II Memorial seemed to be the least crowded. 16 million faught in a war now memorialized by a fountain overlooking the Lincoln Memorial. Pillars bearing the names of country or states who fought in the war encapsulate the fountain. There are no individual names; just locations.

The Korean War Memorial is striking. In a triangular, spread out formation, silver soldiers stand, dramatic and disoriented – lost in a field but solidified for perpetuity. Expressions of sadness, despair, shock and honor are smeared on their faces. They all wear heavy ponchos and carry machine guns. A rainy battle eternalized under a sunny sky in Washington DC. The dichotomy is extreme. Behind the metal soldiers, there is a black granite wall etched with soldiers’ gray faces. Those lost in a war many in our generation know from the TV show, MASH.

My fist visit to the nation’s capital was about 20 years ago. From that trip, most impactful was the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. I remembered the vast expanse of a seemingly endless list of names. The Memorial seemed larger than life then, but for so many different reasons.

Hundreds of Harley-riding veterans congregate at the imprinted expanse of black granite that reveal their reflection. The base speckled with bouquets of plastic red roses in celephane decorated with red, white and blue. I read the names, but can’t see past my own face. I watch the reflections of tragic reunions. Veterans look at each other, shake hands, and say Welcome Home. The Washington monument and American flags bare witness.

A government worker dedicated to the memorial stands with a ladder, a big book of names and some pencils. Quietly, old couples approach her and ask her to do a pencil etching of a name. She props the ladder against the black wall and quietly and respectfully scratches the pencils over the specifically ripped piece of paper. She hands it over to the sad requestors.

They all look at her as if to say, “My son gave his life for this country, and now I have a pencil etching of his name.” Maybe I project; somehow I will never see war as rational. Somehow I’m always the one drawing peace signs in my mind, wishing everyone could sing kumbaya with doves flying overhead. Peace, love and rainbows. Only the unicorns are missing from my dreamscape.

The White House is beautiful; it’s set back as far as a jail and probably more protected. One of the most famous homes in the world; now home to two little girls. Thousands of people stick their digital cameras in between the iron gates each day and try to snap a picture of someone else’s home. What does this home say about the people inside or this nation? I’m not sure why anyone is so infatuated by the mansion – it looks similar to many other DC building. People want a picture of what the home represents – the freedom, liberty and other incidentals that this country has been fighting for the last two centuries.

Within the concrete buildings and under the perfect sidewalk, in between the shades of white, there seems to be lurking an aura of corruption and evil. Some degree of immorality that maybe, hopefully is on its way out. An ornate building currently under construction served as the shredding paper ground for the Iran Contra scandal. A mysterious building has no identifying marks, but is guarded by men with lots of ammunition and shallow faces.

Secrets, like ghosts, seem to whisper all around Washington DC.

Food options, like the rest of the city, seem spread apart and bland. Around the mall area, snack stands dot the periphery. Choices abound in the form of hot dogs, pretzels, or egg rolls. A few blocks inland from the land of the monuments and dried grass there were few unappealing restaurants. We had a good meal at the Chinatown Express. They made fresh dumplings and noodles in the window and then served it up to us for $5.95 each.

The visit to Arlington National Cemetery under a blistering sun and blazing blue sky was a day that has imprinted itself onto my memory bank and will remain there like a mental tombstone. It was Memorial Day weekend so the energy was exponential; a Rolling Thunder reunion had all the Harley vets dressed in leather vests and jackets laden with patches declaring, affirming, remembering. They were the living foreground to the cemetery’s background.

Along the white tombstones I walked. They were like rows of teeth in a shark’s mouth; otherwise dark and seemingly unending. It reeked of death and sadness. I saw a cemetery of children; I saw mothers with holes in their hearts that couldn’t be replaced by an American flag. There were grievers, there were veterans, there were tourists.

For their service, these Americans get a plot of land on a national cemetery and a token white headstone. We visit, we mourn, we remember. The government puts a small American flag by each tomb; some get a bouquet of plastic flowers.

Sad is not the death of individuals, but the failed lessons. Wars worth repeating, lives worth losing. Families destroyed, generations cinched.

I walked the hills of Arlington Cemetery in silence behind a veil of tears. From the sun beating over head it was like a field of would-be candles where all the wicks had burned down. What remained was a field of reminders of the fires that used to burn, hearts that used to beat, souls that used to love.

Washington DC represents this nation’s capital. From here rules were created, rules are regulated. Here, heroes are remembered and immortalized. Here is where we walk through a living archive of a young country’s rise. Here is where the banner yet waves; for the home of the free and the home of the brave.

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Below are some photos from the trip. See a full album here.

Washington Monument at dusk.

The Lincoln Memorial as reflected in a case of military Metals of Honor.

Wreaths and Reflections. Vietnam Vet’s Memorial.

Remembering at the Vietnam Vet’s Memorial.

Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial on Memorial Day.

There was one missing next to the purple heart.

Korean War Veteran’s Memorial.

This is the view from the backyard of the White House.

It was a cemetery full of children. Arlington National Cemetery.

The stones are placed by middle school children.

Changing of the guard ceremony at Arlington.

Arlington National Cemetery.

JFK’s grave with an eternal flame.

All of the white monuments look better at night.

A view of one of the cream buildings at night.

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