Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More tourist experiences

We started last week by taking a tour of the Capitol. Capitol tours begin in the Capitol Visitor's Center, a lovely, $612 million ($356 million over budget), 3 year late federal construction project built under the Capitol itself. Before we went over for our tour, we stopped by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehitinen's office to get tickets to watch the House of Representatives in action. I am still dumbfounded that anyone can walk through security and then wander, unaccompanied, around the offices of Congress. This truly is amazing country!

The House wasn't in session yet (not back from their Easter break on April 14), but the Senate was, so we snagged some tickets and went up to sit in the Senate Gallery. Did you know that the two community snuff boxes are still available to members, along with the spittoons liberally sprinkled throughout the floor?

We were treated to the sight of the junior Senator from West Virginia speaking on the mining disaster, for the C-SPAN cameras in an otherwise completely empty chamber. That didn't bother me as much as reading the brochure we were given, in which it is explained that even during debates the chamber is usually empty, that you only see the Senators in the Senate when they are voting. OK, they don't want to listen to speechifying on mines, but they don't even bother to listen to each other's position during debates!?! And I wonder why 18% of American support the Tea Party?

On a happier note, we spent Saturday walking to the monuments. We started with the World War II monument which was full of Honor Flight veterans and their "guardians." For those who don't know, Honor Flight is a non-profit group that brings elderly veterans, especially WWII veterans, to Washington to see the monuments to their service. Most of these guys are too old to get around easily themselves, so each veteran has a guardian who stays with them, pushes the wheelchair, helps them on an off the bus, etc. A National Park employee told us there were 15 bus loads in DC on Saturday. The best sight was a three star Air Force general walking around shaking hands, thanking the guys for their service, listening to their stories. No aides, no handlers, no press, just a General saying "glad you could come...Thanks for serving." It was very nice.

We went to Arlington National Cemetery. Saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers and a couple of wreath laying ceremonies. Then, as we were walking to Robert E. Lee's family home (on the grounds - Arlington is sited on what was Lee's home before the Civil War), we saw a funeral in process. The funeral included a full military band, a horse-drawn caisson, and the riderless horse with the backward boots. He Who Knows These Things informs me that all of these signs mean the funeral was for an Admiral or General.

We also drove out to near Dulles to see the Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy facility. This is where the Smithsonian displays all of the things too big to show in its Mall facility, things like a space shuttle and a Russian MiG. They also have a wire and canvas plane (or would be plane) that was put together by a Smithsonian guy named Langley in competition to the Wright brothers.

Mr. Langley's contraption was catapulted off of a boat in the Potomac a month before the Wright brothers flew. It went exactly as far as the catapult pushed it then fell into the river, twice. Nonetheless, the Smithsonian guys stood by their comrade, contending that it could have worked. So much so that they refused to display the Wright flyer. Indeed, it was sent to London to be displayed and didn't come back to the US until after WWII when the Smithsonian asked that it be returned and the British, in a fit of gratitude for the US help in the war, agreed.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Darth Vader gets religion and DC libraries

It's been a tourist and tasks week for us. Our tourist experience started Monday morning with the grand opening of the first new library in DC in years.

Ginnie Cooper and her friends, notably June Garcia who consulted with Ginnie and the Library Board, put a plan in place to build 11 new libraries in DC, creating attractive, interesting public spaces, not using the cookie-cutter boxes approach DC was planning before Ginnie and June got here. The Benning Road Library, opened on Monday, is a tribute to every one's vision of what community libraries can be. It is light, open, airy and decorated with a wall of locally created art. It was wonderful to be there to watch folks ohh and ahh as they entered the space.

Tuesday was a tasks and tourist day. I treated myself to a visit to a local needlepoint shop while Jim took the Metro out to Montogomery County Maryland in search of Jack Daniels. The price of liquor in the District is so high it makes sense to leave town to buy booze. That night we celebrated our 8th anniversary with dinner out.

It was very warm here this week with the temperatures nearing 90 every day. We decided visiting an air-conditioned location was important. Since our friends the Boswells had recommended we see the National Cathedral, we figured out the public transit and went there. We arrived in time to hear a demonstration of the 10,000+ pipe organ, then took a tour of the cathedral itself. Although it is an Episcopal church, because it was built as the US National Cathedral the art, particularly the stained glass windows, tell the stories of US history. My favorite was the space window. This picture doesn't begin to do it justice. The colors are too washed out in the picture. Look in the middle of the red circle at the top. You'll see a small white circle with a black dot. That black dot is a rock from the moon. Buzz Aldrin, an alumnus of St. Albans School, one of three schools associated with the National Cathedral, gave it to the Cathedral to incorporate into the window celebrating Apollo 11.

But the best part of the National Cathedral is Darth Vader. Yes, Darth Vader's image has been carved into the Northwest Tower of the National Cathedral. You need a set of binoculars to see it which we didn't bring. But I may take our binocs back just to actually see Darth. Darth is a "grotesque" which means he carries rain water away from the building. He is up there as a result of a contest sponsored by National Geographic World magazine. School children were invited to design decorative sculpture for the National Cathedral and a young boy in Nebraska submitted a design of Darth as a futuristic representation of evil.

Being in Washington encourages me to get my exercise. Wednesday morning I circumnavigated the Washington Monument. This morning I walked around the White House and watched the Secret Service bomb-sniffing dogs check out the West Wing employee's cars. Tomorrow I think I'll walk to the Lincoln Memorial, past the WWII memorial. All in all, a lot more interesting than cruising the neighborhoods of Cleveland.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter from Helicopter City

We have arrived in Washington, DC in time to enjoy the peak of cherry blossom season. With the convergence of the cherry blossom blooming, Easter, and Spring school holidays, the locals are saying this is the largest Cherry Blossom Festival in memory.

I can attest to that. I went for my morning walk Saturday at 7:30 AM and there were thousands of people walking around the Tidal Basin at that hour. I suspect the picture is too small for you to really see it, but the dark line under the cherry blossoms and above the water of the Tidal Basin is teeming humanity. Later in the day we walked up to the Mall and it was every bit as crowded. All in all, it has been a good weekend to keep your cool and go with the flow, because wherever you want to go, everyone else is already there.

But we've been lucky to spend time with friends here. Don and Ruth Kalen, who have the same boat we do, are on the dock with us here in Gangplank Marina. They have come to DC for cherry blossoms many times before. In fact it was their stories about how nice it is that convinced us to make the trip. It is good to have friends with local knowledge about restaurants, places to see and things to do around the marina.

Last night Ginnie Cooper, her husband Rick, his daughter Heather and his two granddaughters joined us for fireworks viewing. The Cherry Blossom Festival fireworks show took place in the Washington Channel which is where our marina is located. We are on the end of a pier, so we had an unobstructed view of the 25 minutes of fireworks. Quite cool! Ginnie and family even brought dinner -- cooler still. Thanks, Ginnie, we had a great time! Tomorrow the granddaughters are invited to the White House Easter Egg hunt.

You are probably wondering why I titled this post "Happy Easter from Helicopter City". As near as we can tell, every high muckity-muck in DC commutes to work in a Marine helicopter. And every agency, from the Marines to the local DC Park Police has its own helicopters. With Reagan Airport just across the Potomac from us, those 'copters have to stay out of the flight pattern of the jets, so they fly over the Washington Channel. That is to say, over our boat. Even on the weekend we get 4-5 helicopters an hour overhead. I can't wait to see what a work day will be like.

The last time we had this many helicopters flying over us, it was the Navy coptering in supplies in Miami after Hurricane Andrew. These are just a few of the helicopters that flew over us yesterday.

The most common ones are the Marine Corps helicopters like the one above. We saw these coming and going from Quantico in the morning as we were coming up the river. These are the ones we figure are ferrying in Virginia-resident cabinet secretaries, etc. After all, you wouldn't want the poor dears trapped in DC traffic.