Lest We Forget

Wednesday, April 04, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Washington, DC 
Though we normally avoid malls at all costs, Washington's National Mall was another story.  As home to some of the most cherished symbols of our nation, seeing the mall and memorial parks formed our agenda for today.  Our previous visits to this hallowed ground occurred in the blistering heat of summer (about 1985), when we rode the Tourmobile from site to site, and on a frostbitten winter day ten years ago, when the city was so empty we could easily drive from place to place.  Today we relished the pleasant temperature and gentle spring breezes and made our way on foot.  Due to the mild winter, spring came early in Washington, and the city's famed cherry trees have already shed their petals, though the National Cherry Blossom Festival is still in full swing.

As we reached street level from the Smithsonian Metro station, spotting the Washington Monument, the tallest structure in the city, guided us toward the National Mall.  After an earthquake last summer sent chunks of stone and mortar raining to the ground and left cracks in the walls as long as three feet, visitors have not been permitted to ride the elevator to the 500-foot level of the monument.  After extensive assessments, plans for a year-long repair are just now being completed.
When the capstone was finally put in place in 1884, the 555-foot obelisk became the world's tallest structure, a title quickly lost when the Eiffel Tower topped out at 930 feet only five years later.  The Washington Monument remains the tallest obelisk and the largest freestanding masonry structure in the world.
Under construction when we were last in the city, the World War II Memorial opened to the public in 2004.  Sprawling across the mall between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, its massive size befits the more than 400,000 American lives sacrificed in the preservation of freedom and the great proportion of citizens who contributed to the war effort either in military service or on the home front.  With a nod to our participatory form of government, the memorial's World War II Registry of Remembrance includes an unofficial compilation of Americans who served in the war effort, where citizens can submit the names of family members, friends, or comrades-in-arms whose efforts helped to win the war.  

Part of the Atlantic section of the World War II Memorial
Vietnam Memorial
Lincoln Memorial
As we walked around this majestic shrine, we noticed an unusual number of elderly gentlemen being toured around in wheelchairs.  What made them stand out was the similarity in attire of their escorts.  All were wearing shirts emblazoned with a logo for Honor Flight Chicago.  Wanting to learn more, we later talked at the Lincoln Memorial with Preston and his escort Laurie.  Founded in 2005, Honor Flight Network seeks to transport veterans of World War II and the Korean War to Washington at no cost to visit memorials dedicated to honor their service.  One of the few veterans we saw on foot, Preston lives in Indiana and still wears his uniform proudly.  Laurie volunteers as a guide with the Chicago chapter of the program.
Extending between the World War II Memorial and Lincoln's spot at the end of the mall, the Reflecting Pool was not giving off any mirror images today.  For the last 18 months, the familiar water feature has been undergoing renovation to eliminate leaks and to provide a system that will keep the water cleaner.  Expected to be concluded soon, this extensive project will replace dirt paths along the perimeter with sidewalks and improve security at the Lincoln Memorial.
Our next stop in our 'round the mall trip was the Korean War Veterans Memorial.  Dedicated in 1995, the monument comprises a black granite wall with etchings of photographic images of troops who fought in this conflict and triangular field of 19 larger-than-life stainless steel statues depicting a squad on patrol (pictured on previous page).  The haunted faces of the ghostly soldiers as they seem to trudge across a field speak of the daunting hardships faced by Americans who served in Korea. 
With its place on the obverse side of the penny for 50 years, the Lincoln Memorial is a familiar sight even to those who may never have seen a photograph of it.  In addition to the two historic Lincoln speeches etched there (Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses), this imposing edifice has been the site of many other famous orations including Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" address in 1963.
Open to the public 24 hours a day, this tribute to one of our most revered Presidents is one of Washington's most visited attractions.  Its imposing 20-foot statue of Lincoln sitting in contemplation inspires awe in all who stand before it.

Continuing around the west end of the mall, we took some time at the heart-wrenching Vietnam Veterans Memorial honoring the U.S. veterans who served in that most controversial of wars.  The starkness of the thousands of names of dead and missing engraved on black granite evokes the anguish that so many of our generation experienced during that brutal conflict.
Retracing our steps around Lincoln, we made our way to the shores of the Tidal Basin to visit the still new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.  Like many others visiting this iconic leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, we remember seeing his image and hearing his voice in our lifetimes.  At this monument more than others, there was a palpable sense of pride in those who were paying tribute to Dr. King.  With no visible symbol such as a wreath to remind us, it was only later that we realized our visit today coincided with the 44th anniversary of his assassination.
Roosevelt and King Memorials
Continuing our stroll around the western end of the Tidal Basin, we visited the 7.5 acre Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.  Arranged in a sequence of four outdoor rooms to represent Roosevelt's four terms in office, the memorial seems particularly appropriate for its honoree.  Unlike many other monuments on the mall with their grand stairway approaches and multilevel designs, the Roosevelt is completely accessible to wheelchairs in deference to the President's own disability.
The final stop on our monumental tour was the Jefferson Memorial, one of the oldest structures on the mall.  With design elements borrowed from the Pantheon in Rome and Jefferson's own conception of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, the monument sits directly across the mall from the White House at the edge of the Tidal Basin.  Surrounding a 19-foot statue of Jefferson, the walls of the interior are engraved with quotations from Jefferson's writings.
Jefferson Memorial
Five hours and five miles after we started, our tour was complete and we headed back to the Metro station for the ride back to Arlington.  Along the way, we saw thousands of tourists, both foreign and domestic, peacefully sharing the afternoon and the majesty of these national treasures.  We learned a bit more history, found a couple of letterboxes, and came away with a renewed appreciation for those who have worked and sacrificed to enable us to walk around freely and enjoy this beautiful spring day in our nation's capitol.

Kilroy Was Here:   The World War II memorial incorporates two inconspicuous "Kilroy was here" engravings. Their inclusion in the memorial acknowledges the significance of the symbol to American soldiers during World War II.  The familiar graffiti cartoon started in a Naval shipyard in Quincy, MA with an inspector named James Kilroy, who was charged with inspecting the rivets installed on a ship.  To indicate that he had checked a vessel, he came up with a symbol to show he had completed his task.  When those ships went out to sea, sailors saw the graphic and began repeating it wherever they were, and a legend was born.