We spent three full days visiting Washington DC, which is really a drop in the bucket. It would’ve taken two weeks to visit everything that sounded interesting to us (and probably a whole summer to just touch on everything DC has to offer). I had scheduled an all-day bus tour for the first day (thanks to Groupon), so we could see the top monuments and get a feel for what we might want to do the following days. It turned out that our first adventure was with getting around DC. Thom & I have used MARTA and other public transportation here & there, so we felt reasonably comfortable with using DC’s rail, METRO. We’ve also gotten around plenty of big cities, so we were pretty confident about finding everything. (You see where this is going, right?) We got METRO information from the hotel desk and left “in plenty of time” to get to our 9:00am tour. Only, we had to wait a few minutes on the hotel shuttle to the train station, we had to purchase and load five cards ($2 per card plus a minimum $8 balance), and the trains were running slowly (several tracks were under maintenance). The increasing worry that we wouldn’t make the tour on time was pushed aside as we laughed about how much fun the kids were having on the novelty of mass transit.
We did get off at the correct spot with 15 minutes to spare (well, we were supposed to be there 15 minutes early, but never mind that…), and then discovered that L’Enfant Plaza isn’t magically right in front of L’Enfant Plaza station. Let’s just say we walked to one end of the block and then another in search of the grassy plaza on the tour receipt picture before asking a city police officer for directions…and then hoofing it down a few blocks and through a mall to find the right place. Of course, it was 9:05 when we got to the right place and our bus was outta sight. Thankfully, the DC Trails company also runs an off & on tour and the driver was happy to take us to meet our bus. Luckily, we didn’t miss a stop on our tour because the bus had taken longer to get to the Capitol due to several festivals and construction. (It seemed like every building in DC was under renovations.)
After visiting the out-of-session, under construction Capitol, we saw the White House. We had tried to get a tour of the White House, but were declined due to the number of requests; it was still cool to see the outside of the building. (It was interesting to see the masses of people, right along with us, trying to take a good picture past the crowds and guards and fences.)
From there, we went to the World War II Memorial. This was the most stunning memorial in DC, both in scope and design. Giant columns representing each state surround a reflecting pool and fountains, and one giant side of the memorial has a reflecting pool under a wall of stars representing the 400,000+ men and women who died in the war. On top of all that, this memorial is within clear site of the Washington Monument on one side and the Lincoln Memorial on the other side. Our tour guide recommended coming back at night, as it’s even more magnificent under the nighttime lighting (but sadly, we never made it back).
Then we visited one of the newest memorials, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. While the stone statue of MLK, Jr. was magnificent, the best part of the memorial was the abundance of quotes carved in stone throughout the area. The layout was more like a garden path, where you wandered from one discovery to the next. It’s hard to explain what it was like to soak up the words he spoke, that fit today’s world just as much as a time gone by. (As a note, this memorial might be a nightmare for families with little children, as they would easily wander out of sight and there were many ways in and out of the memorial.)
From there we followed a natural flow to the Lincoln Memorial, and paused to reflect at the 40th step where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. It was amazing to see the statue of Lincoln up close, as it was bigger than we even imagined. It was interesting to hear the kids pair these two memorials as well, noting that both leaders strived for equality.
I didn’t think we’d linger long at the FDR memorial, since we’ve studied him quite a bit with visits to Warm Springs. We laughed about how we’d already driven by the memorial FDR wanted (about the size of a desk), and about how you have no control over things like that once you’ve passed from this world. However, this was another wandering discovery of a memorial (similar to the MLK, Jr Memorial), also filled with engraved quotes. We talked about his famous quote (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”) and his other quotes that interestingly stir around that same theme. The kids had their own deep discussion about how fear is a big problem in our society now—with terror attacks coming from a place of fear and our responses and laws coming from a fear of more attacks. Little did I know that days later we would be hearing about another attack on fellow Americans because of fear and hate.
The Korean War Memorial really struck home with us. With so much of our history education focused on wars we were “actively” involved in, this is the first war that stood out. The kids marveled at the fact that we went to aid another country and got involved in a war that didn’t affect us directly. The steel statues of soldiers made you immediately feel the intensity of war, and the wall of faces and war scenes made it feel all too real. On the positive side, the lower walls listing the countries of our allies gave a sense of belonging to something bigger than our country.
At the next stop, the Vietnam War Memorial, I discovered just how little the kids knew about this war. The major frame of reference they had was from Forrest Gump, and it seems they didn’t really understand the meanings behind the war scenes in that movie. We stood aside and talked about it briefly, but we didn’t stay at this memorial long…mainly because I think the sheer volume of names on that seemingly endless wall represented way too much strife and sadness to ponder for a long time.
While we only drove past the Pentagon, it was amazing to see how large that structure is (and to hear how many people work there). It was our first moment of reflection on the 9/11 attacks, learning how fortunate it was that the area struck was under construction (so way less people were injured or killed than could have been). It was also surprising to hear that nearly a third of the building was damaged, and it was sombering to know that nearly 200 people died there that day. It was unbelievable to hear how that plane was going 529 miles per hour, made a gash 30 yards wide and 10 yards deep, and caused a fire that burned for 36 hours.
On the heels of that story, we pulled into Arlington Cemetery. Our guide took us off the bus on a four-mile walk to visit the gravesites of the most decorated soldier, the Kennedys (including the Eternal Flame), and the Challenger pilot (there was a Challenger memorial for the other astronauts, but they apparently never found any evidence of anyone but the pilot). We discovered why people leave coins on the gravestones—a penny means you were related or a friend, a nickel means you went through training together, a dime means you served together, and a quarter means you were with this person when they died. Then we went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was amazing to learn about the Old Guard and all they do…not just guarding the Tomb 24/7, but also performing a host of duties in and out of Arlington (an average of 16 ceremonies per day). We were lucky enough to watch the changing of the guard, see two wreath-laying ceremonies, and witness the weapon and uniform inspection.
Our final stop was at the Marine Corps War Memorial (also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial). We learned that the flag on this memorial is one of seven that have presidential proclamations requiring that the flag fly 24/7. This memorial really wrapped up the themes of the day: war, dedication, unity, and freedom.
So, as you can tell, this day-long tour provided an unbelievable wealth of information. Although we cracked up over our tour guide’s accent (such as “infiny” for infantry and “libry” for liberty), he was a great and friendly guide. I can’t say enough good things about the DC Trails tour and highly recommend it for anyone visiting DC. (It would certainly be worth full price, but don’t forget to check Groupon or other discount sites.)
We got back to the hotel just ahead of a heavy rainstorm, and jaunted out for dinner. We not only enjoyed some amazing Indian food, but also had fun recounting the day. When we got back to the room and discovered Forrest Gump was on TV, we had to laugh—so many moments through the day we had referenced that movie…”remember when Jenny ran through the water at the Mall?”, “remember when Forrest spoke at the war rally?”, etc.
Reflections: Lizzy was most amazed by the Lincoln Memorial and how MLK, Jr. had spoken on the steps there. Brandon liked the tour bus as a whole—especially the trivia questions the guide would give along the way. Alex felt the most impact by Arlington and the Vietnam Memorial, as he said it was amazing to experience a little of what people have gone through for our country. Thom’s reflection was a little different, as he was taken aback when we went past the Evening Star building. It was like the past flooded in, reminding him of his times living in the DC area as a teenager when his dad got the head engineer job in that building but how it led to lots of moving around. All the moves led to Thom living with his grandpa in Griffin for a time, which led to him meeting my cousin, which led to him eventually meeting me. It brought things full circle and gave him the perspective to appreciate a trying time in life because it led to the amazing life we have.