Thursday, November 01, 2007

A multi-national tour

Yesterday a group of us from the hostel took a walking tour with talented tour guide Larry Amman--the guy in the white cap here. He took us through Lafayette Park, around the outside of the White House, and to several monuments.

Larry is a pro, skillful at weaving in details of interest to the various nationalities in a given group. In this case, we had representatives from Belgium, Germany, India, Hong Kong, Australia, Colombia and South Africa. I think I was the only American in the group.

We passed the Washington Monument, and some got tickets to go into it later. I was due at the Capitol at 2 pm, so I didn't. Maybe tomorrow. In the remaining monuments, I was surprised at the emphasis on peace, liberty and justice in the quotations chosen for each honoree. I was also surprised at the sheer size of the works. Lincoln was much bigger than I expected, for instance. Here's an excerpt from Lincoln's second inaugural address chiseled on the wall of his monument, on the eve of the Civil War's end:
Both[sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

. . . .

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
A disappointment for me was the Vietnam Memorial. The wall was thronged with tours and tour guides giving talks, and somehow diminished by the bright sun and balmy weather. At the foot of each panel were handwritten and drawn tributes to the soldiers and the ignominy of war. Very touching, until I realized that these were not personal messages, but middle school class exercises, carefully laminated and destined ultimately for the Vietnam Memorial archives.

Don't get me wrong. I think this is a wonderful thing for middle school kids to do, and some were very touching and illuminating. It's just that they didn't embody that sense of personal connection that seems so much a part of a visit to the wall.

The Vietnam Memorial seems like a place to visit on a rainy day, with few people about and the granite polished by the sky's tears. It's meant to be a place of sadness at a misguided, misbegotten war that claimed way too many lives for way too little reason. At least, that's how I see it.

Next week, on the Memorial's 25th anniversary, Larry, a Vietnam vet, will participate in the public reading of all 58,000 names of the dead.

After the Vietnam Memorial was built, the Korean War vets agitated for their own memorial. The resulting memorial, dedicated in 1995, was a surprise to me. Like the forgotten war it represents, it doesn't get much press. I found it fascinating.

The Memorial depicts soldiers emerging from a wooded area through scrub-covered ground. They are wary and frightened, as though expecting an attack in moments. Made of stainless steel, they are almost white, like ghosts.

Next to the statues is a polished granite wall, with photos of actual Korean War personnel etched into the surface. The etchings and the reflections of the statues interact in a ghostly way on the wall. I don't know if this photo quite captures it, but here it is:

Another surprise was the Roosevelt Memorial. It is a very large one, divided into four main areas representing Roosevelt's four terms. Water is present in all of them, as waterfalls and pools. Roosevelt's words are chiseled in the walls of the waterfalls and next to them. Rockwellesque statues of ordinary people, standing in line for jobs or listening to the newfangled radio, are interspersed. A later addition to the memorial shows Roosevelt in his homemade wheelchair, a kitchen chair with bicycle wheels attached. This section also features a wall with scenes carved in relief and Braille inscriptions for the blind.

As it's getting light and I need to do the laundry, I'm going to stop here.

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