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Entries in National Mall (34)

Monday
Nov232009

Wildlife of DC: the White Squirrel?

The White Squirrel of Death

Generally speaking, most eighth grade tours include a day, or a portion of a day, when we give kids time to explore the Smithsonian on their own, which is, of course, code for me to find one of my secret hiding spots and squeeze in a quick nap. Many, and at times most, of the students use this time to do take in some of what the Smithsonians have to offer and expand their horizions. Naturally, some choose at some point to hang out with each other and relax, which is quite understandable, as we put them through a full day, and then some, and everyone deserves some down time.

So last week, as I emerged from my secret lair, I ran into a group of my students hanging out by the kiosk on the Mall by Natural History, waiting for the appointed meeting time. This is a school I've worked with for several years now, and you don't want to enter into conversation with them lightly. Although only eighth graders, they are capable of penetrating questions, and won't be pawned off with platitudes. So forewarned, I waded in and chatted them up.

The conversation drifted, as conversations are won't to do, and I was holding court about the nature of squirrels in the nation's capitol. I went on in depth about my favorite: the black squirrel. Spellbound of course, as any person would be listening to me, one student then asked: what about white squirrels? I explained that you might see "white" squirrels, but as any fan of DC Like a Local knows, they are simply a genetic variant of the more common Eastern Grey Squirrel. Feeling quite pleased with myself, I was a bit surprised to be challenged when the kid continued: "but what about squirrels that are all white?" Well, simply put, I responded "if you did see one, it would have to be albino, and I've never seen one around here." To which he replied: "What about that one?"

Well, sure enough, right here on the National Mall, there was a white squirrel in all its glory, not fifteen feet away from where I was doubting its existence. Publicly. As I got over my seemingly weekly ritual of feeling like an ass, I muttered something about "rare opportunity to see an albino animal in the wild" and joined the rest of the thirteen year olds in snapping a picture with my cell phone. I was no longer in any position to lecture them.

So, if anyone else runs across this guy, let me know. I'm interrested in seeing how long a perfectly white squirrel lasts on the National Mall.

Friday
Nov132009

Knocking out the Memorials: DC's World War I Memorial

photo by Victoria BelangerTucked into a grove of trees between the World War II Memorial and the Korean Memorial along Independence Avenue is one of Washington's most over-looked Memorials, the District of Columbia War Memorial. Unique for the National Mall, it commemorates the 26,000 Washingtonians that fought in the War, as well as the 499 that died in the process, the only Memorial to commemorate Washington, DC specifically.

Few of my groups visit there, although this may change when the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial opens across the street in a year or two. Perhaps that's a good thing, as this Memorial has been slowly falling into greater and greater neglect, even making it onto the DC Preservation League's 10 Most Endangered Sites in 2003. I don't know if folks remember the $200 Million in stimulus money that was for "moving the grass on the National Mall", as some alleged? As is so often lost in the noise, much of the money was to go towards the long overdue maintenance ($400 million worth) of National Park Service sites on the Mall. And if you doubt that's a problem, go walk along the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial. Bring a bathing suit, as portions of it are now almost permanently underwater.

Which brings me to the deferred maintenance of the DC War Memorial. I've been less than complimentary of the National Park Service from time to time, and will probably be again, but fair is fair. It's not their fault that they haven't been provided funding for upkeep of the Memorial. What are they supposed to do, chip in from their own pockets? No, the fault lies in the big white building at the east end of the Mall.

Now, this blog is not meant to be political, and certainly not partisan, but I find it disgraceful that matters have been allowed to progress so far with a Memorial to almost 500 Americans that died fighting for the country. If I had allowed a ship's bilge to fall into such a state as a very junior officer in the Navy, I would have caught hell (and often did!). Congress has less excuse than I did. I don't know if it's because almost all World War Veterans have passed on, or if it's because it's only DC's memorial, but it's unacceptable. What will happen to the Wall when the Vietnam War passes from living memory? Are Memorials transitory, and only for the recent wars, or are they there to remind future generations of the cost and sacrifice of those that passed before us?

Fortunately, this isn't the end of the story. After loosing the $200 million to "mow the grass", some of that money was reintroduced through the Park Service budget, including $7.3 million for the DC War Memorial. Furthermore, there is a very interesting proposal to turn the DC War Memorial into a National World War I Memorial. I'm not totally convinced, but it bears discussion. On one hand, this is a fitting spot, just feet away from the World War II, Vietnam, and Korean War Memorials. This is the National Mall, kept up (or should be) by the Federal government, and not just my city. And it is right and fitting that a Memorial be built somewhere to commemorate World War I. On the other hand, this Memorial was built by citizens of DC to remember Washingtonians killed in the War. We raised the money privately, and it's a little late to usurp the efforts of local Washingtonians, especially by a government that doesn't allow us a voice in the decision making process.

But enough editorializing. Even in it's current (and soon to be improving) state, the World War I Memorial is worthy of a visit for quiet contemplation. It's a nice little marble bandstand in the woods, best known for it's Dedication, where native Washingtonian John Phillip Sousa conducted the Marine Band. The most notable feature is the listing of the 499 names of the fallen Washingtonians, listed without regard to rank or race. Which was fairly significant for the time, when that's not how they were allowed to serve.

Thursday
Nov122009

Knocking out the Memorials - the World War II Memorial

I don't know if you've noticed a common thread as we've been taking you through the history of the various Memorials and Monuments, but you might have picked up by now that, almost uniformly, they all had controversies surrounding the location, design, construction, and so on. Except, to the best of my knowledge, the Korean Veterans Memorial. Perhaps it was forgotten.

But we rebound strongly with our next one, the National World War II Memorial. Obviously, no one objected to the choice to build a memorial honoring those who fought in the Second World War (or at least no one who we have to listen to), but the choice of its location, at the end of the Reflecting Pool, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, caused a titanic debate, with some even arguing that its location "defaces a National treasure".

Now I too was skeptical about it's location, but I'm a believer. First off, the final design, that which was ultimately built, is far less obtrusive than the original plan. The built Memorial nicely frames the Washington Monument when viewed from Lincoln. Secondly, as arguably the most pivotal crisis of the 20th Century, World War II very much belongs with our first President and the man who brought us through the Civil War. And finally, it looks a whole lot better than the broken down and deserted fountain it replaced.

I'm less complimentary about another element of its design. The Memorial is flanked by 56 pillars, representing the 48 states and 8 territories that comprised the United States at the time. I don't get this. Unlike the Korean Memorial, where depicting the various races in the sculptures was a nod towards the desegregation of the military, World War II had no specific nexus with the states. Why not list all the counties, while your at it. I understand the whole "we were separate states but came together as one nation" argument, but that's really not a part of the World War II narrative. Once federalized early in the War, even National Guard units rapidly lost much of their state identities, especially when replacement troops began being assigned.

But my aesthetic whining aside, this is a fitting tribute to the overplayed but still valid label of the "Greatest Generation". I've had some rewarding times as a tour guide, but none more so than having the privilege of taking a bus load of World War II veterans there last month. To see their impressions first hand, and to get to hear their accounts, was far more valuable than any stories or tales I could add. As he so often is, Senator Dole was on hand, with his wife Senator Dole, to great the veterans personally. It was a very moving moment. Then my bus blocked Sen. Dole's car in.

While the odds are not bad that you might see the Senator at the Memorial, prudence demands that you have a back up plan for visiting. Yes, yes, go and see your state's pillar. Now that that's out of system, you will of course want to see Freedom Wall, where each gold star represent 100 Americans killed. No, I'm not going to tell you how many there at; count them yourself. The gold star was a symbol displayed in one's house when a family member had been killed in the War; sadly the tradition continues today. Also make sure to see the excellent bas-relief sculptures along the entrance towards 17th St. And, of course, you must go around the back and witness the "graffiti" carved in the rear. Paying homage to the more irreverent nature of the young men and women of the War is an engraved Kilroy Was Here, a critical reminder that in the midst of all the marble and bronze, real people, with human foibles, accomplished so much.

Wednesday
Nov112009

Knocking out the Memorials - the Korean War Veterans Memorial

Although the Vietnam Veterans Memorial got off to a rough start, once built it quickly became an American cultural icon. It proved to be incredibly popular and soon became a focal point for healing for all those that lived through those turbulent times.

Witnessing this, veterans of other wars displayed a renewed interest in memorials designed to capture the experience and commemorate all who fought in a specific conflict. Servicemembers who had participated in the Korean Conflict, often called with some justification "the Forgotten War", sought recognition of their sacrifices on the National Mall, and in 1992, the Korean War Veterans Memorial opened.

Now, while to me the Korean Memorial lacks the emotional impact of the Vietnam Wall, it is a very well put together Memorial full of symbolism and visual interest. Built on the opposite side of the Mall from the Vietnam Memorial, it balances the Wall nicely around the Lincoln Memorial. Designed purposely to evoke the Wall, it also contains a polished black granite wall, etched not with names, but with archival photos of servicemembers from the Korean Conflict.

These soldiers, sailors and airmen look out on 19 cast-steel statues, the real focal point of the Memorial. The statues represent 14 soldiers, 3 Marines, an Air Force Forward Air Controller, and a Navy Corpsman (medic for you land-lubbers). But beyond the diversity of the various Armed Forces, lies a more profound expression of diversity. The statues represent every ethnic group found in America, which was particularly fitting as this was the first war that America fought with an integrated military. No longer confined to separate units, the military was integrated well before our schools, by executive order of President Truman.

The number 19 is not random, either. It's half of 38, which has a dual significance as the 38th parallel of latitude that separated the two Koreas and the number of months the War (or technically "Police Action") lasted. Why half? Reportedly, they wanted to do the full number, but were restricted in size. If you look at the right spot, on the lower corner right next to the granite wall, you will see the statues reflected in the wall, right next to the actual ones, making a total of, you guessed it, 38.

Many will claim that this Memorial is best visited at night, and I won't argue with them, but if you get the opportunity, visit the Memorial after a decent snowfall. They're few and far between, at least catching them before the "wintery mix" turns it into ice, but the Memorial is stunning in the snow. The entire Memorial is designed to capture the rugged and hostile nature of the Korean Conflict, with weather at times as much an enemy as the North Koreans or Chinese. A fact which I can personally attest to, having been covered in a sheet of ice on my ship while conducting exercises in South Korea. Among the elements portraying this: the ponchos of the soldiers sculpted in a fluid manner, the gentle rise meant to evoke the rocky terrain, and the rise and fall of the etched faces on the reflecting wall, which when looked at from the distance as a pattern look as if they provide a mountain backdrop to the Memorial.

So perhaps its fitting that today, Veteran's Day, is a cold, wet, miserable day here in DC. Think of it as a good day to get the full Korean War Veterans Memorial experience.

Tuesday
Nov102009

Knocking out the Memorials - The Vietnam Wall

Traditionally, in Washington, DC, our nation has chosen to remember specific individuals, units, or branches of service in honoring those that have fought for our nation. That all changed in November of 1982, with the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was the first Memorial in Washington with the stated purpose of honoring all those who fought in the war, with special emphasis on those who died or were missing.

The design is simple, and I'm sure the vast majority of reader have no more need of me to explain it than they do the Washington Monument. But like the Monument, the Wall, as it is often colloquially known, reveals a great deal of complexity under its seemingly simple exterior.

I'm sure most of us know the story of the architect of the Vietnam Wall, that of Maya Lin, a Yale undergraduate who beat out over 1,400 other nominations to get the chance to design the Memorial. In what would become the first of nearly countless controversies, Maya Lin's design was attacked not only for it's unconventional and minimalist design, but, sadly, for her Asian heritage. As a result, the original design was amended to include The Three Soldiers, a nearby statue which is said to represent all those who fought in the war. Perhaps in answer to the ugly racism associated with Maya Lin's selection, the statue very overtly includes a White, African-American, and Hispanic soldier, reflecting the diversity of all Americans who participated in the war.

The Three Soldiers is a fine sculpture, as is the nearby Vietnam Woman's Memorial. Visitors should spend a minute reflecting on both. But to me, they're add-ons to the main show, roughly akin to hanging Christmas ornaments on a Giant Redwood, so as to add beauty to it. The Wall itself is one of those Memorials that continues to stir emotion in me, no matter how many hundreds of times I've seen it, and it will be the focus of the rest of my discussion.

I can use many adjectives to describe the Wall, but simple should not be one of them. Minimalist, of course, and perhaps even stark, but in no way is it simple. Upon entering the Wall, you will either come in from the direction of the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, done deliberately to ground this work in the fabric of our Nation's Capital. Designed both to blend, and to stand out, the top of the Wall is at ground level, and you descend into it, watching the 58,261 names (as of last Memorial Day) rise above you.

I will leave you to your own thoughts when visiting here, but try to pick out a few of the details Maya Lin chose to highlight aspects of the War. Look for the small diamonds or crosses next to each name, signifying if the person in question was killed or missing, respectively. As we recover remains, many of the crosses have been filled in to from diamonds, but you can still see the original cross underneath. Additionally, as you look at each name that you will see your own reflection. This was not done by accident, and the intent is that you see yourself in this sea of names (hint: take pictures at an angle). And finally, look for the 1959 and 1974 dates at the center of the V. The names are in chronological order from the center, radiating outwards to the east, and metaphorically wrapping around again to complete itself back where they started, forming a circle. Which is, of course, fitting, as a circle is often considered a symbol of life continuing on, albeit broken in this case. Which, sadly enough, also makes sense.

If you have a name you wish to look up, you can do it before you come at TheWall-USA.com, a site set up by veterans that uses the official database of names. It is an excellent resource for more information about folks who are listed on the Wall, as well as general information about the site. You may as well look up names on books at the beginning of either side of the Wall.

A note on rubbings. I haven't heard anything official about continuing or discontinuing rubbing of names on the wall. Several Park Service reps and some of the veterans that volunteer at the Wall have told me informally that they've been having problems with rings and such causing scratches on the granite. So I have not been encouraging my groups to do rubbings unless they have a specific person in mind (family member, someone from their school, etc.). If you do wish to have a rubbing, I would also purchase a graphite pencil at an art store and bring an envelope for the paper so it doesn't smudge. Paper for rubbing is available at the kiosk near the Lincoln Memorial.

What I do encourage my school kids to do, on the rare occasion time permits, is to look up a specific name on the Wall. I think it helps to bring focus to the experience. With the explosion of smartphones with many kids, they can even look up the person in question before they even find the name. This might  not be obvious to a fifty five year old, who may have fought in Vietnam themselves, or protested against our involvement in it, or simply lost friends there, but the Vietnam War is becoming increasingly remote. I either have them look a name up at random, or give them one of the following, and we talk about it afterword:

Obviously, no one of these names is any more important than the others, but they serve to illustrate a little of the detail that many of the younger generation does not have.

A final note about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Perhaps fittingly, for what is arguably America's most controversial war, just about no element of the Memorial has been without some controversy, which continues to this day. It pains me to see it presented so often without acknowledment of that discussion (as the Park Service does on their website), as it is a war without easy answers. Some may take exception to how I interpret the Memorial, and other guides often view some of these elements in radically different ways than I. By all means, add your own interpretation in the comments below as you see fit. It's a difficult subject to tackle, especially since for many Americans it's not history, as it is for me.

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