Oct. 1, 2021
Lincoln would recognize much about the capital to which he was returning a dozen years after his single term in Congress. Washington City, home to 61,000 inhabitants in February 1861, was a raw, unsanitary place. Southern sympathies predominated, and separate legal codes governed people of different races.
From the White House the new president could look across the malarial Potomac Flats to the marble stump of the Washington Monument, abaondoned in 1854 for lack of funds. Worse, he could smell the rotting City Canal, an open sewer running along the line of today’s Constitution Avenue, into which local residents tossed dead animals. ~ posted in Ford’s Theater Museum
Still throwing off the discouragement of the prior weeks, we reveled in the remaining 90-miles up the iconic Potomac to Washington D.C. We felt on top of the world, with sun on our faces, cool breezes, and the purr of the engines. The Potomac is wide and scenic, with open green spaces and woods on both sides, an occasional rocky cliff, a bit of fine real estate—and a power plant—but most of it seemingly protected and undeveloped. We had little traffic for most of the trip—also a surprise for a Saturday. We watched for Mt. Vernon, having toured it about 5 years ago, and enjoyed seeing it from the water, remembering that the substantial number of guests who stopped, both by carriage and by boat, in need of lodging strained the Washingtons’ finances. George culled his woods to cover costs, while Martha perfected her ham-smoking skill. And, of course, enslaved people did the manual labor. As we neared the city, floating logs became a hazard, and traffic ultimately did became zoo-y. Our first siting of the Washington Monument and then the Capitol Building stirred unanticipated emotion.
Capitol Yacht Club (est. 1892) was easy to find. At the assigned T-dock on the outside, we lacked the protection that a slip offers from turbulence but gained a great view of the activity on the water and of the park across the way. It was Saturday evening, and kayaks and paddle boards on the water and cyclists biking around the golf course and park, gave way after dark to boating partiers. The ear-splitting helicopter, patrolling the route between the Pentagon and other military landmarks south was something we would adjust to during the week. We walked the waterfront on the wharf, visiting the huge fish market, scoping out eateries, and watching kids toast marshmallows city-style by the S’more Truck.
Sunday: After a much-needed boat wash down, we hopped on our bikes and headed to the city’s top attraction, the National Air and Space Museum. Many venerable aircraft hang in the entry, among them Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis, and the privately-funded Spaceship One. We enjoyed seeing several lunar modules and unmanned space probes, and marveled at the tiny Gemini capsule which transported two fully-suited astronauts. Some chunks of the Wright exhibit were removed during expansion and renovation, but we immersed ourselves in that turn-of-the-century snapshot in history, gaining even more admiration for these two brothers from a tight-knit, mid-western family, who displayed very different personalities and gifts. After a couple of disappointing runs, these men with no college degrees realized that the formulas for lift, which had been devised and utilized by scientists before them, were incorrect; and they set about devising their own tests, one being their famous wind tunnel, utilizing their their bicycle craft to correct calculations which are still used today. Seeing their glider, reading again about the progress of their 1904 and 1905 engine-powered flights at Kitty Hawk, and then their first practical flight back home in a cow field near Dayton, Ohio in which they circled the field for 39 minutes a total of 24 1/2 miles, was inspiring. Despite the lure of the jingles from rows and rows of food trucks on the mall at museum close, we persisted to our dinner at Rasika, where we savored amazing Indian fare and experienced the best service we can remember, well worth the wait!
Monday: The first order of the day was our Pfizer booster and annual flu shots, followed by lunch at the nearby taco stand on the wharf. We tooled around the Hirschhorn Sculpture Garden on our way to the National Postal Museum, where we viewed famous stamps and learned some of the history of mail delivery. It was easier, of course, to deliver mail in cities; but the postal service was hesitant to offer expensive Rural Free Delivery, even though the majority of Americans lived in rural areas. A pilot program proved how popular rural delivery in fact was, and folks happily walked to their post office or hitched up the wagon to go to town to collect their mail. What a great mail system we have, despite—you know—kinks in the system, puzzling current leadership, and all. Lack of planning for dinner will just about guarantee disappointment, and our late dinner at The Grill on the Wharf was windy, pricey and just ok.
Tuesday: The planners of our capital city have tucked small green spaces amidst the large ones, and there are hundreds of public spots for people to sit or stroll and enjoy nature. We lingered at the lovely gardens by the Smithsonian castle, the Enid Haupt Gardens, en route to the National Museum of American History. We were most interested in seeing patent models and were disappointed to discover that the entire wing which houses them is closed for renovation. But we discovered plenty of other interesting exhibits, like the one about voting rights and the evolution of thought and controversies over who should have the right to vote, which felt especially timely. We were struck again by how rancorous American discourse seems always to have been. We happened upon the quartet of fine stringed instruments—a Strad and three Nicolo Amatis—the iconic collection revered by string players world-wide. And we looked at the collection of First Ladies’ gowns and White House china. After leaving the museum, we cycled around the Mall and the Washington Monument, where now 700,000 small white flags across acres and acres flutter in the breeze, many with names and intimate sentiments written on them, marking the tragic number of lives lost in the pandemic. We walked through the solemn and understated Vietnam Memorial and cycled by the much larger and grander memorial to the Korean War. Back at the boat, I cooked and we ate dinner aboard.
Wednesday: We hit two museums, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Portrait Museum. We enjoyed dipping a little deeper into fossils, dinosaurs, and the five previous extinctions on earth. We were sobered by the assumption that we are in the middle of another and noted the irony that these exhibits were funded by David Koch (d. 2019), oil engineer and entrepreneur, and supporter of the far-right political movement. A quick sail through the beautifully-designed exhibit of taxidermied mammals was a nice exit, as we enjoyed watching children encountering the displays with wonder. The National Portrait Museum is a profound way to encounter American history. I appreciated the museum’s apology that, admittedly, most historic portraiture is of men, because of our patriarchal underpinnings. I lingered over the “cartes de viste,” a collection of civil war era miniature photos of influential women. Among them were Clara Louise Kellogg an American-trained soprano, who made her mark on the New York City stage singing the great European operas; and Venezuelan child prodigy Teresa Careño who debuted at the piano in New York at the age of 8, entertained President Lincoln at the White House playing his favorite song, “Listen to the Mockingbird,” and went on to a successful career as an adult artist. There are so many stories of unassuming greatness and leadership represented in that gallery, in addition to the prominent personalities and representations of famous moments. Amanda Gorman, the poet of Biden’s inauguration, received her due last January, but I had not heard of the inaugural painting—it is a lovely landscape. And then there is the hall of presidential portraits, of course. Among so many other interesting works, I was pleased to be able to see up close the exquisite and symbolic detail in the Hope collage, which served as Obama’s most recognized campaign poster in 2008. For dinner we returned to Rasika—we love repeats of a sure good thing and we were not disappointed!
Thursday: Having purchased tour tickets for Ford’s Theater, we were a little concerned it would be some over-sensationalized, two-bit circus act, but happily discovered this not to be the case. Still a working theater, the basement museum is open on a limited basis, a treasure trove of information on Lincoln, his election, the evolution of his thoughts on slavery, his life as president, his family, and of course, his assassination, all held in balance. I hadn’t known that Will was the second son of the Lincolns to have died, the most like his father…and the favorite. Youngest son Tad, had a cleft palate—and perhaps some learning deficiencies—and was curious and mischievous. We can attribute the silly practice of the presidential pardon of a turkey at Thanksgiving to Tad Lincoln and his father:
Late in 1863 a live turkey was sent to the White House for the Lincoln family to feast on during the holidays. Tad Lincoln, age 10, quickly befriended the bird. Tad taught the turkey to follow him as he walked around the White House grounds. The turkey was named Jack, and Tad fed him as a pet. When the time neared to prepare the turkey for the Christmas meal, Tad burst into one of his father’s Cabinet meetings. He was crying loudly. Tad told his dad that Jack was about to be killed, and that he had obtained a temporary delay from the “executioner” so he could put Jack’s case before the president. Tad said, “Jack must not be killed; it is wicked.” President Lincoln replied, “Jack was sent here to be killed and eaten…I can’t help it.” Tad, still sobbing, said, “He’s a good turkey, and I don’t want him killed.” Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States of America, paused in the midst of the Cabinet meeting. He took out a card, and on it he wrote an order of reprieve. Jack’s life was to be spared, and Tad raced out of the Cabinet meeting to show the presidential order to the “executioner.”
It was Frederick Douglas who convinced Lincoln to allow African Americans to serve Northern military interests, and Douglas turned out to be a brilliant recruiter. Lincoln was of a mind that the states must be united by the same laws regarding slavery, and as events unfolded, it became clear that sending all dark-skinned people “back” to Liberia, as was his previous thought, was not a solution. One gets a sense for the agony of this moment, how threatening a loss to those who enslaved, whose lifestyle and livelihood were built on this cheap labor force, despite the evil ethical dilemmas it posed. John Wilkes Booth was a handsome and gifted actor, often on stage at Ford’s Theater which the Lincolns frequented; and Booth, having heard enough of Lincoln’s liberal talk, decided to take matters into his own hands. There had been previous attempts on Lincoln’s life, and he received death threats and had prescient dreams, seemingly aware of his fate. The whole of it is still a stunning story. Steve and I were the last in our group to straggle out of the theater and found comfort food nearby at Hard Rock Cafe. In the afternoon we reported for our timed entry to the Library of Congress. What a magnificent, classical edifice—tribute to knowledge, wisdom, philosophy, and art! I felt envious of the folks studying as we gazed down into the circular reading room, the individually lighted carrels in that space surrounded by the stacks, the largest collection of books in the world. We scoped out Jefferson’s library of 6000 books, 2000 of which have survived two fires, the remainder replaced by collectors and donors. The afternoon was simply awe-filled. And THEN! After a quick dinner, we cycled to Kennedy Center for the opening concert—amidst a hall full of concert-goers at an in-person concert for the first time in nearly two years—of the National Symphony Orchestra featuring Brahms’ Violin Concerto played by Hilary Hahn and the 3rd Symphony of African American composer and Chicagoan, Florence Price. Even after performing the Brahms behemoth, Hahn played an encore, the Adagio from the Bach Partita in d minor. Ah, food for gods! We stopped by the Lincoln Memorial on our way home—I just hankered to see it lit up at night. What a perfect day!
Friday: We prepared for the first of our family to visit us aboard Red Pearl! After all of our schedule blow-ups and delays, it felt rather unbelievable that plans were finally working out! The guest cabin, having become our storage room, was cleared of the rows of organized storage baskets, and I reveled in even simple food preparation. With everything ready, we caught a bite of lunch at the local taco stand and biked to the National Museum of the American Indian. The architecture of this building is stunning, with undulating stone walls reminiscent of cliffs, canyons and natural rock formations. A water feature along the entire mall side suggests natural pools and streams, inviting guests to sit in the shade and enjoy the breeze as it cools over the water. The landscape along the south side of the museum utilizes large swaths of native plants and sculptures made from nature’s elements. Inside, the exhibits struggle to compete with the “wow” of the exterior. We settled into the wing which focused on the many ways in which the American Indian has influenced US commerce and its trademarks, displaying myriads of “Indian” signage over decades. We watched a video about the misleading memorialization of Thanksgiving and a suggestion for quasi-positive re-interpretation. We learned of a general shift of the image of the American Indian after the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Lakotas subsequently rising in stature as a “respectable foe,” and Custer satirically being portrayed as a weakling. Our hearts sank once more over the story of the Trail of Tears—another divisive issue in our history—the way governmental agencies drove the native people off their rich, beloved hunting grounds, away from the resources on which they depended, separating alliances, and striking down and leaving behind those who could not or would not travel. To clear our heads after departing the museum, we looped around the nearby National Botanical Garden. We never tire of seeing plants which we know and love in fresh combinations and of admiring specimens new to us. A dinner of our leftovers made room in the fridge for freshly prepared company food—and having cycled around the city center the entire week and never once seeing a grocery store, I felt lucky that we had provisioned well two weeks earlier!
What a full and delightful week this has been! Perfect weather and great bike-ability have allowed us to enjoy an amazing view of this beautiful city. The American Dream and environmental justice are still out of reach for many, but Washington DC has captured some mighty lofty, albeit imperfect, dreams thus far. Feeling grateful, feeling challenged.