The magnificent marble jungle was worn with the fingerprints of those who mourn; haunted with the past it set out to remind us of.
Amassed around them was a sea of eager adolescents, some of them too preoccupied to care. Their teachers fought to keep them silent and respectful, for this was where the heroes slept. This was unusual for the commonly still Arlington National Cemetery.
“You mean JFK is really here?”
“Yes! He is six feet below the eternal flame.”
I jumped on the balls of my feet, an expression of pure wonder on my face. My father – always the stern man with the ice-cold façade – was constantly frustrated by my endless pestering and slightly awkward personality.
Even at 11, the history bug had caught on quick, rapidly slithering its way into the small corners of my brain.
“Okay, so can we go see the Lincoln Memorial now, daddy?”
“I told you Devie-boo, we need to get to Greensboro by five o’clock!”
We never did get to see it.
Washington D.C.’s National Mall holds residence to some of the most respected and visited iconic memorials and monuments in the world. A strange mixture of sorrow and patriotism linger within the three kilometres of the cross-shaped Mall. Along the biggest stretch stands Capitol Hill to the east, with its regal white steps and superfluous power; the Washington Monument near the middle, with its twin swaying along the surface of the Reflecting Pool; and finally, on the west end, sitting in his granite throne, Abraham Lincoln guards over the fallen, and brings a daily reminder of his successful duties as one of the greatest presidents to have ever lived.
Two weeks before our high school trip to Washington, D.C., I had approached my grade 11 law teacher, Ms. Arthur, in hopes of getting to see the Lincoln Memorial.
“It’s not on the itinerary,” she said, “but I will make sure you get to see it. I promise.”
She was always my favourite teacher.
I remember the day vividly; Ms. Arthur had round up an impressive group of students – the small number of us who were truly there to learn – to walk down the great length of the National Mall, past the calmness of the Reflecting Pool and the hustle-and-bustle of the great war memorials.
The war memorials are littered along the Mall, with the National World War II Memorial perfectly centred directly at the end of the Reflecting Pool. The walls are curved widely, and do not interrupt the beautiful mirrored duplicate of the Washington Memorial. Along the north side of the Mall lies the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, which consists of three separate memorials.
The most remarkable I had the pleasure of seeing was the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Nineteen stainless steel soldiers creep through the scattered trees and bushes, yet remain frozen in their place. Along the shiny black granite, the words “Freedom Is Not Free” lay forever engrained. It was the most lively, realistic war memorial I had ever seen.
At the very end of the Mall, tourists swarmed like ants around a temple-like marble structure. The day was slowly sinking into the horizon, the sun hitting the back walls of the temple, creating a picturesque silhouette for Mr. Lincoln. Surely, it never will get old for him.
I had heard about how big the memorial is, with its temple-like Greek columns and echo-y interiors, but always imagined I would meet my hero one-on-one. Unfortunately for me, so did every other tourist who visited the same day, and at the same time.
The next day was spent touring Smithsonian and other museums. The most powerful experience of our trip came from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We were split into groups of five excited students and given identification cards that told a story of a child that was in the Holocaust. We would find out afterwards whether or not they survived.
We were told to enter the elevators, which would take us to the top of the building. As soon as the steel, bolted doors closed, the tables turned. Smiles were wiped off of our faces. We found ourselves walking through rooms with reconstructed bunks and what looked like a shooting wall. During the final stretch of our tour, we ambled down a hallway filled with real shoes that had been removed from the real feet of Jews, from a real camp. Chicken wire was the only thing separating us from them, like standing before the line of freedom and captivity. Bins of jewellery – rings, watches, necklaces and bracelets – all old and worn lay almost dumped, as if forgotten.
At the end of our tour, a database could be used to find out if the child in our identification card rose to be a survivor or fell victim to the wrath of propaganda. The child on my card, Johanna “Hanne” Hirsch, survived.
Washington, D.C. is the perfect destination for the history-loving traveller. While American history is the focal point, many different attractions offer so many educational and eye-opening experiences. The biggest plus for the frugal family – places like the Smithsonian Museums and most monuments and memorials are free for all.
Just don’t let anybody stop you from paying Honest Abe a visit.