The land of the free, the brave, and the chronically over-booked
We were a
red-eyed family of four, weary after our all-night transcontinental journey, and looking forward to the last leg of our trip -- a short jet hop from Washington D.C. to Portland, Me. I was bringing my California brood home for the holidays and I hoped to be sitting by a New England fire soon. Still, this being America -- the land of the free, the brave, and the chronically over-booked -- our reserved seats had been given away like extra tickets for the movies and we were left stranded.
Upon hearing the news, my husband, who hates to travel, slammed the information counter with his fist and looked quite cross. My two teenage sons, who had gone without food for nearly 10 hours -- some kind of record -- glowered as if they were considering my right arm for a snack. Perhaps only because I was close to tears, the airline official took pity on me.
Soon we had a voucher for breakfast, another voucher to pay for a limousine tour of the city, and a promise of seats on a flight going out that afternoon. Though our gloves, hats, scarves, and boots were already flying toward Maine along with the rest of our baggage, our overcoats were wrapped around us. We should visit the National Christmas Tree, our airline angel advised.
The sign said it all; the tree was closed
previous visits to Washington. What I remembered best was spelling out an obscenity along with some 200,000 to 300,000 fellow anti-war activists. I liked how the sound echoed off the Capitol. My husband happily recalled surrounding the Pentagon. Together, as we clambered into our four-wheeled chariot, which looked more like a taxi than a limo, we happily continued reminiscing about the Washington of our youth. Our children stared at us with pained expressions. Youth was not for their parents.
Still, we told them about Washington in spring, with its cherry blossoms, and tens of thousands of protestors, and our sense that if enough people came we really could change the world. Our sons peered out the windows. They pointed out that the trees were bare, the landscape gray, and the wide roads appeared empty. The city was shut down, our driver reminded us, due to the budget standoff.
As we approached the Christmas tree, which was festooned in red ribbons and shining lights, we felt disappointed. Though tall enough, the tree looked small compared to any respectable redwood. Worse yet, it stood forlornly behind a locked gate. We couldn't walk around it. We couldn't get near it. A few tourists gloomily snapped pictures of it from afar. The sign said it all. The tree was closed.
That's how it was that day in Washington. We could walk around the White House but we couldn't go inside. We could climb the hill to the Washington Monument, but only imagine what it might be like to take the elevator to the top. Even the Lincoln Memorial was closed.
Though it was the Saturday before Christmas, Washington was a ghost town of vacant streets, locked doors, and closed signs. It was a city held hostage by a new Republican majority. For every Republican headed home for the holidays, including our own local Republican hardliner, Congressman Frank Riggs, there was a hot dog vendor, taxicab driver, or souvenir hawker who was losing money from the lack of tourism.
Fittingly, we were able to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was Vietnam which first brought my husband and I to Washington. And it was the war and our protests of it that dominated our twenties. With our cold, bare hands stuffed in our pockets we entered the long, nearly 247-foot pathway. It felt like descending into a giant tomb. Though not crowded, the course was lined with visitors, some in tears. I heard a young man shout -- "There's Dad!" -- and point a stubby finger to a name etched among the tens of thousands lining the black granite wall. My fingers traced names of people I never knew. Pictures, letters, and bouquets of flowers in various stages of decay lay on the ground against the wall.
In a somber mood, we then walked over to the new Korean War Veterans Memorial with its 19 larger than life, worn-looking, stainless steel soldiers trudging up an endless hill. The sculptures by artist Frank Gaylord of Barre, Vt., unforgettably capture the bone weariness of fighting soldiers.
On this icy day -- in the midst of a government shutdown -- I was pleased the renegade Republicans couldn't prevent my family from visiting the monuments to our nation's dead.
In fact, a funny thing began to happen. As we continued touring the city I felt my old defiance return. I would enjoy my visit to Washington despite the Republicans, I decided. It would be my private protest of government incompetence. I imagined all of us returning -- entire demonstrations -- in full hippie and yippie regalia. We would storm the Lincoln Memorial, encircle the National Christmas Tree, and liberate the elevator at the Washington Monument.
At the Capitol, I thought, a sit-in would be nice. I could almost hear my favorite protest chant. "Give me an F." "F!" "Give me a U." "U..."
Ah, I thought. It's good to be back.
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