Today’s trip is a familiar one to us back east. In Pittsburgh, we are a scant 250 miles from Washington, DC. Add to that numerous trips to visit our friends at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and we get to our nation’s capital more than any other US city. However, to those of you who might’ve gone once for a school trip, visiting Washington is a wonderful adventure. And, almost everything is free. Well, of course, we all pay for it with our taxes…so….you might as well take advantage Washington has been the federal capital since 1790. At that time, the banks of the Potomac River were a mosquito-infested swamp. It was cold in the winter and unbearably hot and humid in the summer. It was thought that the decision to locate it here was to dissuade people from making a living in government. An able man was elected to Congress, spent his two years, then got back to his livelihood in his home state as quickly as possible.
All this changed with the invention of the air conditioner.
Washington is located in between the states of Maryland and Virginia. This was a little awkward during the Civil War as it was squarely on the front lines. The National Mall is a park that is a bit more than two miles long and maybe a quarter mile wide. It’s a pedestrian walkway with pea gravel walking trails between wide green swaths of grass. It is always crowded with tourists, or federal workers having lunch or jogging around the perimeter. It stretches from the US Capitol building on the east end, past the Smithsonian museums, to the Washington Monument which is roughly in the center. Past the monument is the reflecting pool that stretches to the Lincoln Memorial. The whole Mall along with a side trip to the White House can be covered in less than five miles on foot. Like most of the places I take you, there is just too much to do here in a single day. However, I will take you on a day trip that we did when Max was six years old. It’s a full day and you really get a flavor for what our country is all about.
1. Metro to the US Capitol
Unlike most US cities, Washington has a wonderful Metro train system. So you’re better off staying outside the city and taking the train in. We tend to stay out toward the end of the Red Line in Rockville, MD. This is mainly because the US-NRC is there. So while I’m trying to convince the regulators that my nuclear plant design is safe, I can stay a day later and take my family on a wonderful day trip. Your stop is Capitol South which is on the Orange and Blue Lines. I take the Red Line to Metro Center, then switch to the Orange or Blue Line. Five stops later and I’m about a block from the south side of the Capitol building. As you walk to the Capitol, you pass the US Supreme Court Building. If you listen hard, you can just hear Justice Ginsberg snoring.
The Capitol itself is a sprawling structure situated on the aptly named Capitol Hill on the eastern end of the Mall. The dome in the middle has seen presidents lying in state. I can just remember John F. Kennedy’s funeral when, as a five-year-old, I couldn’t understand why my mom was crying and there were no Saturday morning cartoons on TV. To either side of the dome are the Senate and House chambers. A tour of the building shows the architecture as well as marble busts of leading Americans throughout our 250-year history. The west side of the building, where the president takes the oath of office every four years, provides a wonderful view down the Mall to the Washington Monument and beyond to the Lincoln Memorial.
Interesting note. I saw my state representative there on one visit and asked him, “How many people work here in the Capitol?” He said without hesitating, “About half.”
2. Smithsonian Air & Space Museum
By now you know that when you read my posts, you get the view of an engineer and amateur historian. So Shangri La to me is spending time at the Air & Space Museum. The formative years of my youth were spent watching the Gemini and Apollo space launches and watching twelve Americans land, walk and drive on the surface of the moon. Sad to say that the pinnacle of our technology occurred in 1972 when we were able to hurtle men across space with less computer power than is in the average cell phone today. The Air & Space Museum is a shrine to the technology that made our country the greatest in the world.
As you walk in, you look up and see the Spirit of St. Louis that Charles Lindberg flew across the Atlantic. Turn right and there is the Bell X-1 that Chuck Yeager flew past the speed of sound. Not a replica, but the actual plane. There’s a U-2 spy plane, World War I era biplanes and a P-51 Mustang from WW2. There’s the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule that John Glenn orbited the earth in 1962. And the centerpiece, the Apollo 11 command module Columbia that took astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrich, and Neal Armstrong to the first lunar landing in 1969.
I could go on and on.
The Smithsonian is actually a number of museums. Each of which can take up a day. I picked the Air and Space, but there are 19 separate museums. Some of my favorites are Natural History, American History and Science and Industry.
3. Washington Monument
A short stroll down the center of the Mall brings us to a small hill surrounded by fifty American flags, one for each state. Look around for a place to get lunch here as museums always make me hungry. There is a small ticket booth at the foot of the hill to take the elevator to the top of the monument. Don’t be discouraged by the lines as they tend to move quickly.
Work on the Washington Monument was started in 1848 and suspended in 1877 when they ran out of money. The structure was finally completed in 1884. The top of the obelisk was originally flat, but was fitted with an aluminum pyramid at a time when aluminum was an exceedingly rare and expensive metal. There are small windows at the top observation deck which allow you to see forever. Look for your wife who is too chicken to go up somewhere among the ants down below.
4. The White House
You may love the president. You may not. It doesn’t matter as he will soon be gone. George Washington set the standard by declaring that he didn’t want to exchange one king for another. Except for FDR during the Second World War, all of our presidents have followed George’s example. The 22nd amendment to the US constitution now limits the number of full terms to two.
The White House was constructed from 1792-1800 and John Adams was the first president to live there. The British, still smarting from the Revolutionary War, set it afire during the War of 1812. It was soon renovated and James Monroe moved in 1817. It went through several remakes until taking its present form in 1948 when Harry Truman was the resident.
There are tours, although I’ve not taken one.
5. The Reflecting Pool – World War 2 Memorial
The newest addition to the Mall is the World War 2 Memorial which is located on the south shore of the reflecting pool directly across the street from the Washington Monument. Like all of the monuments here, it is both solemn and beautiful. I personally prefer the memorials at the battle sites such as Pearl Harbor and Normandy, but this one is very well done. The memorial was dedicated by George W. Bush in 2004.
6. The Korean War Memorial
The least known and maybe the most powerful of the war memorials is the Korean War Memorial located on the south side of the reflecting pool near the western end. Like the war itself, the memorial is dedicated to one of the least remembered and most brutal wars. Larger-than-life sculptures of soldiers slogging through the mud tower over you as the names of those who lost their lives are engraved on the small walls that border the walkways.
My dad is a Korean War veteran, so this has special meaning to me.
7. Lincoln Memorial
Everybody has a favorite president. Each February, somebody makes a list of the top 10. At the top of every list is Abraham Lincoln. And for good reason. Lincoln stood up for an unpopular cause and drove the country into the Civil War. He also saved the country’s soul and made it possible for future greatness. As with many visionaries, he paid for this with his life. This memorial is awesome. A huge marble sculpture of Lincoln seated in a great chair with the Gettysburg Addressed carved into the wall to his right, and the text of his second inaugural address to his left. As an orator, he is maybe only rivaled by Winston Churchill.
8. Vietnam Memorial
No other US war has affected the national psyche like the Vietnam War. I grew up watch Huntley and Brinkley on the Six-O’clock News with the footage of boys dying in a far-off place. Older boys in my neighborhood held their breath as numbered ping pong balls were pulled from a machine to determine who would go next. University campuses became war zones as protesters clashed with national guardsmen. The country was ripped in two.
In the same way, no other war memorial has affected the US public like the Vietnam Memorial. A very simple path leads past a wall that starts out low and grows to over ten feet high. The names of all the killed in action are engraved on the wall. Most of us are old enough to find relatives, neighbors, and friends listed here. Before it was erected permanently, the wall was taken around the country where thousands came to see it. Charcoal is rubbed across white paper to copy the names, and memorials of flowers, toys and other keepsakes line the wall. It is an overpowering experience.
This brings us to the end of our day at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. There is a ton more to see and do. The Smithsonian Natural History Museum should not be missed. Also, it is just a short walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the banks of the Potomac, and the walk across the river puts you into Arlington National Cemetery.
As I read this over, I see that it has a bit more of a solemn tone than most of my posts. This is probably the right thing, as this is an altogether solemn place. Still, a warm spring or fall day spent on the National Mall is a wonderful thing for a family to share. Even if you have to face the nuclear regulators.
You can catch the Metro back at either the Smithsonian or Federal Triangle stations, or across the river at Arlington Cemetery.
Hope you enjoyed our nation’s capital.