The first time I saw our nation’s capitol was on July 4th 1976, the Bi-centennial. It was hot and crowded, and I had to stand in line for half an hour just to use the porta-potty. Half a million people crammed into the National Mall that day. Up on a temporary stage, Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller rang the Liberty Bell (flown in from Philadelphia for the occasion) with descendents of the original founders. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang while red, white, and blue smoke poured from the platform. I recall watching the heavy smoke drift across the reflecting pool until a sudden change in the wind brought it back over the crowd, and half-expected to hear the choir sing “God bless America…cough, cough…land that I love…cough…”
The day concluded with the biggest fireworks show that I had yet seen, followed by laser lights shooting out of the top of the Washington monument. (To the youngsters reading this, lasers were considered very cool in the 1970’s…)
I have visited D.C. many times since then, but that first visit left such an impression that I decided to take my own kids back to celebrate Independence Day this year, exactly 30 years later.
My oldest is not yet twelve, so we knew from the outset that we’d need to take it a little easy. We left our car in Springfield VA (the kids kept looking for The Simpsons) and took the train to L’Enfante Plaza. We didn’t get further than two blocks before the kids collapsed in the shade and begged us for ice cream. Ten bucks and half an hour later, we finally reached the Mall and the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival. The kids, of course, just wanted to ride the merry-go-’round; at two bucks a pop, I saw my cash reserves rapidly dwindling. To get out of the sun, we ducked into a large tent to listen to what I can only call Canadian Bluegrass. It was wonderful â€” fiddlers burning through their music on stage while couples danced feverishly in the dirt. Much of the next 90 minutes was spent like that: ducking into a building or a tent to cool down, then proceeding on to fascinating displays of weaving and cooking and indigenous music. When they weren’t baking in the sun, the kids really enjoyed listening and talking to the native artists.
Although he had been to D.C. before, my youngest just graduated second grade and has gained a new appreciation for history. He wanted to see the monuments, so we trudged up the hill to the George Washington. For the past few years, it has been covered with scaffolding while undergoing repair, so I was hopeful that it would finally be open, but security fences kept us from approaching.
“Were they afraid that I would somehow hijack a monument and crash it into an airplane?…”
That would be the new reality of D.C. in these terror-stricken years. Everywhere we went, we had to pass through security checkpoints and get our bags checked. Even outdoors in the parks! Half a dozen times we had to stop while a guard went through our back pack and checked my cell phone. The backpack I could understand, but I wondered what act of terrorism they really thought I could pull off with my Kyocera. Were they afraid that I would somehow hijack a monument and crash it into an airplane? (Sorry, too soon…?)
My son really wanted to visit the Lincoln Memorial, but it is a deceptively long walk and everyone was already starting to melt. Although the fireworks were still several hours away, many people were already spreading out blankets and unpacking baskets, and I started to suggest that we might want to stake out some ground. Around that time, a Park Ranger drove through and began warning everyone that a serious thunder shower was on its way. We had seen the clouds on the horizon but were hoping for nothing more than a refreshing summer rain. Upon news that we might be facing lightning and hail, however, we decided to seek shelter. Since there was precious little of it in the park, we chose to hightail it to the Lincoln Memorial.
First, we had to find a nearby security checkpoint just to exit the park, then we found that the walkways around the reflecting pool were fenced off, so we walked down Constitution Avenue which, fortunately for us, was closed to traffic. It took us nearly twenty minutes to reach the monument, while the sky grew dark and ominous and the long boom of thunder kept getting closer and closer.
We walked fast. Everyone was exhausted by the time we reached the memorial and we still had to climb up that long flight of stairs through hundreds of bodies camped out on the steps. I told the kids earlier that if we got separated, we should meet under Lincoln’s right toe, and that is where we staked out a spot to wait the storm.
Once there, the kids finally got to look around. The monument is an awesome sight to behold, and it was exciting to see that grandeur reflected in such young eyes. As the room filled with people, my short-attention-span son decided that he wanted to stand at the very spot where Martin Luther King had made his famous speech in 1963. By that time, the rain had already started to fall, but we held our ground on the top steps as waves of people passed by us to get inside.
Then came the storm. Sheets of rain poured from the sky. The Washington monument, usually visible from the Lincoln memorial, disappeared. Then the Reflecting Pool vanished. All we could see was rain, whipped into a frenzy by the wind. Then we could no longer see the bottom of the stairs. The wind tore through the columns and we were soaked in cold water. I tried to back up, but the crowd was too thick, so I clutched my son and we stared into the storm. The unblinking storm gazed right back, and my eight-year-old son laughed with delight.
“I looked behind me and saw a hundred faces, people from every corner of the globe, cheering and laughing like children…”
Lightning struck again and again, the loud booms echoing through Lincoln’s chamber, and the crowd roared in approval. “KA-BOOM…!” …”HURRAY!” …”KA-BOOOOMM…! …”HURRAY!” I looked behind me and saw a hundred faces, people from every corner of the globe, cheering and laughing like children. It was the best damn Fourth of July ever!
One young man standing near to us said breathlessly “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life!” I smiled and welcomed him to Virginia. After twenty minutes or so, the storm subsided, and we emerged from the Lincoln Memorial like butterflies from a cocoon.
The park was a wreck. Cardboard garbage cans bobbed through the Reflecting Pool like melting glaciers. Blankets and towels lay where people had left them to dash to shelter, now soaking wet and pounded into the mud. Trees were knocked over and blocking streets in every direction. We picked our way through the mess and began the hike back toward the Smithsonians, hoping to find a dry place to get some food.
Not a thousand feet from the Lincoln Memorial, we heard a police cruiser go by warning us that another storm of equal ferocity was on the way in about half an hour. We all looked at each other and came to a collective decision: no man-made incendiary could possibly match the fireworks we had just seen. We hiked back to the subway through fallen trees and wet piles of detritus. By the time the D.C. show was scheduled to start, we were already half-way home and enjoying a nice dinner in a restaurant. Late-blooming fireworks lit our drive home, but the kids were fast asleep.