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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Max and Jason: Day 7

Cleveland, OH to Washington, D.C.

Thursday morning we woke up early and, with no Panera in sight, contented ourselves with breakfast in the Holiday Inn restaurant. Apparently, I hadn’t made too much of a scene the previous night with my repeated demands for a “REAL Lemon Drop – not just vodka with a lemon slice!” because the waitstaff was still relatively friendly. After enjoying a Denver omelet and a short stack, we bid Cleveland adieu and struck out for points southeast: our nation’s capitol, to be precise.

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Playlist for the day:

  • Jason’s George Michael/WHAM! Playlist
  • Explosions in the Sky
  • Nada Surf

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I’m sure it’s partly because I’ve lived in Seattle my whole life and I’m intimately familiar with the surrounding highways, but I still say some of these cities out East are a frigging mess, highway-design-wise. Cleveland seems to be surrounded by a bewildering maze of concentric highways and freeways, all criss-crossing in the least logical way imaginable, with no possible way of correcting any navigational mistake. What? You missed the poorly-marked turnoff to your desired freeway, among the TWENTY OTHER poorly-marked turnoffs? Sorry, you’ll have to complete a lap around the ENTIRE CITY before you can have another chance at merging onto I-270. Thanks for playing.

We saw this in a truck stop restroom:

Every day, Max and I program the nav system with our next destination. I think it’s required to give you a verbal assist every ten minutes or so, so you hear a lot of useless directions like “Stay. On. CURRENT. Road.” But leaving Cleveland and entering Washington, D.C., the nav system seemed to have lost its mind, spewing out overlapping and contradictory instructions every few seconds: “Turn. LEFT. On. I. Six. TEEN. In. FOUR. Miles.” followed three seconds later by “I. Six. TEEN. On. Your. RIGHT. In. ONE. Mile.” Then, seemingly as an afterthought, adding “Stay. On. CURRENT. Road. For. TWELVE. Miles.” Like Harvey Keitel in “Bad Lieutenant” I wanted to bust a cap in that damn radio’s ass, but I kept my service revolver holstered and we eventually arrived in Washington, D.C.

It’s beautiful, by the way; did I forget to mention that? In fact, ever since Chicago we’ve been driving through picturesque farmland and thickly forested hills covered with all kinds of trees we can’t identify. “What kind of tree is that?” I’ll ask, and Max inevitably will reply: “I dunno. I don’t think we have those back in Washington.” He’s right. It’s… different out here. Weirdly enough, the most rustic and gorgeous scenery so far was just north of Pittsburgh, a city Max and I always imagined as a vast, filthy and crime-ridden industrial ghetto.

Entering Washington, D.C., we drove through some sort of National Park, with trees right up to the roadside, and it was hard to believe we were so close to a major city. Finally, we descended out of the woods and suddenly, we were in the city, driving past landmarks we had only seen in books and movies before today. Washington is an amazing city, with impressively massive and surprisingly ornate historical buildings, public art galore, FBI Police cars prowling the streets, more museums and monuments than you can imagine, and pedestrians EVERYWHERE. I find it difficult to drive here, because I can’t stop gawking: “Oh my God! There’s the National Archives! Check out the security guys in front of the FBI building! Take a picture of me as we pass the White House!”

Eventually, though, we did make it to our hotel, which is one block from the FBI building, and just around the corner from the theater where Lincoln was shot. We pulled up in front, and a guy in an official uniform came out and asked if we wanted parking.

“Well, yeah. I mean, I’ll just self-park, if you can tell me where,” I stammered nervously, as impatient cars lined up behind me in the sweltering August heat.

“You give me key; I park,” Official Guy responded curtly. Somebody behind me honked, but I didn’t know if they were honking at me or at some other idiot blocking a lane of rush-hour traffic. There was a lot of honking going on, so it was hard to tell.

“Right, but I don’t want to pay for valet parking,” I persisted. “Can’t I just park it myself?”

“Sorry; do not understand. One minute,” Official Guy said, then disappeared into the hotel. My anxiety was increasing by the second. Finally, Official Guy re-appeared, with another man who was clearly Official Guy’s boss. He looked like a Mossad agent, with leathery skin, a grim expression, and aviator sunglasses. A suspicious bulge made me wonder if he was concealing a Glock beneath his sport coat.

“What is problem?” Mossad Agent demanded sharply. “You give us key, we park!”

Cowed, I jumped out of the car, and re-directed my frustration at Max. “Get your stuff together!” I yelled. “Get off your ass for once and help me, for God’s sake!” Opening the trunk, I grabbed anything within arms’ reach: underwear, video camera, U.S. road atlas, backpack, more underwear, coffee making supplies…

Max, still half-asleep and confused by my sudden change of mood, stumbled out of the car and groggily gathered his belongings, while Official Guy and Mossad Agent hovered impatiently, hands outstretched, demanding the key. The heat and humidity were punishing. When I could hold no more of our stuff, I slammed the trunk shut, handed the key to Mossad Agent and strode awkwardly into the hotel lobby, dropping a trail of underwear and hastily-folded maps behind me.

After settling in our room (and after I had apologized to Max for my cranky outburst), we decided to use the hours of remaining daylight to see a few monuments. We grabbed a map from the hotel lobby and found our way to “The Mall,” which, as it turned out, was only about three blocks away.

First, we encountered the Washington Monument. It has now re-opened to the public, but it was too late for us to get tickets, so we just walked around the base of it and took pictures.

Well, it’s tall, and it’s certainly impressive, but for some reason, neither of us was compelled to stick around for long, or even to look into getting tickets for the following day. Maybe we were just tired, or maybe we’re just too familiar with its shape for it to inspire much interest. Now that I’ve looked at pictures of the view from the top, I kinda wish we had gone.

We walked west down The National Mall, toward the Lincoln Memorial, and came across the WWII Memorial, which neither of us had seen before. Not surprising, since it was only dedicated in 2004. Even though neither one of us are big on war stuff, we both found the memorial beautiful and even emotionally stirring. There’s a large pool and fountain in the center, surrounded by pillars, each pillar engraved with the name of a state.

At one end is a sort of giant, ornate stone gazebo labeled “Atlantic,” with a matching structure at the other end labeled “Pacific.” On walls around the memorial, bronze bas-relief plaques depict key moments from the war. I am in no position to judge, but it felt appropriately respectful and somber about the sacrifices made without being too heavy or rah-rah patriotic. As a lefty who believes that most wars are avoidable, I was still moved.

We continued walking west, down a tree-shaded path along the north side of the reflecting pool, and presently drew near to the Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial. Until that moment, I had thought of the Vietnam War Memorial as a standalone monument. In fact, it is one corner of a triangle of related memorial sites. First, there is the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, a bronze statue designed by Texas native Glenna Goodacre. It depicts three uniformed women: One (White) is cradling a dying (White male) soldier and holding a cloth against his chest wound, one (White) is kneeling in a moment of reflection or prayer, and the third woman (African-American) is looking to the sky, seeking help from… a higher power? A Medevac helicopter? I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was about this scene that struck me so powerfully, but it took my breath away and left me feeling heartsick. I was left with an indelible image of the ways women are tasked with cleaning up after men’s destructive outbursts. From the official website: “Surrounded by death, the nurses had to shut down emotionally. They could not show their feelings to the soldiers they were trying to heal.”

Facts from the Plaque: 265,000 women served in the military during the Vietnam War. Over 11,000 saw duty in Vietnam. Between 1964 and 1973, military nurses tended over 300,000 wounded, and saved 98% of those who made it to a hospital.

Further along the same path, we came to the second corner of the triangle: The Three Servicemen. This is a bronze statue by Fredrick Hart in the same style as the Women’s Memorial, but depicting three uniformed men (two White, one African-American). Clearly exhausted and slightly disheveled, they gaze with hollow eyes at Maya Lin’s wall. When Maya Lin’s design for the Memorial was approved, some veterans’ groups and politicians felt that the wall alone did not appropriately honor those who fought in Vietnam. “A black, flagless pit,” they called it; “Intentionally without meaning.” The Three Servicemen and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial were added as a compromise with these detractors.

Which brings us to The Wall itself. It consists of black granite panels, containing the names of soldiers missing or killed in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975.

The panels are set into a hill, below ground level. Visitors enter from either end and proceed along a walkway facing the panels. As you enter, the first panels are fairly short and contain only a few names. As you continue toward the center of the Wall, the panels become taller and contain more names. The panels at the center tower over you at ten feet. In all, the Memorial contains over 58,000 names.

I’m finding it difficult to articulate the raw emotional impact of this monument. At first the names seem manageable, but they soon become overwhelming, sickening, maddening. 58,000? Really? All of these lives, lost? All of these families, grieving? Then there are the gifts that people have left in the small tray lining the bottom of The Wall: flowers, hand-written cards, medals, photos. By the time I reached the center panels, I was working hard to control my tears. Raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, none of my friends were impacted personally by the loss of a father in Vietnam. Nonetheless, standing in front of that Wall, it was impossible not to think of other young boys, just like me, who lost fathers, brothers, uncles… and for what? I felt suffocated by the collective grief.

After leaving The Wall, Max and I didn’t speak for a while; what was there to say? Finally, one of us broke the silence by saying something obvious like, “Jesus, that was heavy.” Max acknowledged that he was also surprised at how powerfully The Wall affected him, particularly in light of our country’s current boondoggle in Iraq, and all the attendant loss and grief.

If you’ve only seen the Vietnam War Memorial in pictures, I urge you to visit personally and spend some time reading the names and standing next to weeping mothers and looking at the photos and other gifts left behind. I guarantee that you will be affected, and that it will deepen your understanding, regardless of your political leaning.

We ended the day on a slightly more positive note at the Lincoln Memorial. I’m generally cynical about revered historical figures, particularly politicians, but I do have a soft spot for Honest Abe.

Standing in front of that enormous likeness of the man, under that wise and kind yet firm gaze of the Great Emancipator, I thought of one of my favorite childhood movies, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and found that I could – just for a moment – connect with a feeling of pride in our country, or at least in our stated ideals. That feeling lasted right up until I turned around and caught a glimpse of the Vietnam War Memorial again, and the row of stalls with veterans selling P.O.W. – M.I.A. flags.

By this time, Max and I felt we had been psychically traumatized enough for one day, plus our feet ached and we were hungry, so we headed back to the hotel.

Tomorrow: We visit the Holocaust Museum and Jason gets short-sheeted.

2 Comments

  1. I visited Washington DC and the Vietnam Memorial years ago. It had the same effect on me. I kept thinking I don’t know any of these people, yet tears were rolling down my cheeks. I was 21 years old. I can still feel the awe as I remember and read your descriptions… It’s so awesome that you two are sharing this experience!

  2. Please tell me you tried that cologne machine thingie … how does it actually work?

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