Trip

I started watching Jon and Kate Plus Eight on The Learning Channel earlier this year. In various episodes I watched that family travel from Pennsylvania to Hawaii, California, Utah, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, and New York, and I realized that any one of those four-year-old kids have accrued more frequent-flyer miles than I'll ever have.

The last time I traveled for a vacation was September 1997: We hadn't heard of Monica Lewinsky yet, Princess Diana had just died, and America was learning to fall in love with a band called Chumbawamba. After that, I fell into a rut.

When I was a kid my family went on vacations all over the place, and in 1974 we visited Washington DC. I decided to go there again by myself. Last week I landed at Reagan airport around 8:30 on a Thursday morning and rode the subway into the city. The commuters all looked just as bored as a trainload of Chicago commuters, in contrast to bug-eyed me, on my first trip in years.

Thirty-five years ago, as we remember it, our family had free, unescorted access to most of the Capitol building. Inside, we had climbed marble steps that were so old they had depressions worn into the areas used most often. In 2009, the Capitol has a newly completed underground Visitor Center with lots of great exhibits, but visitor access to the actual Capitol is limited to a short walking tour and any tourist caught away from supervision is removed by security. This is all understandable.

One of the dozens of exhibits in the Capitol Visitor Center was about Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress. Her first term started in 1917 and she voted against the US joining in World War I. After her first term ended in 1919, she didn't win a second term until 1941, and after the Pearl Harbor attack in December of that year, she was the only member of Congress to vote against the US entering World War II. An exhibit photo shows her after that vote waiting in a phone booth until she could get a police escort to safely get her out of the Capitol. Well, she was consistent.

The best part of the trip was visiting the Newseum, a one-year-old institution devoted to the accomplishments of journalism. In addition to exhibits on all aspects of print and electronic news, the place has several slabs of the Berlin Wall (1961 - 1989) and a twisted lengthy piece of the radio tower that slid down from its position on top of the World Trade Center in 2001. The Berlin Wall presentation included an interesting note on how East Germans used television and radio as a means of "intellectual escape" when the wall prevented them from going west.

Another Newseum exhibit open for this year only covers the FBI's most newsworthy cases. It includes a poem written in Arabic on a legal pad by Saddam Hussein, as a gift to an FBI agent. He had grown to trust (and apparently like) the Arabic-speaking agent who was assigned to establish a rapport and gather information on what Saddam really knew once he was captured.

I also toured the headquarters of National Public Radio. Our little tour group got to see various studios, lots of employee cubicles and computer equipment, and NPR host Scott Simon in a glass-walled room recording an interview (for later broadcast) with a professor speaking from London. Many thanks to Alan the tour guide for his depth of knowledge and restraint in not making a direct solicitation for donations even as NPR had major layoffs in Los Angeles.

The most crowded spots were the Lincoln Memorial and the National Air and Space Museum, so if you ever go there but dislike crowds, you might try those things as early in the day as possible.

On Saturday, April 4 the city had its annual Cherry Blossom Festival parade down Constitution Avenue; it was the peak week for this year's blossoms. While I skipped the parade, I did see some of its participants. I came down to my hotel's lobby at 7:30 that morning, hearing a pronounced clattering sound around the corner. I found a group of children in cherry-blossom-pink sweatshirts, all wearing tap shoes and testing them on the linoleum floor.

Later that day I noticed that the Navy and Army had set up recruiting booths near the parade route but I assumed they did that every Saturday. I couldn't imagine they assembled downtown just once a year to snag the demographic interested in both (1) the peak of the cherry blossom season and (2) serving their country in a military capacity.