I n honor of Veteran’s day I am re-posting this essay I did a few years ago about my first visit to the Veteran’s Memorial. If you’re going to go see the memorial, do it in the early morning, when a light snow is falling and listen to the voices of those who served.
From the window of the airplane I could see the whole east coast buried under a blanket of new snow. An early December storm in 1982 had turn the world white and this California boy hoped that he had packed warm enough clothes. It was an odd time of the year to be a tourist in our Nation’s capital, but events had worked out just right and my plane was soon to land at Dulles airport. This twenty-two year old San Jose, California boy was about to begin his first, on his own, with no parents, vacation adventure.
What brought me to Washington D.C. was not the museums or memorials, it was Isaac Asimov my favorite science fiction writer. I’d read his books and short stories. Months earlier I had sent some money to support the newly formed Planetary Society, and in return got an invitation to attend a series of lectures and events featuring Dr. Asimov – for an additional donation of course. I was working and had money to spend, so I sent in the donation and booked a flight to see the creator of those stories that had sparked my young imagination.
On the flight over, I was excited to get a chance to see Dr. Asimov – idol of my geeky adolescent life. I was going to spend days in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum, have dinner in a fancy hotel where Asimov would deliver the keynote address and get to attend a reception at the Smithsonian’s planetarium where we would see a special program on space flight. It was an adventure. I’d borrowed an expensive 35mm camera from a friend and shot a whole role of film learning how to use it; I’d brought a copy of Asimov’s Caves of Steel, wore my best suit and bought a brand new overcoat for the frigid temperatures that Washington is rumored to have in December.
Today I still have the pictures I took, but somewhere on the flight I lost the book and whenever I remember that trip – Isaac Asimov is not my first thought. A simple bank cut into the ground walled with black marble and the names of 58,130 dead is always the overwhelming memory that floods my mind. Sorry, Dr. Asimov but I left you on a plane to Washington and found something else that has never left me.
The first few days of the trip I was busy attending events of the Society and in my efforts to see every square inch of the Air and Space Museum. I took pictures of everything I could. I must have taken three rolls of pictures of the Smithsonian alone. I traveled everywhere by cab – a novelty for a boy from a backwater suburb that still thought it was a framing town. I went to the museum, and the hotel where the dinner was held and where Dr. Asimov gave his speech. He talked about the definition of science fiction – I think.
Things changed on my last day in D.C. After three days of being immersed in geekdom, I decided to go out and indulge my other hobby – history. The Air and Space Museum is on the Washington Mall, that great expanse of city park with the Capitol on one end and the Lincoln Memorial on the other. Around the Mall are most of the important monuments and museums of Washington, and just outside the museum was one of the many stops for the Tourmobile. For a few dollars you get a ticket for this sighting bus that stops at all the important places on the mall and Arlington National Cemetery.
I bought a ticket and got on the next tour bus. I was the only passenger. There was a driver and a tour guide. On this cold December day the guide was bored and had no one to talk to. When I got on she said hello, and sat in the seat across from me. She asked what I was interested in and we had a nice conversation about the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
I got out at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and walked from the bus stop to the steps above the tomb and waited. Sitting there, I changed lenses on the camera for the best picture of the changing of the guard. I was the only civilian there. Something clicked in my head as I watched the solemn ceremony, that is the hourly changing of the guard. It suddenly seemed disrespectful to disturb the dead by clicking away on the camera. Slowly I put it away and thought of the dead men in the tomb and how their families never knew for sure of their loss. No closure for those mothers, fathers, wives, children or friends. I thought of the wars and the great cost of war. I thought of my father’s army service in World War II and wondered why he had made it home alive, where others had not. I watched the precision and respect the guards showed as they slowly and carefully went through the ritual of honoring the fallen. I clipped the camera bag shut and decided that this is a scene that one must experience and not view in a picture. I have never changed my mind on that.
After the guard was changed and the new soldier was slowing marching his post in front of the tomb I stood and slowly made my way back to the Tourmobile stop. There were a few people on this one. I took a seat in the back and stared out the window at the grave stones and monuments to the dead as the bus bounced along. A little while later the driver stopped as a we watched in silence as a military funeral procession passed us on its way to lay to rest the honored dead.
The next stop was the Lincoln Memorial. I can only describe that place as powerful. You must see it. You must see it in December when there are no crowds and you can be alone with it for a time. You must stand there and think of our nation. You must remember the price in blood that was paid for it.
I needed to be alone with my thoughts so I crossed the empty parking lot and around the reflecting pool. I walked at random – considering what I had just seen. Then I saw a pile of dirt left over from some recent construction project and a long black wall. Approaching it I realized that it was the recently opened Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. A simple testament to the Americans that died in that war. No brave words. No political speeches. No justifications for why they died. Just the names of 58,130 Americans who lost their lives in a far away place in the service of their nation.
When I returned home I returned the camera to my friend and had the pictures developed. I’ve shown them maybe a couple of times. There are pictures of the Air and Space Museum. Pictures from windows of air planes. Pictures of hotels and one picture of my feet, but no pictures of that tomb, or that wall. That is something you must see with your own eyes